Laying a Firm Foundation
The mansion of maturity rests upon the solid foundation of childhood. During the first decade of life, concrete, brick and lumber are collected and assembled. Then, under the loving, discerning eye of the architect-parents, the building of a structure begins. When the building is complete, the work of these early phases-studding, wiring, and plumbing—is hidden, silently supporting the magnificent house of glittering lights, elegant wallpaper, and draped windows.
Early infancy is a time of psychological mystery, shadowy bits and hidden images in the nonverbal mist. Because infants cannot speak, we can only guess about when they begin to think or what they know. The subject has been the cause of great controversy for decades, and still is. However, most experts agree that the ability to understand words begins to develop during the second half of the first year of life and the ability to speak begins at about one year of age. Both are reflections of the appearance of that quintessential human capacity, the ability to think. Then, like a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, the course of human thought and speech is straight up, reaching ever-increasing heavenly heights of nuance, sophistication, and complexity throughout the remainder of life. Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” I would add, “I think, therefore I can explore the deepest recesses of my inner being and the world of which I am a part.”
In infancy and early childhood, the external evidence of the emergence of this grandest of human capacities—thinking—is the occurrence of single words at approximately one year of age and short sentences by age two.
The Emergence of the Self:
When Do I Know I Am Me?
When does the human infant become aware of whom he or she is, develop a sense of self, and perceive where he or she ends and others begin? The answers are contained in the large and rapidly expanding body of knowledge about the differentiation of self from others. Like most other developmental concepts about infancy, the theory postulates a gradually increasing ability which culminates in a well-established sense of self by age three.
The intra-psychic process is illustrated most clearly by the work of two psychiatric theoreticians of infancy, Rene Spitz and Margaret Mahler, whose theories are outlined below.
Psychic Organizers Separation-Individuation Theory
Smile Response (0-3 months) Pseudoautistic Subphase (0-3 months)
Stranger Anxiety (8 months) Symbiotic Subphase (3-12 months)
Negativism (18 months) Separation-Individuation Subphase
Self Constancy (by 3 years)
Spitz’s Psychic Organizers
Let us begin with a consideration of Spitz’s theory because his work prededed and influenced Mahler’s. Spitz used the term psychic organizer to explain the importance of the smile response, stranger anxiety and negativism. He borrowed the term from embryology, where it is used to describe a set of agents and regulating elements that direct subsequent change. Before the emergence of the organizer, transplanted cells assume the structure and function of the organ into which they are placed. After the emergence of the organizer, they retain the structure and function of the tissue from which they came and can no longer be changed. In an analogous way, the three psychic organizers are indicators that a new, irreversible level of psychic organization and complexity has been reached that pushes mental development forward.
The Smile Response: Normal infants smile by four to eight weeks of age, lighting up their parents’ eyes and producing a similar response of even greater magnitude. But what does it mean? Is it a response to a gas pain, as some relatives are sure to suggest, or a thank you for changing that dirty diaper? In his research, Spitz discovered that the infant is responding, as other human infants have for thousands of years, to a gestalt—not to a person but to an outline of the forehead, eyes, and nose seen straight on, and in motion. Since cardboard “faces” would elicit a smile, Spitz concluded that the infant was not yet capable of responding exclusively to another human being. But the first smile did indicate that profoundly important mental processes were beginning to appear—differentiation of the inner world from the outer world, reality from fantasy, past from present, and self from other. The absence of a smile response by three months of age usually indicates a major abnormality in the central nervous system.
Stranger Anxiety: Nearly everyone is familiar with what is known as eight-month or stranger anxiety. Dear Aunt Martha travels across three states for her first visit with eight-month-old Johnny, the firstborn of her very favorite niece. Rushing into the house, she sweeps him up in her arms, smothering him with kisses only to be rudely disappointed when Johnny pulls away and begins to bawl. Turning to her embarrassed niece, she whimpers pathetically, “Oh, he doesn’t like me!”
Not necessarily, Aunt Martha: he doesn’t know you. Johnny is displaying a newly emergent capacity that indicates a quantum leap forward in his development, namely, the ability to distinguish one human being from another, to separate the familiar from the unfamiliar. In a few short months he has progressed from indiscriminate smiling in response to any face to the ability to relate to specific individuals. He is becoming a social being, human in the truest sense of that word.
Negativism: To parents and grandparents who love to hold and cuddle infants, the second year of life is a bittersweet time. Gone is the passive creature who molded to your chest and arms, content to be hugged for hours on end, replaced by an ever-exploding bundle of energy who wants to be free to crawl, walk, run and explore. The toddler is on board. And as Susie plows into life, her increasingly weary and frustrated parents frantically try to follow. Like Sherman marching through Georgia, she is capable of destroying everything in her path. But unlike Sherman, Susie is in great danger herself since she has no judgment, understanding of cause and effect, or sense of danger.
