Bullying as a Group Process

What is bullying?

A review of scholarly resources produces several definitions of bullying.  Idsoe, et al, (2012) define bullying as “a subtype of aggressive behavior in which an individual or a group repeatedly and over time direct negative actions against individuals who are not able to defend themselves, meaning there is an imbalance of power between perpetrators and victims, (p. 901).”   Carney, (2009) defines bullying as encompassing three key characteristics:  “harm is done, an unfair match exists, and the actions are repeated over time, (p. 179).”  Cassidy, (2008) defines bullying as “negative actions—physical or verbal— that have hostile intent, are repeated over time, and involve a power differential between the bully and the victim, (p. 63).” As a social interaction that involves harm and a power imbalance, I feel it is important  to begin discussing bullying as a social process that reflects group dynamics and social norms.  From this perspective “bullying may be regarded a group phenomenon in which most children…have a defined Participant Role, (Salmivalli, etc all, 1996, p. 11).”  This post discusses bullying as a group process.

Bystanders & Participants

Bullying is a complex process defined by peer culture social norms.  It takes place in a social context and involves more than just the bully and victim.  When bullying happens, everyone can be “seen as having different roles in the process, driven by diverse emotions, attitudes, and motivations, (Salmivelli, 2010, p.  113).”Many bystanders are available to participate in the creation of a social context which gives this specific exchange meaning.  Even if these bystanders don’t actively participate, they conduct themselves in ways which promote the continuation of bullying behaviors. “What matters more than their real attitude to bullying…is how they behave in [such] situations (Salmivalli, et al, 1996, p. 2).”  The specific role a child holds in a bullying encounter and their response to this situation depend on their social and calculations of risk.  “…through their behaviour in these situations they take a position towards what is going on. This…has effects on the outcome of the episodes of harassment (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 454).”  In addition to bullies and victims, several other participatory roles can be observed:

Bully Assistants

Some children can be observed “eagerly join[ing] in the bullying when someone has started it and act as assistants of the bully, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 454).” The ringleader will “initiate the harassment of one or more victims…assisted by students who actively help and support them (e.g., catching the victim), (Huitsing, et al, 2012, p. 494).”

Bully Reinforcer

“Others, even if they do not actively attack the victim, offer positive feedback to the bully. For instance, they come to see what is going on, thus providing an audience for him/her, or they incite him/her by laughing or by encouraging gestures. These students can be called reinforcers, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”


“Furthermore, a remarkable number of students tend to stay away and not to take sides with anyone: they have been named outsiders. Not even these children are, however, non-involved. In their way, they allow bullying to go on by silently approving it (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”


“Finally, there are also students whose behaviour is clearly anti-bullying: they comfort the victim, take sides with him/her, and try to make the others stop bullying. They are defenders (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”

social roles as self-fulfilling prophecies


“For victimized students it seems especially difficult to attain a different role amongst their peers. Even in a completely new class with no former classmates…Insecurity and fearful expectancies are likely to arise. Unfortunately, these are easily communicated to the new classmates, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 455).”

Social roles consist of norms, beliefs and behaviors that are associated with expectations of conformity.  They limit our ability to act independently and pressure us to engage in behavior that maintains our social status. Social roles are self-fulfilling prophecies in that we become what others believe us to be (Salmivalli, 1999).  In addition to determining our behavioral responses they heavily influence our self-perception. “When individuals categorize themselves as belonging to a particular social group, they self-stereotype in terms of the norms, values, and beliefs that define the group. In this way the defining features of the group become internalized and shape group members’ own self-definition, (Turner, et al, 2014, p. 4).”

The Popular Kids

6915722162_cbcc5e5857_b“[bullying] defines what is different …[and] creates the group of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and through the definition gains acceptance for the values represented by ‘us’. This definition creates a status within the community and the means of bullying create fear of the social punishment to follow. (Hamarus and Kaikkonen, 2008, p. 342)”

Difference between Cliques vs. Crowds

“Cliques are small groups of friends who hang out together a great deal and are personally close.  Crowds by contrast are larger, ‘Reputation-based collectives of similar of similarly stereotyped individuals'” (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 236).”  Clique members often share similar interests, attitudes, and behavior patterns.  In contrast crowds norms are based on the reputation and stereotyped identity peers have of the typical members.  Cliques engage in selective entry and exit processes while crowd affiliation is more fluid.

What is Popularity?

Popularity Defined by Study Participant:  “When a girl said someone was popular, she meant first that the student was widely known by classmates and second that he or she was sought after by a friend, (Merten, 1997, p. 360).”

Researchers have differentiated between two types of popularity:  “A sociometrically popular student is well-liked by her or his peers. Sociometric popularity is a measure of peer acceptance. Perceived popularity, however, is a measure of social visibility, much like the classic stereotype of adolescent popularity. (Borch, et al 2011).”  In other words, sociometric popularity is associated with prosocial characteristics and are perceived as “seen as kind and trustworthy (Thornberg, 2011 p. 6)” by peers.  In contrast, perceived popularity is not the same as being liked by your peers and is not mere a function of someone’s individual characteristics.  Instead, perceived popularity is a reflects how children make judgments of an individual based on their understanding of relevant social norms (Thornberg, 2011).

Popularity & Norm Reinforcement

Enforcing a Physical Attractiveness Standard:  “This kid in our grade is really weird looking.  he has really big ears and is really tall and awkward looking.  One of the seniors called him ‘dumbo and really hurt his feelings, (Bishop, 2004, p. 238).”

Norms “prescribe appropriate, expected, or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group, (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 113).”  They provide a standard of behaviorr pertaining to an individuals social status. “Popular students are role models and exemplars of cool, (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).”  Consequently, they  define norms in order to reinforce their authority and differentiate between in group and out group status.

Techniques of Exclusion

Example of Exclusion:  “If a nerd goes over and sits next to a jock or somebody who’s really popular…they would probably tell them to leave, Bishop, 2004, p. 237).”

Ostracism is “defined as being ignored and excluded, and it often occurs without excessive explanation or explicit negative attention, (Williams, 2011, p. 429).” It serves the purpose of relieving the group of deviant members who violate social norms, ensuring group cohesion, and conformity.  Thornberg, (2011) notes that “everyday school life involved both inclusion and exclusion practices, like two sides of the same coin, (p. 7).”  It is an implicit part of the process in which adolescents define in group versus out group status.  Techniques of social exclusion include the following:

“(1)…harassing outsiders and turning others against them; (ii) harassing and being mean towards clique members with a weaker standing, (iii) going along with…other high-status clique members’ mean acts…(iv) stigmatisation [of] a particular clique member for a period; and (v) expulsion… from the clique” (Thornberg,  2011), p.5).”

Boundary Maintenance

Signal of Popularity: “…being allowed to hang out with them [the popular crowd]….If your friends with the popular people you’re considered more popular. (Bishop, 2004, p. 239).”

Preserving one’s status is an ever-present concern in the dynamics of the clique. Ostracism and bullying are a functional byproducts of this.  According the “social misfit hypothesis” (Thornberg, 2011), individuals with behaviors that contradict peer group culture can experience social rejection.  Those who conform with peer group expectations avoid ostracism.  Since the benefits of popularity are clear, membership into high status groups is sought-after position by many and barriers to entry are substantial (Bishop, 2004, p. 237).”

In-Group “Mean-ness”

Bulling does not just occur as an expression in-group vs. out-group behavior.  In an article titled “The Meaning of Mean-ness” (Merten, 1997), notes that high levels of conflict exist in high-status cliques as a means of preserving one’s status in the social hierarchy.  This internally focused mean-ness  also protects the group’s status in the larger social system.   Merten, (1997), describes his observations of a junior high clique below:

“Minor losses in relative popularity were frequently experienced as significant losses in status…One’s position in the clique was important, because it both symbolized one’s popularity and was salient in protecting it…hierarchical position was an essential factor for the successful use of meanness… (Merten, 1997, p. 354)”

This is an especially intriguing insight for me as an “outsider looking in”.  From this perspective Merten,  (1997), notes the following: “because most of the clique’s meanness was directed toward its own members, most outsiders continued to think…it would be nice to have a [friendship like that], p. 365).” The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Social Norms & Pluralistic Ignorance

“Social norms are produced among students at school…social exclusion and isolation are the consequences of non-conformity to these norms, (Thornberg, 2011, p. 2).”  They are typically defined as “a rule, value or standard shared by the members of a social group that prescribes appropriate, expected, or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 113).”  Norms are useful when attempting to understand the behavioral choices of bully behaviors.

In the school setting, and especially the classroom, group membership is mandatory and involuntary.  Bully victims are left with no means of escape (Salmivalli, 2010).
An “emphasis on status and popularity in the school social environment promote[s] a social hierarchy in the peer culture. Bullying is…a result of the negotiation and struggle process of this social hierarchy. (Thornberg, 2011, p. 5).
Individually, a bully is motivated by a desire to establish a “powerful, dominant position in the peer group (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 115).”
Collectively bullying provides the dominant clique a way of defining norms (Salmivalli, 2010)….the popular crowd represent[s] a powerful influences on peer pressure. (Bishop, 2004, p. 238).
Bully reinforcers & assistants turn bullying into a group activity based on a need for acceptance and improve their social position (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 115).”

16201896020_4a09fc4397_b“It is important to note, however, that what is “normative in a classroom does not necessarily match with the private attitudes of individual children, (Salmivalli, 2010).” In other words, children act on the basis of a self-perceived understanding of social norms and not private attitudes.   When nobody challenges the bully, a child misinterprets this as a social norm that “bullying is okay (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 117).”  This is pluralistic ignorance:

PLURALISTIC IGNORANCE – “a socio-psychological phenomenon that involves a systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs and public behavior in certain societal contexts” (Bjerring, et al, 2014, p. 2445).

