Ellen Foster is a ten-year-old, Caucasian, female who experiences a series of traumatic events during her childhood. These traumatic events include her witnessing domestic violence in the home, her mother’s suicide and subsequent physical, sexual and psychological abuse by her alcoholic father, her maternal grandmother and other relatives (aunts and cousins on the mother’s side). Ellen shuttled from home to home, staying for a short time at the home of her teacher, then to different relatives’ homes, to finally a foster home where she eventually resides.
Ellen’s “new mama”, as she refers to her, is a much better role model then she has ever experienced before. New Mama is supportive and nurturing towards Ellen. Ellen reports that government and church funding support the foster family. She has no siblings. Ellen is intelligent and enjoys doing art. She often rides a pony at her new foster home. Ellen misses her mother, and longed for a caregiver before she had new mama. This is evident when she reports eaves dropping on a “colored” family and “started making a list of all that a family should have.
Of course, there is the mama and the daddy but if one has to be missing then it is OK if the one left can count for two. But not just anybody can count or more than his or herself (p. 67)”. She often sought help from her Aunt Betsey and neighbors. Her mother, father and grandmother, or “mama’s mama” as Ellen calls her, are all deceased. The grandmother was old and abusive towards Ellen forcing her to work the fields with the “colored” field hands on her farms in the middle of a sweltering hot summer until school started.
Ellen eventually becomes the caregiver and housemaid to mama’s mama after the grandmother fires all of her household servants. Despite Ellen’s care and good works for her, the grandmother despises her because she is convinced that Ellen was in “cahoots” with her father in abusing her daughter, taking her revenge out on Ellen since the father is dead. Ellen has a best friend, an African American girl named Starletta, Since Ellen likes Starletta, and she struggles with her own burgeoning racism. She has beliefs about African Americans that are mainly negative.
Ellen eventually realizes that race makes no difference in the quality of the person. Ellen enjoys art and playing with her microscope often fantasying about being a scientist on the brink of a new discovery that will change mankind. She sees a counselor at school on Wednesdays. Ellen does not enjoy doing therapy and has negative transference towards her counselor. Presently she is seeing me for therapy. She can be aggressive, defensive and competitive at times at school. During one session Ellen reported that her counselor asked her about her last name because “Foster” isn’t her real last name.
She did not want to discuss it any further. Perhaps she chose the last name “Foster” from her label as a foster child. Object Relations As stated by Lesser and Pope (2011) according to object relations theory, “human development takes place within the context of relationships (p. 69)”. British object relation theorists, Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn, and Harry Guntrip introduce definite and functional ideas about what internal object world, or the inner world, consists of. The inner world includes representations of self and other, representations structured by thoughts, recollections, and occurrences within the external world.
A representation has a lasting continuance in the inner world and although it begins as a cognitive structure, it eventually takes on a profound emotional meaning for the person (Berzoff, Melano-Flanagan, & Hertz 1996). The word object is set apart from the subject. The subject is the self and the object is the part outside the self, the object is what the self identifies with, encounters, wants, has uncertainties about, feels denial about, or absorbs. In Freudian drive theory and in ego psychology, the term object is sometimes used in reference to people.
The word, object, in drive theory can be to some extent depersonalized, because the word essentially does exemplify a thing not a person as in: “the object of oral impulse can literally be the breast”(citation). In psychodynamic theory the word object, usually refers to people, but other objects such as cooking, art, pets, or can become objects when they are profoundly and representatively connected to powerful object experiences in the inner world. Some of Ellen’s physical objects are her microscope, her encyclopedias, her money, and her art supply.
A conjecture about Ellen’s inner world and what these object represent is that her money could represent an insurance plan, in case things go wrong. And her microscope, her art, and her encyclopedias represent an escape for her and they also represent hopes for the future. Klein (1948) was the first theorist to revise Freud’s notion of the object by giving more consideration to the interpersonal environment in deciding its influence in developing personality. She amongst other object relations’ theorists now defined the target of relational needs as a concept known as relationship seeking.
Klee 2005 stated that relationship seeking is the belief that through relationships with significant people in our lives, we take in parts of others (objects) and gradually develop a self-structure that we ultimately call a personality . This mental process by which a person changes the regulatory features of her environment into internal regulations and features is called internalizing (Lesser & Pope 2011). D. W. Winnicot (1958), a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, is influential in the field of object relations theory, gave great consideration to the notion of being alone.
