By Richard Brodie
Hungarian-born psychiatrist Margaret Mahler (1897-1985) worked first in her native Hungary, and then in Britain, and finally in the United States. She is best known for originating the Separation-Individuation theory of child development. In her theory Mahler speculates that after the first few weeks of infancy, in which the infant is either sleeping or barely conscious, the infant progresses first from a phase (Normal-Symbiotic Phase) in which it perceives itself as one with its mother within the larger environment, to an extended phase (Separation-Individuation Phase) consisting of several stages or sub-phases in which the infant slowly comes to distinguish itself from its mother, and then, by degrees, discovers its own identity, will, and individuality.
Normal Symbiotic Phase: According to Mahler, this phase extends from the first signs of conscious awareness at four to six weeks until about five months of age. (Mahler originally called the first few weeks of helpless infancy the “Normal Autistic Phase”, but later discarded this designation). In the Normal-Symbiotic Phase the infant is now aware of its mother, but has no sense of individuality of its own. The infant and mother are as one, and there is a barrier between them and the rest of the world.
Separation-Individuation Phase: In this phase the infant breaks out of its “autistic shell” and begins to connect with its environment and with the people in it. Separation refers to the development of limits and to the differentiation in the infant’s mind between the infant and the mother, whereas individuation refers to the development of the infant's ego, sense of identity, and cognitive abilities. This phase is divided into three sub-phases, which occur in the following order, but which often overlap in time:
Mahler further divided Rapprochement into three sub-stages:
Mahler believed that disruptions in the fundamental process of separation-individuation could result later in life in a disturbance in the ability to maintain a reliable sense of individual identity.
Learn more about Margaret Malher's theories through three important DVDs offered by Child Development Media: The Separation-Individuation Process, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, and On the Emergence of the Self.