Margaret Schoenberger Mahler (1897-1985) was bom in Sopron, Hungary, and received a medical degree from the University of Vienna hi 1923. hi 1938, she moved to New York, where she was a consultant to the Children's Service of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. She later established her own observational studies at the Masters Children's Center in New York. From 1955 to 1974, she was clinical professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Mahler was primarily concerned with the psychological birth of the individual that takes place during the first 3 years of life, a thne when a child gradually surrenders security for autonomy. Originally, Mahler's ideas came from her observation of the behaviors of disturbed children interacting with then mothers. Later, she observed normal babies as they bonded with their mothers during the first 36 months of life (Mahler, 1952).
To Mahler, an individual's psychological birth begms during the first weeks of postnatal life and continues for the next 3 years or so. By psychological birth, Mahler meant that the child becomes an individual separate from his or her primary caregiver, an accomplishment that leads ultimately to a sense of identity
To achieve psychological birth and individuation, a child proceeds through a series of three major developmental stages and four sub-stages (Mahler, 1967, 1972; Mahler. Pme, & Bergman, 1975). The first major developmental stage is normal autism, which spans the period from birth until about age 3 or 4 weeks. To describe the normal autism stage, Mahler (1967) borrowed Freud's (1911/1958) analogy that compared psychological birth with an unhatched bird egg. The bird is able to satisfy its nutritional needs autistically (without regard to external reality) because its food supply is enclosed in its shell. Similarly, a newborn infant satisfies various needs within the all-powerful protective orbit of a mother's care. Neonates have a sense of omnipotence, because, like unhatched birds, then needs are cared for automatically and without their having to expend any effort. Unlike Klein, who conceptualized a newborn infant as being terrified, Mahler pointed to the relatively long periods of sleep and general lack of tension in a neonate. She believed that this stage is a period of absolute primary narcissism in which an infant is unaware of any other person. Thus, she referred to normal autism as an "objectless" stage, a time when an infant naturally searches for the mother's breast. She disagreed with Klein's notion that infants mcorporate the good breast and other objects into their ego.
As infants gradually realize that they cannot satisfy their own needs, they begin to recognize their primary caregiver and to seek a symbiotic relationship with her, a condition that leads to normal symbiosis, the second developmental stage in Mahler's theory. Normal symbiosis begms around the 4th or 5th week of age but reaches its zenith during the 4th or 5th month. During this thne, "the infant behaves and functions as though he and his mother were an omnipotent system—a dual unity within one common boundary" (Mahler, 1967, p. 741). hi the analogy of the bird egg, the shell is now beginning to crack, but a psychological membrane in the form of a symbiotic relationship still protects the newborn. Mahler recognized that this relationship is not a true symbiosis because, although the infant's life is dependent on the mother, the mother does not absolutely need the infant. The symbiosis is characterized by a mutual cuing of infant and mother. The infant sends cues to the mother of hunger, pain, pleasure, and so forth, and the mother responds with her own cues, such as feedhig, holding, or smiling. By this age the infant can recognize the mother's face and can perceive her pleasure or distress. However, object relations have not yet begun—mother and others are still "preobjects." Older children and
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even adults sometimes regress to this stage, seeking the strength and safety of then mother's care.
The third major developmental stage, separation-individuation, spans the period from about the 4th or 5th month of age until about the 30th to 36th month. During this time, children become psychologically separated from then mothers, achieve a sense of individuation, and begm to develop feelings of personal identity. Because children no longer experience a dual unity with their mother, they must surrender their delusion of omnipotence and face their vulnerability to external threats. Thus, young children hi the separation-hidividuation stage experience the external world as behig more dangerous than it was during the first two stages.
Mahler divided the separation-hidividuation stage into four overlapping sub-stages. The first is differentiation, which lasts from about the 5th month until the 7th to 10th month of age and is marked by a bodily breaking away from the mother-infant symbiotic orbit. For this reason, the differentiation substage is analogous to the hatching of an egg. At this age, Mahler observed infants smile hi response to then own mother, indicating a bond with a specific other person. Psychologically healthy infants who expand their world beyond the mother will be curious about strangers and will inspect them; unhealthy infants will fear strangers and recoil from them.
As infants physically begm to move away from their mothers by crawling and walking, they enter the practicing substage of separation-hidividuation, a period from about the 7th to 10th month of age to about the 15th or 16th month. During tins subphase, children easily distinguish their body from their mother's, establish a specific bond with then mother, and begin to develop an autonomous ego. Yet, during the early stages of this period they do not like to lose sight of their mother; they follow her with their eyes and show distress when she is away. Later, they begin to walk and to take in the outside world which they experience as fascinating and exciting.
From about 16 to 25 months of age, children experience a rapprochement with their mother; that is, they desire to bring their mother and themselves back together, both physically and psychologically. Mahler noticed that children of this age want to share with then mother every new acquisition of skill and every new experience. Now that they can walk with ease, children are more physically separate from the mother, but paradoxically, they are more likely to show separation anxiety during the rapprochement stage than during the previous period. Their increased cognitive skills make them more aware of then separateness, causing them to try various ploys to regahi the dual unity they once had with then mother. Because these attempts are never completely successful, children of this age often fight dramatically with then mother, a condition called the rapprochement crisis.
The final subphase of the separation-hidividuation process is libidinal object constancy, which approxhnates the 3rd year of life. During this time, children must develop a constant inner representation of their mother so that they can tolerate being physically separate from her. If this libidinal object constancy is not developed children will continue to depend on then mother's physical presence for then own security. Besides gaming some degree of object constancy, children must consolidate their individuality; that is, they must learn to function without their mother and to develop other object relationships (Mahler et al., 1975).
The strength of Mahler's theory is its elegant description of psychological birth based on empirical observations that she and her colleagues made on child-mother interactions. Although many of her tenets rely on inferences gleaned from reactions of preverbal infants, her ideas can easily be extended to adults. Any errors made during the first 3 years—the time of psychological birth—may result hi later regressions to a stage when a person had not yet achieved separation from the mother and thus a sense of personal identity.
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