The Effects of Institutionalisation

September 5, 2021 - Paper 1 Introductory Topics in Psychology | Attachment


Institutionalisation can be defined as being a type of residential care for children (particularly in their early years). The care usually adopts a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with children being treated the same regardless of their gender, reasons for being in institutional care/reasons for being separated from their parents, age, abilities and, to some extent, their needs.

Over the years, Psychological research has vastly highlighted that those individuals who experience institutionalisation (especially early institutionalisation (during childhood)) quite often experience adverse effects of this early experience. These effects can be seen in both an individuals physical and psychological development.

In particular, some effects of institutionalisation (as highlighted through psychological research) include the following;

Poor Parenting:  A child who has experienced a lack of emotional care may grow up to be a poor parent themselves/struggle with parenting responsibilities.  Research to highlight this comes from Quinton et al (1984) who compared a group of 50 women who had been reared in institutions (children’s homes) with a control group of 50 women reared at home in a ‘normal’ environment.  When the women were in their 20’s it was found that the ex-institutionalised women were experiencing extreme difficulties acting as parents.  For example, more of the ex-institutionalised women had children who had spent time in care. Harlow also witnessed the effects of poor parenting with the monkeys who had been placed with a surrogate during the first few months of their life. Harlow followed the monkeys into their adult life and found that when they became parents quite often, they rejected their offspring and, in some extreme cases they killed their offspring.

Deprivation DwarfismGardner (1972) showed that children who have experienced a lack of emotional care may show physical underdevelopment as well as emotional problems e.g. they may be physically small.  It is thought that the lack of emotional care itself (rather than poor nourishment) may be the cause of this.  The production of hormones such as growth hormones are affected by the severe emotional disturbance resulting in physical underdevelopment (or dwarfism). The case study of Genie illustrates the possibility of deprivation dwarfism as a result of a lack of emotional care during the critical period.

Attachment Disorder: This has recently been recognised as a ‘psychiatric condition’ and effects a child’s social and emotional development.  Children who had experienced institutionalisation d show 3 things:

  1. No preferred attachment figures
  2. An inability to interact and relate to others shown before the age of 5
  3. Experience of severe neglect or frequent change of caregivers.

There are two kinds of attachment disorder – Reactive/Inhibited: a child will be shy and withdrawn, unable to cope with most social situations. Disinhibited – a child with this disorder will be over-friendly and attention seeking



(1) POINT: A strength of this research is that studying the Romanian orphans has enhanced psychologist’s understanding of the effects of institutionalisation. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE:  Langton (2006) has suggested that such knowledge developed through this research has changed the way children in institutions are cared for. For example, orphanages and children’s homes now avoid having large numbers of caregivers for each child and instead ensure that a much smaller number of people, (perhaps only one or two people/keyworkers) play a central role for the child. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, having a key worker means that children have the chance to develop normal attachments and helps to avoid disinhibited attachment types. This shows that research into institutionalisation has been immensely valuable in practical terms.

(2) POINT: Another strength of this study is that there were fewer extraneous variables in the Romanian orphan studies in comparison to other orphan studies where infants involved had experienced a lot of trauma before they were institutionalised. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, the children may have experienced neglect, abuse of bereavement. These children were often traumatised by their experiences. It was very hard for psychologists to observe the effects of institutionalisation in isolation because the children were dealing with multiple factors which functioned as confounding participant variables. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, in the case of the Romanian orphan study institutionalisation without these confounding variables, which means that the findings have high internal validity and a cause and effect relationship can be established.


(1) POINT: However, a problem with the Romanian orphans is that they were not typical. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Romanian orphanages had particular poor standards of care, especially when it came to forming any new relationships with the children, and extremely low levels of intellectual stimulation. EVALUATION: This is a limitation of the Romanian orphans study because the unusual situational variables means that studies may lack generalisability and therefore, the findings cannot be applied to the understanding of the impact of better quality care institutions

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