He believes that the ability to abide, take pleasure in, and utilize healthy solitude could be refined, ironically, only in the proximity of another. If aloneness is experienced as desolate, isolated, or miserable, it becomes agonizing. This can happen is a child has been neglected. In this situation, the inner world is not filled with enough soothing figures. On the contrary, aloneness becomes too excruciating or insufferable for the child, if the inner world is too crowed with threatening and abusive figures who offer neither protection, reassurance, nor tranquility.
The ideal environment for the growing child to share experiences with the soothing figure for a period of time and to experience time alone to reflect and to adventure on the child’s own (Berzoff et al. 1996). Klein (1948) described six early processes and primitive defenses developed from early infant years. Projection is when the infant believes an object has characteristics that are in fact the infant’s own feelings. Introjection is the mental desire in which the infant consumes the perceived in the world.
Projective identification is creatively splitting off a part of oneself and ascribing it to another in order to control the other (Berzoff et al. 1996). Splitting occurs when a child cannot separate conflicting thoughts or feelings in the mind at the same time, and therefore instead of integrating the two thoughts or feelings the child focuses on just one of them. A split can take any form, from visual appearance to concepts and ideas. For example, a frequent split is into good and bad.
The good part is preserved and cherished at the same time the bad part is wrestled with or repressed. In extreme case of schizophrenia, when a part of the self linked with one of the separate thoughts, and another part of the self is linked with another, the person is then split (Berzoff et al. 1996). Idealization is a defense used to keep painful and unacceptable feelings out of consciousness. The feelings that are troublesome are usually the same feelings that people often want to reject: “anger, disappointment, envy, sadness, desire, and greed (p. 145)”.
Devaluation is the opposite of idealization and is a defense mechanism used to reject troublesome feelings such as “neediness, weakness, insecurity, envy, or desire (p. 146)”. A person who denies desire through devaluation ends up feeling smug and superior but quite alone (Berzoff et al. 1996). An important developmental point in object relations is the depressive position according to Klein (1948). The depressive position is constantly maturing throughout a person’s lifetime. Feelings of remorse, grief, and the yearning for atonement take hold in the developing mind in the depressive position.
The person now recognizes the ability to cause harm or push away a person who one undecidedly loves. The defenses attributed to the depressive position include the manic defenses, such as preoccupation for reparation. As the depressive position causes growing integration in the ego, prior defenses shift in the character, becoming less powerful, allowing the character to move into psychic reality (Berzoff et al. 1996). Throughout this turbulent time in Ellen’s life she is experiencing many new relationships and is relationship seeking with many adults. These adults are supposed to be caregivers for her.
These people are her mother, father, her grandmother, Julia, Aunt Betsy, Aunt Nadine, and new mama. There is a time after Ellen’s mother dies that I feel she is too alone, in agreement with Winnicot (1958). Ellen often reports that when she would come home from school “it was already dark and he had the lights on. I went in and did not speak to him. I did not speak to him or else I stayed outside most of the time (p. 24)”. She said that her father was drunk all the time, often passed out, she was alone and eventually she had to take care of the bills.
There are other times when Ellen’s life is overflowing with abusive adult figures in her life. On New Years Eve, Ellen claimed that a bunch of black drunk men came into her house with father. “My daddy showed up at my house less and less…he did show up on New Years Eve. Of course I went and hid when I heard him and a whole pack of colored men come in the door (p. 36)”. Ellen is frightened when this happens often trying to escape through a window in her room. In accordance with Winnicot (1958), aloneness becomes too much too bare for Ellen and she feels the need to hide.
Her inner world is too crowed with threatening and abusive figures who are threatening her safety. The whole mother’s side of the family overcrowds Ellen’s inner world too. This is a risk for Ellen, because disruptions in object relations may result in an inability to fall in love, emotional coldness, apathy or withdrawal from interaction with others, co-dependency, and/or extreme need to control relationships (Berzoff et al. 1996:70). Ellen attempts to control Starletta as much as she can through projective identification; she splits off a part of herself and attempts to control Starletta.
