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Bowlby, J. (1944). Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life (II). Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 25:107-128.

(1944). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 25:107-128

Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life (II)

John Bowlby

"(VII) Conclusion and Summary

From its earliest days psycho-analysis has emphasized the critical importance of the child's first few years. Despite this there has been relatively little systematic investigation of possible adverse factors in the young child's environment. The investigation reported here has sought to remedy this situation by enquiring into the early environment, and in particular that part of it comprised by the parents, of a number of habitual thieves. The result has been that certain specifically adverse circumstances have been identified and their significance demonstrated both statistically in the whole group and clinically in a few individual cases. The conclusion has been drawn that, had it not been for certain factors inimical to the healthy development of the capacity for object-love, certain children would not have become offenders. Conversely, and equally important, it may be concluded that the socially satisfactory behaviour of most adults is dependent on their having been brought up in circumstances, fortunately common, which have encouraged or at least permitted the satisfactory development of their capacity to make object-relationships. These findings thus not only confirm the general psycho-analytic thesis that it is the early years which count in character development, but demonstrate beyond doubt that the elucidation of the problem of juvenile delinquency is dependent upon psycho-analytic investigation. Nevertheless it would be foolish to suppose that psycho-analytic investigation alone, even extended to cover statistical enquiries of the kind reported here, would be sufficient. Though juvenile delinquency is to a great degree a psychological problem, it is also a problem of sociology and economics.

We must remember that the cases studied in this investigation are not a typical sample of Court cases. They are a highly selected sample, referred to a Child Guidance Clinic because they were specially difficult or because the child was obviously not emotionally normal. There are many other

sorts of children charged in Court and in these cases factors of the kind inculpated in this paper may well be few or indeed absent. On the other hand, poverty, bad housing, lack of recreational facilities and other socio-economic factors, will play a large part. Juvenile delinquency as a total problem is in fact the outcome of many and complex factors and until the effects of these are studied together in an adequately planned and combined research the weight to be attached to each will remain unknown. In consequence, though this research has placed emphasis on the psycho-analytic factors, we have no method of ascertaining how important these factors are in the total problem which the Home Office and the Courts have to deal with. The remark of an experienced probation officer that about one-third of the cases coming into Court are of the kinds described in this paper is our only clue.

Should this estimate be accurate or even nearly accurate, the problem of providing adequate treatment would be vast, for it is evident that no treatment which leaves the basic emotional problems in these cases unsolved can be more than palliative. Moreover, even when psycho-analytic treatment can be attempted, progress is extremely slow and difficult. One outstanding reason for this is, of course, that the disorders are already of many years' duration when they first come for treatment. For instance, the average age of the Affectionless children in this series was about ten years. This means that the condition had been present and progressing for at least seven years. My conclusion therefore is that all these cases must in future be diagnosed and treated before the child is five, and preferably before three. This may appear a fantastic view. But no doubt the same might have been said of physicians who advocated the early treatment of tuberculosis in the days when only advanced conditions were seen. Since those days, we have learnt to diagnose tuberculosis, whether of bone or joint or lung, in its earliest stages, and no sacrifice is thought too great to secure its cure, even though the symptoms presented are, to the layman, trivial.

In precisely the same way we may look forward to a time when the diagnosis of delinquent character is regularly made in the child's early years. That we can learn to do this there can be not the slightest doubt. The case of Florence W., aged 3½, demonstrates that if we are on the look-out for the diagnostic signs in early life, they can be detected. The help of infant welfare centres and nursery schools must be enlisted. Well-trained play-analysts must be provided to give treatment. Medicine must step in and cure these cases long before they are even eligible to come before a Court of Law. For in dealing with chronic delinquents the machinery of law is starting at a serious disadvantage. No child may be charged before the age of 8 years, by which time the disease is far advanced. Looked at as centres for the prevention and cure of crime, such an arrangement might be compared to a national network of cancer-clinics, pledged to take no case of less than five years' standing.

But if early diagnosis is important, how much more vital is prevention. Certain factors, it is true, cannot be prevented. Deaths, whether of mother or little brother, will occur, but even here an understanding of the child's emotions may enable timely help to be given. Anxious and nagging mothers also may always be with us, but again an understanding of their problem and the provision of play centres and nursery schools will go far to ameliorate the lot of their children. The prolonged separation of young children from their mothers may also on occasion be unavoidable. Nevertheless, if all those who had to advise on the upbringing of small children, and not least among them doctors, were aware of the appalling damage which separations of this kind have on the development of a child's character, many could be avoided and many of the most distressing cases of chronic delinquency prevented.


