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Melanie Klein - Founder of Object Relations Theory

One rarely discussed element of attachment is the internal object. When children interact with responsive caregivers as infants, they learn not only that the world around them is safe, but that they are safe. Their image, or internal object, becomes integrated. They can experience happiness, sadness, anger and fear in step, knowing all at once that they are still present and safe. When those integrated infants become adolescents, those who have experienced identity crisis, explored, and made a decision within a given domain, are described as “achieved” by James Marcia. Soares’ of the flexible goal-seeker seems to fit well with both Marcia’s identity process and Object Relations’ conceptualization of the categories of the internal object (2005; Engler, 2006; Santrock, 2007).

The “flexible” problem solver described by Soares can deal with threats to their competence and validate their internal object by responding in situationally appropriate ways (2005). With the validation of their internal object, they develop intrinsic goals, thusly increasing their competence at conceptual learning (Vansteenkiste, 2005).

Both the Soares and Vansteenkiste studies were completed on early adolescents, ages 11-14 and 11-12 respectively (2005). Most adolescents do not reach identity achievement in many domains until later on in adolescence or early adulthood. Is it reasonable to expect young adolescents to demonstrate identity achievement and its parallel, flexible goal setting? Although flexible goal setting and intrinsic motivation has been demonstrated to be effective at learning more conceptual than rote frameworks, does teaching conceptually increase intrinsic motivation and flexible goal setting? If those two behavioral outputs increases, does integration of the internal object also increase?

Further research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn. However, if it is found that conceptual learning is one route to a more cohesive self object, I imagine that freed from the constraints of standardized testing, more educators would turn to student directed projects than rote memorization of required knowledge. Exploring whether or not the self object can be repaired or enhanced through engagement with the production of meaning will also change the current paradigm for education and especially, mental health treatment.

Due to the high correlation between attachment disruption and mental illness, I imagine treatment planning that intentionally includes service to others. How could the mental illness paradigm shift if standardized treatment for a variety of mental illnesses included serving the less fortunate? In short, where does meaning production, through education, goals or service, fit with recovery from a traumatic or invalidating infancy?

Engler, B. (2006) Personality Theories. (7th ed.) Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA

Santrock, J. (2007) Adolescence. 12th ed. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY

Soares, I., Lemos, M. S., & Almeida, C. (2005) Attachment and motivational strategies. Adolescence , 40(157), 129-154.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Soenens, B., & Matos, L. (2005) Examining the motivational impact of intrinsic versus extrinsic goal framing. Child Development , 76(2), 483 – 501.

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