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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Children are People: The Life and Science of Anna Freud

Humans have a profound genius for generating terrible ideas. Slavery. Theocratic government. But there is one particular idea we hung onto for an unfathomably long amount of time before finally questioning, and that is the notion that Children Are Property, and therefore may be treated more or less however we please. Our appreciation for the importance of their early environment, and the responsibility we bear for positively structuring their earliest years, is of incredibly recent provenance, and rests to a significant degree on the work of a woman who has spent much of the last three decades languishing in semi-obscurity as a casualty of war: Anna Freud.

The Freud Wars, a twenty year exercise in discrediting Sigmund Freud’s work and denigrating his humanity that was waged in the late 20th century, brought with it the side effect that the remarkable work of his daughter in clinically investigating the developmental stages of children was held likewise in suspicion. She was cast as the reactionary, psychologically damaged protector of Sigmund’s lamentable legacy, and her work sloughed off as unscientific and dated. Fortunately, cooler heads eventually prevailed and historians came around to the view that Sigmund Freud is indeed a primary figure of intellectual history whose cultural situation led him astray on a number of points, and that Anna’s contributions to child therapy were foundational to modern programs like Head Start, while her Hampstead Clinic was a crucial model for the development of American child psychopathology research.

Anna was born in 1895, the last of Sigmund and Martha Freud’s six children. Being the youngest daughter brought with it a weight of cultural expectation. Often, in Viennese Jewish circles, while the older daughters were given leave to marry, and the sons sought their fortune, it was expected of the younger daughter that she would stay behind and help nurse her parents through their old age. That role was confirmed when she showed from an early age an originality and depth of mind that made her, unique among her siblings, an intellectual companion and partner for her brilliant but intensely private father.

She was a daydreamer, given to constructing wild fantasies that astonished her parents for their bold intricacy, with a way of naively but incisively describing her world that more than once made it into her father’s correspondence with his colleagues. Growing up, she eventually settled on the idea of pursuing a career in teaching while her father instructed her in the techniques of psychoanalysis. Now, part of being trained as a psychoanalyst is a requirement to perform a self-analysis under the guidance of a trained practitioner. It is an emotionally intense experience which requires absolute honesty with one’s analyst in the reporting of dreams and urges, and total comfort with reporting any associations those might unearth.

That Anna had as her analyst her own father strikes us today as perhaps uncomfortable, even creepy, but then we are after all a generation largely allergic to genuine intimacy in our pursuit of anonymous approbation from online strangers. That said, it’s hard not to feel a little proxy embarrassment, reading along as Anna analyzes her dreams of being beaten and her masturbatory urges in vacation letters home to her father.

Or perhaps it’s envy of that level of familial comfort masquerading as embarrassment.

In any case, unlike most of the historical accounts of women in science we’ve seen in the previous volumes of this series, where the would-be scientist has to fight every inch of the way to be recognized by a chauvinistic power structure, Anna was received enthusiastically into the psychoanalytic fold. Anna’s interest turned quickly to children, especially as the destitution wrought by the First World War had left so many children in desperate need of guidance and support. Before Anna, there was interest in providing materially for the well-being of such children, but very few people were actively engaged in studying exactly HOW extreme environments impact the psyches of children, and how effective therapies might be developed to help them return to a somewhat normal life.

Anna Freud came into her own in the 1930s in spite of the gathering clouds of anti-Semitic conservatism in Austria and her father’s steadily deteriorating health at the hands of cancer. Just before being forced to emigrate by the arrival of the Nazis, she established the Jackson Nursery, where her decade of experience working with troubled youths allowed her to construct environments that would ease anxiety and help the children rehabilitate after the traumatic events of their childhood. She kept index cards on all the social interactions, behaviors, dietary choices, and hygiene preferences of each child, collating them into a master system that would one day become the towering Hampstead Index, a treasure trove of day-to-day data on regular and arrested child development.

