THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PARENT-CHILD
The child’s psychological tie to a parent figure is not
the simple, uncomplicated relationship which it may appear to be
at first glance. While it is rooted inevitably in the infant’s
inability to ensure his own survival, it varies according to the
manner in which protection is given and the physical needs fulfilled.
Where this is done impersonally and with routine regularity, as
in institutions, the infant may remain involved with his own body
and not take an alert interest in his surroundings. Where the adult
in charge of the child is personally and emotionally involved, a
psychological interplay between adult and child will be superimposed
on the events of bodily care. Then the child’s libidinal interest
will be drawn for the first time to the human object in the outside
Such primitive and tenuous first attachments form the base from
which any further relationships develop. What the child brings to
them next are no longer only his needs for body comfort and gratification
but his emotional demands for affection, companionship, and stimulating
intimacy. Where these are answered reliably and regularly, the child-parent
relationship becomes firm, with immensely productive effects on
the child’s intellectual and social development. Where parental
care is inadequate, this may be matched by deficits in the child’s
mental growth. Where there are changes of parent figure or other
hurtful interruptions, the child’s vulnerability and the fragility
of the relationship become evident. The child regresses along the
whole line of his affections, skills, achievements, and social adaptation.
It is only with the advance toward maturity that the emotional ties
of the young will outgrow this vulnerability. The first relief in
this respect is the formation of internal mental images of the parents
which remain available even if the parents are absent. The next
step is due to identification with parental attitudes. Once these
have become the child’s own, they ensure stability within
his inner structure.
As the prototype of true human relationship, the psychological
child-parent relationship is not wholly positive but has its admixture
of negative elements. Both partners bring to it the combination
of loving and hostile feelings that characterize the emotional life
of all human beings, whether mature or immature. The balance between
positive and negative feelings fluctuates during the years. For
children, this culminates in the inevitable and potentially constructive
struggle with their parents during adolescence.
Whether an adult becomes the psychological parent of a child is
based thus on day-to-day interaction, companionship, and shared
experiences. The role can be fulfilled either by a biological parent
or by an adoptive parent or by any other caring adult—but
never by an absent, inactive adult, whatever his biological or legal
relationship to the child may be.
The best qualities in an adult’s personality give no assurance
in themselves for a sound result if, for any reason, the necessary
psychological tie is absent. Children may also be deeply attached
to parents with impoverished or unstable personalities and may progress
emotionally within this relationship on the basis of mutual attachment.
Where the tie is to adults who are “unfit” as parents,
unbroken closeness to them, and especially identification with them,
may cease to be a benefit and become a threat. In extreme cases
this necessitates state interference. Nevertheless, so far as the
child’s emotions are concerned, interference with the tie,
whether to a “fit” or “unfit” psychological
parent, is extremely painful. . . .
We propose three component guidelines for decision-makers concerned
with determining the placement and the process of placement of a
child in a family or alternative setting. These guidelines rest
on the belief that children whose placement becomes the subject
of controversy should be provided with an opportunity to be placed
with adults who are or are likely to become their psychological
PLACEMENT DECISIONS SHOULD SAFEGUARD THE CHILD’S NEED
FOR CONTINUITY OF RELATIONSHIPS. . . .
PLACEMENT DECISIONS SHOULD REFLECT THE CHILD’S, NOT THE
ADULT’S, SENSE OF TIME. . . .
CHILD PLACEMENT DECISIONS MUST TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE LAW’S
INCAPACITY TO SUPERVISE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AND THE LIMITS
OF KNOWLEDGE TO MAKE LONG-RANGE PREDICTIONS. . . .
WHY SHOULD THE CHILD’S INTERESTS BE PARAMOUNT?
Some will assert that the views presented in this volume are so
child-oriented as to neglect the needs and rights of the adults.
In fact, this is not the case. There is nothing one-sided about
our position, that the child’s interests should be the paramount
consideration once, but not before, a child’s placement becomes
the subject of official controversy. Its other side is that the
law, to accord with the continuity guideline, must safeguard the
rights of any adults, serving as parents, to raise their children
as they see fit, free of intervention by the state, and free of
law-aided and law-abetted harassment by disappointed adult claimants.
To say that a child’s ongoing relationship with a specific
adult, the psychological parent, must not be interrupted, is also
to say that this adult’s rights are protected against intrusion
by the state on behalf of other adults.
As set out in this volume, then, a child’s placement should
rest entirely on consideration for the child’s own inner situation
and developmental needs. Simple as this rule sounds, there are circumstances
which make it difficult to apply even with ample evidence in support
of the child’s interests. The injunction disregards that laws
are made by adults for the protection of adult rights. . . .