Ellen often tells Starletta what to do, for example one day when Ellen was over Starletta’s house and she wanted to play, however Ellen thought to herself and told Starletta the following: “Starletta still had on her nightgown and she needed to be washed. ‘You got to wash before I will play with you’ is what I told her (p. 31). She taped Starletta’s crayons back together after she broke them. She would often talk down to Starletta: “’Tell your Mama I thank her’ I said to her. Say it over in your head and out loud so it will not leave your head (p. 52)”.
This relationship may unconsciously aim to get rid of unmanageable feelings for Ellen and help her deal with these feelings. Ellen’s relationship with grandmother is toxic at best. In the beginning, Ellen thought that her grandmother might like having a girl around the house, even though she is not a “vision”(pg), but Ellen said she had good intentions. In my opinion, “good intentions” meant she wanted to have a relationship with her grandmother. The grandmother wanted to punish Ellen for Ellen and her father causing her daughter’s suicide. Ellen confronts her grandmother, asking her why she hates her so much.
Ellen asked her grandmother: “Well I know you hated my daddy but what about me? Why can’t you see that I am not like him? (p. 78)”. The grandma lashes out at Ellen with an onslaught of abusive hurtful words directed towards Ellen to break her down. Ultimately, that is what Ellen does she shuts down. “So I decided to spend the rest of my life making up for it. Whatever it was. Whatever I decided I one day I actually did (p. 78-79)”. Ellen is in the depressive position, she feels guilty about everything for her mothers death, for her fathers death, and then for the grandmother’s death when she passes.
Ellen utilizes her manic defenses, in my opinion, when she finds the grandmother dead and decides to dress her in her “Sunday’s best” clothes and surround her with flowers in order to make amends with her guilty feelings. “I made her like a present to Jesus so maybe he would take her. Take this one I got prettied up and mark it down by name to balance against the one I held from you before…. be sure I get the credit for it and if you can please show me some way that you and me are even now (p. 92). Ellen becomes slightly preoccupied with reparation.
Ellen begins to move past this phase when she moves in the home of her Aunt Nadine. Object relations can be applied to Ellen’s traumatic past and helps to identify some significant points in her life that she would like to work in future treatment. A pleasant thing about object relations is that as the therapist and patient collectively examine the patient’s internal world and its effect on the patient’s relationships, the patient and therapist are in a relationship as well. In this way, patient and therapist have an existing shared connection that both can study and learn from (Berzoff et al. 996). Sociocultural Theory Sociocultural theory stemmed from the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1934/1986) felt that human cognition was innately social and language based. Vygotsky believed inner speech is qualitatively distinct from normal external speech. It is language, advanced during the earlier years, and progressively improved during the middle years (where Ellen’s age lies) that actually aids in giving the older child the capability to organize things mentally rather than by using concrete items (Lesser & Pope 2011).
As Berk 2003 stated: Vytgotsky felt that children speak to themselves for self-guidance; he felt language was the foundation for all high cognitive processes, including control attention, deliberate memorization and recall, categorization, planning, problem solving, abstract reasoning, and self-reflection (p. 257). One of Vygotsky’s concepts is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is the difference between what a child can achieve when working by themselves and what the same child can achieve when given assistance from someone with the necessary knowledge (Wertsch 1985).
Vygotsky viewed the ZPD as a way to better explain the relation between children’s learning and cognitive development. The lower limit of ZPD is the level of skill attained by the child working alone; this lower limit can also be accredited to as the child’s actual developmental level. The upper limit is the level of latent skill that the child is able to reach with the assistance of a more capable instructor (Wertsch 1985).. A concept associated with ZPD is the concept scaffolding.
It is essential to make a note that Vygotksy never used this concept in his writing; introduced by David Wood, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross (1976). Scaffolding is a process through which a mentor or more competent peer helps a person in his or her ZPD learn for as long as necessary and tapers off until the student no longer needs the mentor, much like a scaffold is detached from a building when construction is finished or deemed stable (Wood et al. 1976).
Vygotsky viewed make-believe play as the vital context for development of self-regulation. Despite the fact that Ellen is ten years old going on eleven years old, this still pertains to her. Make-believe is full of shared dialogue and development-enhancing skills. Vygotsky takes make-believe to the next level making it a important part of development a distinguishing, experiential ZPD in which children try out a wide range of difficult skills and learn culturally valued skills developing a significantly stronger capacity for self-regulation