Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

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Separation, Deprivation & Privation #3

The effects of privation are characterised by Michael Rutter (1981) as Affectionless Psychopathy (John Bowlby, 1944) and other severe problems often associated with maternal deprivation. These include a long-term inability to form relationships, a lack of guilt and a penchant for anti-social behaviour which can can lead to delinquency. Distinguishing whether a child is deprived or privated can be difficult without knowledge of their background – though privation would be expected to produce more extreme  effects. In the real extreme these effects can manifest as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This, according to Kandis Cooke Parker & Donald Forrest (1993), is characterised by:-

  • a lack of ability to give and receive affection
  • cruelty to others, especially domestic animals
  • abnormalities in eye contact and speech patterns
  • lying and stealing
  • lack of long-term friends
  • serious control problems
  • clinging, dependent behaviour
  • attention-seeking and indiscriminate friendliness

It can be assumed that, with the PURPLE vMEME not getting its belonging needs met, not only does RED emerge in a rather unhealthy way but the child has not learned what they must do to be socially acceptable. In this respect PURPLE takes on the fuctions of the Ego, as Sigmund Freud (1923b) explained them.

Not all children experiencing privation develop Reactive Attachment Disorder, of course, but certainly some do – with serious consequences for both the child and those around them.

Studies of privation and its effects tend to fall into 2 categories:-

  1. case studies of extreme privation in individuals, including so-called ‘feral children’
  2. institutional privation – though, as noted earlier, it can be difficult to tell whether a child in an orphanage, for example, is genuinely privated or has suffered extreme maternal deprivation

Case studies in extreme privation
One of the most extreme case studies in privation – and probably the most well-known – is that of ‘Genie’. Her tragic story, based in large part on Susan Curtiss’ 1977 PhD dissertation, is told in the Panorama documentary, ‘Genie’ (copyright © 1994 BBC). See the 6 clips below.


As the documentary shows, Genie did prove capable of forming some degree of attachment, once ‘rescued’ and placed in a safe place where people cared for her. However, cognitively and linguistically, she failed to progress beyond a basic level – in spire of intensive support and  coaching. She did not recover from her privation and even went backwards as an effect of later maltreatment. The ability to relate Genie’s failure to develop to her privation is confounded by the suspicion that she may have been retarded from birth – though this was never settled either way. It is also possible that her partial treatment as an object of scientific study may have compromised her potential to recover.

In her evaluation of the psychologists and therapist’s attempts to help Genie, Curtiss speculates that there may be a ‘window’ for cognitive and linguistic development and that Genie was rescued too late at the age of 13, having passed that window. However, Kingsley Davis (1947) reports on a girl, ‘Anna’, isolated in conditions as bad as, if not worse than Genie but rescued at the age of 6. Although she died a little more than 2 years later and the coaching and support she received was inconsistent and less focused on her well-being – this was a few years before Bowlby began to make a major impact – she made only a little progress in that period. At the time of her death, she couldn’t speak much, had poor concentration and was still clumsy in her walking and running. This casts doubt on Curtiss’ speculation about a developmental window. However, Davis contrasts Anna’s failure to progress substantively with the remarkable progress made by ‘Isabelle’. Davis’ comparison has some internal validity because both girls were out-of-wedlock births in the 1930s when such things were taboo. Each was hidden away from society…but under slightly different circumstances. Anna was put in the attic of a farm house at about 6 months of age, and she had virtually no human contact for the next 5.5 years. When she was found by health workers, she had no human characteristics, other than the physical ones. Isabelle was hidden away with her deaf-mute mother in a dark storage shed. Like Anna, she survived on a milk diet and had no contact with the outside world until being found at the same age of 6. According to Davis, “Her behaviour towards strangers was like that of a wild animal, manifesting much fear and hostility. In place of speech, she made a strange croaking sound. In many ways she acted like an infant…. At first it was even hard to tell whether or not she could hear, so unused were her senses.” She as also unable to walk properly; and, at first, it was thought she might have severe learning difficulties. Isabelle received similar support and coaching to Anna; but after a while she learned language communication. After that, she went into a period of accelerated recovery, during which she acquired about 7 years of human behaviours in a 2-year period. At 13 years of age, Isabelle was placed in a state school. At the end of the year, it was decided that she had made a good social adjustment to her classmates and was doing well in her studies. By 16 she had caught up with her classmates.

Other case studies also seem to indicate that a substantial degree of recovery – and sometimes complete recovery – from extreme privation is possible.

Anna Freud & Sophie Dann (1951) documented their support and treatment of 6 orphaned concentration camp victims. Before they were one-year-old – their parents having been murdered – they arrived in the deportation camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslavakia during World War II where they lived for 2-3 years. They were put in the Ward of Motherless Children and looked after to some extent by adults ‘passing through on their way to extermination camps such as Auschwitz. One of the surviving adults later told Sarah Muscovitz (1983) “We looked after the bodily welfare of the children as much as possible…but it was not possible to attend to their other needs.” Amongst their distressing experiences at Theresienstadt was seeing people being hanged. At the time of the camp being liberated by the Russians, the children were all severely malnourished and normal speech had hardly developed. They were also hostile towards adults. Having been isolated together, the children were strongly attached to each other and showed significant separation distress/anxiety when split up. According to Freud & Dann (p 131): “The children’s positive feelings were centred exclusively in their own  group…. They had no other wish than to be together and became upset when they were separated  from each other, even for short moments.”