The Importance of Social Competence

“Social competence may be viewed as being prosocial, altruistic, empathic, and cooperative. In this view, social competence is seen as behavior that is socially approved and leads to being liked. Alternatively, social competence may be seen as the ability to achieve one’s goals in social settings (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 645).”  In this respect it is both a prosocial and antisocial activity.  This confusing and dichotomous construct is useful in understanding the mixed reviews students display of popular and unpopular students

Popular Kids

Popular peers have large numbers of peers and play a central role in the social network. Described as interpersonally skilled, they are able to obtain their goals, “even if it means using aggression, (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245)).”  They are describe as having high academic and athletic ability while displaying of “dominance, attractiveness, and deviance” (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245).”

Unpopular Kids

Unpopular students are social isolates and frequent victims of bullying.  Described as deviant, unattractive misfits by peers, this study suggests that they are not, however disliked by them.  Instead, they are seen as “not possessing the socal skills to rise from the bottom of the hierarchy…and unaware of how to fit in with peers, (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245).”

The Consequences of Non-conformity

“Being a nerd is like having a communicable disease….students avoid hanging out with the student since it sends a signal that they are a nerd as well.”  Bishop, p. 237).”

As stated earlier, the social misfit hypothesis states that bullying is reaction to a deviation from peer group norms.  When an individual’s behaviors and attitudes are defined as deviant in this context, ostracism and rejection are a result (Thornberg, 2011)….

The situation is self-perpetuating & quickly becomes impossible to turn around.  It is this characteristic of bullying that causes children to feel hopeless & suicidal.

According to “taken-for-granted norms….deviance is in the eye of the beholder. (Thornberg, 2011, p. 4).” Individual’s not properly acclimated to an unfamiliar social environment struggle to fit in.
The victim [is] seen as a student who did not behave as he or she should have…[deviance disturbs] the existing…status quo…and demands on conformity, (Thornberg, 2011, p. 4).” 
“once classmates categorize you, changing categorization is difficult, (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).”
“students who are labeled as outcasts find it difficult to make new friends and often lose old friends which limits their ability to develop social skills that can help them get out of their predicament (bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).
“social roles…sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, the individual starts to resemble more and more, the expectations directed towards him” (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453).”
“Harassment induces some victims to withdraw from social interaction….[a] climate of intimidation …can induce withdrawal (Bishop, p. 237).
ostracism is “defined as being ignored and excluded, and it often occurs without excessive explanation or explicit negative attention, (Williams, 2011, p. 429)”  Occurring without explanation, no guidance to resolve matters is provided.

Images: 1, 2, 3.


Bjerring, J. C., Hansen, J. U., Pedersen, Nikolaj Jang Lee (2014). On the rationality of pluralistic ignorance. Synthese, 191(11), 2445-2470. doi:10.1007/s11229-014-0434-1
Bishop, J. H., Bishop, M., Bishop, M., Gelbwasser, L., Green, S., Peterson, E., … & Zuckerman, A. (2004). Why we harass nerds and freaks: A formal theory of student culture and norms. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 235-251.
Borch, C., Hyde, A., & Cillessen, A. H. (2011). The role of attractiveness and aggression in high school popularity. Social Psychology of Education, 14(1), 23-39.
Carney, J. (2008). Perceptions of bullying and associated trauma during adolescence. Professional School Counseling, 11(3), 179-188.
Cassidy, T. (2009). Bullying and victimisation in school children: The role of social identity, problem-solving style, and family and school context. Social Psychology of Education, 12(1), 63-76.
Hamarus P, Kaikkonen P. 2008. School bullying as a creator of pupil pressure. Educational Research 50: 333–345.
Idsoe, T., Dyregrov, A., & Idsoe, E. C. (2012). Bullying and PTSD symptoms. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 40(6), 901-911.
LaFontana, K. M., & Cillessen, A. H. (2002). Children’s perceptions of popular and unpopular peers: a multimethod assessment. Developmental psychology, 38(5), 635.
Merten, D. E. (1997). The meaning of meanness: Popularity, competition, and conflict among junior high school girls. Sociology of Education, 175-191.
Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Björkqvist, K., Österman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: Participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggressive behavior, 22(1), 1-15.
Salmivalli, C. (1999). Participant role approach to school bullying: Implications for interventions. Journal of adolescence, 22(4), 453-459.
Salmivalli, C. (2010). Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggression and violent behavior, 15(2), 112-120.
Thornberg, R. (2011). ‘She’s weird!’—The social construction of bullying in school: A review of qualitative research. Children & society, 25(4), 258-267.
Turner, I., Reynolds, K. J., Lee, E., Subasic, E., & Bromhead, D. (2014, June 16). Well-Being, School Climate, and the Social Identity Process: A Latent Growth Model Study of Bullying Perpetration and Peer Victimization. School Psychology Quarterly. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/spq0000074
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Psychology, 58(1), 425-252.

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Lev Vygotsky

Overview of Social Learning Theory

Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), was a Russian Psychologist who developed the social developmental theory.  “He disagreed with Piaget that these stages occur naturally, they are taught through educational intervention.  Social interactions greatly influence development, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  In Vygotsky’s Social Learning Theory, the “interdependence of social and individual processes, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 191).”   According to Vygotsky, all human activity takes place in a cultural context & three underlying themes exist in his writings to define the nature of this interdependent relationship (Steiner & Mahn & 1996)….

Individual human development has origins in social sources. (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).

The earliest sources of human development comes through interaction with our primary caregivers (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).  Vygotsky disagreeed with Piaget’s characterization of learning as a universal process.  In Social Learning Theory, Vygotsky asserts that learning and development occur within a specific cultural context.  This learning occurs as socially shared activities with primary caregivers, develop into internalized cognitive processes (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).  During the first years of our lives, all learning activities are highly dependent upon caregiver interaction.  In this respect, all learning activities occur as forms of social interaction, as caregivers provided opportunities for guided participation.  Gradually, we claim greater responsibility for this learning process by initiating social participation independent of caregivers.   We internalize the effects of these cumulative social learning opportunities.  Learning is a culturally-defined process that occurs through our interactions with others.

“An operation…initially represents an external activity reconstructed and begins to occur internally, (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 56-57).”

“An interpersonal process is transformed into an intrapersonal one, (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).”

“The transformation of an interpersonal process into an intrapersonal one as a result of a long series of developmental events, (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).”

Semniotic mediation is the key to knowledge construction, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).

Vygotsky uses the term ‘Semniotic’ to describe “language; various systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193).”  These ‘semniotic tools,’ “mediate social and individual fucntioning and connect the external and the internal, the social and the individual, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 192).”  The process of learning requires an internalization of external behaviors through our interactions with others.  Through the use of tools such as langugage, art, math, or writing, this process of learning occurs as we internalize lessons we garner through social interaction.  Vygotsky that these semniotic tools, mediate the construction of knowledge internally, and are socially derived concenpts.  In other words, children don’t invent the wheel independently when they utilize language to describe abstract concepts as an internal thought process. They learn this language within a historically and culturally relevant setting.   The term “cognitive pluralism” (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193), is useful in describing the fact that multiple culturally relevant semniotic tools of socially-mediated learning can exist in a diverse society.

“Mediation is the key is the key in this approach to understanding how human mental functioning is tied to cultural, institutional, and historical settings since these settings shape and provide the cultural tools that are mastered by individuals to form this functioning. (Wertsch, 1994, p. 204).”

It is critical to understand this process of development through what calls “genetic analysis” (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 193).

In his study of human development, he is not interested in describe the end product of learning as a series of stages.  Instead he is interested in describing the process of development as a sociocultural process.  Vygotsky refuse Piaget’s notion of schema as a universal concepts that can adequately describe the developmental process in all historical and cultural contexts (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).  The term “genetic analysis” (Steiner &  Mahn, 1996, p. 193), to describe how changing external phenomena can become integrated as a psychological construct of cognitive understanding.

The Zone of Proximal Development

“We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these process are internalized they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).”

POINT ONE – “to help explain the way this social and participatory learning took place.  Vygotsky (1978)  developed the concept of the zone of proximal development, (Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 198).”

Vygotsky (1978) defines the zone of proximal development as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined through independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers, (p. 198).”

POINT TWO – “Learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental process that would be impossible apart from learning, (Vygotsky, 1978, p 90).”

Vygotsky notes that learning and development are separate processes.  learning requires interaction with one’s social environment and is essential for the process of development to occur.  Learning is culturally organized and precedes mental development.


Steiner & Mahn, (1996) note the benefits of a sociocultural approach are that it allows for an understanding of individuals, “dynamically, within their social circumstances, in their full complexity, we gain a much more complete and a much more valid understanding of them.  We also gain, particularly in the case of minority children, a more positive view of their capabilities and how our pedagogy often constrains…what they do and what they are capable of doing. (p. 202).” Applying Vygotsky to al learning environment can provide insight in enabling a construction of knowledge within a proximal zone of development and understanding how classroom learning can occur as a sociocultural process (Steiner & Mahn, 1996).


John-Steiner, V., & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framework. Educational psychologist, 31(3-4), 191-206.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.).  Retrieved from:  http://home.fau.edu/musgrove/web/vygotsky1978.pdf
Wertsch, J. V. (1994). The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural studies. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), 202-208.

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Harry Stack Sullivan

Interpersonal Psychiatry

“Harry Stack Sullivan was one of the most important seminal thinkers in American psychiatry…He synthesized the contemporary ideas of psychiatry and social science together to form what has been called ‘social psychiatry.’ (Raghueer, 2011, p.87)”  Sullivan’s unique perspective blends insights from the fields of psychiatry with the social sciences.  He describes psychiatry as the “study of processes that involve or go on between people, (Morgan, 2014, p. 2).”

