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Role of the Mother in Winnicott's Theories: An Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2347 words Published: 19th Apr 2018

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How was the role of the mother developed in Winnicott’s theories and what is the implication for the development of the child? Evaluate this contribution in relation to thinking today.

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst had a great influence in describing the object-relations theory, focusing on individual relationship with the mother and mother’s role during the transition of developmental stages in the life of child. Winnicott builds his concepts on Klein’s suggestion that the quality of infants’ environment plays a major role in their development.

The object-relation theory suggests that an instinctual need is achieved by the agent called the “object” of instinct, who is usually the closest person in child’s life: the mother. This theory majorly focuses on the tendency to develop a self in significant relations between individuals as a basis through which the individual develops. The “Object” in this object relationship theory is anything/anyone but oneself (Reber, 1995) the sense of self of a child is defined by the kind of a relationship that the child experiences with the object through His or Her love and affection (Mother) the object refers to a person than oneself. There is a determining and critical impact of the quality of attachments with the object and it does not just affect the development of a child but also the future relationships that the child has with others in the future. This development in the child is justified through the trustworthiness of messages communicated by the caregiver. Love is considered as the main motivating force in human behaviour which also includes development of relationships (Reber, 1995). The balance among love and affection for another and the interest in, and love for self, are formed through emotional bonds between self and another individual/object.

Winnicott (1965) postulates the idea of primary maternal preoccupation explaining that after giving birth the mother becomes so involved and sensitive to infant’s needs that everything else falls apart in a secondary role.

Taking the stages of separation individuation to a high research level Winnicott studies the role of mother (caregiver) in the social development of the child. He emphasizes on the importance of the mother’s ability to intuitively understand the needs of the infant at each and every point through the entire process of individuation. The child gives out certain messages and cues; the mother decodes these messages and through the same provides the framework of the progress of the child and his progress towards a proper level of functioning as an individual. “A good enough mother” defines a scenario where the mother is providing a facilitating environment where the growth of a child happens. He has purposely not used the term “perfect” in his statement since he believes that only a machine delivers perfection and not a human, therefore Winnicott believes that a perfect mother is not a good enough mother.

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According to Winnicot, a good enough mother can identify the needs of the infant and is able to provide a good adaptation to needs. A good enough mother is one who facilitates imaginative elaboration of physical experience for an infant and allows the baby to be totally dependent on her. In case of impingements, the infant can feel “going on being” with the help of a good enough mother, who aids the development of a child in the transitional phases of life.

Winnicott has described three major stages of development. These are the stages of Subjective omnipotence, Objective realty and final stage of independence. The zones between these stages are a transitional experience for the child and exactly at this time, the presence of a mother is crucial. The quality of the support received by the child during the transitions stage determines the future of the child. It can decide the positive functioning or the lack of it. For Winnicott, the mother plays an important role in the transitional experience as well as the stages of development.

Subjective Omnipotence

When the child is newly born, the mother takes care of the Child’s needs with complete indulgence, where she responds to the cries of a child almost immediately. This state is referred to as the stage of maternal preoccupancy. At such times, the mother keeps aside her own needs and requirements to insure that she meets the requirements of her infant. She almost instantly responds when the child cries for milk. As a result to this, the infant thinks that he will immediately receive food at the very moment that he requires it. This illusion of Magical control is a very good example of subjective omnipotence (Rodman, 2003).

Winnicott’s theory states that the Mother’s Breast is seen as the object of love during initial few weeks after birth. It is perceived so as the Mother’s breast meets the needs of the child’s hunger. During this stage, the object is perceived by the infant as a part of self. Hence, a subjective agenda is developed by the infant with an illusion that the Breast is a part of the infant’s oneself. In the infant’s initial development of identity, the illusion of Being-at-one is the first step in the infant’s development of an identity. Here the role of the good enough mother is highlighted in the developmental process of the child (Winnicott, 1971).

Object realty (Not Me/Other than me)

Over a period of time, the child needs its independence; hence, the mother distances itself according to the needs of the child. The child is provided an illusion by the mother that the breast will appear only in stances of a demand made. Post this stage, she helps the child progress through removal of omnipotence thinking and starts the process of introducing the child to the social world as a separate entity. (Winnicott, 1971)

The time lapse between the child’s demands and its fulfilment is increased by the mother over time. Winnicott refers to this as the failure of the mother to meet the child’s needs on the spot. At this level the child experiences 2 states, one that of an introduction to independence and the other being frustration to having wait. The good enough mother is called so since she will only fail so much so that the child is left unharmed but is successful in entering the stage of transition. To cope with the failure of the mother and the Child’s self frustrated rate, the child will react in the following manner: He will recognize that the lapses in time are limited. Awareness will be created in his mind regarding the sense of progress. Thumb sucking, which is an auto erotic simulation, will be engaged in by the child in the stage of transition. He will experience various psychological factors like memories, dreams, relieving previous experiences which can also be referred to as integration of the past, present and future. Mental activities will be developed which will assist in deterring the child at times of frustration.

