Maternal deprivation

What is maternal deprivation?

John Bowlby, psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and developer of attachment theory used the term maternal deprivation to focus attention upon the effect on infants and young children of being separated from their mothers during their first year.  Bowlby focussed upon questions of subsequent failures in the development of good mental health, and on the link between: maternal deprivation and problem behaviour in young children and adolescents.

In Maternal Care and Mental Health (1951) Bowlby considered that if a child misses out on a warm and affectionate bond with its mother then the consequence for ongoing developing mental health could be profound.

What can you do if you have experienced maternal deprivation?

If you have been deprived of love in your early years, what does that mean for you in terms of:

  • your on-going mental health?
  • your ability to develop satisfying love relationships later in life?

Can you repair the injuries caused by maternal deprivation?

If someone has experienced maternal deprivation, or there has been a traumatic experience which has undermined the psychological experience of safety, developing and restoring these possibilities is likely to require a particular investment of patience and time. But it is possible.

Experience shows that trust can be developed in psychotherapeutic work where there has been maternal deprivation.

If there has been a fundamental breakdown in the provision of care it is likely there will have been a failure in the ordinary progress and development of mental health, but that can be surmounted and repaired if the quality of the psychotherapeutic relationship is good enough.

One of the questions Bowlby’s work raises is to do with the link between the experience of maternal deprivation and a subsequent failure to thrive?


Adoption cases raise sensitive questions about maternal deprivation

Certain cases bring this subject to consciousness.  One being the plight and subsequent progress of the Romanian orphans (1990).

A BBC article (2017) highlighted a study by researchers at King’s College London that considered the finding that though particular children who had been adopted into loving families had gone on to flourish, many had not.

The case raises important questions.  One of the things that is hard to know or factor in is: what kind of experience did the children have once they had been adopted?  It is often imagined that adoption is the end of a problem whereas, generally, adoption is the beginning of a very complicated new set of family dynamics.

The Romanian children had been rescued from a life-threatening situation, but when it came to their new adoptive homes, it is possible that only in particular situations could the children’s need of support be followed through appropriately.

If there has been maternal deprivation, if someone has been exposed to trauma, or violence in early life, what kind of work would be helpful?

Careful psychotherapeutic work may provide the best route to help individuals recover

Psychotherapeutic work shows that people who have been exposed to maternal deprivation, given the right possibilities, do possess the capacity to recover.

One indicator of possessing that capacity might be seen as the knowledge that you are thinking about trying psychotherapy in the first place.  This idea may indicate the presence of a capacity for development and health that has survived the earlier deprivations.

A good psychotherapy relationship might be like finding a new place from which you can start again.

Nothing can erase the experience someone may have had in childhood, but that does not mean that you cannot develop a more constructive perspective and experience in the present and work toward a more fulfilling future.

Contact me

I have a depth of experience of working with people suffering from problems stemming from maternal deprivation.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my work might help you.