Sullivan on Personality

According to Sullivan: “‘personality’ is itself a hypothetical entity which cannot be isolated from interpersonal situations and, indeed, interpersonal behavior is all that is observable about personality, (Morgan, 2014, p. 2).”  Consequently, he believed it should be understood as a pattern of characteristics that define our relations with others.  Personality characteristics from this perspective are observable traits which define our interpersonal relationships, (Morgan, 2014).  What follows are a few key concepts that define our personalities according to Sullivan:


“Sullivan conceptualized personality as an energy system…existing either as…potentiality for action…or…actions themselves” (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 67).”  Tension, is a term Sullivan uses to define as the “potentiality for action that may or may not be experienced in awareness, (Feist, n.d., p. 217).” In other words, it is a predisposition to act in a particular manner.  Once we act on this tension this energy has transformed into an overt behavior.  Sullivan describes two main types of tensions:


“Needs are tensions brought on by biological imbalance between a  person and the physiochemical environment both inside and outside the organism, (Feist, n.d., p. 217).”  These needs can pertain to physiological needs (i.e. food and oxygen) interpersonal needs, (i.e. tenderness or love), and finally zonal needs (pertaining to a body part).


Anxieties are much more vague, “calling forth a nonspecific action” (Feist, n.d., p. 218).”  Sullivan believed these anxieties are learned from our parents and empathetic connection we have with them during infancy.  While needs generally pertain to normal and healthy tensions, anxieties are disruptive forces in our lives (Raghuveer, 2011).  In addition to disrupting personal relationships, they produce behaviors that are aimed at anxiety relief over learning.  Consequently, people are less liable to learn from their experiences when aiming to relieve anxieties (Feist, n.d.).


Dynamisms refer to behavioral traits or habits that characterize an individual’s approach to life and include two major categories: “first, those related to specific zones of the body…second….composed of three categories – the disjunctive, the isolating, and the conjunctive, (Fiest, et al, n.d. (219).”

Disjunctive Dynamisms (Malevolence)

“The disruptive dynamism of evil and hatred is called malevolence [is] defined by Sulllian as a feeling of living among one’s enemies.” (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 67).”  Sullivan felt this behavior results as a toddler when parents respond to a child’s needs by attempting to ignore or control their behavior (Feist, n.d.).  In time, children learn to protect themselves and limit expression of needs for tenderness and intimacy.

Isolating Dynamisms (Lust)

“Lust is an isolating tendency requiring no other person for its satisfaction…It manifests itself as autoerotic behavior even when another person is the object of one’s lust, (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 220).” It is based solely on sexual gratification.

Conjunctive Dynamisms (Intimacy & The Self System)

INTIMACY – “Grows out of the earlier ned for tenderness but is more specific and involves a close interpersonal relationship between two people who are more or less of equal status, (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 220).”  It facilitates interpersonal development while decreasing both anxiety and loneliness (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 67).”
THE SELF-SYSTEM   –  The self-system is crucial to personal development and consists of behaviors that maintain our sense of personal security by protecting us from feelings of anxiety (Feist, et al, n.d.; Raghuveer, 2011).  In this respect, these behaviors form in response to interpersonal experiences and they can be thought of as “security operations” (Feist, et al, n.d.; Raghueer, 2011)
  1. DISSOCIATION – one type of security operation involves blocking certain experiences out of our awareness (Raghuveer, 2011).
  2. SELECTIVE INATTENTION – “is a refusal to see those things that we do not wish to see, (Feist, et al, n.d.).”  


“Personification consist of an image that an individual has of himself or of some other person.  It is a complex of feelings, attitudes and conceptions that grows out of experience with need-satisfaction. (Morgan, 2014, p. 3).

Good Mother, Bad Mother

This concept, admittedly has a somewhat Freudian feel to it.   “The bad mother/good mother personification results from an infant’s breastfeeding experiences (Morgan, 2014; Raghuveer, 2011).  The bad mother personification is a byproduct of negative breast feeding experiences and the infant’s hunger needs are not met (Feist, n.d.).  As you might expect the good mother personification is a byproduct of positive breastfeeding experiences, (Feist, n.d.).  While the good mother is conceived of as caring and tender, the bad mother is anxious and malevolent.

Me Personifications

“During mid-infancy a child acquires three me personifications (bad-me, good-me, and not-me) that form the building blcks of self-personification (Fiest, n.d., p. 222).”

GOOD ME – is a byproduct of a young child’s experiences of parental approval (Raghuveer, 2011).  Here the child works hard to please and up hold parental standards as a “good me”, (Feist, n.d.).
BAD ME – is a byproduct of a child’s experiences with punishment and disapproval (Raghuveer, 2011).  In this personification, children learn they are “bad” through interactions with parents (Rosenthal, 2005).  
NOT ME – a “not me” personification exists as a byproduct of selective inattention in order to avoid feelings of anxiety or unresolved trauma (Feist, n.d.).  Here, the child choose to avoid experiencing aspects of oneself that are associated with unresolved trauma and anxiety (Feist, n.d.; Rosenthal, 2005).  

Eidetic Personifications

Eidetic personifications are “unrealistic traits or imaginary friends that many children invent in order to protect their self-esteem….[they] can create conflict in interpersonal relations when people project  onto others imaginary traits that are remnants of previous relationships. (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 223).”

Levels of Cognition

Sullivan also describes levels of cognition that function as modes of thinking or experiencing reality, (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 223).”  He has a threefold level of classification for how we experiencing reality (Morgan, 2014):

Prototaxic Level

“Experiences that are impossible to put into words are to communicate to others are called prototaxic. (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 88).”  This level of cognition represents our early modes of experiencing reality during infancy.  For example, “a neonate feels hunger and pain, and these prototaxic experiences result in observable action…[like] sucking or crying. Feist, et al, n.d.).”

Parataxic Level

“Experiences that are pre-logical and nearly impossible to accurately communicate to others are called parataxic (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 88).”  “Parataxic experiences are more clearly differentiated from protaxic experiences but their meaning remains private….[for example]…when a child is conditioned to say ‘please’ in order to receive candy…an illogical belief that a cause-and-effect relationship exists. (Feist, n.d, 224).”  This illogical conclusion is called a parataxic distortion.

Syntaxic Level

Experiences that can be accurately communicated to others are called syntaxic (Raghuveer, 2011, p. 88).”  “Experiences that are consensually validated and that can be symbolically communicated take place on a syntaxic level.  Consensually validated experiences are those on whose meaning two or more persons agree. (Feist, et al, n.d., p. 224).”

Stages of Development

“Interpersonal theory emphasizes the importance of various developmental stages – infancy, childhood, the juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence, and adulthood. (Feist, n.d., p. 213).”  According to Sullivan, healthy development is based on an individuals degree of success in maintaining intimacy in interpersonal relationships throughout life (Feist, n.d., & Morgan, 2014).



Feist, J; Feist, G.J. & Feist, G.J. (n.d.) Theories of Personality. McGraw Hill.  Retrieved from: http://highered.mheducation.com/sites/dl/free/0073532193/993171/Feist7e_Ch8_Sullivan.pdf
Morgan JH (2014) The Interpersonal Psychotherapy of Harry Stack Sullivan: Remembering the Legacy. J Psychol Psychother 4: 162. doi:10.4172/2161-0487.1000162
Raghuveer Reddy G. (2011) The stalwarts: Harry Stack Sullivan. AP J Psychol Med; 12 (2): 87–9.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.

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Margaret Mahler (NeoFreudian)


a psychoanalytic theory of development

The purpose of this post is to review key human growth & development theorists in Rosenthal’s (2005) review for the NCE exam.  In this review, he mentions the work of Margaret Mahler, who I am honestly not familiar with.  She is a contemporary psychoanalyst.   Corey (2015), notes that while this counseling theory has understanding gone significant changes since Freud’s day.  However, all psychoanalysis believe that “we are profoundly affected by experiences with others…over the course of our development…psychological symptoms often have a great deal to do with these experiences, (Corey, 2015, p. 81).”

What is object relations theory?

Object relations theory asserts we can learn about personality development by examining our mental representations of interactions with significant others in early life (Sharf, 2015).  According to this theory, these early mental representations serve as a template for relationships later in life and influence the process of individuate of in adulthood. The word “object” refers to a term used by Freud as anyone or anything that serves a critical need (Corey, 2015).  The relationships we develop with these objects early in life, influence our development into adulthood.  In her theory of development, Mahler rejected Freud’s sexualized perspective.  Instead, she focused “on the child’s progression from a symbiotic relation- ship with a maternal figure toward separation and individuation, (Corey, 2015, p. 81).”  Focusing on the first three years if a child’s life she describes this gradual process of separation in a series of stages…

Mahler’s Stages of Development

Normal Autism

“In the first few weeks of life, babies are driven by primitive needs like eating and sleeping. This is called NORMAL AUTISM, (Rosenthal, 2005).”   During this state we respond only to states physiological states. “Mahler believes the infant is unable to differentiate itself from its mother in many respects at this age. (Corey, 2015, p. 83).”  In other words no mental construct exists in the middle me of either the self or objects (i.e. – anything/anyone that fills a need).


