Spontaneous Emotion

Education and understanding through communication

Stages of Emotional Development

Infancy, childhood, adolescence as emergent socio-emotional affectional systems

Sigmund Freud's account of oral, anal, and genital stages of development were suffused with emotion, but recent accounts of development have tended to neglect emotions. An exception, not so recent, but well respected, is the account of Harry F. Harlow, whose studies of rhesus monkeys suggested that infancy, childhood, and adolescence are associated with three distinct socio-emotional stages, which he termed the maternal, peer, and heterosexual affectional systems. Bowing to recent and thoroughly welcomed trends, we might rename them the parental, peer, and sexual affectional systems.

Harlow's thin volume Learning to Love, published in 1971, is among the most valuable short books in psychology. His work on wire and cloth surrogate mother monkeys and the role of contact comfort in attachment is well known. In this book, Harlow reported later observational research on what monkey mothers actually do with their youngsters in the first year of life. It turns out that the first three months or so of infant monkey existence is a time of contact-comfort bliss, with almost unrestricted contact between mother and baby and virtually no punishment on the part of the mother. However, at about 4 months, punishment appears, peaks at about 5 months, and then declines. The increase is associated with a drop in infant-mother contact and, consistent with the developing locomotor skills of the youngster, increased contact with peers. With time, contact with the mother is largely replaced by contact with peers, the youngster makes fewer demands on the mother, and the punishment naturally declines.

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The necessary condition for the initial parental affectional system is contact comfort: contact with a soft skin-like surface. Harlow found that this functions to establish a basic sense of trust in one's fellow monkey, even if the "mother" is an unresponsive terrycloth-covered surrogate. But the transition from a primary attachment to the mother (and father) to age-mates is not always easy. As Harlow wryly observed, Portnoy was not the only one to complain about the difficulties of breaking the apron-strings with mom. But, this is absolutely necessary for normal socio-emotional development. Harlow noted that "maternal rejection during this period is truly one of many forms of mother love; a mother who loves her infant will emancipate him."

The feeling of trust established by contact comfort is a necessary condition for the next peer affectional system. Young monkeys, having the common experience of contact, are at some point obliged by their own mothers' rejection to seek alliances elsewhere, and naturally with the ecology of the monkey social organization they find plenty of similarly rejected peers to interact with. In these interactions, the basic communicative system underlying monkey social organization begins to emerge and become functional. Immature threat, submission, courting, and warning behaviors appear in the context of rough-and-tumble play, and are responded to by others in the social biofeedback and emotional education processes considered in my previous posts. This gives the youngster practical experience in using the innate emotional display and communication system basic to rhesus monkey social organization. In the context of play, these expressive and communicative behaviors are not used as seriously as they will be after puberty. With the maturation of sexuality, sexual and aggressive systems come on line and the communicative displays are used with dangerous and even deadly seriousness. In this, the sexual affectional system, adult male and female roles and dominance orderings emerge from communicative interactions, forming the basis for rhesus monkey social organization.

Thus, each of the affectional stages sets up the necessary conditions for the next (see table). The basic sense of trust established in the parental affectional system is necessary to establish affectionate relations with peers, and the actualization of the display and communicative potential in the context of rough-and-tumble play is necessary to establish appropriate affectionate relationships with other adults of the same and opposite sex. Harlow argued that these interactive and communicative socio-emotional challenges correspond to those typical of infancy, childhood, and adolescence in human children. This emergent system is based upon the basic sense of trust initially achieved by contact comfort, which may explain why early abuse and neglect so often appear to be common factors in disorders of attachment and in antisocial behavior.

 

 

Ross Buck, Ph.D., is a professor of communication sciences and psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

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