”These small moments, rather than the traumatic or dramatic moments of a baby’s life, make up the bulk of the expectations that adults bring to their relationships.”
Controversy Surrounding Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Daniel N. Stern
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a view inside the mind of a pre-verbal child? Infant and child psychoanalyst Daniel N. Stern’s 1985 book, “The Interpersonal World Of The Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology”attempts to give readers just that. The theories presented in the book disputed the widely accepted theories of Freud regarding child developmental stages, and sparked a great deal of controversy.
Shortly after its publication, a 1986 article in the New York Times announced that the journal of Contemporary Psychoanalysis would devote an entire issue to comments about the book. Psychologist Louise Kaplan called his hypotheses unverified and unsupported by research, while psychologist Stanley Spiegel declared that it would be the most influential book on psychoanalytic theory of the decade.
Relevant Contributions of Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Daniel Stern
Among the controversial contributions of infant and child psychoanalyst Daniel Stern to the field of child psychology is the term “proto-narrative envelope”, which he believed contains organized experience in the structure of a non-verbal narrative consisting of perceptions. According to psychologist Felix Guattari, Stern’s work demonstrates that child development is not a matter of Freudian stages, but of what he calls levels of subjectivation. Subjectivation is a term used to describe the process of individuation, or the creation of a separate subject, or self.
Stern’s research provided evidence that infants are born with the capacity for mental organization and the ability to link sensory experiences. When new-born infants were asked questions, their answers were physical responses, such as turning their heads and looking. They were also able to generalize and recognize differences. It was this ability that caused Stern to question the idea of fixed developmental stages and to theorize that trauma can affect anyone similarly at any stage of life.
Research Studies of Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Daniel J. Stern
Stern’s research consisted in part of filming the interactions between mothers and their children and analyzing the films extensively. In one study, he videotaped three-hour sessions of the interactions between a mother and her infant twin sons until they were 15 months old. While analyzing the films, he detected a difference in how the mother maintained eye contact with one of the twins compared to the other. With one twin, when the baby averted it’s face, she immediately re-established eye contact, which often resulted in the baby crying. With the other, she allowed the baby to choose to re-establish eye contact. By age 15 months, Dr. Stern noted that the twin with whom the mother had forced eye contact seemed more fearful and dependent, averting his face when he wanted to break eye contact, while the other continued smiling while looking upward to do so.
Stern’s studies, observations and research led him to conclude that small daily exchanges between parent and child can shape the child’s relationship patterns in later life. He believed the same to be true for fathers as well as any adult spending prolonged periods of time with an infant.
Recommendations Resulting from Infant and Child Psychoanalyst Studies
Stern’s theory posits that rather than phases of development, life consists of a long continuum of small, yet important, interactions. He recommends that mothers “match” their children’s physical and emotional communications in order to provide them with a sense of being understood and connected. For example, when an infant squeals in delight, the mother might echo that sentiment by matching its pitch in her response.
This sense of feeling understood and validated helps promote individuation and autonomy. According to Stern, autonomy begins with small acts, such as a baby averting its eyes of face to express displeasure, which infants are capable of at about 4 months. Another important step in autonomy is gaining the ability to walk away at about 12 months, and to say no at about 14 months.
In response to critics who felt that his findings placed additional pressure on parents, Stern offered reassurance that while the psychological imprints of these early interactions are important, they are not irrevocable.
“Relationships throughout life – with friends or relatives, for example – or in psychotherapy continually reshape your working model of relationships. An imbalance at one point can be corrected later; there is no crucial period early in life – it’s an on-going, life-long process.”
Since parents, no matter how great their love, how good their intentions or how much expert advice from an infant and child psychoanalyst they follow, will always be imperfect human beings, this is welcome news indeed.