At two months we enter a stage called SYMBIOSIS.  During this stage, the infant is highly dependent on the mother.  “The child feels like he/she is part of the mother – a fusion, This fusion later results in symbiosis implying the two individual’s cannot exist without each other. (Rosenthal, 2005).” Corey (2015 states this stage lasts from approximately 3-8 months.  During this phase infants display a high degree of dependency upon their primary caregiver.  “The infant seems to expect a very high degree of emotional attunement with its mother, (Corey, 2015, p. 83).”

separation & individuation

“From five months – age three the child is in the SEPARATION / INDIVIDUATION PERIOD. The child develops own “self” separate from the caretaker.  The (NCE) could identify this as the DIFFERENTIATION PROCESS. (Rosenthal, 2005).”  During this stage we vacillate ambivalently between dependence and independence.  For example, at the doctor’s office, a toddler can be seen exploring the toys in a waiting room while checking periodically to make sure mom is nearby. “Others are looked to as approving mirrors for the child’s devel- oping sense of self; optimally, these relationships can provide a healthy self- esteem. (Corey, 2015, p. 83).” According to Mahler, BPD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder have developmental roots in this stage.


Rosenthal, (2005) Mahler’s final phase “Rapprochement” & describes it as an alternation between feelings of closeness with a need for distance.   “The ideal mother will provide comfort and reassurance and allow some independence. (Rosenthal, 2005).” Corey, (2015), instead describes this as a final sub phase of separation & individuation.  During this phase toddlers (2-3) display a more fixed mental representation of self and objects.  “Ideally, children can begin to relate without being overwhelmed with fears of losing their sense of individuality, and they may enter into the later psychosexual and psychosocial stages with a firm foundations of selfhood (Corey, 2015, p84).”


Corey, G. (2015). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Retrieved from: http://bk.unesa.ac.id/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Theory_and_Practice_of_Counseling.pdf
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Sharf, R. S. (2015). Theories of psychotherapy & counseling: Concepts and cases. Cengage Learning.

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Freud’s Psychosexual Stages

Whether you like him or not he is the number one figure in the history of psychology.   His contribution to developmental psychology is his Psychosexual Stages….(Rosenthal, 2005).”  “Freud believed that the development of personality and the formation of the id, ego, and superego, as well as ego defense mechanisms, depend on the course of psychosexual development in the first 5 years of life. The psychosexual oral, anal, and phallic stages occur before the age of 5 or 6; then there is a relatively calm period for 6 years (the latency period), followed by the genital stage in adoles- cence, which starts at the beginning of puberty. Freud’s theory is based on bio- logical drives and the importance of the pleasure principle; thus, certain parts of the body are thought to be a significant focus of pleasure during different periods of development (Sharf, 2015, p. 37.”

Oral Stage (1st year)

“Sucking at mother’s breasts satisfies need for food and pleasure. Infant needs to get basic nurturing, or later feelings of greediness and acquisitive- ness may develop. Oral fixations result from deprivation of oral gratification in infancy. Later personality problems can include mistrust of others, rejecting others; love, and fear of or inability to form intimate relationships, (Corey, 2015, p. 67).”

Dependent on Mom.
Occupied with sucking and the mouth (Rosenthal, 2005)
Mouth is the erogenous zone & primary source of pleasure
Oral fixations (smoking) have roots here caused by deprivation of oral gratification in infancy(Rosenthal, 2005).
“Oral personality is clinging and passive/dependent (Rosenthal, 2005).””

Anal Stage (1-3)

“Anal zone becomes of major sig- nificance in formation of personality. Main developmental tasks include learning independence, accepting personal power, and learning to express negative feelings such as rage and aggression. Parental discipline patterns and attitudes have signifi- cant consequences for child’s later personality development, (Corey, 2015, p. 67).”

Developmentally focused on toilet training & self-esteem.

“Anus is the erogenous zone, (Rosenthal, 2005).”
Parents should maintain balance between punishment & reward or conflicts can develop into an anal-retentitive or explosive temperament (Rosenthal, 2005).
Anal-retentive individuals are: “compulsive, unusually neat, frugal, obstinate, hoarder, very orderly, and condescending towards others, (Rosenthal, 2005).
 “Anal-explosive character has a messy desk at work, unclean house, and disorganized…(Rosenthal, 2005).”

Phallic Stage (3-6)

“Basic conflict centers on unconscious incestuous desires that child develops for parent of opposite sex and that, because of their threatening nature, are repressed. Male phallic stage, known as Oedipus complex, involves mother as love object for boy. Female phallic stage, known as Electra complex, involves girl’s striving for father’s love and approval. How parents respond, verbally and nonverbally, to child’s emerging sexual- ity has an impact on sexual attitudes and feelings that child develops, (Corey, 2015, p. 67).”

Child has interest in his/or own genitalia and genitalia of others.
Most controversial component of Freud’s theory = Oedipus / Electra Complex (r/t sexual feelings for opposite sex parent)
    1. Oedipus complex (boys) want all of mom’s attention and dad out of the picture.  Does what is necessary to get attention unconsciously.
    2. Electra complex (girls) Little girl wants to beat out mom for dad’s attention, but when she realizes she can’t, she identifies with aggressor – mom – to resolve this.
Castration complex – There is a fear of castration from dad….somehow causes them to repress Oedipus complex. 
Penis Envy –  “Girl develops negative feelings towards mother when she realizes she lacks a penis. This is parallel to castration anxiety in boys.” (Rosenthal, 2005).

Latency Stage (6-12)

“After the torment of sexual impulses of preceding years, this period is relatively quiescent. Sexual interests are replaced by interests in school, playmates, sports, and a range of new activities. This is a time of socializa- tion as child turns outward and forms relationships with others, (Corey, 2015, p. 67).”

Genital Stage (teens – death)

“Freud concerned himself with childhood development rather than adult development. In the genital stage, the focus of sexual energy is toward members of the other sex rather than toward, (Sharf, 2015, p. 376.”  “Old themes of phallic stage are re- vived…adolescents can deal with sexual energy by investing it in various socially acceptable activities such as forming friendships, engaging in art or in sports, and preparing for a career…. (Corey, 2015, p67).”


Corey, G. (2015). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. Retrieved from: http://bk.unesa.ac.id/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Theory_and_Practice_of_Counseling.pdf
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Sharf, R. S. (2015). Theories of psychotherapy & counseling: Concepts and cases. Cengage Learning.

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Collective Trauma….

The above video was captured as I decided to take my family out to my favorite sushi restaurant.  On this particular evening riots had organized in the Old Market as well as on 120th and Center street.  After speaking with some of the protesters, I had asked someone who had organized the protest.   Apparently, it was organized by a Native American Organization at UNO. In the last week, I’ve had time to absorb the fact that Trump is our next president.   While I tried to limit my social media interactions this week, avoiding political commentary hasn’t been as easy as I hoped.  There are a diversity of reactions both within and amongst the political parties. Everybody has a strong opinion about the results and whose fault it is…

…Today, during a get-together with friends at my house I learned of all the arguing that’s been going down on Facebook lately.  Everybody began describing how the election has actually caused a rifts in relationships with friends and family members.  I was surprised to hear all this since I’m not a big social media fan.  Out of an implicit respect for one another, we avoided the subject of how everyone voted.  Instead, we all concluded the importance of respecting the diversity that this country was built upon.

“In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. ‘Don’t look at Muslims as a monolith. … But everyone who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist.’ That hypocrisy is also real in our country…And so this is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other because America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something. That’s what’s exceptional about America. This ain’t easy. It’s an incredible thing.” – Jon Stewart

So having said this, I feel it is vital to put what has happened lately into a historical and cultural context….

“A splitting also occurs in collective dynamics of trauma, when one part of society suffers the atrocity and another part of society declares that it is time to move on, unwilling or unable to relate the traumatic story as its own. Often the dominant group in society, or the group with the most social power, will not include the traumatic story of an oppressed minority group into its collective ‘narrative’ of events, (Anderson, 2004, p. 21).”
Many of the protests in response to this election reflect unresolved cultural traumas woven throughout the fabric of our nation.
While, the DSM-5 manual discusses trauma from a medical, diagnostic viewpoint, it provides interesting commentary on the culturally relevant diagnostic considerations…
“The risk of onset and severity of PTSD may differ across cultural groups as a result of variation in the type of traumatic exposure…the impact on disorder severity of the meaning attributed to the traumatic event…the ongoing sociocultural context…and other cultural factors (e.g. acculturative stress in immigrants)…the level of severity and meaning of the distressing experiences should be assessed in relation to the norms of the individual’s cultural references groups, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 278-750)”

Considerations such these point at the obvious fact that individuals can’t be extricated from the societies in which they live.   Sociocultural context is a key consideration in the understanding of traumas, since it tends to occur within a specific historical frame of reference.   This fact is especially critical when diagnosing and treating trauma-related disorders since the DSM-5 manual is “largely derived from a Euro-American epistemology, (Stamm, et al, 2004, p. 90).”   What follows is a quick and dirty overview of trauma as a collective and culturally-relevant concept.

What is Collective Trauma?

Personal Background….

As I may have mentioned in a previous posts, I am a student therapist who has been diagnosed with PTSD.  For this reason, I’ve have both a personal and professional interest in trauma. Additionally, as a biracial individual with a mother who grew up in the Philippines during WW2 , I’ve observed that trauma develops at a sociocultural level as well.  In a recent interview for a school assignment, she made the following comment about her early memories during the war:

“I don’t remember much of my early years. I was born in 1938 and the war started in 1941 by the time the war started I was three years old…. I don’t remember much about growing up in a normal sense, such as reading books and going to bed at night since we were refugees of the second world war and were living in caves alongside mountains, growing our own food…”

As a young child, I learned to respect the painful nature of these early painful memories.  For this reason, despite a burning interest in learning how these experiences influenced my mom, I know little about them.  The memories she has shared are simple and sweet, told through the eyes of a child.   She recalls her mother growing a vegetable garden for food.  Oftentimes the peanuts grown by my grandmother were their only source of protein.  She remembers “peeing on the peanuts,” since this helped them grow, while trying to avoid the lettuce.   To this day, she absolutely loves spam as a “delicacy” (in her mind).  When she was a kid, it was always the one thing left behind by the G.I’s that she longed for most.  She also remembers asking the American Soldiers for Chicklets and watching the dog fights in the night sky, unaware that the pretty lights and sounds meant someone was dying.

