During infancy and toddlerhood, children easily attach to others. Youngsters normally form their initial primary relationships with their parents and other family members. Because infants are utterly dependent on caregivers for food, clothing, warmth, and nurturing, Erik Erikson determined that children's primary task during this first psychosocial stage of life is to learn to trust their caregivers. As they form relationships and develop an organized sense of self, children's first few years set the stage for both immediate and later psychosocial development, including the emergence of prosocial behavior, or the capacity to help, cooperate, and share with others.
Personality Development: Age 0–2
Personality includes those stable psychological characteristics that make each human being unique. Both children and adults evidence personality traits (long‐term characteristics, such as temperament) and states (changeable characteristics, such as moodiness). While considerable debate continues over the origin and development of personality, most experts agree that personality traits and states form early in life. A combination of hereditary, psychological, and social influences is most likely responsible for the formation of personality.
Infants are typically egocentric, or self‐centered, and are primarily concerned with satisfying physical desires, such as hunger. Sigmund Freud viewed this focus on physical gratification as a form of self‐pleasuring. Because infants are particularly interested in activities involving the mouth (sucking and biting, for example), Freud labeled the first year of life as the oral stage of psychosexual development.
According to Freud too little or too much stimulation of a particular erogenous zone (sensitive area of the body) at a particular psychosexual stage of development leads to fixation (literally, being stuck) at that stage. Multiple fixations are possible at multiple stages. In the case of infants, fixation at the oral stage gives rise to adult personality traits centered on the mouth. Adult oral‐focused habits may take the form of overeating, drinking, and smoking. Adults are especially prone to regressing to such childhood fixation behaviors during times of stress and upset.
Theorists, after Freud, have offered additional perspectives on infant personality development. Perhaps the most important of these developments is Melanie Klein's object‐relations theory. According to Klein, the inner core of personality stems from the early relationship with the mother. While Freud speculated that the child's fear of a powerful father determines personality, Klein theorized that the child's need for a powerful mother is more important. In other words, the child's fundamental human drive is to be in relationships with others, and the first relationship the child establishes is usually with the mother.
Why the phrase “object‐relations”? Why did Klein use the word “object” rather than “human”? Following intensive observation and the study of many children, Klein surmised that the infant bonds to an object rather than a person, because the infant is unable to understand fully what a person is. The infant's limited perspective may process only an evolving perception of what a person is.
In this object‐relations theory, the infant interacts with the mother, mostly during times of eye contact and breast‐feeding. The infant then internalizes an image of the mother—good or bad—that may or may not be representative of how the mother truly is. Eventually, during a complex psychological process of adjusting to loss and separation, the child learns to distinguish between self and object at a very basic level. If all goes well, the psychologically healthy child is then able to separate good and bad, and self and object. If all does not go well, the child is then unable to accept the good and bad sides of the self and of the mother; the child may be unable to separate the concept of a bad mother from a good self.
In object‐relations theory, girls are better adjusted psychosocially than boys. Girls become extensions of their mothers; as a result, girls do not need to separate from their mothers. Boys, on the other, must separate from their mothers to become independent. This perspective is in contrast to Freudian theory, in which boys develop a stronger superego (conscience) than girls, because boys have penises and girls do not. According to Freud, his superego theory supported why boys more easily resolve their Oedipal conflict (a male's childhood sexual interest in his mother with accompanying aggression toward his father) than girls do their Electra conflict (a female's childhood sexual interest in her father with accompanying aggression toward her mother).
Some psychologists theorize that errors in early bonding and separating experiences may be responsible for later psychological problems. These problems include borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by rapid shifts in the liking and hating of self and others.