A little girl in a nursery school class was crying so loudly and pathetically that teachers came from another floor to see what the problem was. The problem was that her mother had left and the child was upset, angry and trying to get her mother to come back. Several weeks later, observing in that classroom on a day that happened to be parents’ visiting day, with surprise I recognized the same little girl who seemed transformed. She was happy, connected to the group, and participating fully, never even glancing at her mother sitting in the back of the room.

The teachers reported afterwards that the behavior on this day was related to the mother being in the room. When the mother leaves on other days the child reacts as before. She does somewhat better if the baby sitter brings her to school and remains in the room. The mom had also been encouraged to stay but was too angry and upset with the child to remain with her in school.

John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis. He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver. He wrote, “…it is suggested the inherited determinants of behavior have evolved in such a way that the standard response to loss of a loved object are always urges first to recover it, then to scold it.

Psychologist Harry Harlow influenced by Bowlby’s work, did some well known research with monkeys. He created two kinds of caregiver monkeys out of wire, some just bare wire and others covered in soft cloth. One group of baby monkey was raised by the wire monkeys, the other by the cloth covered monkeys. The first group developed numerous symptoms of abnormal development not seen to the same extent in the other group. More interesting, the babies cared for by the wire covered monkeys sought out the cloth covered monkey even when having been fed by the wire monkey.

After years of research, Harlow wrote, “It is comforting to know that mother love, once formed apparently remains. Mothers should be cheered when their babies are kicking them on the shins, telling them they do not love them or stating they wish they were dead, to know that the infant is hopelessly trapped.”

The nursery school incident described seemed to echo both Bowlby’s and Harlow’s words. The little girl’s cries were both an attempt to recover the mother’s presence but also carried the scolding of the mom for leaving. On the other hand, in this situation it was the mother herself who was feeling hopelessly trapped. The child’s need seemed to imprison her, depriving her of time she had planned on having.

It is not unusual for mothers to feel some anger when children who seem they should be ready to take next steps hold back from taking them. In this instance, the child’s ability to participate so well in school when mother is there makes it seem as though she is purposelessly giving mom a hard time. Mothers may hear the child’s anger in her protest rather than feel her love. It becomes hard to empathize with the child’s need, which is genuine.

At the same time, it is useful to think of Harlow’s words in the face of children’s anger generally. Often, mothers experience a child’s hostile words as a loss of the child’s love, just as children do when scolded. This can lead to difficulty setting limits or sticking to one’s word regarding a child’s behavior. The loss of love feared in both instances is not permanent.

Harlow’s words about the relationship are “hopelessly trapped.” Given all the somewhat hostile jokes that are told about mothers, that appears to be a universal feeling.

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