The characters and psychiatric history of 44 juvenile thieves referred to a Child Guidance Clinic are compared with those of 44 children also referred to a Clinic who did not steal. About half the thieves had indulged in regular and serious stealing, in most cases over a long period of time. In only 12 had the stealing been relatively slight, and one of these later turned out to be a chronic thief.

In sex and intelligence there was no significant difference between the groups. Only two thieves were of low intelligence.

Economic status was not specially investigated, but was believed not to differ between the two groups. Few in either group were dependent on support from public funds.

The thieves are classified according to their characters. Only 2 were regarded as fairly 'Normal' emotionally, 9 were Depressed, 2 Circular, 13 Hyperthymic, 14 of a character type which has been christened 'Affectionless' and 4 Schizoid or Schizophrenic. There are no Affectionless Characters amongst the controls, a difference which is significant.

The Affectionless children are significantly more delinquent than the other thieves. All but one were serious offenders, the majority truanting as well as stealing. They constitute more than half of the more serious and chronic offenders. It is argued that these Affectionless delinquents constitute a true psychiatric syndrome hitherto only partially recognized.

Aetiological factors are discussed under three main headings: possible genetic factors, early home environment and contemporary environment. The

difficulty of isolating the influence of genetic factors from environmental factors is discussed. Five factors are treated statistically: (i) genetic, (ii) prolonged separations of child from mother or foster-mother in the early years, (iii) ambivalent and anxious mothers, (iv) fathers who openly hate their children, and (v) recent traumatic events.

Eighteen thieves had a parent or grandparent who was mentally ill with psychosis, psychopathic character or severe neurosis, an incidence of mental illness which is almost identical to that in the control group. Though comparative figures are not available, this incidence is almost certainly higher in both groups than it would be in a control group of normal children. Both genetic and environmental factors are likely to play a part in producing this association.

Seventeen of the thieves had suffered complete and prolonged separation (six months or more) from their mothers or established foster-mothers during their first five years of life. Only two controls had suffered similar separations, a statistically significant difference. 12 of the 14 thieves who were of the Affectionless Character had suffered a prolonged separation in contrast to only 5 of the remaining 30 thieves, a difference which is again significant. Clinical evidence is presented which shows that a prolonged separation is a principle cause of the Affectionless (and delinquent) Character.

Of the 27 thieves who had not suffered an early separation 17 had mothers who were either extremely anxious, irritable and fussy or else rigid, domineering and oppressive, traits which in all cases mask much unconscious hostility. Five of the 27 had fathers who hated them and expressed their hatred openly. In these respects, however, the thieves do not differ from the controls, although it is extremely probable that both groups would differ substantially from a group of normal children.

Five of the thieves had suffered traumatic experiences, four in connection with their mothers' illness or death and one over a brother's death. Six others had been seriously upset by a relatively recent unhappy experience. Evidence is brought to show that stealing is in some cases a symptom of a Depressive State.

The incidence of the five factors enumerated does not differ significantly as between the less serious cases of stealing and the controls. The incidence both of ambivalent mothers and recent traumatic events is lower in the case of habitual thieves than it is in the other two groups. The incidence of prolonged separations of the small child from his mother or foster-mother is significantly greater in the case of the habitual offenders than in the other groups. It is concluded that whilst the other four factors may well be of considerable importance for the pathogenesis of unstable and maladapted children in general, including some delinquents, prolonged separations are a specific and very frequent cause of chronic delinquency.

The pathological effects of prolonged separations and the psychopathology of the Affectionless thief are discussed very briefly. Attention is drawn (a) to the strong libidinal and aggressive components in stealing, and (b) to the failure of super-ego development in these cases following a failure in the development of the capacity for object-love. The latter is traced to lack of opportunity for development and to inhibition resulting from rage and phantasy on the one hand and motives of emotional self-protection on the other.

The relationship of stealing to truancy and sexual offences is discussed. Evidence is advanced that the Affectionless Character is prone to both, and that a substantial proportion of prostitutes are probably of this character.

A plea is made for a combined research in which both psycho-analytic and socio-economic factors are investigated. Without such research the relative effect of either group of factors in explaining the total problem of juvenile delinquency will remain unknown.

The treatment of delinquent character is difficult. Since it is possible to diagnose an Affectionless Character at the age of three years and possibly earlier, a strong plea is made for early diagnosis and early treatment. Above all, attention should be given to prevention; many prolonged separations could be avoided.

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