Anaclitic Depression: The Impact Of Emotional Deprivation

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Human emotions are a maze, but our relationships guide us through.

One concept to understand this better is anaclitic depression, first identified by René Spitz to describe a specific form of depression in infants.

But it’s not just kid stuff—anaclitic depression affects people of all ages.

In this post, we’ll explore how disrupted attachments can mess with your well-being from babyhood to your golden years.


What Is Anaclitic Depression? 

Anaclitic depression, also known as anaclisis, refers to a specific form of depression that was originally described by psychoanalyst René Spitz in the mid-20th century. 

It primarily affects infants and young children when they are separated from their primary caregiver or experience a disruption in the attachment relationship.

The term “anaclitic” comes from the Greek words “ana” (upward) and “klino” (lean), suggesting a leaning or dependence on someone else. 

Anaclitic depression occurs when a child is deprived of the emotional care, nurture, and attachment provided by a primary caregiver, typically the mother. The absence of this vital connection can lead to a range of emotional and developmental issues in the child.

Causes Of Anaclitic Depression 

The primary cause of anaclitic depression is the primary caregiver’s separation, loss, or absence during the critical early stages of a child’s development. 

This disruption can occur for various reasons:

Separation from Caregiver

Infants and young children rely heavily on their primary caregivers, usually their mothers, for emotional comfort, security, and basic needs. If they are separated from their caregivers due to hospitalization, death, or other circumstances, they can experience feelings of abandonment and distress.

Institutional Care

Children placed in institutional settings, such as orphanages or foster care, might lack consistent, nurturing relationships with caregivers, leading to attachment disruptions and potential anaclitic depression.


Children who experience neglect, where their emotional and physical needs are consistently unmet, can develop anaclitic depression. Neglect can lead to a lack of secure attachment and emotional connection with a primary caregiver.

Parental Mental Health

Suppose a primary caregiver, especially the mother, is struggling with mental health issues like depression or substance abuse. In that case, it can impact her ability to provide consistent care and emotional support to the child, potentially leading to anaclitic depression.


Traumatic experiences, such as the sudden loss of a caregiver due to accidents or other traumatic events, can disrupt a child’s sense of safety and attachment, contributing to anaclitic depression.

Prolonged Separation

Extended separations from caregivers, such as due to parental work-related travel, divorce, or custody battles, can result in emotional distress and attachment disruption in young children.

Symptoms Of Anaclitic Depression

The symptoms associated with anaclitic depression are typically observed in young children and infants and might manifest as follows:

  • Clinging and Neediness
  • Irritability and Crying
  • Withdrawal
  • Feeding Difficulties
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Loss of Developmental Milestones
  • Apathy and Lack of Interest
  • Changes in Affect
  • Social Interaction Difficulties
  • Generalized Distress

Best Ways To Treat Anaclitic Depression 

Treatment approaches for addressing attachment-related issues and emotional distress in young children include:

Attachment-Based Interventions

Creating a secure and nurturing attachment with a primary caregiver is crucial for the emotional well-being of infants and young children. 

Interventions focus on promoting healthy attachment through responsive caregiving, physical closeness, and emotional availability.

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)

PCIT is an evidence-based approach that helps parents develop effective parenting skills to improve the parent-child relationship. 

It involves coaching parents in positive interactions, communication strategies, and behavior management techniques.

Play Therapy

Play therapy allows children to express themselves and work through emotional difficulties using play as a medium. 

Play therapists create a safe space for children to explore their feelings and experiences through play and creative activities.

Family Therapy

Family therapy can be effective when it comes to the treatment of anaclitic depression. 

Therapy sessions can address communication issues, family dynamics, and ways to support the emotional well-being of all family members.

Early Intervention Programs

Early intervention services provided through community agencies or healthcare providers can offer assessments, counseling, and resources to address young children’s developmental delays and emotional concerns.

Consulting Mental Health Professionals

Mental health professionals with expertise in child psychology, developmental psychology, and attachment can provide guidance on appropriate interventions and strategies tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Mindful Parenting and Sensory Regulation

Techniques focusing on mindful parenting and sensory regulation can help caregivers and children manage stress and emotional distress. 

These techniques can support emotional regulation and bonding.

Anaclitic Depression In Adults

Anaclitic depression is a concept that is not commonly used to describe depression in adults within contemporary clinical psychology.

However, the underlying idea of attachment disruption and its impact on emotional well-being is also relevant to adults. 

Adults who experience significant disruptions or losses in their close relationships, especially those that play a central role in their emotional lives, can experience symptoms similar to what might be described as “anaclitic depression” in children. 

These symptoms might include:

  • Emotional Distress: Feelings of sadness, despair, and emotional pain related to losing or disrupting a close attachment.
  • Withdrawal and Isolation: A tendency to withdraw from social interactions and isolate oneself from others.
  • Anxiety: Worry and anxiety about abandonment or rejection, which can stem from attachment-related fears.
  • Feelings of Emptiness: A sense of emptiness and lack of fulfillment due to the absence of a meaningful attachment figure.
  • Difficulty Forming New Relationships: Struggles in forming new relationships or an avoidance of forming new attachments due to fear of similar pain.
  • Loss of Interest and Motivation: Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and a decrease in motivation to engage with the world.
  • Physical Symptoms: Physical symptoms like changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, and somatic complaints can accompany depressive states.
  • Impaired Functioning: Difficulties in daily functioning, such as at work, in relationships, and in managing responsibilities.

Treatment for adults experiencing attachment-related distress or depression would involve more general approaches used for depression and emotional difficulties. 

These might include:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, particularly approaches like psychodynamic therapy or attachment-based therapy, can help individuals explore and process their attachment-related issues and develop coping strategies.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and develop healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Medication: In some cases, antidepressant medications might be prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of depression.
  • Supportive Relationships: Building and nurturing supportive relationships with friends, family members, or support groups can provide a sense of belonging and emotional connection.
  • Self-Care: Practicing self-care techniques, including exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, and relaxation strategies, can support emotional well-being.
  • Grief Counseling: For individuals experiencing the loss of a significant attachment figure, grief counseling can provide a safe space to process feelings of loss and sadness.

Key Takeaway

Anaclitic depression shows us how our early relationships shape how we feel throughout life. 

Whether we’re talking about babies missing their caregivers or grown-ups dealing with breakups, the need for close bonds is always there. 

By learning about anaclitic depression, we can understand better how our feelings and relationships are connected from when we’re little to when we’re all grown up.

Moreover, if you’re interested in knowing more about depression, you are more than welcome to give read to our articles like Fake Depression” “Depression Nap” “Depressive Nostalgia.”