A Definition

It is against this personal backdrop, that I find myself examining the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election.  Underneath all the strife, are unhealed wounds from America’s History. There’s a saying that I think best summarizes this history:

“Hurt People, Hurt People”

Alexander, et al, (2004), state that “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they had been subjected to a horrendous event that marks their memories forever changing their future identity (p. 1).”  Stamm, et al, (2004) note that “trauma can affect the social fabric of a nation or culture during civil wars or in interactions or conflicts with other cultures or divergent subgroups of the same culture, (p. 90).”

Individual vs. Collective Traumas

“…by individual trauma I mean a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively…by collective trauma…I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. The collective trauma works its way slowly and insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it…a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and therefore an important part of the self has disappeared, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 4).”
Regardless of whether they we are talking about collective or individual traumas, the following symptoms can be observed:

Exposure to Traumatic Events

“The essential feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 274).”

Intrusive Symptoms

Following the occurrence of these traumatic events intrusive symptoms can be observed when events or situations trigger memories of the original trauma.  The American Psychiatric Association, (2013), describes these intrusive symptoms as including distressing memories, dissociative reactions, and emotional flashbacks and “prolonged stress [upon] exposure to…cues that…resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, (p. 271).”

Persistent Avoidance of Stimuli Associated with Trauma

Regarding the diagnosis of PTSD in individuals, the DSM-5 notes that: “the individual commonly makes deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts, memories, feelings, or talking about the traumatic event…and…avoid activities, objects, situations, or people who arouse recollections of it, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).”  An article titled “Collective Trauma: The nightmare of history” (Audergon, 2004), provides an interesting perspective of this symptom from a sociocultural perspective….

Collective traumas affect all segments of a society in different ways.  “One part suffers the atrocity and another part declares it is time to move on, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21)”
 “Often the dominant group….will not include the traumatic story of an oppressed minority group into its collective ‘narrative’, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21)”
This lack of accountability makes it impossible to heal these social wounds.   We become divided and cut off from valuable lessons and knowledge buried within these experiences, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21).
“one part of society ‘goes ahead’ while leaving those who suffered to bear the trauma of their own…bemoan[ing] the fact fact that survivors of a group….cannot seem to leave the story behind, (Auerdgon, 2004, p, 21).

Alterations in arousal, reactivity, mood, & cognition…

According to the DSM-5, alternations in cognition and mood can include “exaggerated negative expectations regarding important aspects of life applied to oneself, others, or the future…., (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p 275).”  While alterations in reactivity can include “heightened sensitivity to potential threats…[and reminders of a] traumatic experience. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”  How does this insight pertain to collective traumas?  Auerdgon, (2004) notes the following:

“While historical revisionism is often thought of in relation to extremist nationalist groups, we all contribute to it when we only become interested in a version of events that protects our interests or innocence.  The result is widespread misinformation and thinking of things….The nightmares of history don’t spontaneously erupt.  Past injustices & traumas remain in the fabric of our collective interactions and are ignited to create war…..(Auerdgon, 2004, pp. 21-23).”

Trauma as Historical Concept

As someone who has struggled with PTSD, I can tell that regarding the unresolved hurts of my past infected every area of my life until I faced them willingly, with a desire to heal. In a nutshell, you perpetuate what you deny & the only way out is through.  Interestingly, these traumas have a silver lining hidden buried beneath the hurt, that only those who have faced them can attest to.

“The manifestations of historical trauma include (a) communal feelings of familial and social disruption, (b) existential depression based on communal disruption, (c) confusion toward owning the ancestral pain accompanied by the temptation to adopt colonial values, (d) chronic existential grief and angst manifested in destructive behaviors, (e) daily reexperiencing of the colonial trauma through racism and stereotyping, and (f) lack of resolution of the existential, communal pain, (Stamm, 2004, pp. 93-94).”

Trauma as Cultural Concept

Culture consists of a shared system of meanings within society that define modes of expression and communication, (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). It influences how we view the world around us and sets the normative standards for behavior (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). As a form of “mental programming” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p282), it defines our value systems and preferred ways of thinking and feeling.   Trauma is also cultural since it can “involve more than physical destruction of people, property, and landscapes….It attacks what constitutes culture of which there are some essential vulnerable elements: body/space practices, religion, history, language, state organization, and economies, (Stamm, et al, 2004, p. 95).  The widespread Native American Genocide in early U.S. history, is just one excellent example of this.

Trauma as a Sociocultural Process

There’s definitely more than a grain of truth the the notion that we perpetuate what we deny. Regarding my own personal traumas, until I let go of my own desire to avoid and deny these memories to myself, I was unable to fully heal.  This unresolved “crap”, infected every area of my life until I was welling to address it honestly with a goal of healing and moving forward.  As I have since discovered, buried deep within these traumatic memories are life lessons that have brought me clarity and a life worth living.  I firmly believe this is something that only those who have truly healed can understand.

This insight alao pertains to the unresolved collective traumas that underlie many of the protests in the recent 2016 presidential election.

When Do Cultural Traumas Emerge from Social Events?

In his book “Cultural Trauma, Collective Identity”, (Alexander, et al, 2004), notes that not all bad things that happen to us influence us traumatically.  “Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain.  it is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity…Collective actors decide to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to [our] sense of who [we] are, where [we] came from and where [we] want to go, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 10).”  What follows is a quick and dirty overview of the factors involve in the re-defining of events as collective & cultural traumas:

FACTOR ONE: Making Claims of Cultural Significance


“The gap between event and representation can be conceived as the ‘trauma process, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 10).”  In other words, the social process of trauma begins with a narrative that claims certain social events represent some fundamental injury that resulted in the destruction of for a collectivity of peoples.  An article by Silver & Updegraff, (2013), provides two interesting insights regarding the nature of collective and individual traumas.

FIRST, utilizing the 9/11/01 Terrorist Attacks, Silver & Updegraff (2013), describe distress reactions to traumatic experiences as a bit of a double edge sword:

“It is also clear that searching for meaning tends to be associated with distress. Of course, the causal direction of this relationship is impossible to clarify definitively. Rather than distress driving the search for meaning or the search for meaning driving distress, it is likely that there is a constant interplay between the two, (Silver & Updegraff, 2013, p. 14)”

NEXT, Silver & Updegraff, (2013) note that man’s search for meaning is what ultimately promotes healing, regardless of the specific meaning we attach to the experience:

“Regardless of the particular form of the explanation, it is thought that making some kind of sense out of a trauma or loss facilitates long-term adaptation. This process appears to take the form of restoring people’s sense of invulnerability and shutting down continued ruminations about the traumatic experience, (Silver & Updegraff, 2013, p. 14).”

FACTOR TWO:  Carrier Groups or “Meaning Makers”

Alexander, et al, (2004) describe carrier groups as the meaning makers in the sociocultural trauma process.  Carrier groups consists of anybody who has a place in the social structure who represents a specific sector or group of individuals.  Examples include religious leaders, politicians, mass media and even celebrities on occasion.  The key factors definitive of a carrier group are (1) an ability to communicate this claim effectively and (2) the power and prestige to be heard, (Alexander, et al, 2004).

FACTOR THREE:  Trauma as a Speech Act

Alexander, et al, (2004) also describes the trauma process as an act of speech and includes the following components:

The Speaker: Carrier Groups, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 11).”
The Audience: The general public who listens to this message (Alexander, et al, 2004).
The Situation: The historical, cultural, and institutional environment within which the speech act occurs, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 11).”  

FACTOR FOUR:  Narrative Development

In order to construct a narrative for the meaning underlying this traumatic event, a storytelling process develops in the speech act between carrier group and society.  This new social narrative encompasses four critical components:

“The nature of the pain…the nature of the victim…the relationship of trauma victims to wider audience…attribution of responsibility, (Alexander, et al, 2004, pp. 14-15).”

FACTOR FIVE: Social Institutions & Stratification Hierarchies

This narrative creates a story that is imbued with meaning.  It defines the nature of social suffering in a particular traumatic event of our culture’s history.  Social institutions including religion, science, government, and science together influence how this meaning-making process unfolds.

FIRSTLY, social institutions influence how the speech act unfolds. Who the carrier groups are and who the audience is and the specific meaning attached to the experience.  For example, religious institutions address the question of “why did God allow this to happen?”
SECONDLY, “The constraints imposed by instution[s] are mediated by an uneven distribution of resources, (Alexander, 2004, p. 15).” Those in power, with dominant social position, are able to create a social narrative that favors their perspective.  This can be seen in the typical U.S. History textbook.
“in 2000, reports surfaced in American media about a massacre of sever hundred of Korean civilians….the U.S. Army declared itself innocent: ‘We do not believe it is appropriate to issue an apology on the matter. [while] some of those civilian casualties, were at the hand of American soldier[s], that conclusion is very different from the allegation that was made that this was a massacre in the classic sense.’ (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 17).”

FACTOR SIX:  Identity Revision

Collective traumas develop as a sociocultural process that defines the nature of an injury, who was the victim, who is the perpetrator, and what are the lasting consequences, (Alexander, et al, 2004).  Our collective identity is continually revised based on the meanings given current events.

“Identities are continually constructed and secured not only by facing the present and future but also by reconstructing the collectivity’s earlier life, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 18).”

