A significant problem in the mother-child relationship is the loss of the mother. It can be temporary or permanent. Temporary loss of the mother is most often associated with the child going to the hospital. That is why the disorders of the child’s psyche that arise in this regard are called hospitalism.
Bakwin H. R.’s: Behavior disorders in children research shows that newborns under 6 months of age who have been in such an institution for some time show a characteristic picture: prominent characteristics are apathy, weight loss and pallor, relative immobility, calmness; children do not respond to stimuli such as smiling and beating, they are indifferent to food; the child does not gain weight even though it takes food that is almost similar to the one at home, has frequent stools, sleeps poorly, looks unhappy, is prone to occasional fevers and is not used to breastfeeding”.
The longer a child is separated from the mother, in a hospital or in an orphanage, the more he or she lags behind in physical and mental development. In addition, various already acquired skills such as gait, speech and sphincter control are lost or returned to a lower developmental level. This refers to the regression (return) of the child to an earlier stage of psychophysical development. In addition, the child is extremely depressed. Fear and sadness prevail in its mood, it withdraws into itself, does not try to establish contact with strangers and does not react when the latter tries to approach it. The child is less and less active, stares blankly into space, does not care about anything, loses its appetite and often suffers from insomnia; loses weight and is increasingly susceptible to infection.
It is an emotional state that Spitz R. A., Wolf K. M.: Anaclitic depression; an inquiry into the genesis of psychiatric conditions in early childhood call anaclitic depression. It is characteristic of older infants who in the first months of life lived in a good emotional relationship with the mother and then were abruptly separated from the mother without receiving an adequate replacement for her. If the mother did not show much emotional warmth towards the child, she will not cause signs of hospitalization before being placed in a hospital or home. But this is not a sign that such a child is resistant to harmful factors but rather proof that it is already emotionally damaged.
If a child who has been hospitalized returns home on time, in an emotionally warm atmosphere, the signs of depression soon disappear. The child becomes more lively, more and more interested in the environment, and reacts to everything that happens around it. Its appetite and sleep improve, and its appearance becomes healthier. But the chance of a full recovery from hospitalism is smaller the longer the child has been in the hospital. If the infant has been separated from the mother, and there was no adequate replacement for her, for more than three months, it is very unlikely that it will fully recover. Emotional damage will remain in its personality, which will later make it difficult for it to create close emotional connections with other people.
During the second and third years of life, the child still reacts strongly to the separation from the mother. It is very upset and cries incessantly for several days, often rudely refusing to approach its mother’s replacement. In a state of despair, the child refuses food and any other care towards it and sleeps only when it gets tired of crying. After a few days, the child falls into apathy and only gradually returns to a normal mood. But for a few more weeks or even a few months, it may show symptoms of regression to an earlier stage of psychophysical development: the child urinates in bed, does not speak, demands to be carried, acts as if it is mentally retarded.
In children who lived in an emotionally disinterested environment before arriving at the hospital, no symptoms of hospitalism were observed were found. These are children with a sensitivity deficit which will hamper their character maturation. Therefore, young children who cry painfully when separated from their mothers should not be considered “spoiled”, because such a reaction is normal. Nor should children who are indifferent to leaving their mother be considered “good,” because such behavior is an expression of their emotional defect.
Signs of hospitalism can remain even when the child returns to the mother. Burlingam and A. Freud cite these symptoms of impairment of the child’s emotional relationship with the mother after returning from the hospital:
- The child treats the mother in a hostile manner;
- The child makes excessive demands of the mother, would like to have her exclusively for itself, and reacts to any scolding with fierce anger and jealousy;
- The child shows a cheerful but superficial attachment to every adult who is with it;
- The child apathetically withdraws from all emotional connections, and sometimes indulges in a monotonous swaying of the body or nodding its head.
