“Ghosts in the Nursery”


For this mothers’ group meeting the mothers chose the topic of the relationship with their own mothers. This is a very important subject and one that has been central to thinking in psychology for about half a century now. I will organize my thoughts about it into three categories. The first is psychoanalytic or psychodynamic thinking about the subject. The second is Attachment Theory, and the third is the developmental perspective introduced by Tronick in his Mutual Regulation Model (Tronick, 2007).

First of all, Sigmund Freud didn’t pay much attention to the mother’s relationship to her own mother in his theorizing. In fact, he didn’t blame the mother much at all. In his famous case of a child with a horse phobia, “Little Hans” – although there was plenty of evidence of Little Hans’ mother’s emotional difficulties and of his parents’ marital conflict at the time (this was revealed rather recently when the Sigmund Freud Archives revealed information gained from interviews of the father and of Little Hans himself as an adult) – Freud attributed most of Little Hans’ problems to Hans’ own inner conflicts generated by his developmental stage and position in the family – his “Oedipal Conflict” (Freud, 1909), (Chused, 2007).

The early child analysts who studied with Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, gave more thought to the influence of parenting. Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham created “Hampstead War Nurseries” in which the impact of children’s separation from their mothers was observed and the recommendation was made to keep children with their families whenever possible, even during the bombings (Midgely, 2007). One of the circle of early child analysts around Anna Freud, Berta Bornstein, wrote a classical paper describing her analytic treatment of the little boy she called “Frankie” (Bornstein, 1949). In this paper she hypothesized that Frankie’s mother’s relationship with her own mother – and to her preferred older brother – affected her own difficulty bonding to newborn Frankie and influenced her continuing relationship with her son.

Another follower of Anna Freud was Selma Fraiberg, who became famous for her book about early child development called “The Magic Years”. Fraiberg made an important contribution in our understanding of early development through clinical her work with the mother-child relationship. She wrote a classic paper called “Ghosts in the Nursery” about the influence of a woman’s experience with her mother on her relationship with her own child (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro, 1975). In this paper, Fraiberg states, “In every nursery there are ghosts. They are visitors from the unremembered past of the parents; the uninvited guests at the christening” (p. 387). One of Fraiberg’s followers, Alicia Lieberman, has written about a counteracting influence that she calls, “The Angels in the Nursery” (Lieberman et al, 2005).  

In the 60’s, John Bowlby developed his ideas about Attachment Theory (AT), in which the primary motivational system (in contrast to Freud’s instinctual drives) was seeking comfort and security (Bowlby, 1969, 1973). He referred to evolutionary theory in suggesting that the helpless infant must seek the comfort and protection of the caregiver in order to survive, and therefore “a secure base” – more than nurturance or love – is primarily what draws the infant to the caregiver and forms the foundation for later development. One of Bowlby’s students, Mary Ainsworth, designed a study to distinguish infants on the basis of their attachment “style” (Ainsworth et al, 1978). One-year-old infants were separated from and reunited with their mothers in a research paradigm that is called “the strange situation”. Ainsworth discovered that the most significant observation from the point of view of the security of the relationship was the reunion part of the experience, not the separation. So she categorized babies by looking at their behavior when the mother came back into the room after a series of separations. The babies who cried or protested when their mothers returned but also reached out to their mothers and were comforted, Ainsworth called “securely attached”. The others were “insecurely attached”, and she divided up the insecure categories into various sub-types, such as “avoidant” and “ambivalent”. Later, Mary Main, a student of of Ainsworth’s, continued the study of attachment strategies, identifying a severely problematic attachment strategy she called “disorganized” (Main & Solomon, 1990). Main and others have shown a correlation between disorganized attachment and psychopathology in older children (Main et al, 2005). Mary Main also developed an assessment tool called the Adult Attachment Inventory, which aims at capturing the quality and type of attachment relationship the mother had to her own mother; she and her colleagues identified the transmission of trauma in the mother’s past to adverse effects on their children (Main & Hesse, 1990). This tool has been used in many studies to predict the attachment style and even the mental health status of the mother’s child, even before the child is born. The theory is based on the idea that infants develop competencies in the context of the “secure base” of their mother’s sensitive caregiving. When a mother fail to respond sensitively to her child’s demands for comfort – sometimes due to her own traumatic experience – the child is unable to move forward in her healthy development. Then, when the child becomes a mother herself, she will – out of her awareness – repeat these problematic pattern with her own child.

