Social and Personality Growth: Age 0–2

During infancy and toddlerhood, children easily attach to others. They normally form their initial primary relationship with their parents and other family members. Because infants depend completely on their parents for food, clothing, warmth, and nurturing, Erik Erikson noted that the primary task during this first psychosocial stage of life is to learn to trust (rather than to mistrust) the caregivers. The child's first few years—including forming relationships and developing an organized sense of self—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. (Table contrasts Erikson's model of psycho‐social development with Sigmund Freud's model.)

Personality includes those stable psychological characteristics that define each human being as 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 etiology of personality, most experts agree that personality traits and states form early in life. A combination of genetics and psychological and social influences likely influence the formation of personality.

Infants are typically egocentric, or self‐centered. They primarily concern themselves with satisfying their physical desires (for example, hunger), which psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized is a form of self‐pleasuring. Because infants are particularly interested in activities involving the mouth (sucking, biting), Freud labeled the first year of life as the oral stage of psychosexual development. (Freud's model of psychosexual development appears in Table .)

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 around 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 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 speculated that the child's need for a powerful mother plays a more important role. In other words, the child's fundamental human drive is to be in relationship with others, of whom the mother is usually the first.

Klein affirmed that infants bond to objects rather than people, because the infant cannot fully understand what a person is. An infant's very limited perspective can only process an evolving perception of what a person is.

In object‐relations theory, girls adjust better psychosocially than boys. Girls become extensions of the mother; they do not need to separate. Boys, on the other hand, must separate from the mother to become independent. This contrasts with Freud's theory, in which boys develop a stronger superego (conscious) than girls do because boys have a penis and girls do not. Therefore, boys more easily resolve their Oedipal conflict (attraction to the female parent) than girls do their Electra conflict (attraction to the male parent).

Family relationships in infancy and toddlerhood

A baby's first relationships are with family members, to whom the infant expresses a range of emotions (and vice versa). If the social and emotional bonding fails in some way, the child may never develop the trust, self‐control, or emotional reasoning necessary to function effectively in the world. The quality of the relationship between child and parents—especially between months 6 and 18—seems to determine the quality of the child's later relationships.

If physical contact between infant and parents plays such a vital role in the emotional health of the infant, and is important to the parents as well, when should such contact begin? Most experts recommend that physical contact occur as soon as possible after delivery. Studies show that babies who receive immediate maternal contact seem to cry less and are happier and more secure than babies who do not. Immediate bonding is optimal, but infants and parents can later make up for an initial separation.


is the process whereby one individual seeks nearness to another individual. In parent‐child interactions, attachment is mutual and reciprocal. The infant looks and smiles at the parents, who look and smile at the infant. Communication between child and parents is indeed basic at this level, but it is also profound.

Psychologist John Bowlby suggested that infants are born “preprogrammed” for certain behaviors that will guarantee bonding with the caregivers. The infant's crying, clinging, smiling, and “cooing” are designed to prompt parental feeding, holding, cuddling, and vocalizing. Parents can help instill trust in their infant as the child forms attachments. Eye contact, touching, and timely feedings are perhaps the most important ways. These, of course, also represent expressions of the love and affection parents have for their children.

Attachment is central to human existence, but so are separation and loss. Ultimately, relationships are interrupted, or they dissolve on their own. Children must learn that nothing human is permanent, though learning this concept is not as easy as it may first sound. According to Bowlby, children who are separated from their parents progress through three stages: protest, despair, and detachment. After first refusing to accept the separation, and then losing hope, the child finally accepts the separation and begins to respond to the attention of new caregivers.

Social deprivation, or the absence of attachment, produces profoundly negative effects on children. For instance, children who have been institutionalized without close or continuous attachments for long periods of time display pathological levels of depression, withdrawal, apathy, and anxiety.

Parenting in infancy and toddlerhood

Cultural and community standards, the social environment, and their children's behavior determine parents' child‐raising practices. Hence different parents have different ideas on responding to their children, communicating with them, and placing them into daycare.

Responding (for example, playing, vocalizing, feeding, touching) to an infant's needs is certainly important to the child's psychosocial development. In fact, children who display strong attachment tend to have highly responsive mothers. Does this mean that the caregivers should respond to everything an infant does? Probably not. Children must learn that all needs cannot be completely met all the time. The majority of caregivers respond most of the time to their infants, but not 100 percent of the time. Problems only seem to arise when primary caregivers respond to infants less than 25 percent of the time. The children of “nonresponding” mothers tend to be insecurely attached, which may lead to simultaneous over‐dependence upon and rejection of authority figures later in adulthood.

Strong communication between parents and children leads to strong attachment and relationships. Mutuality, or “synchronous” interaction, particularly during the first few months, predicts a secure relationship between parents and infants. Mutual behaviors include taking turns approaching and withdrawing, looking and touching, and “talking” to each other.

With the first few months and years being so critical to children's future psychosocial development, some parents worry about having to place their infants and toddlers in daycare and preschool. Research suggests that children who attend daycare while both parents work are not at a disadvantage regarding development of self, prosocial behavior, or cognitive functioning. Many authorities argue that daycare, coupled with quality time with the parents whenever possible, provides better and earlier socialization than may otherwise occur.