When we think of psychoanalysis, we immediately and automatically associate it with the towering figure of Sigmund Freud, the father and founder of this highly influential branch of psychology. Freud’s views, perspectives and discoveries on human nature and sexuality shocked many but healed many more. He posited that sexuality or sexual desires basically start from birth and then find a culminating point in the Oedipus Complex (the unconscious psycho-sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent) somewhere between the ages three to six.
In fact, the first years of childhood are so important in the psychological development of human beings that they often determine whether a person will have psychological issues and neuroses in their adult life. A wide range of issues from depression to addiction as well as sexual deviance and even more commonly mate selection and marital problems can be traced back to certain traumatic events or triggers that occurred in childhood. As such, the field of psychoanalysis has helped and even cured many a person by allaying and releasing them from such traumatic baggage of the past.
Yet interestingly, Freud rarely worked with children with the famous exception of Little Hans, the case that brought Freud’s views on castration anxiety (the child’s unconscious fear of being punished by the father for his incestuous desires for his mother) to the foreground. Even then, the treatment work was mostly done through indirect means as Freud had little one-on-one contact with Hans himself.
Yet it would be his youngest daughter Anna Freud who would work with children and shed light as well as directly highlight the psychological processes of children. Many would claim that children per se do not need psychoanalysis or that it could be applied only to troublesome kids and bullies that are often quietly suffering themselves and make life hard for their surroundings. But psychoanalysis knows no age restrictions and whether we are thinking of children or adults, this field can help or be of benefit to practically anyone with issues, a situation and condition quite common in our modern times.
Approaching the writings of Anna Freud was very interesting and enlightening to me. I very much enjoyed her style as well as her compassion and understanding of the interior world of children. She also demonstrated to me the difficulties as well as rewards of working with children as opposed to adults. Finally, I was able to learn more than a thing or two about being a responsible parent and being a responsive teacher myself.
One of the first difficulties as a psychoanalytic child therapist is closely and intricately tied to the issue and conditions of employment. For instance, psychologists who treat and counsel troubled youth are generally employed by and under the service of the state government. As a result, they are free to diagnose patients and provide their reports to the government officials in question.
The situation is more complex when it comes to child therapists who are often employed by and need to directly report to the parents of the child. In many cases, the psychological problems stem from the home environment and come from the very people who pay for the therapy sessions themselves! If the therapist finds justified blame and reproach with the parents, then the latter might dismiss the efficacy of the treatment and discontinue working with the therapist to the detriment of all involved.
Conversely, when adults seek the services of a therapist, they may cancel at any time depending on how they view the progress of the therapy. Most of the times the issues can be traced to childhood problems, but, as a rule, the parents then are not the ones who are paying for the treatment; it is the adults themselves who make that decision and subsequent investment. When parental issues come to the foreground, the adult can then effectively deal with them unlike children who are still under the guardianship of their parents and whose opinions about them have not yet crystallized into fixed views.
This is due to their different psychological make-up and stage development. When adults approach the therapist, their ego and superego are already fully formed yet within the child they are both still fluid and malleable. There was not enough time to set them in stone and although this would make it easier to mold them, it also carries with it new sets of challenges.
As a result, the child therapist cannot deal with the same tools and methods that are used with adults. First, the child therapist needs to win over the trust and confidence of the child. With adults this can be achieved through credentials, experience, success rates or even word of mouth recommendations. Children, however, are not particularly impressed by any of that!
Hence the child therapist must first engage in play with the child and gradually build rapport in that manner. Often the therapist must go along with the child’s way of thinking and even copy their peculiar behavior as well as agree with their likes and dislikes. For example, in one case, Anna Freud would meet and talk with a child under the table since that felt like a safe and comfortable spot for that young individual. Or Anna Freud had to impress another child with her knowledge and skills of something that the child viewed as important, be it the act of painting or juggling and balancing items on one’s head, for instance.
To win over the trust of the child, Anna Freud would often simply play with them over the first sessions just to make them feel safe and more comfortable so that they could and would open up to this stranger in front of them. All this would then involve a somewhat higher degree of artifice and pretense with the end that the child not only accept but also respect the therapist as a voice of authority.
With adults, there is or ideally should be very little judgment emanating from the therapist. Although the therapist guides the patient and offers interpretations and viewpoints, they are not meant as judgments. The clients need to find their own truths throughout the whole labor-intensive process.
Yet children cannot be left to their own devices. They need to be guided and educated and even reprimanded at times. They need to be told what the right action is as opposed to a harmful one. In a way, the child therapists do not experience merely the transference of a parental figure, but they must in fact become a living embodiment of that figure in front of the child to have effective treatment.
Usually with adults, the therapist is not much more than an empty canvas on which the client projects and transfers their own issues and then through this transference, the clients may reach the state of abreaction, the realization of the cause and source of their anguish and problems. This insight would greatly help them to underscore unconscious connections in their actions and reactions and to see the situation in more level-headed and clear-minded ways; as a result, they could deal with the issues more effectively in the future.
A child must also reach certain insights, but they are different in scope and nature. The child then needs to see themselves in a different light, but they are still part and parcel of the home environment at least until their young adulthood. By reducing or managing their fears, they may even be able to accept and live with the shortcomings of their own parents.
The insights of child psychoanalysis are not only helpful for therapists, but by extension they are also useful for teachers and parents alike. One of the main assumptions is that children are passing through normal psychological states and stages not unlike biological phases and growth.
Children may be docile at one stage but more troublesome in thought and behavior at another. They can turn from sweet angelic beings to mean, volatile and tantrum-filled little monsters. They can be obsessed with poop, toilet humor and genitals at later stages.
As educators and parents, we need to take all of this with a grain of salt, reduce punishment and increase our empathy, understanding and patience; moreover, we ought to deal with challenging and difficult situations in an accepting and enlightened way to avoid future trauma or scarring of the child.