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Robertson Case Study John

The case of John (Robertson & Robertson, 1971)
Robertson & Robertson made film recordings of a variety of children under the age of 3 who were separated from their mothers for a short period of time while their mothers were in hospital. One of the children, John, was cared for at a residential nursery and the other children were cared for by a foster mother in her own home.

John spent 9 days in a residential nursery while his mother was in hospital. Staff at the nursery were extremely busy and had little time to care for his personal needs other than to feed and dress him. The staff regularly changed shifts, and John would see several different carers every day. John was initially overwhelmed by the strange environment he was in and clung to a teddy bear for comfort. Over the next few days he became progressively more withdrawn to the point of despair. When he was reunited with his mother, John rejected her and continued to punish her with outbursts of anger for several months.

In direct contrast to this, the children who had been cared for by a foster mother appeared to develop no emotional problems from their separation. The foster mother arranged for the children to visit their mothers in hospital regularly so that the emotional bond was maintained, and at the end of their stay they welcomed their mothers openly and warmly.

This research shows that maternal deprivation does seem to cause emotional difficulties for children, however it can be prevented by providing high quality substitute emotional care with a single substitute caregiver. The quality of substitute emotional care is important as was demonstrated by Skeels & Dye (1939).

Skeels & Dye (1939)
Skeels & Dye (1939) compared the development of two groups of orphans. One group was raised in a normal institution, in which the staff were too busy to give much attention, and the other group was raised in a home for women who were mentally retarded in which the mentally retarded women gave the orphans attention. After 18 months the average IQ of the children cared for in the normal institution fell from 87 to 61 points, but the children raised in the home for mentally retarded women had a rise in IQ from 64 to 92 points. It seems that the emotional care the children received from adults in the home reduced the emotional deprivation experienced by children in the institution.

Evaluating maternal deprivation hypothesis
Much of the evidence used to support the maternal deprivation hypothesis comes from children who were deprived of many other things as well as a strong emotional bond with a mother or maternal figure. Their emotional disturbances may not therefore be caused by there maternal separation but by other factors such as physical deprivation (lack of care for physical needs).

Maternal deprivation does not always lead to emotional disruption. Bowlby et al (1956) studied a group of children who were hospitalised with tuberculosis under the age of 4. The hospital had strict nursing regimes in which only the children's basic physical needs were cared for without any attention to their emotional needs. The children were visited weekly by their families. When the children were followed up between the ages of 7 and 14 they, when compared with a control group of children who had not been hospitalised, were no different to the control group in terms of anti-social behaviour or problems forming social relationships. Bowlby suggested these children may have been protected from the negative effects of maternal deprivation due to individual differences (e.g. personality, secure attachment before hospitalisation, etc).

Extension Reading


Short term effects of separation


Bowlby was mainly interested in the long-term effects of deprivation, such as affectionless psychopathy. However he also investigated short-term effects. By this we are referring to the effects of deprivation lasting over weeks or months, rather than years. Often these will be seen as a consequence of short-term separations (such as a brief period of hospitalisation) and this was exactly the scenario investigated by Robertson & Robertson (1969).

Robertson and Bowlby (1952) proposed a model of the short-term effects of separation involving three stages: protest, despair and detachment (the so-called PDD model).


Robertson & Robertson (1971) conducted a study on a number of cases involving separation from the mother. They attempted to minimise the consequences of distress by preparing children for the separation. The child made visits to the Robertson’s home beforehand and during the separation the child was talked to about his/her mother regularly. These cases, cared for in the Robertson’s own home, were compared with the case of John who was taken into more conventional residential care for nine days.


The findings of the research were that the children cared for by the Robertsons coped well with the separation. However John, initially an outgoing and cheerful child, showed severe distress and later, despair and detachment, that continued after he returned home to his mother.


This study is important because it has played a significant part in changing attitudes to how people deal with separation. Hospitals are now very reluctant to allow even brief periods of separation. If these are unavoidable, then they are carefully prepared and organised, as carried out by the Robertsons.


However, it is a case study and therefore suffers from the general limitations of such studies. We are not sure the extent to which John’s behaviour is typical and there are many uncontrolled variables, including his mother’s behaviour when he returned home. Was she affected by the hospitalisation?


Not everyone is convinced by the PDD model. For example, Barrett (1997) looked again at the behaviour shown by John and other children recorded on film by the Robertsons and suggested that it is better described in terms of the children attempting to cope with separation rather than protesting. It has also been suggested that securely attached children will show less distress on separation than insecurely attached.


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