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The First Subphase: Differentiation

The first stage of differentiation is called hatching and spans four to ten months of age. Hatching, or psychological birth, is the phase in which the infant differentiates out of the symbiotic unit (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). It is characterized by a more alert state, with distinct periods of wakefulness. At about six months the infant begins to engage in exploratory behaviors of the caregiver, a process Mahler describes as customs inspection (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). This consists of visual and tactile exploration of the caregiver's face and body. It is the beginning of peek-a-boo games and of physical separation through crawling away, venturing back, and playing nearby. Throughout this process infants engage in a visual checking back, which serves the developmental function of discriminating the familiar from the unfamiliar (Mahler, Pine, and Bergman 1975). This is seen in stranger anxiety, the developmental landmark of this period. The transitional object, a soft blanket or other object that the infant chooses for comfort in the absence of the caretaker, becomes important at this period of separation from the caregiver since it represents the comforting functions of the caretaker that the infant can now use on its own terms (Winnicott, 1953). It is important that the mother be available to the infant during these early attempts at separation so that the infant can build up a confident expectation and basic trust in the caregiver and in the outside world (Benedek 1938; Erikson 1950).

Clinically, issues arising from this period involve borderline phenomena, which are characterized by an unstable sense of self, unstable relationships with others, and chaotic, fluctuating internal states, with chronic feelings of emptiness. There is intense separation anxiety, the inability to be alone, and the constant concern about the availability of others to help manage intense internal tension (Horner 1984).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsSeparation-Individuation - Precursors To Differentiation, The First Subphase: Differentiation, The Second Subphase: Practicing, Phase Three: Rapprochement