A Comparison of Freud, Mahler, and Adler Developmental Models

Foundational Theories of Human Development

         Theories of human development were initially put forward as trailblazing attempts to understand hitherto unknown aspects of human growth and development.  According to Hurst (2020), foundational theories of human development ultimately provided a remarkable basis for assessing mental and psychological development foremost defining tenets of human growth. Foundational theories of human development have since morphed into holistic perspectives on growth; exploring the social, emotional, psychological, and cognitive aspects of this dynamic and multifaceted process. Foundational theories of human development also target an overall improvement in human relations through the explicatory appraisal of human growth, development, and learning abilities. Today, they are projected to improve our knowledge of human behavior, factors influencing human temperament, and the ability to predict future actions based on previous behavioral patterns. Sigmund Freud, Margaret Mahler, and Alfred Adler are highly regarded as leading contributors to human development discourse hence the fundamental nature of conducting a comparative analysis of each of their propositions.

Developmental Models by Freud and Mahler

           Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a leading contributor to intense debates on developmental models that raged during the first half of the 21st century. As the sole originator of the concept of psychoanalysis as an efficient solution to psychopathology, Freud was a respected authority in neuropathology whose views on human development were destined to captivate scholars and healthcare practitioners alike.  Freud, subsequently, introduced a developmental model based on his theory of psychosexual development to explain the process and major phases of human development across the lifespan. Besides, this was a revolutionary attempt since he, primarily, sought to integrate scientific structure into medicine, especially when attempting to interpret the process responsible for human development.

              Freud proposed that human development was unquestionably grounded in normative sexual development and, therefore, systematized his model based on five distinct developmental phases. They include the oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages (Sugarman, 2020). The oral stage (0-1-year-old) was described as a period during which oral desire formed the basis of an infant’s sense of gratification due to constant nursing by the mother. Freud proceeded to introduce the anal stage (1-3 years old) as the accompanying phase in human development during which primitive sexual development manifests through psychosexual gratification derived from defecating. On the other hand, the phallic stage (3-6 years old) is predominantly marked by cognizance of primordial sexual pleasure, infant libido (desire), and the potential of psychosexual gratification from genitalia as one of the main erogenous zones. The genital stage (13-18 years old) is Freud’s fifth and last stage of human development. With the onset of mature sexual feelings, children now increasingly seek independence to forge and maintain lasting relations and an avenue to express sexual desires.

            Margaret Mahler (1897-1985) was also a notable contributor to the long-standing debate on the process of human development. The Hungarian-American psychiatrist proposed a model of human development grounded in a proposition identified as the Separation-Individual theory of child development.  Furthermore, it is founded on the so-called discipline of “ego psychology” and mainly sought to improve the scholarly understanding of prevailing notions on human development (McDevitt, 2015). Mahler suggested that the successful completion of major developmental phases during formative periods of human development occasioned separation and individuation. Additionally, Mahler’s model of human development was based on three main phases; the normal autistic, normal symbiotic, and separation-individual stages. During the normal autistic phase (0-1 month), the infant is disinterested in external stimuli and mainly focuses on themselves. The normal symbiotic (1-5 months) then begins with the infants’ inexplicit awareness of the mother based on a need-satisfaction basis. This ultimately culminates in the separation-individual phase (5-24 months) during which children start to understand the concept of boundaries, in addition to making a final transition to overlapping realms.

Freud and Mahler’s Developmental Models vs. Adler’s Foundational Theory

             Several aspects of stand out in the models of human development proposed by Freud and Mahler. Both models emphasize the importance of major childhood developmental milestones and the overall importance of meeting them within the respective stages. Freud and Mahler, essentially, theorized that a healthy adult and whole adult is a direct product of efforts by dedicated guardians focused on meeting developmental goals. Successful completion of the 5th and last stage of Freud’s model of human development is meant to prompt a desire for personal autonomy and independence (Beit-Hallahmi, 2020). Similarly, finishing the 3rd and final stage of Mahler’s model of human development is anticipated to prompt a child’s ultimate separation and individuation; signifying independence from the mother. Freud and Mahler also envisioned a long-awaited conclusion where healthy children achieve emotional maturity and are eventually capable of solving conflicts and cooperating with their peers (Frankish, 2018). However, a perceptible variation in views can be deduced when comparing Freud and Mahler’s models of human development with Alfred Adler’s theory. For instance, Adler highlights the inimitability and indivisibility of human development, thus focusing solely on every individual being unique. Adler’s human development theory was not structured based on stages but rather sought to demystify human behavior within a social context (Adler, 2013). Today, the Adlerian theory is can be applied in counseling in scenarios owing to its goal-oriented and humanistic outlook. It may, therefore, play a crucial role in enabling therapists to identify impediments hindering the progress within a therapeutic setting while also collaborating with the patient to work towards set objectives.

Concepts from Psychoanalytic Approaches

The following are some of the primary concepts stemming from psychoanalytic approaches and potentially useful for nurse psychotherapists within a clinical setting:

  1. Taking patients’ social context into account as part of their individual history likely associated with their current circumstances. This may entail allowing patients to openly discuss their lives and major events which may have shaped them in order to identify any few and far between patterns likely liked to their personal crisis.
  2. A firm understanding of unconscious triggers and their association with the client’s current behavior pattern of behavior. Yet, this treatment modality should always be complemented with empathy and an open-minded outlook to encourage the client to participate in therapy.

Developmental Theories and their Application in Clinical Practice

               Today, it is imperative for all practicing nurse psychotherapists to possess and display a comprehensive understanding of developmental theories owing to their significance in standard clinical practice.

  1. Knowledge of developmental theories can aid nurse psychotherapists in identifying specific psychosocial stages responsible for impairing clients’ healthy adult development with the ultimate aim of correcting the damage by relying on therapy.
  2. A rich understanding of developmental theories also improves nurse psychotherapists’ situational awareness and ability to contextualize clients’ symptomatic behavior and mannerisms.
  3. An understanding of developmental theories also aids nurse psychotherapists’ in psychoanalyzing clients and predicting possible future responses.

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