Childhood development is an essential aspect to the individual and can have a lasting impact. Research indicates that a person can be affected by their environment, like their mother’s actions, as early as in utero. Once the child is born, the relationship with the child to their parent, especially, the mother, is vital. The infant is introduced to their unknown environment through their parent. In attempting to understand the parent child relationship, theorists have taken different approaches.
The psychodynamic approach to parent-child bonding is based on the work of Mahler, the Biological-Ethological Theories of Bowlby and Ainsworth, and Harlow’s Learning Theories. Margaret Mahler, a Hungarian physician, who became a psychoanalyst with her work studying child. She was one of the first theorists and researchers to relate the parent child bond to the child’s develop of self, which would affect interpersonal relationships. Mahler defined this relationship as a development sequence.
The emphasis of this psychodynamic model is the differentiation of parent and child. The first sequence begins as a newborn at one month and is referred to as the Autistic Stage, which has been disputed. This stage is marked by the infant’s focus on self and being unresponsive to external stimuli. While there are short periods of alert inactivity, where the one month old may express some interest in his or her environment. Mahler identified this stage as the infants “physiological rather than psychological processes are dominant” (Edwards, 1991).
The infant does not perceive others as separate beings. After the first couple of weeks, the infant enters the Psychological Symbiotic Stage until five months old. This stage is marked by the infant understanding the mother or caregiver will meet their needs. There is a sense of being one and connectedness with mother, but a beginning sense that mother is a separate being. The sense of self awareness is gradually developed at this stage. As the infant learns their relationship with their mother, they enter the Separation-Individuation Stage.
Mahler formed sub-stages at this stage which include, psychological differentiation, practicing, rapprochement and object constancy. The sub-stage, often called hatching, between five months and nine months consists of the infant shifting from their internal focus to the external world. Infant and mother are no longer attached to one another, therefore the infant can explore with mother’s support. During practicing, the next sub-stage, the infant has the mobility and autonomous functioning that allows for separation from caregiver and exploration.
At fourteen to twenty-four months the young child reaches the rapprochement sub-stage. The baby desires independence in exploration, yet will seek the mother for assistance or reassurance. Lastly, the baby develops object constancy, which unlike the first three phases does not have an observed end. As the child understands that the caregiver is separate from his or her, they internalize a representation of the caregiver and themselves. Through this lens of the mother’s given identity, the child interprets those around him or her.
Margaret Mahler and her colleagues rely on this stage theory to define the parent child bonding process. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth suggested that the parent child relationship is based on the real experience between mother and child that create an attachment. The parent and child have a relationship of reciprocity. John Bowlby theorized the importance of attachment by the age of three as it impacts the individual throughout their lives. The damage that develops from not forming an attachment is irreversible.
Parent child bonding is the foundation for the child to bond with anyone else. Ainsworth formed the methodology to test Bowlby’s theory but also expanded it. The Stranger Paradigm creates an opportunity observe the different forms of attachment a caregiver and child can develop. Ainsworth emphasized the quality and nature of the attachment. Typically, the attachment is between mother and child. The attachment theory defines four types of attachment. Group B is categorized as a secure attachment, which is the most common, is based on trust.
The child knows that they can trust the mother to be there to satisfy their needs. In the study, the child seeks their mother for support and, in times of distress, can be soothed by the mother. Once soothed, the young child will return to exploration feeling secure. Insecure attachments are divided into (Group C) ambivalent and (Group A) avoidant. While the child may understand that their mother or caregiver loves them, their need for support is not always meet. Insecure avoidant attachment is marked by the parent’s unavailability.
Since the child understands that their needs will not be meet, they do not seek the mother for comfort. In the mother’s absence, the child will self-stimulant for security. The insecure attachment-ambivalent, the caregiver is not attuned to the needs of the child. The bond is strained due the mother misreading the child’s cues or overstimulating the baby. When the mother is absent, the child becomes distressed yet, when she reappears the child becomes passive and does not return to explore. The final form of attachment is disorganized attachment.
Although the least common, it is usually an indicator of child abuse or neglect. It is noted that the child’s behavior is odd and erratic with no clear goal. These attachments will have a lasting affect and can be an indicator in future behavior. Harry Harlow, the learning theorist, followed the works of B. F. Skinner and his study of Operant Conditioning. Harlow’s Learning Theory is based on Social Models, especially isolation, dependency and the maternal relationship. Most of his work resulted from experiments with monkeys.
One of the experiments consisted of isolating baby monkeys for different periods of time. Similarly, to Mahler and Bowlby, these baby monkeys were observed to have autistic characteristics and self-stimulation behavior. They have difficultly responding appropriately to external stimuli and an inability to connect to other monkeys. However, Harlow’s study vastly differed from Bowlby as the baby monkey could make a connection and learn from a surrogate monkey. This surrogate mother or therapy monkey provided security for the baby and provided an example of how to interact with its environment.
Therefore, the child can learn from someone else if they do not have an attachment with their caregiver. While trying to understand the child’s bond to the parent, Harlow conducted another monkey study. This study tested the baby’s dependency on the “mother. ” The baby monkey was given two mothers: a wire structure that distributed food and a terrycloth mother. In total, the baby spent more time holding the terrycloth structure over the food dispenser. This suggests that the baby monkey and young children prefer their mother’s touch and physical closeness over being feed by their mother.