In this respect, identity is a fluid concept that is experienced as a collective sense of who we are. It continually evolves based on how integrate current events into our “sense of self”.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed).  Washington, D.C.: Author.
Alexander, J. C., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N. J., & Sztompka, P. (2004). Cultural trauma and collective identity. Univ of California Press.
Audergon, L. (2004). Collective trauma: The nightmare of history. Psychotherapy and Politics International2(1), 16-31.
Chung, R.C.Y. & Bemak, F. (2002) The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development. (80) pp154-158.
Nazir, A, Enz, S, Lim, M.Y., Aylett, R., & Cawsey A. (2009). Culture-personality based affective model. AI & Society. 24(3) pp 281-293.
Silver, R. C., & Updegraff, J. A. (2013). Searching for and finding meaning following personal and collective traumas.  Retrieved from: https://webfiles.uci.edu/rsilver/Silver%20&%20Updegraff%20Searching%20for%20Meaning%202013.pdf
Stamm, B.H., Stamm IV, H.E., Hudnall, A.C., & Higson-Smith, C. (2004).   Considering a theory of cultural trauma and loss.  Journal of Loss and Trauma, 9(89), 111.


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A PTSD Survival Plan….

As I may have mentioned earlier in this blog, I have PTSD.  Coming to terms with this diagnosis has required me to develop a greater understand of the symptoms I’m experiencing.  I’ve also had to accept that I’ve had this disorder for much of my life.   My perception of “normal” is therefore skewed and I’m left wondering what it might feel like….

…The other concern which occupies my mind is the fact that this diagnosis has no cure.  Coming to terms with this fact has required me to fully develop a realistic understanding of healing means.  PTSD is managed and not cured.  This has been a bitter pill to swallow.  I mourn what could have been, and feel like a cumulative byproduct of others’ opinions about me.  I have to accept, regretfully, that I allowed the worst of my bully’s words throughout life, to become my truth.  Overcoming the cumulative byproduct of these early traumas has consumed much of my life.  On the alter of healing, a potential of “what could have been” has been sacrificed.  My own personal sense of self, has been consumed by external factors including a socially-relevant idea of my utilitarian value.  I feel like a man in a monkey suit with a scarlet letter sewn on front.  The fact that this perceived value has no basis in reality of my ultimate worth seems pointless.  I protest against the idea that anybody external to myself defines my ultimate worth.  However, by iterating this fact, I feel like that kid in story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  At times I speak the truth and yet get crucified for it.  It seems as if the rules of the game in life are set up to drive me mad.  Socially relevant “truths” carry the weight of a collective systems of belief in which the majority of us play by the rules unquestioningly.  Acting otherwise seems like a radical idea to some….

…..And as I read this stream-of-thought, I realize it reflects intrusive memories of recent events that have trigged painful memories, I had naively believed were buried in the past….

A Trigger & Reminder…

“The traumatic event can be re-experienced in various ways.  Commonly, the individual has recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive recollections of the event…depressive rumination…intrusive distressing memories….(American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”

The above video, provides a good sampling of the rhetoric I’ve heard during this election.  I brought it up on the November 8th, as the election results began pouring in.  Its worth noting, that my husband and I have divergent political beliefs.  He is an ardent conservative and Trump supporter.  I am a progressive who voted for Hillary in the hopes of preventing a Trump presidency. As I expressed my concerns regarding this hateful rhetoric, memories of a time long ago rendered my brain.   Feelings of shame fell over me as memories of past abuse flashed through my mind.   I began crying uncontrollably, as my husband immediately dismissed my concern, iterating the what he heard that night on the Fox network.

Before I begin, I must admit I’m not a very politically-minded person and this post has nothing to do with who is president.  It is a personal recollection of an experience that points out vividly the lasting impact of PTSD on my daily life.  

Needless to day, shock & panic took over as this year’s election results began pouring in.   Panic & anxiety set in as I struggled to understand his appeal. The very idea that Donald Trump would be president horrified me.   My mind vacillated between shock and horror, panic, and numbness.   As this painful reality set in, I describe how hurtful Trumps words were for me to hear as a trauma survivor.   Rather than providing comfort and an empathic ear, he became defensive and angry.   Misperceiving my concerns as an attack of his own political beliefs began criticizing and attacking everything I said.   This sent me into an emotional tailspin.   I ran headlong into an interaction that was reminiscent of a child that involved a complete dismissal of my thoughts and feelings.

As I struggle to manage the effects of this election on our marriage, I came to realize my symptoms were evidence of a diagnosis and not an ardent political belief system.  I’m coming to the realization that I need to take this PTSD diagnosis seriously.  What is it that causes these emotional flashbacks and the painful distressing memories?  

A Survival Tool-Kit…

What follows is a quick list of steps I can take to manage trauma triggers and the emotional flashbacks that might ensue.  I need a plan of action, to endure the resulting PTSD symptoms should they flood my mind.  Mind you this is something I create for my own benefit.  I’m not an expert here, I’m a sufferer who is learning to cope.  Here’s what I’m doing now & what appears to be working.  In this respect, it is a quick reminder on how to survive emotional flashbacks, should they recur.

STEP ONE:  Find a Psychiatrist.

Currently I’m only seeing a therapist.  I am not taking any medications and don’t have a psychiatrist following my case, since the one who diagnosed me retired.  This first step is much more frustrating that I might have imagined.  However, I’m happy to admit I’ve finally find somebody.

STEP TWO:  Identifying Trauma Triggers.

“Trauma triggers are reminders of a traumatic experience that provoke continued trauma symptoms. Trauma triggers can be internal or external stimuli, (Trauma triggers, 2012).”  At myptsd.com, site owner Anthony, makes a point of arguing the semantics of what is and/or isn’t a trigger, according to his self-imposed expertise (myptsd.com, 2015).  As a sufferer I don’t feel these semantics are of any value.  Instead, for survival purposes, self-awareness is the ultimate goal.  What is it that has produces these painful reactions to reminders of past traumas?  The DSM-5 manual notes the foll0wing about trauma triggers:

“[they can be] events that resemble or symbolize an aspect of the traumatic event, (e.g. windy days after a hurricane, seeing someone who resembles one’s perpetrator”.  The triggering cue could be a physical sensation (dizziness….rapid heartbeat). (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”

“Even though it may sometimes feel like PTSD symptoms come out-of-the-blue, [they] rarely spontaneously occur….cued by something in our internal (thoughts or feelings) or external environment (…a stressful situation). (Tull, 2016a).”  It is for this reason, that the above description from the DSM-5 manual is useful as a jumping off point.   The following questions are posed in an article I found online titled: “How to Identify & Cope with your PTSD triggers?” (Tull, 2016a).

FIRSTLY, “what types of situations are you in (Tull, 2016a)?”

Utilizing the above example, I was in the middle of a conversation with my husband.   Throughout the election, the rhetoric (see video) has been hard for me to take in.  When I expressed my horror that a man with corrupt value system was in office, he became angry.  He began dismissing my perspective and refused to hear my concerns.  A critical aspect of this exchange reminded me of that bad relationship from long ago where my feelings were continually dismissed and belittled.   While not intended, my mind was thrown into a wellspring of negative emotions.  

SECONDLY, “What is happening around you (Tull, 2016a)?”

We were in the basement watching television together.  The kids were upstairs playing.  I remember feeling exhausted, still recovering after a three-day weekend night shift.   I drifted in and out of consciousness, taking cat naps throughout that evening.  Realizing our divergent political belief systems were problematic this election season, we’ve avoided the subject.  That evening we had agreed to not watch the results together.

With an f-d up sleep schedule, I found myself battling insomnia at 1 a.m.  I took out my iPad and decided to read a few blogs I like to follow.  The post I found announcing Trump’s win was unexpected, since this specific blog doesn’t cover the subject of politics.  As I started crying, my husband rolled over and asked me what I was reading.  This is when the conversation happened and things went downhill.

THIRDLY, “What kind of emotions are you feeling (Tull, 2016a)?”

A mixture of anxiety, fear, and depression overcame me.  They were to remain for the rest of the week as I began feeling I was left to “white knuckle it”.  Desperate for a magic “happy pill” to make the feelings go away, I was angry at myself for not finding a new psychiatrist since my last one retired.  Finally, I can’t help but compare my reaction to others’ I know who voted against Trump.  While my parents and sister were shock and worried about the nation’s future, somehow they remained more in control.  Like the above video, they found some ability to remain positive and keep things in perspective.  My mind, on the other hand, began spinning out of control…..

FOURTH, What thoughts are you experiencing (Tull, 2016a)?”

Intrusive and painful memories entered my mind.  I tried willing them to go away, but somehow found this impossible.  The most exquisitely painful memories that still haunt me, aren’t physical abuses, but simply harsh and abusive words.  Nothing can scar your soul more that emotional abuse and an endless barrage of hate and contempt.  The painful aspect of these experiences that still haunts me is that nobody acknowledged my feelings.  They did these mean things to me and let it known to me that it was my fault and I deserved what I got.  Somehow this fucked-up sentiment hurt the worst.

FIFTH, What does your body feel like (Tull, 2016a)?”

My body drifts back and fourth between a state of hyper-arousal and dissociative numbing. At a moments when the emotional pain is literally excruciating, I curse my family and their undying love for me.  If it wasn’t for this, I could just “off” myself and be done with it.  Enduring somehow has felt like a curse.  However, much I want to live and keep going, the struggle has been difficult.

STEP THREE:  Distract First…

When experiencing flashbacks or dissociative symptoms, first distract then challenge.  Distraction techniques involve “coping tools designed to ‘ground’ you in the present moment…so you can retain your connection with the present moment, (Tull, 2016b).”  The DBT distress tolerance and mindfulness skills described in this blog are useful as a jumping off point.  Distracting ourselves from a situation or trigger that can cause us pain, can ground us as we focus on the five senses (Tull, 2016b).  For example, one client I met recently has an aromatherapy glass roll-on bottle which she carries everywhere.  I, on the other hand, have utilized calming music, exercise or mandalas as a tool for distraction.

