How to Handle Emotional Deprivation in Children

In 1953, Dr. John Bowiby wrote that every baby must have “a warm, intimate and contin­uous relationship with his mother,” or else he will not thrive. Although this theory of emotional deprivation has been heavily criticized for its assumption that a mother-child relationship must be continuous (there is no proof whatsoever that a child must be in his mother’s company all the time), Bowlby’s two other major assumptions have stood the test of time, namely:

  • A close emotional attachment between mother (or equiva­lent) and baby is essential for satisfactory childhood devel­opment.
  • A baby deprived of such an attachment will show adverse effects throughout later life.

A wealth of evidence supports this view. Your child can become distressed even when separated from you only briefly. Extreme reactions have been observed in children admitted to the hospital without a parent present. These children usually show an initial period of protest, followed by a period of despair and apathy, which in turn is followed by detachment from oth­ers around them.

The effects of this type of short-term emotional deprivation are often temporary. This was confirmed by one study that focused on a group of young children who experienced maternal separation when their mothers went into the hospital for the birth of another baby. The infants’ actions were recorded on video during play episodes before, during, and after the mother’s stay in the hospital; the children’s activity level and heart rate were recorded at night. Mothers also commented on their infants’ behavior. The researchers found that the brief separation did have a marked effect. For instance, while the mother was in the hospi­tal, her child was likely to have an increase in night wakings, heart rate, crying, and fussiness. He was also likely to be more aggres­sive, more clingy, and less cooperative at mealtimes. Fortunately, all of these adverse effects eased when the mother returned home.

Given this background of research findings, parents often ask the following three questions:

Q. Will emotional deprivation be avoided if I spend every minute of the day with my child?

A. Not necessarily. What matters is the quality of the parent-child relationship, not the quantity. The amount of time you spend with your child does not, by itself, indicate whether he will be emotionally deprived. Some parents are with their child all the time, and yet don’t have a close and caring relationship with him, while others work all day, rarely see their child, and yet have a very strong relationship with him.

Q. Should I stay at home and not return to work, in case my young child becomes emotionally


A. Not necessarily. A British survey of preschool children looked at the link between their mothers’ working habits and their mothers’ mental health. Those who had given up work were most likely to be depressed—and a child looked after by a depressed mother who feels trapped in the house by her parental responsibilities may experience emotional deprivation even though his mother hasn’t returned to work. This doesn’t mean that you should automatically go back to work when your baby is young. Decisions of this sort are very personal and depend greatly on individual circumstances. But it does mean that you should not instantly feel guilty about resuming your career early in your infant’s life.

Q. Will my child be emotionally deprived if I send him to a day-care center instead of looking after him myself during the day?

A. No, although the quality of the day-care arrangement is cru­cial. Children who have quality day care tend to be more socia­ble, engage in less solitary play, are less attention-seeking, and are more cooperative with other children and adults. Quality day care can add to a child’s emotional stability and can even compensate for poor parent-child relationships at home.

Filed Under: Lifestyle & Personality


About the Author: Alan Kennon lives a very happy life with two kids and a lovely wife. He likes to share his life time experiences with others about how they can improve their lifestyle and personality.

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