Neurosis and Children

Normality and Pathology in Childhood: Assessments of Development

by Anna Freud
International Universities Press, 245 pp., $5.00

The problem of prediction in child development was once put succinctly by an eight-year-old patient I knew. At the beginning of her treatment she was under the impression that an analyst was a fortune teller, and she was very reluctant to give up her gaudy vision for the mundane truth I taught her. Months later I had to ask her, “Do you still think I am a fortune teller?” “No,” she said, “I know better now. You can tell fortunes backwards but not frontwards.”

Prediction in psychoanalytic study of the child is one of a number of clinical and theoretical problems which Anna Freud takes up in her new book. Dr. Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, is a child psychoanalyst of great distinction, and her contributions to psychoanalytic theory are counted among the most original and far-reaching of our time. In this work she applies her extensive critical research at Hampstead clinic in London to the discussion of normality and pathology in childhood. These problems, which are mainly of interest to clinicians, are linked to some of the most fascinating problems in contemporary psychoanalytis theory. While the achievements of psychoanalytic child psychology are considerable, this book can be read as a sober statement of the unknowns that still exist, and uncertainties that testify to the complexity of personality even in its formative stages, and to the variety of adaptive solutions to conflict which are manifest throughout a child’s development.

The analyst can, as the eight-year-old observed, tell fortunes backwards. In the case of the adult neurotic patient the analytic method can achieve a reconstruction of the unremembered past which Freud likened to an archeological investigation. The significant experiences of the past are revealed through their residues in personality, preserved by repression which, like a clumsy forger, erases the surface and covers over, but marks the place where the original text lies buried but intact. The uncovering of the work of repression led Freud beyond the borders of the adult neurosis as he first encountered it. The threads led back in time to childhood. In every case the illness told the story of an earlier disorder, a childhood edition of the adult neurosis. It was in this way that Freud was led to discover the extraordinary power of childhood longings.

The discovery of a childhood prototype for the adult neurosis brought new dimensions to the study of the neuroses and, at the same time, introduced problems that have not yet been resolved by psychoanalytic research. For the childhood conflicts of the neurotic patients were not distinctively different from those of men and women who were not neurotic. The night terrors and animal phobias, the rituals to ward off dangers, the fears of mutilation and annihilation were among the common experiences of childhood. There were, it appeared, typical conflicts and even typical symptoms in the course of child development. If these conflicts were ubiquitous, what constituted “normality” in childhood and what constituted “pathology”? What factors in child development favored resolution …

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