These newly emergent abilities to walk, climb, and explore dramatically change the bucolic relationship between parent and infant that existed during the first six months of life to one of contention and confrontation. Increasingly parents are forced to curb the toddler’s initiative out of concerns for safety. Increasingly they must say “No!” shaking their heads from side to side.
In the healthy toddler these prohibitions cause great frustration, which is not readily tolerated. Caught in monumental conflict between the need for physical and emotional closeness and the undeniable drive for autonomy and independence, Susie solves the dilemma by developing a new defense mechanism, identification with the aggressor. By using the disciplinarian’s word and gesture, she remains identified with her parents, feels stronger, and is still free to attack the world. Once this mechanism is established, the stubbornness of the second and third years of life begins in earnest and Spitz’s third organizer is in place. Putting words into Susie’s mouth that she does not yet possess her “No!” eloquently says, “Watch out world, here I come, ready or not. I’m going to have it all and don’t try to stop me. I have arrived.”
Some parents are insulted and enraged by the toddler’s negativism and respond with hostility and insults, squashing initiative and self-esteem. Mature parents accept, even enjoy, their toddler’s challenge, recognizing within it the healthy roots of self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy. They protect the toddler from their frustration and his or her transparent vulnerability by not responding with anger and by guarding the toddler’s physical safety.
The educator and psychoanalyst, Eric Erikson, described the toddler’s dilemma at this point in life as autonomy versus shame and doubt. Physical maturation pushes the toddler to experiment with two sets of action and reaction, holding on and letting go. Because he or she has little ability to discriminate or control these new expressions of assertion and aggression, the environment must provide a supportive, benevolent firmness. If this support on the part of parents is lacking, Erikson suggests that the results may be dire. If the gradual and well-guided experience of the autonomy of free choice is weakened or denied the child will turn against himself or herself the urges to discriminate and manipulate and develop a precocious conscience. The result will be the emergence of shame and doubt, emotions that smother the child’s drive for autonomy. Once in place, these attitudes squelch the developmental course by interfering with the comfortable engagement of the development tasks of each subsequent stage, right into adulthood. Forks in the developmental road leading to very different outcomes are encountered early in life, before one is able to navigate. A benign, loving, backseat drive is indispensable at such junctures.
Mahler’s Separation-Individuation Theory
Mahler asked the following question. How are human beings born psychologically? How do they come to understand the concepts I and You, Self and Other? Her research suggested that these capacities develop gradually during the first three years of life, springing from the rich, nurturing soil of the mother-child dyad. As we saw in the table on page 7, she divided her theory into three sub-stages.
Autistic and Symbiotic Sub-stages: During the earliest months of life, the infant appears to be autistic, out of touch with reality. Although the infant is actually quite responsive to the world in a reflexive way, Mahler used the term to describe the relatively undeveloped state of higher mental functions at the time of birth and shortly after. Exquisitely attuned to respond to her infant’s needs by the genetic wisdom passed down to her by millions of predecessors, mother provides what her child needs—nourishment, stimulation, and protection. She becomes in Mahler’s words, the external executive ego, the child’s interpreter of the world.
As the early months of life melt into one another, through thousands of repetitions of prompt relief of frustration, repeated gratification of needs and stimulation, the infant gradually becomes aware of a figure who satisfies needs. But not yet able to differentiate self from other, he or she behaves as through infant and mother were an “omnipotent system”, a dual entity, cozily co-existing within a common boundary or membrane, hence the term symbiotic.
Picking up each other’s signals, mother and infant amplify each other’s needs. Securely wrapped in the symbiotic blanket, the infant comes to feel that living is a safe and gratifying experience, feeling what Erikson called “basic trust”. But when the time is right, fully nourished and prepared for metamorphosis, the infant, just like the caterpillar, emerges from the cocoon, sheds the protective skin of the symbiotic partner, and radiates the perpetuating glow of selfhood. In Mahler’s terms, he or she has begun to separate and individuate.
The relationship between infant and parents is by no means one-sided. As they minister to their creation, both parents are lifted to a new level of fulfillment and awareness. They share a depth of intimacy with each other and their child hitherto unknown. And as their child moves from developmental phase to developmental phase they are stimulated to rework, to master, infantile and childhood experience. Parenthood is a royal path to maturity providing travelers with a panoramic view of the beginnings of life and a retrospective of their own.
