NUMBER 750• 25 MAY • Attachment representationS


John Bowlby founded attachment theory in the context of institutional care. In his study entitled “Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home life” of 1944, he investigated the early domestic circumstances and parent-child relationships of 44 thieving children, who had been placed in a Child Guidance Center. The reports of the social workers showed that in almost every case there had been abnormal home conditions involving emotional abuse and violence. One group of children, in particular, who had been separated from their mothers for long periods after having been able to build up an emotional relationship with them, showed behavioural problems that Bowlby called “affectionless psychopathy”. These children were hardly able to establish long-term relationships and showed few signs of guilt for their social misdeeds. In his monograph, entitled “Maternal care and mental health” (1951), which he wrote under commission from the WHO, he was explicitly concerned with “children who are orphaned or separated from their families for other reasons and need care in foster homes, institutions or other types of group care”.

It is especially due to Mary Ainsworth that the originally very global and hardly operational concept of maternal deprivation was made specific in the new concept of attachment. Originally the psychological damage suffered by these children was explained with just such a lack of maternal affection, even though Bowlby never saw separation from the mother as the sole pathogeny but from an early stage also considered the possibility of associated genetic causes and, in addition, took into account a possible partial responsibility of the child for the disturbance to the mother-child relationship, in which he anticipated the modern transactional point of view (Bowlby, 1940; 1953). Later, it became apparent that it was not so much the absence as the poor quality of the parent-child relationship that represented the pathogenic factor.

This work carried out in the first phase of attachment research which was concerned with the catastrophic results of early separation from the mother in particular for infants entrusted to pedagogical institutions and which must therefore be understood as a series of contributions to a fundamental criticism of institutional care in general led to improvements in the practice of institutional care. Nevertheless from now on it was asserted that institutional care was damaging to children and could be viewed only as a possibility of last resort, when other, less invasive forms of out-of-home placements, such as foster families, failed.

This is the reason why at least in the countries of the European Community the numbers of residential provisions and children accommodated in residential care are decreasing (Colton & Hellinckx, 1999), in contrast to the numbers of children placed in foster care. It is believed that residential care is nowadays reserved for young people whose behaviour is becoming more challenging. This seems to be true particularly for adolescents with emotional and behavioural difficulties who tend to remain in residence for longer periods (Gooch, 1999).



Schleiffer, R. and Muller, S. (2004). Attachment representations of adolescents in institutional care.  International Journal of Child and Family Welfare. Vol. 7 No.1. March 2004. pp. 60-61

























Bowlby, J. (1940). The nature of the child's tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 350-373.

Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health (WHO Monographs Series No. 2). Geneva: World Health Organization.

Bowlby, J. (1953). Some pathological processes set in train by early mother-child separation. Journal of Mental Science, 99, 265-272.

Colton, M., & Hellinckx, W. (1999). Foster and residential care in the EU. In H. Colla, T. Gabriel, S. Millham, S., Muller-Teusler, & M. Winkler (Eds.), Handbuch Heimerziehung and Pflegekinderwesen in Europa (pp. 41-51). Neuwied: Luchterhand.

Gooch, D. (1999). Children in residential care. In H. Colla, T. Gabriel, S. Millham, S., Muller-Teusler, & M. Winkler (Eds.), Handbuch Heimerziehung and Pflegekinderwesen in Europa (pp. 179-187). Neuwied: Luchterhand.