STEP FOUR:  Challenge Second….

Anthony at myptsd.com (2015), makes a useful point regarding ptsd triggers:

“Categorize your triggers as realistic or unrealistic. You may want outside opinions on this….Review your cognitive biases based on your immediate thoughts and reactions to the trigger, and have counter-statements prepared to confirm the unrealistic aspect of the trigger, (myptsd.com, 2015).”

This suggestion is useful in developing an awareness of how PTSD symptoms often reflect past events or unresolved cognitive biases, and not present situations.  Marsha Linehan’s emotional regulation skills a re useful in challenging our emotions and thoughts.  The ultimate goal here is thinking through them and not with them.

STEP FIVE:  Seek Support.

Tull (2016b), suggests finally, to utilize any support system we have in place.  “If you know that you may be at risk for a flashback or dissociation by going into a certain situation, bring along some trusted support.  Make sure that the person you bring with you is also aware of your triggers and knows how to tell and what to do when you are entering a flashback or dissociative state, (Tull, 2016b).”  My husband, sister, and parents have been a critical first line of defense here.

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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing
myptsd.com (2015, September, 2). PTSD Triggers.  What triggers PTSD symptoms?  Retrieved from:  https://www.myptsd.com/how-to-use-triggers-as-a-means-to-recovery/291/
TRAUMA TRIGGERS. Encyclopedia of Trauma. Jan. 1, 2012.
Tull, M., Phd. (2016a, May, 4)  How to identify and cope with your PTSD triggers.  Retrieved from:  https://www.verywell.com/ptsd-triggers-and-coping-strategies-2797557
Tull, M., Phd. (2016b, September, 6).  Coping With Flashback and Dissociation in PTSD.  Retrieved from:  https://www.verywell.com/coping-with-flashbacks-2797574

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Lawrence Kohlberg

“Morality refers to the capacity to make judgments about what is right versus what is wrong…it is preferring to act in ways that are judged to be right, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 222).”


Kohlberg is another stage-theorist in the field of human development (Broderick, 2010). He focused on the nature of moral reason and its development in late childhood and adolescence. His theory is comprised of three primary stages: a pre-conventional stage, conventional stage, and post-conventional stage.  Like Piaget and Erickson, he stated that this development was hierarchical and progressive in nature (Broderick, 2010).

Within each stage, Kohlberg conceived a qualitatively unique pattern of thought (Kassin, 2001; Rest, 1969). Kohlberg’s stages are based on unique patterns of moral thinking (Kassin, 2001; Rest, 1969). In other words, rather than just on prosocial behavior in itself, Kohlberg felt it is more important to understand what produces it (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010)

According to Kohlberg, moral behavior has innate biological origins and is more than just a set of socially defined concepts (Rest, 1969; Walsh, 2000). Additionally moral reasoning includes both emotional and cognitive components (Rest, 1969; Walsh, 2000).  A child’s developing understanding of concepts and their emotional reactions them together produce a child’s developing moral thought (Rest, 1969; Walsh, 2000).

Piaget’s influence

Kohlberg studied Piaget’s States of Development and in particular of individual’s moral development in early childhood.  Like William Perry, Kohlberg beat his theory on Piaget’s insights, whose discussion of moral development only includes childhood stages and milestones.   Piaget’s stages of moral development includes three stages: (1) Premoral Period, (2) Heteronomous Morality, and (3_ Autonomous Morality (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).

Premoral Period

Piaget described preschool aged children as having premoral thjinking since they appear unconcerned about established rules or moral standards, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).  At this age, they make up their own rules, and are focused instead on making sense of sensory information and developing motor abilities.

Heteronomous Morality

Around the age of 5 children begin to display heteronomous morality (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). This moral thinking involves following rules determined by authority figures.   At this stage, children have an absolutist moral standard in which rules are strictly adhered to and immutable, (Broderick & Blewwitt, 2010).  They must be obeyed, and violations always result in punishment.

Autonomous Morality

As individuals enter adolescence, their thinking becomes more autonomous.  “They begin to understand that rules are based on social agreements that can be changed, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 224).” Consequently, they are understood as being arbitrary, and open for negotation in accordance with the principles of “cooperation, equality, and reciprocity. (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).

Stages of Moral Development


As is noted in the above diagram, Kohlberg further refines Piaget’s insights by providing a much more detailed description of individual moral development.  “Unlike Piaget’s dilemmas, which focused on everyday challenges…., (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225)” Kohlberg’s challenges involve extraordinary challenges, that produce broad philosophical concerns.  His stages of moral development are described in greater detail below:

Preconventional Level

Occurring between the ages of 2-7, pre-conventional morality is guided by the consequences of one’s actions.  Behavior at this stage is guided by the concepts of punishment and reward (Rosenthal, 2005).  Broderick & Blewitt, (2010) note that this stage reflects Piaget’s heteronomous moral level. Thinking is guided by a self-serving standards and authority is unquestioned.  This Level contains two stages described as follows:

STAGE #1: “Punishment & Obedience”

During this stage, the child “obeys in order to avoid punishment and because authority is assumed to be superior or right.  Rules are interpreted literally, no judgment is involved, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).”

STAGE #2: “Concrete, Individualistic Orientation”

Next, in the pre-conventional level is the development of of an individualistic and instrumental orientation.  During this stage, the child follows rules in order to serve his or her own interests.  Occasionally, this stage also involves a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010)”, as other’s needs are also considered at times.

Conventional Level

Occurring during early adolescence, the conventional level involves “living up to standards set by your family, the nation or your culture, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  Consistent with Piaget’s autonomous morality, this thinking depends on the approval of others.  Success is a “byproduct of your ability to identify with those in power and live according to socially-defined rules, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  It contains two substages:

Stage #3: Good Boy / Good Girl Morality

During this stage, morality is guided by a desire to attain approval from others (Rosenthal, 2005). Described as the “Social-Relational Perspective” in Broderick & Blewitt (2010), it focuses on activities and attitudes helpful to one’s social group, (i.e. helpfulness, forgiveness, and generosity).

Stage #4: Law and Order Morality

During this stage, members are focused on maintaining social order (Rosenthal, 2005).  Behaviors are guided by social order and geared toward the contribution of the social system.  Individuals are oriented toward valuing obeying the law and working hard.

Postconventional Level

In Kohlberg’s final stage of morality individuals act on the basis of self-defined principles, (Rosenthal, 2005).  Post-conventional morality is defined by universal principles.   It includes the following sub-stages:

Stage #5: Prior Rights & Social Contract

During this stage, “individuals want to maintain respect with equals in the community, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  Moral thought is based upon the social contract and serving “democratic principles and individual rights, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).”

Stage #6: Universal Ethical Principles

In Kohlberg’s final stage of moral development, individual’s are concerned with adhering universal ethical principles and equal rights.  “Abstract moral principles are valued over anything else (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 225).”


Broderick, P.C. & Blewitt, P. (2010). Life Span Development: Human Development for Helping Professionals. (3rd. Ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Puka, B. (2002). The DIT and the ‘Dark Side’ of Development. Journal Of Moral Education, 31(3), 339-352. doi:10.1080/0305724022000008157
Kassin, Paul. (2001). Psychology. (3rd Ed.). Upper Saddle Creek River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Rest, J., Turiel, E., & Kohlberg, L. (1969). Level of moral development as a determinant of preference and comprehension of moral judgments made by others. Journal Of Personality, 37(2), 225-252.
Walsh, C. (2000). The life and legacy of Lawrence Kohlberg. Society. 37(2) 36-41.


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William Perry

After reviewing Piaget’s theory in his review of Human Growth and Development perspectives for the NCE, Rosenthal, (2005) then discusses the work of William Perry, who builds upon Piaget’s insights.  In his 1970 book, “Forms of Intellectual & Ethical Development”, Perry describes a stage theory of intellectual and moral development in adolescent and adulthood.  His theory describes a transition of moral and ethical development of students in higher education settings “from absolute adherence to authority to beliefs founded on personal commitment, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 364).”  His study involved a series of extensive interviews of students in the 50’s and 60’s.  He describes a nine of growth from dualistic to relativistic thinking.

Stage #1: Strict Dualism

Rosenthal (2005) describes dualistic thinking as an black and white moral perspective common in teens that differentiates things in terms of right/wrong and good bad.  “Strict dualistic thinking implies a rigid adherence to authoritarian views, a childlike division between in-group and out-group, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 365).” Authority figures are not questioned and their dictations of right/wrong determine one’s moral thinking.

Stage #2: Multiplicity (Pre-legitimate)

This stage begins as a individuals begin to acknowledge that there are multiple viewpoints on matters with each contradicting the other (Rosenthal, 2005).  While maintaining a belief in authority figures and right/wrong thinking, a sense of confusion and uncertainty set in.

Stage #3: Multiplicity (Subordinate)

In this stage, “the individual grudgingly acknowledges the reality and legitimacy of multiple perspectives, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 366).”  Unable to readily dismiss viewpoints that contradict our own.  As individuals begin questioning authority figures, it dawns on us that we’re forced to figure things out ourselves.

Stage #4: Late Multiplicity

During late multiplicity, individuals that even authorities disagree regarding what is right or wrong. Perry observed two responses to this.  With the oppositional solution, “either authority is right, or no one is right, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 365).”  In contrast, the relative subordinate response involves evaluating some positions as more legitimate than others, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Individuals begin engaging in a metacognitive endeavor that involves examining how “rational arguments are constructed and weighed, (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010, p. 366).”

