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Internal Working Model

The early emotional and social experiences that we have help us to construct an internal working model of relationships that affects the way we relate to the external world.

These mental models help individuals organise their expectations about other people’s availability and responsiveness. The models themselves arise out of earlier relationship and care giving experiences. Not only do they lay down structures which influence people’s personality, they also guide how they perceive, interpret and respond to other people.

Put very simply, the infant has expectations about:

  1. whether or not at times of stress and anxiety their caregiver is likely to be available and respond with warmth and concern, and

  2. whether or not they themselves are someone about whom other people care and are likely to respond with love and attention.

If internal working models of the self, others and the relationship between them develop within close relationships, we can see that the quality of these intimate relationships will influence how children view both themselves and other people. The more adverse the child’s relationships, history and experience, the more negative, de-valued and ineffective they will view themselves. In this sense, external relationships become mentally internalised.

Internal working models, therefore, represent the beginnings of social understanding. If the child’s relationship with his or her mother is rich, reciprocal, responsive and empathic, then the child will be able to build working models of the self, others and social relationships that are full and coherent, accurate and useful. But if the child’s close relationships are unpredictable, insensitive and unresponsive, he or she will be less able to build models of the self, other people and social relationships that are seen as positive, reciprocal, responsive and effective. Rejection, neglect, unavailability and maltreatment produce internal working models that see (i) other people as unavailable, untrustworthy and a source of emotional pain, and (ii) self as unworthy of interest, love and sensitive treatment.

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This article is from the free online course:

Caring for Vulnerable Children

University of Strathclyde