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Building the self – internal working models

Watch this video describing the work of Bowlby, who described the internal working models that help children to interpret the behaviour of others.
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Earlier in the course, we described a number of innate capacities of infants. One of these innate systems is the motivation to map interactive behavioural exchanges. Infants routinely map interactions with primary caregivers. As a result of this, they develop a mental picture of the type of response that follows their attempt to initiate an exchange. These mental pictures serve as maps that are coded in the infant’s brain using procedural memory, which stores information on how to perform routine motor procedures such as walking and eating. This memory operates below the level of consciousness and these memories of mental images of early interactions are as such unconscious.
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Bowlby described the internal images on maps that are built as a result of these exchanges as internal working models. These internal working models enable the child to anticipate and interpret the behaviour of other people, and to plan a response. Where the caregiver is experienced as a source of security and support, the infant develops internal working models in which they have a positive self image and in which other people are depicted as being trustworthy and responsive. Infants with non-attuned caregivers internalise a less positive self image as being unworthy of love and without agency. They also represent others as unpredictable unresponsive and untrustworthy.
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Disorganised infants build up a very negative internal working model in relation to themselves and in relation to other people. For example, caregivers are represented as unpredictable and rejecting and a source of distress. The self is represented as unlovable, unworthy, capable of causing others to become angry, violent and uncaring. Other people are represented as frightening, dangerous, and unavailable. And the infant’s predominant feelings are of fear, anger and eventually shame. As a result, the infant has little time for exploration or social learning. These internal working models are the basic building blocks of an infant’s mind and research shows that they’re stable over time in the absence of changes to the infant or child’s care giving environment.
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This means that babies who are building up very negative internal working models will carry these with them into adolescence and adulthood. In the next part of this course, we will examine the way in which the parents’ emotional and cognitive mind shape the child’s attachment patterns as a result of their early interactions with the baby. Before we do that, listen to the interview with Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters and read the article which describes the long term impact of the different patterns of infant attachment.

In this video, we do two things:

First, we describe the way in which infants build maps of interactions with primary caregivers and the way in which these are coded in the infant’s brain using procedural memory, which stores information on how to perform routine motor procedures such as walking and eating. This memory operates below the level of consciousness, and these memories or mental images of early interactions are as such unconscious.

We then describe the way in which these maps become the basis of the Internal Working Models described by Bowlby (1969/1982) and their role in enabling the child to anticipate and interpret the behaviour of other people, and plan a response.

Where the caregiver is experienced as a source of security and support, the infant develops internal working models in which they have a positive self-image and in which other people are depicted as being trustworthy and responsive. However, infants with non-attuned (Step 4.18: Glossary) caregivers internalise a less positive self-image in which they may feel unworthy of love and without agency (Step 4.18: Glossary); they may also represent others as either unpredictable, unresponsive or possibly punitive.

Infants who experience severely suboptimal parenting, such as maltreatment, build up working models of caregivers as unpredictable and rejecting; a source of comfort but also a source of distress. The sense of self is represented as unlovable, unworthy, capable of causing others to become angry, violent and uncaring. Other people are represented as frightening, dangerous, and unavailable. The infant’s predominant feelings are of fear, anger and shame, and the infant has little time for exploration or social learning as a result.

We conclude this video by describing research which suggests that in the absence of changes to caregiving, these attachment patterns are stable over time.

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Babies in Mind: Why the Parent's Mind Matters

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