Anna Freud: The Hampstead War Nurseries and the role of the direct observation of children for psychoanalysis

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©2007 Institute of Psychoanalysis

Anna Freud: The Hampstead War Nurseries and the role

of the direct observation of children for psychoanalysis


Anna Freud Centre, 21 Maresfi eld Gardens, London, NW3 5SD, UK —

(Final version accepted 28 July 2006)

The psychoanalytic tradition of direct observation of children has a long history, 

going back to the early 20th century, when psychoanalysis and the emerging fi eld 

of ‘child studies’ came into fruitful contact in Freud’s Vienna. As a leading fi gure 

in the attempted integration of direct observation with the new psychoanalytic 

knowledge emerging from the consulting room, Anna Freud played a crucial role 

in the emergence of this fi eld. But her major contribution to the theory and practice 

of observing children came during the Second World War, when she founded the 

Hampstead War Nurseries. The author describes in detail this important period of 

Anna Freud’s career, and discusses the impact it had on later work. He explores 

the theoretical contribution that Anna Freud made in the post-war years to the 

debate about the place of direct observation in psychoanalysis, and concludes that 

Anna Freud’s ‘double approach’ (direct observation plus analytic reconstruction) 

still has a great deal to offer as a method of both psychoanalytic research and 


Keywords: Anna Freud, Hampstead War Nurseries, child studies, direct 

observation, analytic reconstruction, fathers

Introduction: The context for Anna Freud’s use of direct observation

Anna Freud came of age at an exciting moment in both European and psycho-

analytic history. After qualifying as a psychoanalyst in 1922, she found herself 

living in an Austrian society—‘Red Vienna’—emerging from the horrors of World 

War I, but brimming with ideas about the creation of a better society. Looking 

back on her life, Anna Freud was later to write, ‘Back then in Vienna we were all 

so excited—full of energy: it was as if a whole new continent was being explored, 

and we were the explorers, and we now had a chance to change things’. It was an 

important time, too, for the integration of psychoanalytic ideas with the burgeoning 

use of observational techniques within the new fi eld of ‘child studies’. In Britain, 

Darwin’s ‘Biographical sketch of an infant’ (1877) was probably the best known 

work of those early ‘baby watchers’, but others, such as Preyer and Baldwin

were equally infl uential across Europe. Indeed, Preyer’s ‘The mind of the child’ 

(1973 [1888]), based on a year-long observation of his own child, was known as 

the ‘Bible of child observation and child development’ in the German-speaking 

world, and was quoted respectfully by Freud and other early psychoanalysts 

(Steiner, 2000b). 

Int J Psychoanal 2007;88:939–59







In Vienna too, important developments were taking place in terms of the system-

atic observation of infants and young children. Charlotte Bühler, the fi rst professor 

to set up a Department of Child Development, organized a year-long research study 

based on the 24 hour a day observation of 69 infants brought up in an institutional 

setting. Among her research students was Ilse Hellman, later to work with Anna 

Freud in the Hampstead War Nurseries, as well as others who went on to have 

distinguished psychoanalytic careers, including René Spitz and Esther Bick, who 

played such a crucial role in introducing infant observation to the Tavistock Clinic 

in London. 

The development of observational studies of infants and young children was to 

have an impact on psychoanalysis from the start, despite the fact that many early 

psychoanalysts were openly disparaging about the work of the ‘baby watchers’. 

As early as 1905, in meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Sigmund 

Freud had been calling for the use of direct observation of children to complement 

psychoanalytic investigations of early childhood sexuality and the fi rst signifi cant 

results of this complementary approach were seen with the publication of Little 

Hans (1909).


 The fi rst psychoanalytically informed, observational study of early 

child development was published a few years later (Hug-Hellmuth, 1913), bringing 

together Freud’s ideas with contemporary non-analytic data about early childhood 

in a form that was to greatly infl uence Anna Freud and her colleagues working in 

Vienna at the time (Steiner, 2000b). 

But it was not until the 1920s, with the development of the fi eld of child analysis, 

that the direct observation of infants and young children and the emerging fi ndings 

of psychoanalysis began to be more fully integrated. Bernfeld’s Psychology of the 

infant (1929 [1925]) was described by Susan Isaacs, at the time of its translation 

in 1929, as ‘one of the most important books on child psychology published in the 

English language’, because of its attempt to gather together the descriptive data 

of infant behaviour recorded by the late 19th century baby-watchers to create a 

‘coherent whole’ on the basis of psychoanalytic theory (Isaacs, 1930). 

Perhaps the greatest excitement concerned the possibility of developing new 

models of  ‘psychoanalytic upbringing’, whereby neurosis and other disturbances 

could be avoided by new approaches to the care of children. Writing in 1925, Freud 

himself described how ‘none of the applications of psycho-analysis has excited so much 

interest and aroused so much hopes … as its use in the theory and practice of educa-

tion’ (p. vii). Seminars were run for teachers and for parents, books were written—and 

experimental projects were established by early analytic pioneers such as Willi Hoffer 

(working with groups of Jewish war orphans) and August Aichhorn, whose landmark 

work Wayward youth (1935 [1925]) was the fi rst psychoanalytic account of residential 

care for young people with emotional and behavioural disturbances.

Anna Freud herself was closely involved in all of these developments, writing, 

teaching and becoming actively involved in these and other projects. Heavily 


In his introduction, Freud wrote, ‘Surely there must be a possibility of observing in children at fi rst 

hand and in all the freshness of life the sexual impulses and wishes which we dig out so laboriously in 

adults from among their own débris’ (1909, p. 6).

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