This theory became very popular, partly because it seemed to provide a mechanism (the “strange situation” research paradigm) to study the etiology of psychopathology. Also, it offered an important new insight into an early stage of development. Critics have pointed out that the relationships claimed as causal by many AT studies are actually only correlations. That is, there is such a multitude of variables involved in a child’s psychological development that identifying the child’s behavior in an observation at 1-year old and relating it to the mother’s caregiving behavior is reductive at best. For example, the relationship patterns that are correlated with childhood psychological problems are present throughout the family life and not just in the early “attachment” period. Also, the theory seems to focus the root of childhood psychological disorders exclusively in the mother. Since the AAI is said to be stable – that is, it does not much change during the life of the mother – one would imagine that all the children of the same mother would have the same psychopathology. Yet everyone knows that this is not the case in families. Interestingly, there are almost no attachment studies of two children of the same mother. Yet the idea of a domain of development and function related to security in a caregiving relationship seems to me to have a fundamental validity.

There are many important authors with an AT background, and some have developed and elaborated the theory significantly. Several among them are Beatrice Beebe, Peter Fonagy and Daniel Siegel, all of whom have made major contributions to the theory (Beebe & Lachmann, 2003), (Fonagy et al, 2002) (Siegel & Hartzell, 1994), .  Siegel has written an excellent book on parenting, Parenting from the Inside Out, that takes a tolerant and supportive approach to the pull a parent feels to what Siegel calls “the low road” in a conflict situation with his/her child (Siegel & Hartzell, 1994).

An alternative perspective on the caregiving relationship is offered by the microanalysis of mother-infant face-to-face communication. In paradigm shifting work in the late 1980’s, Tronick and colleagues demonstrated that rather than being a passive creature shaped by her mother’s attuned or misattuned caregiving, the infant is an active participant in the relationship. In his Mutual Regulation Model, Tronick explained that both mother and infant were engaged in a reciprocal interactive process of regulating affect and arousal, and a “good” mother-infant pair were characterized less by harmony than by their ability to repair small mismatches in their efforts to connect with (and regulate) each other (Tronick, 1989). This conceptual model allows for more of the complexity of real life to enter into the equation, such as for example the infant’s temperament, sensory profile, or developmental immaturity, as well as features of the mother’s caregiving style. As Tronick further developed his model into the Dyadic Expansion of Consciousness Model, his theory of human development in relationships became further elaborated to include the contributions of body experience and of culture (Tronick, 2007). Currently, Tronick’s model, in my opinion, most accurately explains the evolving processes of development and is the most useful to me in my thinking and in my clinical work.

Ainsworth M, Blehar M, Waters E, Wall S (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Beebe, B. & Lachmann, F. (2003). The relational turn in psychoanalysis: A dyadic systems view from infant research. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 39(3), 379–409.

Bornstein, B (1949). The analysis of a phobic child – some problems of theory and technique, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 3:181-226. 

Bowlby J (1969). Attachment and Loss: Volume I. Attachment. New York, Basic Books.

Bowlby J (1973). Attachment and Loss: Volume I. Separation. New York, Basic Books.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.

Fraiberg S, Adelson E, & Shapiro V, Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the impaired infant-mother relationship (1975). J Am Acad Child Psychiatry. 14(3):387-421.

Freud (1909), Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy, Standard Edition, 10:1-149.

Lieberman A, Padron E, Van Horn P, Harris W, Angels in the nursery: The intergenerational transmission of benevolent parental influences, INFANT MENTAL HEALTH JOURNAL, Vol. 26(6), 504–520 (2005).

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, & E. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the preschool years (pp. 121–160). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Main, M., & Hesse, E. (1990). Parents’ unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganized attachment status: Is frightened and/or frightening parental behavior the linking mechanism? In M. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, & E. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention (pp. 161–182). Chicago:University of Chicago Press.

Main, M., Hesse, E., & Kaplan, N. (2005). Predictability of attachment behavior and representational processes at 1, 6, and 19 years of age. In K. E. Grossmann, K. Grosmann, & E. Waters (Eds.), Attachment from infancy to adulthood: The major longitudinal studies. New York, NY: Guilford Publications.

Midgely, N. (2007). Anna Freud: the Hampstead war nurseries and the role of the direct observation of children for psychoanalysis, Int J Psychoanal. 2007 Aug;88(Pt 4):939-59.

Siegel D, Hartzell M (1994). Parenting from the Inside Out, New York, Penguin.

Tronick, E. (1989). Emotions and emotional communication in infants. American Psychologist44, 112–119.

Tronick E. (2007). The neurobehavioral and social emotional development of infants and young children. New York: Norton.

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1 thought on ““Ghosts in the Nursery”

  1. Semira

    Wonderful synopsis of these theories and very helpful comparisons. Thank you for all your keen insights.

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