Data from developmental studies show that, in the earliest period of development, the primary mechanism for transmitting a sense of security and coherence, or insecurity and disorganization, together with a characteristic style of regulating emotion, is the quality of the infant-caregiver relationship. In this context, Bowlby (1969, 1973) suggests that a parent who seeks care and emotional security from a child, thereby inverting the child-parent relationship, is likely to be psychologically disordered, and thus to generate attachment disorder in the child. For example, in instances in which the mother recruits the child into caring for herself and helping to care for younger siblings, often in a context of relational problems and lack of support from the husband/father, the child, and later the adult, may experience latent yearning for love and care, and dysregulated anger with the parents for not having provided it, as well as anxiety, guilt and shame about expressing such desires (Bowlby, 1979). Commenting on Winnicott’s (1960) theory of emotional development, Bowlby (1979) suggests that a relational matrix of this kind is what generates a False Self organization. Moreover, he argues that the discovery of the True Self entails helping the person to recognize and own their yearning for love and care, and to express the anger felt towards those who earlier failed to provide it: in essence, to mourn the loss (Bowlby 1960.
In a similar way, Balint (1979) argues that a serious discrepancy between the pre-oedipal needs of the infant and the care and nurturance available in early development creates a “deficiency state” in the child, which, in phenomenological terms, is later experienced as a “basic fault” (p. 18). The individual tends to develop tenuous object relations, compensating for the absence of a sense of inner wellbeing and harmony by engaging in self-destructive forms of behaviour in respect of alcohol, illicit drugs or food.
We see, then, that the child’s sense of “felt security” in relation to the main attachment figure vitally affects the degree to which he or she is comfortable with separation, and thus free to explore the environment and elaborate and express his or her emotional states without becoming overly fearful (Sroufe & Waters, 1977). It is the provision by the caregiver of a secure base and safe haven which facilitates the child’s separation and exploration. Implicit in attachment theory, therefore, is the ability to separate while remaining attached. Bowlby’s (1969) work emphasises the ambivalent conflict between emotional connection and separateness, which he construes as attachment and the dance with independence.
From a different developmental perspective, that of ego psychology, Mahler and Furer (1969) found that when the mother is unable to accept the child’s separation and individuation, and, instead, relates to the child in a way that is “too exclusive and too parasitic” (p. 745), the child may experience an extreme separation reaction reminiscent, clinically, of the annihilation dread of adult psychotics. Subsequent research by Mahler and her colleagues (1985) shows that psychological differentiation, conceptualized as a process of separation-individuation, is forestalled when the mother keeps the infant in a dependent position so as to meet her own needs; or, alternatively, ushers the infant precipitously into autonomy. Mahler et al. (1985) found that the unfolding of the infant’s autonomy and mastery of the environment, and the experience of self and other as distinct subjects, requires the mother’s continuing emotional availability to meet the child’s needs to separate and form a unique individual identity.