The Early Years of Life: Psychoanalytical Development Theory According to Freud, Klein, and Bion

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'This book provides a powerfully argued and beautifully constructed account of the early development of the child in the family context from a psychoanalytic perspective. It draws particularly on the theoretical trajectory from Freud to Klein and Bion. It is written in a clear, accessible and jargon-free style and it is evident that the author wishes to reach and interest a wide audience of parents and others involved in the upbringing of children in the broadest sense. The growth of the child's mind is the story she wants to tell. The wealth of detailed examples drawn from the systematic observation of babies and young children, from more everyday observation of children's behaviour in family and social contexts and from a range of clinical interventions draws the reader into a vivid understanding of the author's conceptual framework and provides many memorable vignettes of children's lives.The method of presentation, in which the descriptive material is followed by an interpretation of its psychological and developmental significance, offers the opportunity to immerse oneself in an account of the detailed play and interactions of a child with parents or therapist or other children and then to draw back and think about the complex processes one has been privileged to observe'.- Margaret Rustin, from the Preface

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Introduction: The Relevance of the First Years for Personality Development

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INTRODUCTION

The relevance of the first years for personality development

“The past is not dead,
it isn't even gone.”

—William Faulkner

At first, Freud's (1905) insight that the early years are of paramount importance in personality development encountered strong opposition and lack of understanding. His view of the child as a sexual being that from birth on struggled with the emotions of love and hate, Eros and the death instinct, clashed with the widely held sentimental understanding of a child's innocence. The Bible verse, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19: 14, The Bible, English Standard Version, 2001) was wrongly understood as a confirmation of the inexperience, naiveté, and innocence of children. Children's cruel sides, their jealousy and envy or exhibitionistic behaviour, were barely noted or only smiled at, since such behaviour in a child had a strange effect, and adults averted their shock with laughter. The assumption was that children did not yet understand anything about painful feelings. We can compare the psychoanalytical understanding of the early years as a foundation of personality development with the taking root of a young tree. The early aspects of development form the roots, without which a living tree cannot exist. A deep, affectionate relationship to the parents/caregivers permits the development of deep and strong-building roots, which also provides firmness and security during stormy phases of life. Insufficient mothering and adverse environmental conditions allow only a superficial building of roots, which then perhaps offer insufficient stability in developmental crises. The high child mortality in orphanages1, where only the child's physical well-being is attended to, indicates that a minimum of life-sustaining functions, such as emotional allocation and positive surroundings, must be present for the child to survive psychologically. Early maldevelopments such as autism or hospitalism can be traced back to early experiences of deprivation (Alvarez, 2001; Spitz, 1945).

 

Chapter One: The Nature versus Nurture Controversy

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CHAPTER ONE

The nature versus nurture controversy

One of the fundamental questions about child development concerns the significance of biologically inherited genetic features and the influence of the environment. The different answers are based on varying assumptions about the nature of human beings, the research perspective, and varying interpretations of empirical data. Today, there is widespread agreement that the child's development follows equally a universal pattern, exhibits individual differences, and is influenced by environmental conditions. How much importance is attached to each of these three influences is dependent on the theoretical orientation of the psychologist and the questions he or she asks.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, viewpoints were extremely opposing. Advocates of the racial theory emphasized biological heredity, implying an indisputable racial correlation. This was supposed to prove the superiority of the “Aryan race” as “superhuman”, above all other “inferior races” and the “subhuman”. Under National Socialism, this spurious “scientific” argument was used to legalize the extermination of “inferior lives”—all deformed and abnormal people and the Jews. The systematic and bureaucratically organized murder of more than six million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and war prisoners in the concentration camps of the “master race” in Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945 has proven forcefully that, under National Socialism, “racial superiority” served as a pretext for a dehumanized, systematic criminality.

 

Chapter Two: The Emergence of the Body-Ego—Individuation through the Experience of Separation and Closeness

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CHAPTER TWO

The emergence of the body-ego—individuation through the experience of separation and closeness

2.1 Being held by the parents

The baby, the product of a couple's sexual union, remains dependent on affection and care after birth. One can describe the baby as a “physiological premature birth” or as a “secondary home-nester”(Portmann, 1951: 45), because it is incapable of survival without the help of the parents or other caregivers.1 In order to form a stable body-ego (that is, the ability to feel alive and a connection to one's own body), the capability of self-love, and to comprehend being a separate person than the parents, it needs the continuing experience of the relationship to adults who care for the baby's physical and spiritual well-being. The different dimensions of the incipient body-ego, the ability to feel and to think, the development of psychosexuality and creativity (which are expressed in play), all these are closely connected and together form a whole. One could compare this complex interaction with the score of a symphony. There are different superimposed melodies and a voice for each instrument, and from the polyphonic blending of these an entire musical works arises. In the following chapters, if emphasis is placed on a specific aspect, this should not be understood as an artificial separation, but serves to describe an individual phenomenon more clearly—the interplay of inherited and environmental influences should also be considered. The focus of attention is always on the development of the child's inner reality.

 

Chapter Three: Emotional Development in the First Years

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CHAPTER THREE

Emotional development in the first years

3.1 Prehistory of emotional development

All the factors that have an influence on the emotional development of the child I refer to as “prehistory”—even those occurring before birth: they originate in the time before birth, but have consequences later.