In their privation, PURPLE had found what little comfort it could by the children attaching to each other.

A month after the liberation, they were flown to a special reception camp in Windemere in the Lake District. The children’s insistence on being inseparable initially made it impossible to treat them as individuals. However, gradually they started to form attachments to specific adult carers – in spite of being jealous and possessive of their relationships with each other. The forming of attachments to adults was paralleled by a spurt in social and language development. Subsequently they were moved to Bulldogs Bank and attended Freud & Dann’s clinic. Later they were fostered and monitored to see how well they recovered from their early privation. Over the next 2 years all but Berli were adopted. All developed normal IQ.

According to Muscovitz, (1983), who tracked the 6 down and interviewed them during 1979 and  1980…

  • Berli was a very mischievous child who got into trouble at both school and the children’s home until early adolescence when he began to settle down. At 18 he went to live with an uncle in the USA, spent a year in Vietnam, was a sergeant and teacher in the National Guard and had a long and  troubled marriage.
  • Judith married and had children.
  • So did Jack, a London taxi driver, who had bursts of feeling isolated and alone every so often.
  • Leah had migraines, difficulty in sleeping, a phobic fear of hospitals and generally very low self- esteem. She received psychiatric care from the age of 7. Nonetheless, she became a devout Christian, married and had 4 children.
  • Gadi became a History teacher in the US, having obtained a Master’s degree. He had trouble adjusting to school and was prone to temper tantrums and locking himself in the bathroom. He died in 1980.
  • Bella met her husband while training to be a (Hebrew) Sunday School teacher. She told Muscovitz: “If children come from good homes where they have the companionship of other children, I think  sometimes they’re better off than being isolated individually into families that don’t really know how to cope with them.”

Muscovitz does comment that the children had all been adopted individually and never saw each other again after adoption. Yet, having been so closely attached to each other at Theresienstadt  and in the early days at Bulldogs Bank, they showed as adults few signs of disrupted attachment.

In 1976 Jarmilia Koluchová reported on the recovery of Czech identifcal twins, ‘Andrei’ and ‘Vanya’. Born in 1960, they lost their mother shortly after birth and were cared  for  by a social agency for a year before being fostered to a maternal aunt for a further 6 months.  They then went to live with their father who had remarried. For 5.5 years they were kept in an unheated closet by their stepmother  Their father, who was of low intelligence, was not often at home and their stepmother was cruel towards them. (She is believed to have had serious mental health problems.) They were not given proper food, exercise and sunshine and were beaten. When the stepmother particularly wanted to punish the twins, she locked them in the cellar! When they were found, they were short in stature, had rickets and were barely able to talk. They couldn’t recognise pictures and were terrified when placed in a new environment. At 7 they had the development of a 3-year-old – their IQ was estimated at 40. (No tests could be used to verify this because of their poor development.)

The twins were first placed in a school for children with severe learning difficulties and then adopted. They were then adopted by 2 loving sisters who gave the twins exceptional care. The twins not only came to bond with their adoptive mothers but their adoptive siblings too. During this time their care included physiotherapy, speech therapy and psychotherapy. In the care of their adoptive mothers, the twins began to put on weight and learned to talk and to  walk properly. Eventually they went first to primary school and then to secondary.


  • 11 their speech was normal
  • 14 their behaviour was normal
  • 15 their IQ was normal
  • 20 they had above average IQ

A 1991 follow-up found they were both married and had happy, warm and stable family relationships. One was a computer technician and the other a technical training instructor. (These findings were confirmed by Ann Clarke & Alan Clarke in 1998.)

Research into privation in institutions
As discussed when considering Bowlby’s ‘Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves’  and the work of René Spitz (1945) and William Goldfarb, without knowledge of the background of a child, it can be difficult to separate out whether the effects are due to deprivation or privation. This is especially so in institutions. As with Goldfarb, nearly all the studies show some children having some degree of recovery, given the appropriate card and support

Wayne Dennis’ (1973) longitudinal study of Lebanese orphans is particularly instructional.  Babies were placed in the orphanage shortly after birth and looked after for around 6 years by ‘caregivers’ for who themselves had been raised in the orphanage until the age of 6. The babies had almost no human contact, being left in cribs all day. Once walking, they were left in a playpen with ball. Almost half were unable to sit up at 6 months and less than 1 in 6 could walk by the age of 3 years old. At 2 months the babies’ cognitive development was normal for their age; at 12 months it had slumped to 50% of that. At the age of 6, the girls were transferred to a similar institution. At the age of 16, they couldn’t dial a telephone number, couldn’t tell the time, could barely read and had a mean IQ of 50, reflecting their severe retardation. In contrast, the boys at the age of 6 were transferred to a better institution with staff trained for the job. The environment was stimulating and they were taken on trips. At the age of 15 they had a mean IQ of 80 – still relatively low but nowhere near retardation. Of children adopted before they were 2, they had IQs of around 100 2-3 years later. Of those adopted between 2-6, they developed slightly less than normal IQs. The older the age of adoption the more pronounced the detrimental effect of privation amongst these orphans.