Separation-Individuation Sub-phase: Locomotion has a great catalyzing influence on human development. As he or she first crawls, then walks and finally runs away from mother, the toddler snaps the symbiotic cord between them and begins to experience the joy—and terror!—of separation and individuation. Indeed, psychological separation from the symbiotic partner is as inevitable as biological birth, both processes having been programmed into each individual by genetic imperatives. The fact that speech and language develop simultaneously is not by chance. Increasingly separated from the source of all comfort, the toddler develops the powerful communicative instrument, language, to leap across the ever-widening void to mother.
When parental acceptance of the toddler’s determination to leave the nest is present, the toddler is at the “peak of elation,” free to explore the world, encounter the twin imposters of victory and defeat, and return to the un-ambivalent acceptance of the parental embrace. Consistent parental presence ensures that the toddler will use this emotional recoupling only as a brief pit stop. Once the gas tanks are filled and the battery recharged, he or she roars away again eager to reengage with fascination and awe the ever-expanding universe.
Joan and her two-year-old, Linda, had been part of a play group for several months. At first Linda was quite clingy to her mother, but gradually she began to become absorbed in play and checked less on her mother’s location. One day, after wandering further away than usual, she looked up, couldn’t find her mother immediately and burst into tears. After Joan rushed over to her with reassurance and a big smile, Linda calmed down and continued playing, albeit with very frequent glances to be sure mother was still there.
Object Constancy: Captured Forever: By approximately age three, the separation-individuation process culminates in the emergence of a capacity that is at the core of all human interaction for the remainder of life. Called object constancy by Mahler, the term refers to the ability to maintain mental images and memories of others for extended periods of time in their absence. So equipped, the young child is capable of providing himself or herself with emotional sustenance and relatedness. Those who provide definition and meaning to life are captured intrapsychically where they can be loved, hated, and manipulated through fantasy.
Frequent references to them and their activities at home were clear indications to the preschool staff that three-year-old Roberta brought her mother, father, and brother with her to preschool. Their intra-psychic presence sustained her during school hours and colored her interaction with others.
In the preschool years the ability to maintain this newly emergent capacity is tenuous, jeopardized by prolonged separation that can produce anxiety and regression. As childhood and adolescence progress, this danger diminishes because the function becomes fully autonomous, no longer dependent upon external sources of support. In adults the ability to maintain images of figures from the past is almost unlimited.
Consider the following example from a thirty-year class reunion. John hadn’t attended any of the earlier reunions. He had moved far away from his hometown and was hesitant to attend earlier reunions because he hadn’t been particularly successful in his career or personal life. Things were looking up as the thirtieth approached, so he decided to go. Secretly he was hoping to see his high school girl friend about whom he had dreamed many times. She was blond and shapely. He relived many fond memories of their “making out” in his car at Summit Point. With great anticipation, he walked in the door. He didn’t see her anywhere. After a few moments an overweight woman that he didn’t recognize ran up to John and gave him a big hug and a kiss that was more than perfunctory. “I’ve missed you a lot John” she whispered. John was so taken back that he stammered, “Who are you.” Crestfallen, she replied, “It’s me, June. Don’t you recognize me?” Obviously John didn’t. The image that he had kept safely guarded in his mind for the last thirty years was of the beautiful young woman who had been his girl friend. His failure to recognize that she had changed and her disappointment that he didn’t recognize her didn’t make the chances of a drive to Summit Point very promising.
The situation for John would have been different if he had been seeing June periodically over the years. Then he would have updated his internal image of her and escaped the embarrassment he experienced at the reunion. Object constancy is the bedrock on which all adult relationships exist. Those who possess this ability are bonded together forever with those they know and love. Seriously disturbed individuals who never developed the capacity for object constancy, or lost it due to mental illness, live in a barren, internal hell; their mental representations of others resemble torn photographs or puzzles with the most important pieces missing.
Self Constancy is the complement to object constancy. By the middle of the second year of life, toddlers begin to think of themselves as semi-separate beings, often referred to in the third person. By about age two the word “I” begins to creep into the vocabulary, reflecting a growing sense of individuation. As the toddler is transformed into a young child, the sense of self becomes firmly entrenched and unshakable. Self-Constancy has been established. Then, as individuals travel along the developmental path, experiencing what life has to offer, their sense of self is elaborated and embellished, reflecting both who they were and who they are becoming.
Now the stage is set, the characters identified, the drama of human interaction about to begin. In an oversimplified way, maturity may be defined as the detailed awareness of self and other gained on the journey from childhood and adolescence to adulthood.