Object Relations Disturbance in the
First Two Years of Life:
A Preliminary Report
Fiffi Piene, Ph.D.
Harriet Simonsen, M.D.
In recent years we have been seeing with increasing frequency a kind of developmental disturbance in children, usually leading to restlessness and learning difficulties. The development of concept formation and thinking ability in these children is retarded when compared to the development of their motor activity and their abilities to cope with practical tasks. Psychotherapy demonstrates a special pathology, and long-term treatment is necessary, for the foundation of the developmental disturbance seems to have been laid down in the first years of life.
A pilot study of a number of mother/child pairs gave us some clues regarding the connection between the child's uneven development and the emotional disturbance in the mother‐ child relationship during the child's second year of life. On the basis of this information we have instituted a special program for the treatment of such children in a day-care setting, and we have begun an investigation of the early development of object relations in these children. Currently, ten children from one to two years of age are in treatment. We have followed them from their initial evaluation, through the course of their psychotherapy and in the day-care program, which they attend simultaneously, using direct observation and videotape recording as the major methodological tools.
The theoretical basis for the project is provided by the theories and studies of Margaret Mahler (Mahler et al., 1975), the main hypothesis being that these children do not negotiate the rapprochement phase in the usual way. As the work has progressed, our studies of the pathology evident in the rapprochement phase have led us to focus more closely on the preceding practicing period.
According to Mahler, a special link has been established between the mother and the child during the practicing period. We have come to look at that link as an elastic cord that can become longer and shorter as necessary. Children of that age (roughly nine to eighteen months) are occupied with the investigation of the world and the things they see. At the same time, they need the mother as a source of the reinforcement they must have in order to go out into the world again.
In the children we have been observing, the elastic cord seems to function very poorly between mother and child, or even to be nonex