At this stage the child will start having awareness of separation from mother. The mother makes the infant realize that there is a world outside of oneself which does not necessarily respond to a wish but the object of reality also teaches him that the outside world may respond negatively at times. The child stays safe in the hands of the mother all this while and the mother ensures that the child is not overprotected during this time.

If the mother, due to any reason, fails to assist the child at times of transition from this stage to the stage of independence, as an adult, the child will be superficially adjusted and would fail to be passionate and unique. The child is gently ignored by the mother so that he can reach the stage of independence and experience freedom and learn all while providing the child with a safe and secure environment.

The Stage of Independence

At this stage, the “never absolute” stage of final independence is achieved. An important distinction between pure independence and never absolute independence is necessary in an individual’s life to both depend on others and be dependent on others. Others company or a social circle is desired by an individual and feels the need for belongingness. A healthy Psyche does not support isolation or is not supported by isolation but in spite of that none of us is over dependent on each other.

Ones the child grows to be an individual and is separated from the mother, the holding environment acts as a safe junction through which the child can start the process of exploring the world all whilst having the knowledge that he is being provided the protection and support by the mother. For a child’s healthy development, this kind of a holding environment is extremely necessary. The child’s cues are recognized and worked upon by the mother whilst recognizing what he needs of the child are in respect with the holding environment and adapts to it accordingly.

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The child is provided with an environment of protection and safety through which the infant can develop from a child to adulthood. The process is supported by an optimal environment which makes sense through the fact that the good enough mother tunes in with the child’s development needs intuitively all whilst adopting both, the environment and her hand in the development of the child, the rate of which is determined by the child.

The good enough mothers knows exactly regarding gradual adjustment of distance between herself and the child that this process cannot be sudden since the child would develop feeling of insecurity and no trust in others. The good enough mothers is in tune with her child’s escalation towards an independent self and moves at the child’s pace rather than her own. If everything works well according to the child’s needs, he develops an ego and the differentiation process is continued until the child can perceive that the mother is an independent being with clarity.

Winnicott’s concept of true self and false self suggests that the child’s true self growth and expression is facilitated by the good mother and helps the child to be spontaneous and creative (Rodman, 2003). The true self behaves spontaneously, develops on integrity and believes that the true self is not created. The false self is similar to a mask which is worn by a person in a society in compliance with its norms like being quiet in setting that require silence around, being respectful to elders and so on. The not good enough mother wears this mask while responding to the child and in return the child adapts it as his false self. New relationships are developed by the child as its false self adapting to the demands of the environment with compliance.

The role of a mother in the development of a child is of high importance to decide the future identity of the child and whether it grows into a secure or insecure adult. The mother plays major role in the transition and developmental stages which is also known as the objective role.

In our days the mother’ role plays the same significant importance in the development of the child; however the society and culture have shaped this role raising a multitude of demands on women. Many mothers engage in the desire of having a fulfilled career becoming less involved in the developmental stages of their children. Many children are too early placed in nurseries and day care centres as mothers return to work. Like Winnicott suggests, an absent mother will determine children to either grow up confused, non-passionate and psychologically affected individual’s or according to the rule of self development, will grow up to be individuals who have succeeded through self development.

Another issue could be represented by the option of not nursing the infants in a natural way, but feeding them with formula milk. This fact could lead to the loss of bondage, security and love between mother and child.

On the other side, technology and the multitude of equipments facilitate mothers’ ability to crate safe and stimulating settings for their children.

The quality of early parental styles and the development of the child in relationship with others is associated with maternal attachment and is entirely responsible for the development of a child into a secure adult.


Changing Minds, 2013. The good Enough Mother [online] available at: http://changingminds.org/disciplines/psychoanalysis/concepts/good-enough_mother.htm [Accessed on: 21nd April 2014]

Phenomenological Psychology, 2009. Winnicott the “false self” and contemporary media celebrity. [Online] Available at: http://phenomenologicalpsychology.com/2009/05/winnicott-the-false-self-and-contemporary-media-celebrity/ [Accessed on: 22nd April 2014]

Reber, A. (1995). Dictionary of psychology, (2nd ed.). London: Penguin books.

Rodman, F. R (2003) Winnicott Biography: life and work. Cambridge, Persus Books.

Winnicott, D (1965) The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 64:1-276. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Winnicott, D (1971) Playing and reality. England: Penguin books.

Winchester.ac.uk, 2011. Donald Winnicott’s contribution to understand children and parenting. [Online] available at: http://www2.winchester.ac.uk/edstudies/courses/level%20one%20sem%20one/es1204w7Winnicott.htm [Accessed on: 22nd April 2014]


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