MHC's Shilkret Studies Bulgarian Children

Posted: December 18, 2008

Bulgarian mothers who were institutionalized as children seek institutional care for their own children far more often than their peers, according to research coauthored by Robert Shilkret and published in the November-December issue of Infant Mental Health Journal (Vol. 29[6], 2008). 

According to Shilkret, MHC's Norma Cutts DaFoe Professor of Psychology, and coauthors Galina Markova (Smith College) and Liubomir Djalev (New Bulgarian University), Bulgaria experienced rapid industrialization and urbanization while under Soviet dominance between World War II and 1989. During this period, the communist state built a comprehensive system of child care--state-run day nurseries and residential institutions intended to provide long-term care for children--to encourage women to enter the labor force.

At its peak, the system included as many as 285 institutions housing some 35,000 children and adolescents. While it achieved its primary aim, the state system also weakened the family and broke down traditional extensive family relationships. Reform efforts have been underway since the beginning of democratic changes in Bulgaria in 1989, but change has been slow and institutionalization is still widespread.

"The goal of our study was to explore the psychological aspects of parents who institutionalize their children in Bulgaria today," Shilkret said. "Many parents believe the state provides better care than they can and consider giving up children as care, not abandonment. (But this) compromises the most important aspect of the caregiving system: behavior aimed at ensuring the development of a secure base with parents or substitute parents."

Shilkret and his colleagues drew from attachment and object relations theories in psychology, which presume that mental models of oneself and others develop based on one's experiences with caregivers, and that these representations shape subsequent adult relationships, including those with one's own children. For example, they said, "Mothers who have had particularly difficult childhoods may not be able to tolerate being better mothers to their own children than their mothers were to them."

The researchers compared a group of institutionalizing mothers with mothers similar in ethnicity and impoverished economic circumstances using state daycare programs and weekly care programs (i.e., children live at home part-time). Fully half of the mothers in the institutionalizing group were found to have a history of institutionalization themselves, contrasted with very few in the other two groups. In addition, the institutionalizing mothers were more insecure on two attachment measures than daycare mothers, with weekly care mothers falling between the two groups. In ratings of warmth and constructive involvement, the daycare mothers scored highest, the institutionalizing the mothers lowest.

Results suggest that psychological characteristics, especially attachment style, are important in decisions to use institutionalization as a means of child care. However, institutional life "presents a set of traumas," according to Shilkret; the loss of parents is often perceived as abandonment, institutional life is "generally unprotected," and after leaving the institution, children are stigmatized and challenged by "learned helplessness." Strategies to prevent the placement and institutionalization of children tend to focus on the family's poverty, while ignoring the psychological aspects of institutionalization, he noted.

"The fact that children who are raised in institutions often end up homeless is strong evidence that such interventions are inadequate," he said.

"Our results suggest psychological issues, many of them stemming from the mothers' own experience, need to be addressed to decrease the trauma of long-term separation in future generations."

Related Links:

Infant Mental Health Journal Article

Robert Shilkret - Faculty Profile