We all know people who are excessively clingy and dependent and others who may be detached and even cold. It is interesting to note that both these styles of functioning often originate from the same problem in early childhood.
It is fascinating to know that human babies are born exceedingly premature and need very special care after birth. If we compare human babies to the babies of other mammals it is interesting to note that human babies are very immature in comparison with these animals. Most mammals are capable of running immediately after birth. This capacity only develops in a human around the age of 12 months. It is important to note that human babies complete their gestation in the external world (after birth). Human babies therefore need very special care during the first months and years for them to develop into secure human beings.
It is interesting to know that a young child’s psychological birth is dated at three years of age. Before the age of three the young child is not a separate person (emotionally speaking), but is in various states of merger with the mother (or primary caregiver). It is only at around the age of three that a separate self emerges.
John Bowlby did a lot of work around Attachment. He recognized that an infant forms a special relationship with a significant primary caregiver (normally the mother). This special relationship is called an attachment. He found that the early separation of infants from their mothers have very negative effects on young children’s emotional and intellectual development. Therefore attachment behavior is very important in infants. Attachment behavior is the maintaining of physical contact between the mother and infant. What is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his/her mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.
Bowlby described the devastating consequences of separating young children from their mothers (particularly if there is no adequate substitute). When a young child is separated from his/her mother the first thing that is seen is that the baby starts protesting. This protest is driven by extremely painful and intense feelings. The child does all in his power to create a situation in which his mother will feel forced by her own maternal instincts either not to leave him or to return.
When this fails the child sinks into a state of despair. The child’s behavior suggests increasing hopelessness. When the individual is not strong enough to face the feelings involved (which seems to be the usual situation when the person concerned is a small child) the feelings of despair and loss are not weakened, but they are buried and kept away from consciousness.
The end product is Bowlby’s third stage in which the child uses the defense mechanism of denial or detachment which is utterly deceptive because to outward appearances he seems to have returned to normal.
When the mother returns she is often rejected. The message to the mother is “I don’t need you any more”. The function of this is 1) the avoidance of pain. As long as the child keeps up the pretence of not wanting the mother she saves herself the agonizing recovery of the buried feelings of grief and she forearms herself against having to go through the same stages of useless protest and hopeless agony if the mother should leave again. 2) The second function is the expression of anger. There is a great deal of evidence for anger in young children as a response to loss.
What are the effects on personality development of separation from the mother in early childhood? We know that the baby experiences intense distress and misery when separated from the mother at this highly dependent and vulnerable stage of development. The young child’s hunger for his mother’s love and presence is as great as his hunger for food and as a consequence her absence inevitably evokes a powerful sense of loss and anger.
Great changes are seen in the child’s relationship to his mother when she returns home after a period away. On the one hand 1) an intense clinging to the mother which can continue for weeks, months or years and on the other hand 2) a rejection of the mother as a love object, which may be temporary or permanent. This detachment is the result of the child’s feelings for the mother having been repressed.
The same responses can be witnessed in older individuals who are still disturbed by separations they suffered in early life. Two types of personalities are seen, namely 1) a tendency to make excessive demands on others and to be anxious and angry when they are not met such as is present in dependent personalities or 2) a blockage in the capacity to make deep relationships, such as are present in affectionless personalities. In these detached personalities the longing for closeness became repressed in childhood and the adult continues to be out of touch with dependency longings.
So clearly patterns of infant attachment affect future adult emotional relationships. Close bodily contact with the mother when the baby signals for her are associated with the growth of a secure attachment. This leads to later self-reliance rather than with a clinging dependence or detachment, as the baby grows older. Unresponsive mothers produce insecure, anxiously attached or even detached babies. Attachment reduces anxiety. Only when there is a secure attachment can the child later move away from the attachment figure and explore the environment.
Maternal sensitivity and responsiveness are the main determinants of secure attachment. When the attachment is insecure the infant (and later the adult) is anxious, insecure or detached. Such an infant develops into an overly dependent or detached adult. The roots of these problems are in very early childhood and often unconscious.
With the global movement to organic food and prevention of illness through healthy diets it is important to note that a more natural approach is very applicable to human emotional development. Babies need their mothers, our culture where mothers work long hours and babies are in daycare, does not help to create emotionally secure and healthy adults.