The process of attachment between mother and child is the focus of many theorists, all of whom seek to describe and explain the origins of that crucial early bond. Bowlby, Harlow, and Mahler all have theories of this process which overlap but are distinct from the others; all of these notable scholars focused on the way that infants attached to their caretakers, who must respond with sensitivity in a way that allows these children to develop healthy relationships with others throughout their lives. The foundation of child development was Sigmund Freud, who developed personality theories that retain their significance today, despite the fact that many mental health practitioners have disagreements with the paternalistic and misogynistic nature of much of his work. An overview of basic Freudian concepts is presented, giving examples of ego functioning and defensive mechanisms.

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Issues in Human Development: Developmental and Personality Theories

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Attachment is a crucial stage of development because it defines and predicts the nature of a person’s future connections to other people in all stages of life. There are many theories describing attachments formed between parents and children, all of which are designed to interpret the ways in which these crucial relationships develop. This essay will describe the theories of Mahler, Bowlby, and Harlow, exploring their similarities and differences as well as discussing basic features of Freudian theory and its description of personality development.

According to Bowlby, attachment does not have to be reciprocal, and it is characterized by specific behaviors in children such as looking for closeness with the figure of attachment when that child is threatened or upset (MacLeod, 2009.) Ideally, the attachment of the adult consists of responding with sensitivity and appropriateness to the needs of the child. This behavior appears to be universal across a wide range of cultures, and serves as an explanation of how the relationship between parents and children develop and impact future development. Bowlby focused on the connection between very early separations of infants from their mothers, and subsequent maladjusted behaviors that influenced his theories regarding attachment. He observed that children were extremely distressed when they were separated from their mothers, resulting in significant anxiety. This mother-child bond serves as a precursor that is a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (MacLeod, 2009.) Further, according to Bowlby, this attachment is an adaptation to caregivers that provide a sense of security and safety, and heightens the infant’s chances of surviving.

Harlow, who conducted much of his research using monkeys, promoted learning theories, which demonstrate that humans have the capacity to learn to apply strategies or rules to various situations that help them solve problems. He emphasized the significance of bonding between mother and child, which has much in common with Bowlby’s theories. Harlow also proposed that children look to their mother to meet their basic needs, such as safety, food, and warmth, but in addition must feel a sense of affection and acceptance from that caregiver. Like Bowlby, Harlow believed that the absence of such caring results in long-term deficiencies and psychological functioning of a person.

Mahler’s psychodynamic theory was best known for developing the theory of separation-individuation in child development. This theory postulates that after the first few weeks of infancy which consist of the infant either sleeping or barely conscious, the infant then progresses from a phase in which it perceives itself as one with its mother within the larger environment; this is known as the normal-symbiotic phase. This is followed by a prolonged stage known as the separation-individuation phase, several stages during which the infant gradually is able to distinguish himself or herself from the mother, and then by certain degrees, discovers its own individuality, identity, and will (Child Develop Media.)

During the normal symbiotic phase, at 4 to 6 weeks until approximately 5 months of age, the baby becomes aware of its caretaker, i.e. mother, but does not have any sense of being an individual on its own. Both mother and infant are perceived as a single unit, and there is an invisible barrier that exists separating them from the rest of the world. During the next phase, the separation individuation phase, the child is able to gradually escape from its “autistic shell” and start to make connections with the external environment and the other people contained in it. During this stage, an infant begins to experience itself as separate from the mother, and is able to develop an ego, cognitive abilities, and sense of identity. Mahler’s theory, unlike those of Harlow and Bowlby, concentrates on an intrapsychic process of development rather than explaining development using more concrete and external factors such as the provision of food and shelter serving to create an attachment between mother and child. Margaret Mahler, like the other theorists, endeavored to explain child development and the capacity to connect with others, but she was more concentrated on the internal drives of mother and child and their natural emotional symbiotic bond.

Classic Freudian theory consisted of the earliest explanations of human development; in many circles, this theory is dismissed as patriarchal and/or even misogynistic, but by many mental health clinicians it is viewed as the foundation upon which all other theories were built. According to Freud, the id in a developing infant represents the primitive and unregulated drives, operating at an unconscious level according to the pleasure principle (MacLeod, 2013.) In essence, the id is gratified from the satisfaction of basic instincts. During infancy, the ego develops from the id, with the goal of satisfying the primitive drives in ways that are safe and socially acceptable. As opposed to the id, the ego is based on a reality principle because it functions in both unconscious and conscious realms of the mind. The superego, essentially the conscience, develops early in childhood, and occurs when the child identifies with the same sex parent (MacLeod, 2013.) The function of the superego is making sure that moral principles are followed, essentially a standard of morality that motivates people to behave in ways that are socially responsible and appropriate. These elements of psychological development influence the personality by making certain demands that create anxiety because they are constantly struggling with each other.

Examples of four ego functions are: when a child begins to attend school, he or she must learn to follow basic rules of behavior or risk some type of reprimand or punishment from the authority figure. For example, the child must put away things that were used during the course of the day in some kind of cubbyhole or desk as part of a group of peers that also work in this way to establish an environment that is neat and orderly. Another example of an ego function would be walking past the window of a store, seeing an item in the window that a person really would love to have, but resists breaking the glass to grab the item, instead going into the store, asking to see it, and making a decision whether or not to purchase it. A third example would be engaging in a disagreement with someone, having it become extremely heated, even profane, and resisting the impulse to strike out physically. Finally, ego functioning would include remaining at work one day even if the atmosphere was extremely hostile and filled with animosity, but resists the impulse to leave because it would only put oneself in job jeopardy.

The definition of a psychological defense is a strategy used to protect a person from feeling intolerable anxiety. Four defenses are: denial, in which a person “looks the other way” by avoiding reality; reaction formation, in which a person feels strongly either positively or negatively about a certain thing, person, or event, but since the reaction is unacceptable he or she acts in ways that demonstrate the complete opposite; repression, in which a person pushes an unpleasant or intolerable thought or action out of consciousness; and acting out, in which a person behaves in an extreme fashion because of an inability to put into words his or her emotions.

Freud’s personality theory differs from family treatment models in that it focuses on intrapsychic, or internal psychological factors rather than considering external or environmental factors and relationships. It is more focused on the individual than the group. In family therapy, the emphasis is on the relationships between people and while it considers individual psychological factor to some extent, it is more focused on interactions, behaviors, and boundaries between family members.

  • Child Development Media. (n.d.). Margaret Mahler and separation-individuation. Retrieved from Child Development Media.org: http://www.childdevelopmentmedia.com/articles/margaret-mahler-and-separation-individuation-theory/
  • MacLeod, S. (2009). Attachment theory. Retrieved from Simply Psychology.org: https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html
  • MacLeod, S. (2013). Sigmund Freud. Retrieved from Simply Psychology.org: https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html