Parents and other significant people perform the function of selfobject as children internalize what they need from them to create their own sense of self. Children become deeply attached to their parents or significant caregivers as their basic needs are met. When a mother feeds her child in response to cries of hunger, the child learns to count on the mother and learns to trust her. A similar process of interaction occurs with the father or other selfobject. When an infant is held and makes eye contact with a parent while he babbles, and the parent mimics the sound in return, a bond is made.
The tender give-and-take in this kind of interchange between a parent and child is called mirroring. This is how the child incorporates the parent into his/herself as his/her self-concept is strengthened through the mirroring. Both parents become incorporated into the child’s sense of self in this way; therefore, both parents are an integral part of the child’s inner self.
But what happens when the parents are not perfect, and the child does not have all his needs perfectly met? After all, constant perfection is not a very realistic expectation for anyone, parents included. What happens is, the child develops a sense of the ideal. In other words, when he is not fed promptly when he is hungry, his experience of sometimes being fed on time, and sometimes not, helps him stretch to form a sense of the ideal. He knows what he wants even when it is not happening, so he can formulate for himself an ideal that he can incorporate into his unique self and for which he can strive. When his parents provide an idealizing as well as a mirroring function, it means that the parents provide a calm presence of strength and wisdom which allows the child to create his own ideals.
The parent-child relationship is a complex one, built upon repeated interactions over the years. Sometimes there are ruptures to the relationship that can be either small or large. It is the frequency of the ruptures and whether they are sufficiently repaired by more positive interaction that determines the severity of the rupture. Ernest Wolf, a well-known self-psychologist who worked with Heinz Kohut, uses the following example to illustrate first a failure of the mirroring function and then of an idealizing function in the parent-child relationship:
A little girl works hard drawing a wonderful picture, which she proudly brings home to show her mother.
“Look, Mommy, look at what I made for you!” she says as she bursts in the door, expecting her mother to be delighted.
“Oh, that’s nice . . . but wait until you hear what I did today . . .”
This creates a rupture in the relationship.
This mother does not mirror her child’s delight and need for recognition for having created the picture. Instead, the mother is focused on herself and demands acknowledgment for herself from her daughter, instead of the other way around. This creates a rupture in the relationship rather than building a bond to develop her daughter’s sense of self. Her daughter’s sense of self-esteem and accomplishment is not met by the “gleam in the mother’s eye,” to use Kohut’s phrase. An occasional interaction like this does not necessarily cause harm; it is the net result of many interactions over time that forms the self-concept of the child.
Likewise, a little boy who idolizes his father and wants his father to teach him to play baseball can become deflated when his father, who cannot stand to be idolized due to his own sense of inadequacy, instead leaves his son and opts to go by the bar for a drink or withdraw into his work.
Now think about what it was like for my son (or any other alienated child) who had incorporated both parents into his concept of himself to be suddenly told by his father that his mother had abandoned him. What happened to his sense of self when he was kept away from me for four years while being told I did not care about him?
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