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Separation-individuation theory

Margaret Mahler's theories on child development focus largely on the mother/child relationship. Her study on separation-individuation is considered her most valued contribution stressing the importance of consistent attentiveness especially from the mother during a child's first three years of life as vital to the ultimate goal of raising children who grow to be successful, adaptable adults.

This theory posits 4 sub-phases of child's progress to object constancy, the capacity of the child to maintain an inner representation of the absent love object which unifies the "good" and "bad" feelings in the whole. Achieved through the successful, if uneven, passage through several stages.


Phase 1: Normal Autistic Phase

Age: 0-1 month
A newborn infant is blissfully unaware of anything but its own needs. At this stage, the mother needs to be available to lovingly meet the baby's needs and introduce tender, caring interaction.


Phase 2: Normal Symbiotic Phase

Age: 1 to 5 Months
During these first few months, babies begin to learn about their world and develop their very first human bond -- that which they share with their mothers. Positive stimuli (cuddling, smiling, engaged attention) and relief of discomfort (feeding promptly when hungry, changing of soiled nappies, providing an appropriate sleep environment) all help the infant to develop a trust that their needs will be met, building a basis for security and confidence.


Phase 3: Separation-individuation Process
A. Differentiation

Age: 5-6 to 10-12 months
* Alert when awake
* Outwardly directed perceptual activity
* Exploration of others face, tactile, and visual observations
* Transitional objects
* Discrimination between mother and others
* Stranger anxiety (8 months)


Phase 3: Separation-individuation Process
B. Practicing

Age: 7-12 months
* Disengagement from mother as creeping begins
* Exploration at some distance from mother
* Frequent return to mother for refueling


Phase 3: Separation-individuation Process
C. Rapprochement

Age: 15-24 month
* Disengaging alternating with intense demands for attention
* Resurgence of stranger anxiety
* Language development enables expression of needs
* Identifies gender differences
* Internalization of parental demands


Phase 4: Object Constancy

Age: 24-36+ months
* Can substitute a reliable internal image during absence of love object
* Heightened learning promotes memory retention
* Unified self image *(good and bad aspects) is at inception