Sometimes when a child meets its mother again, it is so >> frozen that it cannot express its feelings<<. Little by little, the child “cools down” and then accuses the mother of leaving it. After that, for weeks or months, it does not allow itself to lose sight of its mother, behaves like an infant, is timid and gets angry easily. If the parents react reasonably to these disorders in the child’s behavior, if they ignore its outbursts and calm them down with a calm demeanor, the child will soon establish an emotional balance. But there are parents who do not understand the essence of a child’s reaction to separation from the mother, so they scold it, warn it and punish it. Then the emotional conflict in the child deepens and becomes the basis for the neurotic development of its personality.
Between the ages of three and five, the child is still quite sensitive to separation from the mother, but significantly less than at an earlier age. In this period of their lives, children no longer live exclusively in the present, so they can, at least vaguely, imagine a time when they will return to their mothers. Before the age of three, most children are not capable of this. In addition, the preschool child can already understand the interpretation of the need to go to the hospital and that someone will temporarily replace its mother.
After the age of five, the sensitivity of children to separation from their mothers decreases even more, although many children are not quite able to adapt to the temporary loss of their mother’s presence until the age of seven or eight. Mental disorders appear especially if the separation from the mother was sudden, and the child was not prepared for that. Interestingly, at this age, the conditions for the onset of hospitalism are different than in younger children. If a child between the ages of five and eight is emotionally well connected to the mother, if it has full confidence in her, it will not react with excessive fear if it has to temporarily separate from her. But an insecure child who is constantly anxious about its mother’s love may misinterpret such separation. It lives with the belief that its mother no longer loves it or that she punished it for something by sending it to the hospital, and this intensifies its fear by causing more and more pronounced neurotic reactions and behavioral disorders. An emotionally balanced child can, therefore, at that age be safely separated from the mother for a while without danger, although it does not receive a suitable replacement for her. On the contrary, a neurotic child will respond to such separation with even deeper emotional difficulties.
The consequences of the permanent loss of the mother due to her death or divorce with the assignment of the child to the father, depend on what kind of replacement it received for the mother. Fathers who have lost their wives for any reason, and are still young, usually remarry in a short time. That is why a stepmother is the most common substitute for a mother. If the father does not remarry, the child is regularly accepted by another woman in the family, grandmother, aunt, older sister, etc. It is very rare that the father does not have the opportunity to entrust the child to someone in the family, so he is forced to place it in an orphanage or kindergarten.
In such a case, the loss of the mother will deal the child a severe psychological blow, which will be more severe the younger the child and the closer the emotional relationship with the mother. The consequences will be the same as in the case of temporary separation from the mother for a longer period of time, with the difference that in the case of permanent loss of the mother, the psychological recovery of the child cannot be expected. And towards a father who has not taken care to give it an adequate replacement for its mother, such a child will develop a very negative emotional attitude.
A boy after his mother’s death – he was two years old when he was left alone with his father. Not having to take care of him, his father placed him in an orphanage. The boy remained there until he was nine years old. Only then did the father decide to take the son because in the meantime he remarried. When he returned home, the boy also found a son from his stepmother’s first marriage, his peer. In addition, he felt that his father was more concerned with his stepson and more interested in him than in his own son. His stepmother showed him more feelings than his father. Although the stepmother tried to attract him to the new family, he still showed a very negative attitude towards his father. At first, he did not want to leave the orphanage, because he somehow managed to live there, and he became completely estranged from his father. Finally, the instinctive need for the warmth of family life prevailed. Although he knew his father’s coldness to himself, he secretly hoped that his father would accept him emotionally and at least compensate for his mother’s loss at least now. But his father completely disappointed him with his repulsive behavior. Then a strong need for revenge arose in the boy. He started stealing from his father, and with the stolen money he bought sweets, toys and various small items that he shared with his friends. Once his father caught him, he mercilessly beat him. But the boy still did not stop stealing. He was still taking money, now he was doing it more carefully, but he was taking larger sums, enjoying his father’s rage when he discovered the theft. He would rather endure beatings than give up the pleasure of revenge. And he never took a cent from anyone else.