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melanie klein trust

Melanie Klein Trust

Furthering the psychoanalytic theory
and technique of Melanie Klein

Child analysis

Early thoughts on child analysis

The emotional development of children was of considerable interest from the earliest days of psychoanalysis, and Freud’s ‘Little Hans’ case is probably the most famous example of early work with children. It is probable that many of the group around Freud were young parents with concerns about their own children, and who would have wished that they could have the same kind of help as Little Hans was receiving. However, it was not until after the First World War that the first children became subjects of analytic treatment in their own right.

The challenge of analysing children

It was obvious that children could not be expected to manage an adult psychoanalytic setting of the couch and free associations and this was going to be a considerable problem. Other pioneers, in particular Anna Freud, felt at that time that children under the age of seven could not be helped directly, because before that age they could not co-operate with the adult technique.

Klein's approach

To overcome these challenges, Klein developed a technique in which children could express themselves through toys and play. She wanted, as far as possible, to be able to analyse children in the same way that adults were analysed, paying attention to the meaning of the play, the transference and the unconscious phantasies being expressed.

Instead of the child being expected to lie on the couch and bring verbal associations, the analyst would have a simple playroom with a box or drawer of his own containing play material such as paper, crayons, string, a ball, small cups, a sink with taps and small figures that a child could manipulate easily and would not be too representative, giving maximum opportunity for the child's own imagination to be expressed.

The child would then be free to use the materials, the room and the analyst himself as he wished, including the analyst being drawn in to play different roles - for example, being the naughty child while the child became the strict teacher.

In current practice, the basic setting and approach to child analysis is still largely as Melanie Klein described it.

It is interesting to notice how accessible child analytic material is to non-child analysts, whilst the superficial characteristics of the setting are so different. However, once we see adult material as consisting of a constant process of action through words, that it is not so much that children are like little adults in their analyses, but rather that adults in analysis continue to be children, then it is not so mysterious.

Child analysis and its impact on Klein’s theories

Using this technique of child analysis was of enormous importance in the development of Melanie Klein's theories, and especially on her emphasis of the importance of infantile experience in disturbance of later life. In The Psychoanalytic Play Technique (1955, p122), Klein states that:

“….my work with both children and adults, and my contributions to psycho-analytic theory as a whole, derive ultimately from the play technique evolved with young children. I do not mean by this that my later work was a direct application of the play technique; but the insight that I gained into early development, into unconscious processes, and into the nature of the interpretations by which the unconscious can be approached, has been of far-reaching influence on the work I have done with older children and adults.”

Training in child analysis

Over the years many psychoanalysts from The Institute of Psychoanalysis also trained as child analysts and indeed during the 1950s about half the members were also child psychoanalysts the majority of whom had trained in the Melanie Klein technique. This is a measure of how cutting-edge child analysis was felt to be at that time. Now these findings from child analysis have moved into the adult field and there are fewer child analysts though still a significant number and there is still a training at The Institute of Psychoanalysis which recently has become more popular again.

In the late 1940s Esther Bick, with the support of John Bowlby, founded the child psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic. Bick wanted to see if child analytic work could be brought to the new National Heath Service and convinced Melanie Klein that it was possible to conduct authentic psychoanalytic therapy for children seen with less frequency than the five times weekly treatments. Melanie Klein found this quite convincing and so with her blessing the first training using her technique was started. The training has been led at different times by other internationally known child analysts and child psychotherapists Martha Harris, Donald Meltzer, Gianna Williams, Anne Alvarez and Margaret Rustin to name but a few. It has continued ever since and is now the largest child psychotherapy training in the UK.

Later the wish to spread child analytic work beyond London led first to Edinburgh with the training of the Scottish Institute of Human Relations and more recently the Northern School of Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy and the Birmingham Trust for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. There are also many trainings in psychoanalytic institutes and child psychotherapy organisations all over the world using Melanie Klein’s technique.

Robin Anderson

Key papers

List of key papers courtesy of The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, by Elizabeth Bott Spillius, Jane Milton, Penelope Garvey, Cyril Couve and Deborah Steiner. For full references visit the 'Melanie Klein's publications' section.

1921 Klein, M. 'The development of a child'. The hallmarks of Klein's work are already apparent in her acceptance of speech, play, actions and dreams as expressive of the child's unconscious mind.

1923a Klein, M. 'The role of the school in the libidinal development of the child'. Klein observes the inhibitory effects of aggressive phantasies. The use of a play technique yields more material for analysis [Felix, aged 13; Fritz 5; Grete 9].

1923b Klein, M. 'Early analysis'. Klein presents issues such as anxiety, inhibitions, symptoms and symbol formation. She introduces her ideas about the early Oedipus complex and the resolution of oedipal anxieties as enabling development [Felix; Fritz; Grete].

1925 Klein, M. 'A contribution to the psychogenesis of tics'. The tic is traced back to masturbatory anxieties involving identification with combined parents in intercourse, as a central factor in the formation of the superego.

1926 Klein, M. 'The psychological principles of early analysis'. Early sadism and its relation to the early stages of the Oediups complex and the formation of the superego [Trude 3¼; Rita 2½; Ruth 4¼].

1927a Klein, M. 'Criminal tendencies in normal children'. A cruel superego operates differently from the more normal conscience. Increasing interest in the conflict between love and hate [Gerald 4; Peter 3¾; and an unnamed boy aged 12].

1927b Klein, M. 'Symposium on child analysis'. Klein argues the need to interpret from the start the positive and negative transference.

1928 Klein, M. 'The early stages of Oedipus complex'. The early onset of the Oedipus complex at this stage is linked to weaning, when oral and anal sadistic impulses predominate. The pain, hatred and anxiety that such impulses engender are stressed.

1929a Klein, M. 'Personification in the play of children'. Children's games originate from internal images, and processes of splitting and projection involved in playing serve as a defence against anxiety. These processes involve the transference of inner figures onto the analyst [Erna 6; George 6; Rita 2½].

1930 Klein, M. 'The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego'. Klein clarifies the underlying causes of childhood psychosis. She shows that contact can be made with a psychotic child who did not develop a capacity to symbolise and who showed no emotion of any kind [Dick 4].

1931 Klein, M. 'A contribution to the theory of intellectual inhibition'. Further exploration of the child's anxieties about sadistic attacks on the mother's body, representing the source of life and knowledge, and consequent inhibition of curiosity and learning [John 7].

1932 Klein, M. 'The technique of early analysis'. Klein describes her play technique [Peter 3¼; Rita 2½; Trude 3¼; Ruth 4¼].

1932 Klein M. 'An obsessional neurosis in a six year old girl'. Erna was a very disturbed child who suffered from sleeplessness, obsessional symptoms and severe learning inhibition [Erna 6].

1932 Klein, M. 'The technique of analysis in the latency period'. Variations in Klein's technique with different children, for example the use of the couch and toys [Grete 9; Inge 7; Kenneth 9½; Werner; Egon 9½].

1945 Klein, M. 'The Oedipus complex in the light of early anxieties'. Development and modification of her earlier statement on the Oedipus complex [Richard 10; Rita 2½].

1955 Klein, M. 'The psychoanalytic play technique, its history and significance'. An account of the particular discovery that each child case enabled her to make.

1961 Klein, M. Narrative of a Child Analysis. This detailed account of Klein's analysis of Richard, aged 10, comprises the whole of Volume 4 of The Writings of Melanie Klein.