In order to experience individuation or the psychological birth, children need good bonding experiences with their parents and other adult caregivers during thefirst six to nine months of life.
Margaret Mahler, a researcher and child psychologist, did extensive observational research with mothers and their babies to better understand this developmental stage. Mahler described maternal-infant bonding as relational experiences that involve holding, singing and talking to infants, mirroring back their essence, giving patient attention to their needs, and providing nurturing touch.
She described bonding as an experience of symbiosis, and believed that both mother and child have an innate drive to enter a deep state of emotional attunement that is at the core of symbiosis. Mahler and others found that there are degrees of symbiosis, which dependon the quality of the mother-child relationship. She found that the stronger the emotional attunement between the two, the more likely that the child wouldcomplete the psychological birth and become emotionally separate.
Mahler says that this process peaks between ages two and three. Mahler says that the separation stage naturally prompted by children’s innate drive to explore the world and to become autonomous. This drive, however, creates an internal conflict for children who also desire the comfort and warmth of oneness with the mother and father. When children begin to separate emotionally, the nature of their bondedness with both parents is crucial.
If the mother is depressed, tired, or not available emotionally because she is frightened by the intimacy, stressed by the demands of parenting, or is anxious because the father is unavailable, it affect the starting time and the pace of the individuation process. If any of these obstacles are present, children will actually delay their natural moves toward separateness and seek more bonding before venturing out too far.
If children’s bonding needs are not sufficiently met, they will eventually move on in their development without the inner security they really need. Children’s physical development will continue, even when they have not completed their social and emotional development. Some babies who are faced with this dilemma learn how to develop a false self instead of an authentic self. This helps them pretend to be strong enough for the task of self-sufficiency. So they project a false independence that is characterized by an attitude of “I’m strong and can make it without your help”.
Some children may separate unusually early, particularly when their mothers or fathers cling too tightly or are too intrusive, trying to control every facet of their lives. These babies may even prefer being with strangers and as early as three months may stiffen against their mother’s efforts to hold them. This can cause anxiety in the parents. A mother may wonder, “Why doesn’t this child like me any more?”. Depending on the mother’s self-esteem, she may see the child’s attempts to separate as a threat to her identity as a mother. A father may withdraw even further if the child doesn’t want to be held or played with.
In either case, the move from bonding to separation is a delicate process, requiring not only that mothers and fathers have good information but that they also have dealt with some of their own unfinished business regarding bonding and separation. Children’s struggle between oneness and separateness creates the framework for the journey toward self-hood.
- The completion of the psychological birth at about age two or three is crucial to the development of interdependence and humanitarian consciousness.
- Developmental traumas and other abuse or neglect in early childhood interfere with the completion of this important milestone.
- Fathers play a critical role in the successful completion of the individuation process.
- It is never too late to complete this important process once you clear the things from childhood that block it.
Reference:  Kaplan, L. (1978). Oneness & separateness: From infant to individual. New York: Touchstone Books.