In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychoanalysis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Child
  • The Freudian Child in Clinical Treatment
  • Child Observation
  • Cultural Studies of Childhood

Childhood Studies Psychoanalysis
Gail Boldt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0160


Grounded in the belief that individual human development and personality are strongly influenced by, if not determined by, early life events, childhood has been a central construct in psychoanalysis since its inception. Reading across psychoanalytic works and works in other disciplines influenced by psychoanalytic thinking, the child is always present, whether explicitly named or not, because the experiences, expectations, desires, and needs of infant and child are always assumed to be reflected in the later beliefs, emotions, and actions of the adult. Sigmund Freud’s initial descriptions of childhood were based on retrospective reports of adult patients. An important shift occurred when psychoanalytic researchers began direct observations of infants and children as well as clinical and educational engagements with children. Perspectives on childhood are contested within the psychoanalytic field, with varied beliefs existing across classical Freudian, Kleinian, Lacanian, ego psychology, object relations, interpersonal, and relational schools of psychoanalytic thought. Psychoanalytic perspectives continue to change as research both inside and outside the field goes on, with attachment theory and theories of mentalization representing two important developments that have wide-ranging influence beyond psychoanalytic practice. The early and middle years of the 20th century saw close ties between prominent psychoanalysts and anthropologists who studied childhood. Psychoanalysis initially moved into cultural studies, including cultural studies of childhood, through anthropology. Psychoanalytically influenced studies of the child in culture as well as psychoanalytic traditions of child observation influence contemporary conceptualizations of childhood in childhood studies. Psychoanalytic perspectives are also present in conceptualizations of childhood in education. Early psychoanalysts, many of whom were trained as teachers, took a strong interest in how psychoanalytic principles could be applied to education in ways believed to address the assumed instinctual desires of children. While psychoanalytic theory is no longer widely espoused in education, a small number of contemporary education theorists, many influenced by cultural studies, attend to psychodynamic factors assumed to be at work in learning and classroom relationships in their analyses of children’s and teachers’ experiences of education and advocacy for educational practices.

General Overviews

With the study of childhood occurring across multiple disciplines, there is no single text that provides a comprehensive overview of psychoanalytic perspectives on childhood. Some of the texts included here present overviews of central constructs of infants and children in key psychoanalytic schools of thought related to clinical work, the construction of psychoanalytic developmental theories, and infant/child-caregiver observational studies. Other texts describe how psychoanalytic theories and methodological practices moved into broader studies of childhood through anthropology, cultural studies, and education. Geissmann-Chambon and Geissmann 1999, Rodríguez 1999, and Steiner 2000 trace the development of child psychoanalysis with its varying beliefs about the child from Sigmund Freud through the Klein–Anna Freud controversies, the development of British object relations in the 1940s, and into the present. Steiner 2000 draws from the archives of the British Psychoanalytic Society to frame these developments through issues related to immigrant analysts and wartime politics. The Geissmanns offer snapshots of subsequent developments in the United States, France, Britain, and Argentina. Rodríguez 1999 adds Lacanian perspectives on childhood. Greenberg and Mitchell 1983 provides a comparative, in-depth overview of the movement in psychoanalysis from conceptualizing the infant as isolated and drive-determined to the infant as object-seeking. Fonagy and Target 2003 and Palombo, et al. 2009 offer thorough overviews of developmental theories both historical and contemporary across multiple psychoanalytic schools of thought. Both texts include criteria for evaluating claims made in relation to contemporary research. Warshaw 1992 provides a similar review from a relational perspective. Davis 2003 and Blackman, et al. 2008 describe the uptake of psychoanalytic theories in cultural studies, providing links among anthropology, psychoanalysis, and two major schools of contemporary cultural studies. Taubman 2012 provides an overview of the history and contemporary applications of psychoanalytic theories and practices in the field of education.

  • Blackman, Lisa, John Cromby, Derek Hook, Dimitris Papadopoulos, and Valerie Walkerdine. “Creating Subjectivities.” Subjectivity 22 (2008): 1–27.

