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Childhood is not a Freudian concept.

A large part of psychoanalytic theory concerns the early years of life and childhood but, in a certain sense, we can say along with Donald Winnicott that "Freud neglected childhood as a state in itself" (1961).

Only after a wrenching period of revision (1895-1901) could Sigmund Freud come to acknowledge the active role of the child in sexual seduction and to abandon his earlier view of children as innocent victims of the incestuous desires of adults.

This reversal, moreover, led him to theorize childhood sexuality for the first time.

"In the beginning," he would later write, "my statements about infantile sexuality were founded almost exclusively on the findings of analysis in adults which led back into the past.

I had no opportunity of direct observations on children.

It was therefore a very great triumph when it became possible years later to confirm almost all my inferences by direct observations and the analysis of very young children" (1914d).

It was in connection with the treatment of adults that Freud became interested in observing small children.

As he wrote apropos of the case of "Little Hans," "I have for years encouraged my pupils and friends to collect observations on the sexual life of children, which is normally either skillfully overlooked or deliberately denied" (1909b).

Freud indeed never abandoned this line of enquiry, as witness his celebrated account of the "Fort/Da" game played with a cotton reel by one of his grandsons, the personal observation of which he used to support his theoretical conclusions.

As related in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), the fact that an act provoking unpleasure would be repeated, coupled with clinical findings from his treatment of traumatic neuroses, was what led Freud to formulate the concept of the death instinct.

After the publication of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), the first generation of analysts

began observing and reporting on the behavior of their own children in reference to infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, and castration anxiety.

Anna Freud shared in this activity (Geissmann and Geissmann, 1992).

Soon these analysts were joined by specialists on child behavior who had themselves been analyzed.

They began to observe specific populations of disturbed children, such as delinquents, then certain periods of childhood, notably that of the earliest mother-child relations, and finally certain types of problems encountered (feeding, thumb-sucking, attempts at separation, etc.).

In so doing they were "systematically constructing a psychoanalytic psychology of the child, integrating two kinds of data: data based on direct observation and data based on reconstructions with adults" (Freud, 1968).

It is important to note, along with Anna Freud, that psychoanalysts at first showed considerable reluctance to undertake such direct observation of children.

The pioneers were more concerned to underscore the differences between observable behavior and hidden drives than they were to point up the similarities.

Their chief aim was still to show that manifest behavior concealed unconscious processes.

Anna Freud was initially interested in the defense mechanisms, which became accessible to an observational approach; she then turned her attention to children's behavior, to what they produced, and, lastly to the child's ego.

She sought to include a psychology of the ego within the analytic framework, an effort further developed later by her friend Heinz Hartmann, whom she never completely disavowed.

On a practical level she created institutions for young children, the first in Vienna in 1924-1925, the last and most complex, which was established after the war in London, being the Hampstead Clinic, an extension of Hampstead Nurseries.

At the end of her life she trained child specialists at Hampstead Clinic who worked within the framework of a psychoanalytic psychology of childhood.

This work involved treating the child—not only with analysis—to prevent further disturbances, conducting research, and training future specialists in children's education and pedagogy by applying previously acquired knowledge.

During this same period, Melanie Klein also became interested in childhood.

She did not base her theories on direct observation, however.

Starting from the psychoanalysis of young children, she constructed a detailed picture of the internal world of the young child.

She pioneered the use of play in analysis.

Like dream interpretation for Freud, the free play of the child was for Klein the royal road to the unconscious and to the fantasy life.

In The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), she argued forcefully that play translated the child's fantasies, desires, and lived experience into a symbolic mode.

Her technique consisted in analyzing play just as one would analyze dreams and free association in adults, that is, by interpreting fantasies, conflicts, and defenses.

The inner world of the young child as she describes it is filled with monsters and demons, and the picture of infantile sexuality she presents is strongly tinged with sadism.

In discussing the death drive, she describes an infant whose first act is not simply a gesture of pure love toward the object (breast) but also a sadistic act associated with the action of the drive.

Here, as Freud had earlier, Klein challenged a universal human shibboleth: the innocent soul of the child.

This was one of the reasons why her work was often poorly received.

The direct observation of young children has expanded considerably in recent years, helped in part advances in technology: it is now possible to study newborns and even fetuses.

It is interesting to note that, in this way, the significance and the complexity of the mental life of the very young child have been confirmed, along therefore with the intuitions and efforts of psychoanalysts working during the early twentieth century.

It is clear that psychoanalysis has renewed our vision and understanding of the world of childhood.

However, that world remains highly complex, especially its pathology, and it is important to avoid seeing it in terms of adult behavior.

Also, while psychoanalysis has enabled us to better understand that world, we must remember, as Anna Freud remarked at the end of her life, that it does not have the power to eliminate childhood neuroses and turn the child and childhood into that place where we would so much love to find innocence, the mythical innocence of a paradise lost.



Stage of life extending between birth and puberty which marks the onset of adolescence.


Période de la vie allant de la naissance à la puberté qui maque le début de l’adolescence.

See Also


  1. Freud, Anna. (1966). Collected writings. New York: International Universities Press.
  2. Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  3. ——. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.
  4. ——. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.
  5. ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.