Margaret Mahler and Separation-Individuation Theory

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.

Margaret Mahler's Separation Individuation Theory 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:

  1. Hatching (5 to 9 months): The infant becomes aware of th
    e differentiation between itself and its mother.  It becomes increasingly aware of its surroundings and interested in them, using its mother as a point of reference or orientation.
  2. Practicing  (9 to 16 months):  The infant can now get about on its own, first crawling and then walking freely.  The infant begins to explore actively and becomes more independent of its mother.  The infant still experiences itself as one with its mother.
  3. Rapprochement (15 months and beyond): The young child once again becomes close to his mother, but begins to differentiate itself from his mother. The child realizes that his physical mobility demonstrates psychic separateness from his mother. The toddler may become tentative at this point, wanting his mother to be in sight so that, through eye contact and action, he can explore his world.

Mahler further divided Rapprochement into three sub-stages:

  1. Beginning: The young child is motivated by a desire to share discoveries with his mother.
  2. Crisis: The child is torn between staying connected with his mother and venturing out from his mother and becoming more independent and adventurous.
  3. Solution: The child resolves the above Crisis according to the dictates of his own newly forming individuality, to his fledgling use of language, and to his interaction with the temperament of his mother.

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

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