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Chapter: Psychology: Development

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What Happens When there is No Attachment ? - Socioemotional Development in Infancy and Childhood

The data we have considered remind us that we are a resilient species.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THERE IS NO ATTACHMENT ?

 

The data we have considered remind us that we are a resilient species. After all, most children cope perfectly well in childcare, even if it means they have less contact with their parents. Most children suffer no significant problems from divorce. But what about more severe disruption of early experience? What if there is no attachment at all? Here the effects are dramatic and remind us that the young of many species do not need just food and shelter, they also need social contact.

 

One source of evidence is a troubling series of experiments in which monkey infants were reared without any social interaction. They were kept warm and safe and had all the food and water they needed, but never saw another living creature (Harlow, 1962; Harlow & Novak, 1973). The results were devastating. After 3 months of isolation, these animals huddled in a corner of the cage, clasped themselves, and rocked back and forth. When they were brought together with normally reared age-mates, rather than engaging in the playful romping that is characteristic of monkeys at that age, the monkeys reared in isolation simply withdrew, huddled, rocked, and bit themselves (Figure 14.29).

 

Modern standards of animal care prohibit raising animals in this fashion. Sadly, though, human children do not have the same protections—a fact documented, for example, in the recent history of Romania. In the 1960s, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu launched a drive to double the population of his country in one generation. Romanian


women were ordered to have five children each, and families too poor to rear all these children had to relinquish them to state-run orphanages. By 1989 (when Ceausescu was deposed and executed), the orphanages contained 150,000 children. The orphans had received inadequate nourishment and health care and had minimal social contact. For reasons that were unclear, the staff workers were instructed not to interact with the children even when bringing them their bottles (Figure 14.30).

 

Children who were adopted out of this setting in the first two years of life seem to have suffered no lasting effects of their experience. But children adopted later showed numerous effects. For example, years later and now living with adoptive parents, these orphans seem not to differentiate between their (adoptive) parents and other adults and do not look to their parents for reassurance in times of stress. The orphans also seem unable to form good relations with their peers (Castle et al., 1999; Croft et al., 2001; O’Connor et al., 2000; Rutter & O’Connor, 2004) and show multiple signs of impaired cognitive development (C. A. Nelson et al., 2007; Nelson, Furtado, Fox, & Zeanah, 2009).

 

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