Dennis’ study suggests there may be a critical period of intellectual development up to 2. Certainly post-natal brain development is most rapid in the first 2 years of life; and susceptibility to damage is greatest during periods of rapid development. The potential confounding variable in drawing such a conclusion could be that those who were adopted early were just naturally more intelligent.

The issues of age and the effects of deprivation/privation were also key in the work of Harold Skeels. Harold Skeels & Harold Dye (1939) posit that deprivation effects are reversible but an amount of intellectual stimulation is necessary for cognitive development. They reported on 25 children raised in an unstimulating orphanage. At age 2 those with lower IQs were transferred to a school for the mentally-retarded where older girls provided one-to-one care. After another 1.5 years  the IQ of those who had been transferred rose by 36 while those left behind dropped by 21. Supporting these findings, Marie Skodak & Harold Skeels (1945) reported a longitudinal study of  25 children aged between 11 and  21 months. 13 were classified as  ‘mentally retarded’ – their average  IQ  was 64. The other 12 had an  average IQ of 87. Their orphanage was understaffed  and overcrowded; and the children received little attention. The 13 were transferred to a  woman’s ward in an institution for  the mentally retarded. There both  staff and inmates lavished affection and attention on them, played with them and took them  on outings. What was effectively a control group of 12 was left in the original orphanage. The two groups were tested after  1.5 years:  the control group had dropped by 26 while the ‘mentally retarded’ group had risen by 24. In  addition to the gains  in  IQ, the mentally retarded group  had changed from apathetic, withdrawn infants to lively, alert young children. By the time they were 3 or 4, most of the mentally retarded  group had been adopted and went on to standard school. In 1966 Skeels produced a follow-up report on the 1945 group. Of the ‘mentally retarded’ cohort, their grades at school had  been significantly higher than those  of the control group; 4 had gone on to college and one had even achieved a PhD. They had a wide range of jobs, including teacher, sales manager and airline stewardess. Only one member of the control  group had a skilled job. The rest were either in unskilled jobs or were unemployed.

While the effects on cognitive development of institutionalisation may in some cases be reversed, the evidence for recovery from emotional deprivation is less encouraging. For example. David Quinton, Michael Rutter & Christine Liddle (1984)  compared 50 mothers who had been reared in children’s homes with 50 mothers whose childhood was spent at home. They found that, during their twenties, the ex-institutional women experienced extreme difficulties in mothering. For example, more of the ex-institutional women had children who spent time in care. More of the ex-institutional women were rated as lacking in warmth when interacting with their children. However, those ex-institutional women who had had positive school experiences in childhood and favourable psychosocial circumstances tended to do much better than those who hadn’t.

Despite the remarkable case study of ‘Isabelle’, age does seem to make a difference as to just how well a privated or severely deprived child is likely to recover.

Alfred Kadushkin (1970) studied 91 families who had adopted abused or neglected children , the average age of adoption 7.2 years. The children had suffered multiple changes of foster parents before being adopted. At 14 they were fairly stable psychologically and had reasonable interpersonal skills, However, Kadushin found the older the age at which they were adopted, the less competent they were at developing relationships.

John Triseliotis & James Russell (1984), however, found age of adoption to be less important. They studied 44 adults who had been adopted late in childhood. It was not expected that they would develop normally but, in fact, they showed good adjustment. This was attributed to the fact they had been placed in good, caring environments. This, for Triseliotis, supported earlier findings. In 1980 he reported on 40 adults born during 1956 and 1957 who had experienced long-term fostering (between 7 and 15 years in a single foster home before the age of 16). He interviewed them when they were 20-21 years old. From these interviews,  Triseliotis concluded that, if the quality and continuity of  care and relationships are good enough, the effects of earlier disruptions and suffering can be reversed in favour of normal development.

The sheer complexity of the issues involved and the multiple factors affecting children’s development, including cultural norms, is illustrated by Jerome Kagan & Robert Klein’s (1973) study of Guatamalan babies. Due to the Guatemalan Native Americans believing sunlight and fresh air to be harmful to very young children, parents normally kept their babies in small dark, windowless huts for their fist year of life. The children were not cuddled or played with and appeared listless and unresponsive to the researchers. After their first birthday, the children were taken out of the huts and began to lead a normal life, recovering from that first year of dark isolation. In a follow-up study Kagan (1976) found the children achieved normal scores for their age on a range of cognitive and social tests.

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