Then came the Nazis. The Gestapo arrived at the Freud house and took Anna away for a day of questioning. Sigmund paced the floor, consumed by worry, and decided that they must leave Austria as soon as possible after her return. Ernest Jones, who would later write the first standard biography of Freud, arranged for the emigration to London of the Freud family, as he did for so many other Austrian and German psychoanalysts who faced anti-Semitic persecution under the Nazi regime and its willing collaborators, like Carl Jung.

Sigmund died within two years of arriving in England, leaving Anna alone in very hostile territory. For London was where Melanie Klein held court. Believing herself to be Sigmund Freud’s true heir as well as the reigning expert on Freudian child psychology, she was upset that Ernest Jones would offer her rival asylum. There were many sticking points between Anna Freud and Klein that shaped the debate about childhood psychosis in the fifties and sixties, the residue of which is our inheritance of common parenting wisdom today. As we saw in the portrait of Klein above, her focus was on the cavalcade of internalized and warring demons resulting from the loss of the mother’s breast that create in us ideals of good and bad that affect how we view ourselves and the world around us.

Anna Freud criticized Klein’s theory for being totally untestable, and for insufficiently taking into account the child’s larger environment. She argued for a largely harmonious early development story which could be subverted by stress from the environment. Children who are the focus of aggression at home, she discovered, will identify with the aggressor as part of their defense mechanism. They will seek opportunities to enforce The Law upon others, or direct their acquired aggressive instincts against themselves, all resulting in a suspension of the normal integrative path of development.

During the Second World War, she had a chance to expand her knowledge of these defense mechanisms, running the Hampstead War Nursery, a haven for children during the Blitz who couldn’t be removed from the city. She had to develop therapies to help ease children through the pain of losing their parents, and divided her charges up into small groups of families headed by a therapist to allow them to once again know the comfort of being loved, and avoid the regression to earlier developmental stages that often comes when one’s stable love objects are no longer present. It became clearer and clearer to her that each child had their own unique path through some regular developmental stages, that a good child psychologist must not attempt to foist a universal origin myth upon the child, but rather must follow as closely as possible their life story to find factors in the environment that deflected the child into self-damaging behavior.

Her work at the War Nursery bled into the development of a fully staffed, permanent clinic which featured not only therapy and support for children exhibiting neuroses, but also a nursery for non-crisis children, observation of which served as a baseline for normal developmental psychology that had not existed previously. The titanic records kept by the nurses, teachers, analysts, and staff formed the basis of a publishing bonanza in the 1960s that spurred the blossoming of a new child psychology renaissance in America, leading not only to governmental programs like Head Start, but public mental health initiatives to educate new parents about their role in shaping the psychological health of their children.

Instead of the property that children were assumed to be in the nineteenth century, Anna Freud instructed us, we need to think of them as fragile psychological beings who absorb all of the anger we direct at them, and inflict it ten-fold upon themselves and the world. Abandonment, violence, belittling, all of these cause the child to employ a variety of defense mechanisms that interfere with normal development, trapping the child in repetitive activity or overpowering neuroses, and must be treated not with renewed harshness, but with a redirection of energy to substitutive activities, to play and art. Some of her ideas of normalcy sound reactionary to modern ears (in particular her stance on homosexuality as something that could and ought to be cured), but her overarching contributions, of giving children their due as people, and informing the world of their extreme sensitivity to the least of our actions, have made us better parents, and our world a more mutually supportive place.

She continued her work, carrying on her struggle against renewed outbursts of Kleinianism and desperately attempting to do justice to her father’s memory in the teeth of his over-popularization until her death in 1982.

The Hampstead Clinic where she gave birth to modern child clinical psychology was renamed the Anna Freud Centre in 1984.


Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Anna Freud: A Biography, now in its second edition, is pretty much your go-to book for learning more about Anna and the dizzying array of phenomenal talent that rushed to psychoanalysis in the twentieth century. It is a lovely book motivated by a sincere and profound desire to do justice to Anna Freud’s great productivity and constant emotional struggles. Alex Holder also has an interesting book out on the conflict between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, and how that conflict continues to play itself out today, for those intrigued in fleshing out Klein’s contributions a bit more than Young-Bruehl does.


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