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:
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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