Anna Freud

Anna Freud

Anna Freud - born Dec. 3, 1895, Vienna d. Oct. 9, 1982, London Austrian-born British founder of 'child psychoanalysis' and one of its foremost practitioners.

She also made fundamental contributions to understanding how the ego, or consciousness, functions in averting painful ideas, impulses, and feelings.

The youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud, Anna was devoted to her father and enjoyed an intimate association with developing psychoanalytic theory and practice. As a young woman she taught elementary school, and her daily observation of children drew her to child psychology.

While serving as chairman of the Vienna Psycho-Analytic Society (1925-28), she published a paper (1927) outlining her approach to child psychoanalysis.

Publication of Anna Freud's Das Ich und die Abwehrmechanismen (1936; The Ego and Mechanisms of Defense, 1937) gave a strong, new impetus to ego psychology.

The principal human defense mechanism, she indicated, is repression, an unconscious process that develops as the young child learns that some impulses, if acted upon, could prove dangerous to himself.

Other mechanisms she described include the projection of one's own feeling into another; directing aggressive impulses against the self (suicide being the extreme example); identification with an overpowering aggressor; and the divorce of ideas from feelings.

The work also was a pioneer effort in the development of adolescent psychology.

In 1938 Anna Freud and her father, whom she had cared for during a number of years of his terminal illness, escaped from Nazi-dominated Austria and settled in London, where she worked at a Hampstead nursery until 1945. During World War II she and a U.S. associate, Dorothy Burlingham, recounted their work in Young Children in Wartime (1942), Infants Without Families (1943), and War and Children (1943).

Anna Freud founded the Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic, London, in 1947 and served as its director from 1952 to 1982.

She viewed play as the child's adaptation to reality but not necessarily as a revelation of unconscious conflicts. She worked closely with parents and believed that analysis should have an educational influence on the child. A summation of her thought is to be found in her Normality and Pathology in Childhood (1968).

Anna Freud was not primarily a theoretician.  Her interests were more practical, and most of her energies were devoted to the analysis of children and adolescents, and to improving that analysis.  Her father, after all, had focused entirely on adult patients.  Although he wrote a great deal about development, it was from the perspectives of these adults.  What do you do with the child, for whom family crises and traumas and fixations are present events, not dim recollections?

First, the relationship of the child to the therapist is different.  The child's parents are still very much a part of his or her life, a part the therapist cannot and should not try to usurp.  But neither can the therapist pretend to be just another child rather than an authority figure.  Anna Freud found that the best way to deal with this "transference problem" was the way that came most naturally:  be a caring adult, not a new playmate, not a substitute parent.  Her approach seems authoritarian by the standards of many modern child therapies, but it might make more sense.

Another problem with analyzing children is that their symbolic abilities are not as advanced as those of adults.  The younger ones, certainly, may have trouble relating their emotional difficulties verbally.  Even older children are less likely than adults to bury their problems under complex symbols.  After all, the child's problems are here-and-now; there hasn't been much time to build up defenses.  So the problems are close to the surface and tend to be expressed in more direct, less symbolic, behavioral and emotional terms.

Most of her contributions to the study of personality come out of her work at the Hamstead Child Therapy Clinic in London, which she helped to set up.  Here, she found that one of the biggest problems was communications among therapists:  Whereas adult problems were communicated by means of traditional labels, children's problems could not be.

Because children's problems are more immediate, she reconceptualized them in terms of the child's movement along a developmental time-line.  A child keeping pace with most of his or her peers in terms of eating behaviors, personal hygiene, play styles, relationships with other children, and so on, could be considered healthy.  When one aspect or another of a child's development seriously lagged behind the rest, the clinician could assume that there was a problem, and could communicate the problem by describing the particular lag.


She also influenced research in Freudian psychology.  She standardized the records for children with diagnostic profiles, encouraged the pooling of observations from multiple analysts, and encouraged long-term studies of development from early childhood through adolescence.  She also led the way in the use of natural experiments, that is, careful analyses of groups of children who suffered from similar disabilities, such as blindness, or early traumas, such as wartime loss of parents.  The common criticism of Freudian psychology as having no empirical basis is true only if "empirical basis" is restricted to laboratory experimentation!

Most of Anna Freud's work is contained within The Writings of Anna Freud, a seven-volume collection of her books and papers, including The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense and her work on the analysis of children and adolescents.  She is a very good writer, doesn't get too technical in most of her works, and uses many interesting case studies as examples.