The parents' relationship to their baby starts long before the child's birth, as early as the questions of whether or not they want to have a child. In the play of girls and boys aged one-and-a-half years, we can already see how they caress a doll or a cuddly toy and perhaps immediately thereafter toss it away—an indication of ambivalent maternal or paternal images. In addition to the question of whether a child was desired or not, the circumstances of conception play a large role. Was procreation an expression of a loving relationship, where the parents both want to bestow permanence on their love through a creative act? Is the child conceived in order to deliver a successor to a business to the grandparents or to continue a dynasty? Was the child the product of a brutal rape, and used as a weapon against other ethnic groups, as was done systematically and cynically in the Yugoslavian war? Has the child been conceived accidentally from a short romance, without any stable emotional basis of the couple? Is the new baby intended as a substitute for the loss or death of a sibling? Behind the desire for children there are always many, often contradictory, motives, since all men and women also have conscious and unconscious anxieties about this new parental responsibility.

 

Chapter Four: Development of Thinking and the Capacity to Symbolize

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CHAPTER FOUR

Development of thinking and the capacity to symbolize

When we speak about “thinking” we are generally referring in the everyday sense to the mental functions that psychology deals with, that is to say, attention, perception, thinking in a waking state, judgements, reflection, and acts. In Freudian psychoanalysis, we would call this realm of thought “secondary process”. The phrase “secondary process” refers to something on which this psychic mechanism is base—called “primary process” by Freud (1915: 186) since it refers to the primitive functioning of the “system of the unconscious”. All perception of reality is, as Freud (1915: 186) argued, informed to a varied extent by fantasies so that memories can be said to not just refer to real events but also to fantasies and thoughts, all of which together constitute an individual's “psychic reality”. As opposed to logical thinking, which works with concepts and verbal symbols, the unconscious articulates itself in imagery, which can assume a variety of different meanings. The dream, as Freud (1900: 48) claimed, “thinks predominantly in visual images”. The search for clarity and consistency in logical thinking stands in contrast to the attempt to transcend the present, past, and future. In memories events that we find moving are also experienced much later in a similarly intense way. The primary process follows the pleasure principle, which seeks to fulfil wishes and gain pleasure. Both the primary process and the secondary process represent different forms of intellectual (mental) life that function according to certain specific laws. According to Freud (1915: 186f), in the unconscious there is “no negation, no doubt, no degrees of certainty…there are only contents.” A juxtaposition of primary and secondary process reveals the characteristics that will be subject to further scrutiny in the following.

 

Chapter Five: The Psychosexual Development of a Child

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CHAPTER FIVE

The psychosexual development of a child

When we speak of the psychosexual development of a child instead of “sexuality”, this implies a broader understanding of sexuality also including seemingly asexual forms of behaviour. The development of infantile sexuality, as described by Freud in his “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905a), is a significant addition to the understanding of intra-psychical connections. Freud situates sexuality in the unconscious, which he sees as the liminal area between soma and psyche. Since it is a central notion of psychoanalytic understanding we will take a closer look at sexuality.

5.1 A broader understanding of sexuality

Freud (1917: 320) uses the notion of sexuality differently than it is commonly employed in everyday language. He not only uses it to refer to the differences between the sexes, the sexual act, and procreation but to describe every form of pleasure and satisfaction which can be derived from its objects—that is, also eating, playing, and much more. Most of our thoughts and acts are based precisely on these acts and they are also activated in sleep. Sexuality is meant in a much broader sense, and Freud (1917: 320) uses the term “libido” to refer to it. This broader understanding of sexuality is linked to the development of personality (Nietzschke, 1988). Freud himself suggested using the term “psychosexuality” in psychoanalytic theory, since the psychic factor is decisive in connection with the relationship to parents and siblings (Freud, 1910: 119). Here the issue is the individual's capacity to love, linked with an intense, emotional, and affective experience during the sexual act and not an erection or ability to achieve an orgasm. The personality is the product of the development of infantile sexuality into the mature psychosexuality of the adult. Psychosexuality thus cannot be identified with sexual behaviour measured by experimental means (Kinsey, 1948, 1953). It can be influenced by psychic factors such as anxiety, hate, and guilt feelings and be intensified by tenderness and love. Thus a technically successful sexual intercourse without tender feelings can leave behind a shallow, even repulsive feeling, in lieu of happiness and fulfilment. Freud was able to attain an understanding of the unconscious roots of psychosexuality by studying abnormal behaviour, perversion, and sexual aberrations. Freud (1905: 170) assumed that “normal” manifestations of sexual drives could essentially not be separated from “abnormal” ones:

 

Chapter Six: Epilogue

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CHAPTER SIX

Epilogue

In my attempt to describe the psychoanalytic understanding of the early years of life based on the ideas of Freud, Klein, and Bion, I have tried to make complex theories accessible by linking them to the parent–infant interaction found in everyday family situations. Freud took the work on the symptom as his starting point for psychoanalysis, the symptom being for him the most alien thing to the ego to be found in the psyche. The symptom stems from repression, serving as a proxy before the ego. Freud even went so far as to describe the repressed element as the “inner foreign country” and reality as its “outer foreign country” (Freud, 1915: 165). Psychoanalytic developmental theory seeks to understand the emergence of the deep layers of the personality and various psychic mechanisms influenced by the overcoming of primitive anxieties, and dealing with more mature forms of thinking and feeling.

Proceeding from theoretical concepts, I have cited not only examples of pathological development but also scenes observed in so-called “normal” families. These families are also juxtaposed with children whose development is problematic and who could be helped in an analytic treatment. My approach is intended to make it easier for the reader to understand the interlocking of unconscious and conscious processes without the risk of labelling these phenomena, noted in oneself or in one's children, as pathological. Freud's assertion that pathological disturbances only differ incrementally from normal development, that is, that there is a bridge connecting normal and pathological modes of behaviour, is encouraging, since it makes crises and mental or emotional disturbances appear treatable, but at the same time is also disquieting, since anybody considered as “normal” could also at some point develop pathological symptoms.

 

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