A similar use of developmental theory and observations occurs in another major contemporary school, that of self psychology. Led by Kohut, self psychologists focus their attention on the qualities and consequences of early child-parent interactions. A core technical term is self-object, which refers to Kohut’s explication of the parent’s ability to maintain a child’s self-esteem. In a broader sense, the term encompasses all the ways a parent provides ego functioning for a child, not just the regulation of self-esteem. A self-object has three crucial characteristics: (1) It is a person, (2) who performs ego functions for another person, and (3) who cannot perform them for the person’s self. Failures in self-object regulation between infant and adult occur because failure occurs in one or all three parts of the infant-adult interaction. For example, an infant who is grossly impaired neurologically may not be able to receive and process what would otherwise be good-enough care. When it seems possible to locate the source of self-object failure in the parent’s response, and not in the child’s neurologic defects, we can speak about parental failures in empathic communication. Better yet, we can speak of partial failures in empathic communication and partial failures, therefore, in ego maturation.
Observational evidence for self-object functioning derives from Demos, who expands the notion of empathic communication by distinguishing six types of infant-parent interaction. Because one can see transference events as repetitions of previous ruptures in child-parent interaction, Demos’s six types pertain also to types of intervention. Relying in part on a psychoanalytic theory of affect, Demos suggests we can isolate a three-part sequence in the development of strong affects in an infant: (1) A triggering event or stimulus evokes an affect in the infant; (2) the affect (negative-like shame, or positive-like excitement) occurs; and (3) the infant responds to the affect by defense and “planning” a future response.
A well-functioning parent may recognize the triggering event, identify correctly the infant’s affect state, and recognize the infant’s struggle to deal with its affect. In addition,”. . .she can decide to respond to none, some, or all three components [of the infant’s experience]; and her response can take a variety of forms” (Demos 1984a, p. 18). From this theorem, and an associated claim that empathy is inference about the inner state of another person, Demos generates a six-part typology (Table 4-5). Each type describes how a parent (she focuses only on mothers) interacts with the infant at a specific moment.
In type I interactions, the parent recognizes the trigger, recognizes the particular affect it arouses, and recognizes how the child attempts to cope with that affect. By acting appropriately the parent can decrease or end the child’s negative affect and increase the child’s positive affect. Type I interaction is the “purest” moment of empathic understanding between parent and child, but it may be neither always ideal nor always possible. Type II interaction, in which the parent cannot immediately reduce negative affect but can prolong positive affect, is a feature of much parenting (eg, a visit to the dentist).
Like other analytic theorists, Demos suggests that parents who are less attuned to their child’s inner world, and who either misinterpret or ignore the process that produces negative affect in their children, produce the sickest children. Type V and type VI interactions generate the most severe deprivations. As Mahler found in her classic studies, children of alcoholic parents, or of parents prone to psychotic states or severe altered states of consciousness, have numerous experiences of type V and type VI interactions.
Self-object failures occur along this spectrum of parental oversight and include hostility and, in extreme cases, rage. Naturally, if an infant cannot perceive the good-enough parent because of organic or physical limitations, he or she will experience type V or type VI interactions. Conversely, some children can extract from type V or type VI interactions enough emotional supplies to make ego maturation possible.
How does a parent’s type V or VI response inhibit ego maturation? How do these accurate moments of empathic interaction enhance ego maturation? Demos’s careful study of child-parent interactions yields valuable clues to the interpersonal mechanisms by which specific ego functions, or ego capacities, are deformed by parental response. In brief, because types IV, V, and VI increase the child’s negative affect and decrease the child’s positive affects associated with a particular challenge, these types of interactions squelch adaptive forms of problem solving. The squelching may be specific to particular kinds of behavior (eg, sexuality), may relate to intensity levels (eg, of noise), or may be references to interactions with other people ("Act this way in these circumstances") and other parameters. In each case, the child’s developing sense of mastery in specific areas is hampered.
For example, Demos discusses a particular 15-month-old girl throwing a ball back to an older child. Because the girl’s throw was not “good enough,” the mother refused to acknowledge the little girl’s efforts and her enthusiasm."By the third and fourth repetitions of this sequence, the child’s expression had become sober; she was no longer clapping” (Demos 1984a, p. 28). One can imagine that a steady diet of such “instruction” would create a woman whose ego functions such as self-esteem, zest for life, and sense of effectiveness and mastery were compromised.
Further, as a consequence of these compromises and failures, all tied to negative affects such as shame and guilt, we would tend to find that behavioral extremes, such as perfectionism and grandiosity, would mark the adult woman’s efforts in her adult spheres. Current empirical studies of the inner world have attempted to bridge the conceptual gap that has separated clinical psychoanalysis from laboratory studies of self-representation and self-schemata.