Touch-starved: The hunger of children in orphanages

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

Why do children in orphanages often run and hug visitors as soon as they arrive?  Why did Western nations stop putting abandoned children in orphanages? For answers to both of these questions look at the work of a genius named John Bowlby.


Dr-John-BowlbyJohn Bowlby (1907-1990) has been described as a genius and one of the three or four most important psychiatrists of the twentieth century. Every student of psychology or psychiatry, and many of a number of other disciplines would have heard of his watershed work on separation, loss and mourning. Perhaps more than any other figure in recent decades, Bowlby has had profound influence over the treatment of bereaved and separated children in the Western world.

Anyone who has visited an orphanage will have experienced the effects of what Bowlby described as “Indiscriminate Attachment”. As soon as you arrive, the children crowd around, hungry for attention, the attention of a complete stranger. Younger ones cling to your legs and look up endearingly, silently imploring you to give them the nurture and love they desperately needed.

Most of us think their indiscriminate friendliness, clinging and attention seeking conduct is cute. But anyone familiar with John Bowlby’s work realise the situation is much sadder. These orphanage children are desperately undernourished, not necessarily for food, but starving for an adult’s love and attention. The idea of forty or more kids competing for the affections of a handful of staff is deeply disturbing.

John Bowlby’s lifelong work and passion about children separated from their mothers was greatly informed by the trauma he suffered as a child growing up in England. The fourth of six children, John was raised by a nanny in traditional English fashion. He would see his mother for just an hour each day after tea, during which time she would read to him. When John was just four years old, his beloved nanny, who he described as his primary caregiver, left the family. He later wrote that, “for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother”(1).

Bowlby said that his mother, “held the view that it was dangerous to spoil children so her responses to bids for attention and affection were the opposite of what was required”. Finally, in another traumatic shock, his father went off to war and John aged seven, was sent off to boarding school, supposedly for his own safety. He later told his wife that he “would not send even a dog away from home at that age.”

In later life, John Bowlby became a celebrated psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist. He authored more than 150 publications including his famous trilogy: Separation (1969), Attachment (1973) and Loss (1980) which had so much influence on the treatment of orphans and eventually contributed to the widespread abandonment of orphanages in the West.

In 1951, the World Health Organization asked Bowlby to review the impact on children of separation from their parents and caregivers during the Second World War. The resulting study has been translated into 14 languages and has had an enormous impact on our understanding of care for orphans today.

mother-childBowlby was convinced that an ongoing nurturing relationship between an adult and a young child is as crucial to the child’s survival and healthy development as the provision of food, shelter, stimulation and discipline(2). He came to recognize that the lack of nurture from a mother or mother substitute during childhood could have a devastating effect on the child’s health, growth, personality adjustment and cognitive capacity.

Subsequent research has strengthened Bowlby’s original thesis. For example, researchers from the Yale University Child Study Centre conducted a five year study comparing 75 infants in an orphanage with 75 infants brought up in foster families. The orphanage was a three storey building, clean and in good condition. The children were provided with nutritious meals and excellent medical care.

The researchers, Provence & Lipton, noticed that the institutionalised children did not play with toys as spontaneously as the foster children and were relatively slower to develop speech. Other areas of development were also delayed in the orphanage children, especially social maturity.

After being placed with foster families, these same children made dramatic gains, though there were some residual effects on their ability to form appropriate emotional relationships, particularly with men(3). What was the difference? Simply the amount of attention and touch from adults. The kids were touch-starved.

[Excerpted from The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor by Craig Greenfield]

(1) Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
(2) Bowlby 1951: p13
(3) Provence, S., and Lipton, R. (1962). Infants in institutions: a comparison of their development with family-reared infants during the first year of their life. New York: International University Press.

Photo of John Bowlby by Unknown
Photo of mother and child by Andy Gray

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About the Author

About the Author: Craig Greenfield is the author of The Urban Halo, story of one family's experience in a Cambodian slum and establishing an innovative ministry caring for over a thousand orphans. Based in Cambodia, he is the International Director of Alongsiders International (www.alongsiders.org), a movement to reach the world’s most vulnerable children. .
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