    DOI: 10.1057/sub.2008.8

    Written as the introduction to a new journal—Subjectivity. Describes the taking up of psychoanalytic theories as part of contemporary cultural studies. While not focused on childhood studies, this piece provides important perspectives on the link between psychoanalysis and cultural studies and thus childhood studies.

  • Davis, Kimberly. “An Ethnography of Political Identification: The Birmingham School Meets Psychoanalytic Theory.” Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 8.1 (2003): 3–11.

    DOI: 10.1353/psy.2003.0009

    Describes the rift between psychoanalytic theory and the Birmingham School (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) and suggests theoretical reasons and methodological methods for rapprochement. Includes consideration of studies, including studies of children and youth, which integrate Birmingham-inspired perspectives on subjectivity and culture with psychoanalytic theories.

  • Fonagy, Peter, and Mary Target. Perspectives from Developmental Psychopathology. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003.

    Looks across Freud’s developmental and structural models of the child’s development and elaborations of these models through multiple key psychoanalytic thinkers. Traces additional developmental models arising from the work of Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and British object relations, North American ego psychology, interpersonal and relational perspectives, attachment theory, and mentalization. Describes future directions, including implications for desirable early childhood experiences.

  • Geissmann-Chambon, Claudine, and Pierre Geissmann. A History of Child Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1999.

    A key text tracing the development of psychoanalytic perspectives on the child, this book offers readers a clear picture of the both the entangled relationships that exist across multiple schools of psychoanalytic thought and the nature of the differences that separate them.

  • Greenberg, Jay, and Stephen Mitchell. Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

    Presenting the argument that understanding relationships is central to psychoanalytic work, this text is often cited as laying the groundwork for the emergence of relational psychoanalysis. Provides an in-depth review of models of the infant’s relationships to internal and external realities beginning with Freud and moving through such major psychoanalytic thinkers as Klein, Fairbairn, Winnicott, Hartmann, Mahler, and others. Assumes basic knowledge of psychoanalytic terms.

  • Palombo, Joseph, Harold Bendicsen, and Barry Koch. Guide to Psychoanalytic Developmental Theories. London and Heidelberg, Germany: Springer, 2009.

    Provides biographical information and historical context that allows readers to understand the elaboration of developmental theories beginning with Freud and moving into contemporary psychoanalysis. Organized by major psychoanalytic thinkers rather than schools or movements. Attends to contemporary implications of neuroscience.

  • Rodríguez, Leonardo. Psychoanalysis with Children: History, Theory and Practice. London: Free Association, 1999.

    Offers a thorough history of perspectives on the child and the development of structure of its personality from Freudian, object relations, and Lacanian perspectives. Offers a clear preference for the Lacanian and Kleinian versions of the child over the educative emphasis of Anna Freud.

  • Steiner, Riccardo. Tradition, Change, Creativity: Repercussions of the New Diaspora on Aspects of British Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac, 2000.

    Draws from the archives of the British Psychoanalytic Society to describe the impact on British psychoanalysis that resulted from the immigration of analysts from the Continent before and during the Second World War. In particular, the book focuses on Klein’s influence in moving the focus away from babies’ instincts to carefully researched inquiry into the psychic lives of babies during their first six months.

  • Taubman, Peter. Disavowed Knowledge: Psychoanalysis, Education, and Teaching. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Describes history of efforts to apply psychoanalytic theories and clinical practices to field of education. Various educational movements are organized through highlighting the distinction between a focus on correcting and civilizing children’s libidinal impulses and emancipatory notions of freeing children’s desires and igniting their passions for exploration.

  • Warshaw, Susan C. “Mutative Factors in Child Psychoanalysis: A Comparison of Diverse Relational Perspectives.” In Relational Perspectives in Psychoanalysis. Edited by Neil J. Skolnick and Susan C. Warshaw, 147–173. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1992.

    Describes the contributions of psychoanalysts, including Anna Freud, Klein, Winnicott, and Mahler, and more recent child researchers, such as Stern and Bowlby, whose work figures in the development of a relational approach to psychoanalysis. Offers a useful overview of key conflicts among their perspectives and a description of basic positions in a relational approach.

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