Stage #5: Contextual Relativism

Rosenthal, (2005), describes relativistic thinking as moral thought process which acknowledges that there’s more than one way of seeing the world.  It is a major leap forward in one’s moral thinking since it no longer encompasses black and white thinking.  Instead critical thinking and judgment guide an individual’s moral thinking.   Individuals here are no longer able to “accept the fiction that everyone’s ideas are as good as everyone else’s, (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010, p. 367).”  Students appreciate examining mental perspectives and develop a tolerance and respect of other perspectives

Stages #6-9: Commitment

In these final stages, individual’s “make a decision on how they will view the world, while realizing they may modify this choices based on new information, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  My course textbook describes this commit as a process.  This process begins with individuals foreseeing a commitment process.  They begin affirming their beliefs, while realizing that absolute proof is never possible (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).  However, Perry also describes individuals who refrain from full commitment, by either remaining at a relativist perspective, or retreating to dualism for a sense of security that can come with absolutist thinking (Broderick, & Blewitt, 2010).


Broderick, P.C. & Blewitt P. (2010). The Life Span: Human Development for Helping Professionals. 3rd Ed. New Jersey: Pearson.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.

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Jean Piaget – Stages of Development

Biographical Overview

Jean Piaget was born on August 9th, 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland.  “He published his first paper at age 11 and wrote over 30 volumes without any formal training or degree in psychology. “In 1918, Piaget received his Doctorate in Science from the University of Neuchâtel. He worked for a year at psychology labs in Zurich and at Bleuler’s famous psychiatric clinic. During this period, he was introduced to the works of Freud, Jung, and others, (Boeree, 2006, p. 2).”  Trained in zoology, he worked with Alfred Binet on first intelligence test, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  Criticized for his research methods, he was interested in understanding how children solved problems, (Rosenthal, 2005).   He considered himself the father of a new field called “genetic epistemology”, a field that focuses on the study of the development of knowledge, (Boeree, 2006).  He married his wife in 1921 and they had three children together.  Between 1929 and 1968 he was the director of the International Bureau of Education.  In 1940, “He became chair of Experimental Psychology, the Director of the psychology laboratory, and the president of the Swiss Society of Psycholoby, (Boeree, 2006, p. 2).”   Later in his career he was bestowed several honorary degrees and held a position as professor (Boeree, 2006).  He died on September 16, 1980 in Geneva.  Rosenthal, (2095), calls him a “Developmental Structuralist” since he believed there universal stages of psychological developmen. Rosenthal, (2005), also calls him a  Universal Constructivist – the stages of developmental are universal and the child literally constructs his/her cognitive development. Heredity is responsible for unfolding the stages.

“Forces driving Piaget’s theory[include]…(1) Piaget was an evolutionary biologist. (2) Therefore, he believed that all organisms must adapt to survive. (3) Adaptation takes place at the species level phylogenetically. (4) Adaptation also takes place at the individual level ontogenetically. (5) Intelligence happens in biological organisms. (6) Therefore, intelligence is a biological process. (7) There intelligence adapts. (8) Because intelligence adapts ontogenetically, we should be able to observe it in the development of children. (Piaget, 1952)”

Key Concepts

Genetic Epistemology

Piaget did not call himself a psychologist.  He described his research as “genetic epistemology”.  While genetic refers to mechanisms of heredity epistemology refers to the formation and development of knowledge.  In other words, Piaget is interested in universal aspects of human cognitive development that reflect how we develop knowledge of the world around us.


Piaget defines schemas as building block of knowledge that allow children to interact with their environment  (Piaget, 1952). Schemas provide mental representations of the world and help us make sense of what we encounter.  Rosenthal (2005), describes schemas as reflecting the “way a person acquires knowledge about the world….[they are comprised of] patterns of organized thought or behavior” As children grow, they develop sensorimotor skills that reflect their exploration of the environment and growing knowledge about the world (Boeree, 2006).  Piaget describes this growing knowledge as an internalized schema or mental representation of the world around him.  Later schemas grow out of earlier ones.

Assimilation & Accommodation

“Assimilation and accommodation work like pendulum swings at advancing our understanding of the world and our competency in it, (Boeree, 2006, p. 3).”  They are complementary processes that together guide the development of our cognitive processes and developing schema about the world.  Rosenthal (2005) states that “Humans strive for ‘equilibration’ between these two processes.”


“Assimilation involves learning from an existing scheme or taking inknowledge by using an existing cognitive structure, (Rosenthal, 2005).”  For example assimilating a new object into an old schema might involve learning about the texture of different objects by putting them in your mouth, (like a rattle versus a pacifier).


In contrast,  accommodation involves the development of a new cognitive structure to deal with new information or situations.  For example, a child who is breastfed must learn a new schematic approach to drinking from a cup.   In other words, while assimilation involves building upon old knowledge, accommodation involves the development of knew knowledge.

Developmental Stages

Sensorimotor Stage

“The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to about two years old. As the name implies, the infant uses senses and motor abilities to understand the world, beginning with reflexes and ending with complex combinations of sensorimotor skills, (Boeree, 2006, p. 3).” Rosenthal, (2005), notes that behavior is reflexive in nature and learning is focused on sensory information.   Key developmental milestones during this stage include: object permanence (representational thought), time and causality (Rosenthal, 2005).

Sub Stage #1: Utilizing reflexes

Since Piaget conceived thinking [as] a biological process that allows [us] to adapt to the world, (Piaget, 1952, p. 25).” Reflexive behaviors like sucking existed as our earliest schematic and evolutionary adaptation to the environment.  As infants initiate these reflexive behaviors they are refined as a byproduct of environmental requirements.  For example, bottle fed babies learn to suck differently than Breastfed babies.

Sub Stage #2: Primary circular reactions

The second Sub-Stage occurs between the ages of one and four months and involves the utilization of reflexive behavior for purposes of enjoyment rather her than as a response to stimuli (Boeree, 2006; Piaget, 1952).  These circular reasoning actions involve activities like thumb-sucking, and serves as a stimulus to which the baby responds with the same action. (Boeree, 2006).

Sub Stage #3: Secondary circular reactions

The third sensorimotor sub-Stage occurs between 4-12 months and involves a more complex array of circular reactions (Boeree, 2006; Piaget, 1952).  During this Stage, primary circular activities involving one’s body are applied instead to the environment.  For example, babies make gut stop sucking their thumb and instead utilize a rattle or pacifier.  The point is, secondary circular reactions are functionally identical to primary circular reactions, while focused instead on the environment.

Sub Stage #4: Tertiary circular reactions

“Between 12 months and 24 months, the child works on tertiary circular reactions, (Boeree, 2006).”   At this stage, babies begin refining their schemas further in accordance with environmental feedback (Piaget, 1952).   This stage involves an “active experimentation that involves] discovering new and interesting way of [doing things], (Boeree, 2006, p. 4).”  Circular reactions in this stage, are aimed at producing new effects towards unique goals.  While previous stages are aimed at learning about the environment, this stage involves learning how aspects of our environment interact with one another (Boeree, 2006).   Gravity is a convenient example.

Sub Stage #5:  Developing mental representations

Around a year and a half, children are developing mental representations of their world.   Internalized schemas provide a template for how a child can anticipate responding to certain situations.  Holding these experiences in our memory can allow us to replicate a response when  we encounter a similar situation (Boeree, 2006).

Preoperational Stage

Lasting from ages 2-7, this stage involves the development of symbolic thinking.   Piaget describes symbols as thoughts or mental representations which represent something else.  These symbols encompass images and words as the child develops language while engaging in creative/pretend play (Boeree, 2006; Rosenthal, 2005).  The key development occurring at this age includes thinking of objects in the environment at times when they are not present.  They exist instead in the mind as symbols or schema.  This allows for the development thought – what Piaget calls an “operation” (Rosenthal, 2005).  Key characteristics of this stage include egocentric thinking, pretend play, and language development (Rosenthal, 2005).

Concrete Operational Stage

The concrete operational stage occurs from ages 7-11.  Piaget uses the words operation to refer to “logical operations or principles we can use when solving problems, (Boeree, 2006, p. 6).”  At this stage, children are able to hold symbols in their mind as mental representations of objects in the world and manipulate them.   This can allow children to comprehend the viewpoint of others and mentally manipulate objects (Rosenthal, 2005).  Key developmental tasks include an understanding of math concepts, classification, serialization, reversibility of objects, and conservation of matter (Boeree, 2006; Rosenthal, 2005).

Formal Operational Stage

Occurring between the ages of 11-15, and involves the development of abstract, hypothetical, deductive reasoning (Rosenthal, 2005).  Once symbolic play and mental imagery have developed, abstract representations are able to be reorganized into a a representative thought (Piaget, 1972).  This allows us to think of possibilities and hypotheticals as we experiment with concepts in order to solve problems and understand metaphors (Rosenthal, 2005).  For example, when investigating a problem, children at this age can assess possible solutions as follows (Boeree, 2006).   Adolescents are able to tackle subjects like algebra (Rosenthal, 2005).  Key developmental accomplishments include the presence of abstract thought and mature moral thinking.  Piaget felt that only about 50% of the population, actually reached this stage (Rosenthal, 2005).



Boeree, G. (2096). Jean Piaget.  Retrieved from:  http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/Piaget.html

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children.  Retrieved from:  http://www.bxscience.edu/ourpages/auto/2014/11/16/50007779/Piaget%20When%20Thinking%20Begins10272012_0000.pdf

Piaget, J. (1972). Intellectual Evolution from Adolesence to Adulthood.  Retrieved from:  http://www.fondationjeanpiaget.ch/fjp/site/textes/VE/JP70_Evolut_Intellect_Adoles_Adulte.pdf

Piaget, J. (2013). The construction of reality in the child (Vol. 82). Routledge.

Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.

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