As a psychoanalytic psychologist who has specialized in treating children and adolescents, I have often been asked how psychoanalysis can benefit children. Given society’s attention to scientific evidence-based data, one would expect that theories that consider instincts, drives, and Oedipal Complexes must be archaic and obsolete.
Much of contemporary thought on psychotherapy seems to embrace treatments aimed at reducing problematic behavior, either through medication or learning theory principles of reward, punishment, and extinction. And while such focused treatment goals can appear efficient and simple, they typically result in temporary changes, or, more tragically, confirm a perception of the child as defective or pathological, hence the rise of diagnosed mental illness in children.
All people, and especially children, are in a constant process of growth and change. As living organisms, we are evolving creatures that adapt to the demands of life filtered through our emotional and cognitive systems. We are more than sensing organisms endowed with neurological and biochemical processes; rather, we are feeling and thinking beings seeking to understand and be understood.
Any parent who has had the privilege to observe an infant’s maturation toward adulthood should be astonished by the emergent capacities of the child. Sensorimotor abilities proceed at an amazing pace wherein infantile helplessness transforms into searching, grasping, crawling, walking, running, and exploration. Cries become intentional solicitations; babbling becomes conversations ripe with rich vocabularies and storytelling. These and innumerable other achievements attest to the growth trajectory, both in terms of overt actions as well as in mental capacities for thought and imagination.
As social creatures, humans depend upon a relationship with others to foster and promote these remarkable achievements. We are born into a complex network of relationships that influence the patterns and capacities of the participants bi-directionally. That is, both child and adult are transformed by their relationships to each other.
Whereas modern neuroscience has advanced our understanding of how our brains function, the experience of living—our phenomenology—is yet to be understood through such reductionism. As I used to tell my graduate students, we can explain how a watch works to measure time, but no amount of knowledge at that level will ever explain the phenomenon of time.
Psychotherapy addresses lived experience of phenomena, central to our being. Children, like adults, have a lived experience that is fundamental to their sense of self and their identification with others.
In these critical early years, children are subject to a myriad of socializations. The child creates mental representations as templates for how the world works, what people are like, a sense of self, and an understanding of what their emotions mean. All these creations are co-constructed through a child’s relations with others.
These meanings establish subjective “truths” that may be ineffable and therefore subject to interpretation by others. A child, for example, who feels restless, distracted, irritable, and forgetful may be interpreted by a parent, teacher, or doctor as having an attention deficit disorder. The child’s subjective truth may be an expression of worry, anger, or loss stemming from their own account of what is happening in their world. Perhaps the child had a pet die or run away, or the child may have recently moved to a new home or school. The child may be reacting to parental arguments that threaten the stability of the home, or perhaps a new sibling that conjures up feelings of jealousy.
Without considering the context of the child’s life, any manipulation of their behavior in the service of adult convenience runs the risk of estranging the child from themselves. Thus, my overriding rationale for working from a psychoanalytic orientation is always to consider the person over the diagnosis and respecting the context and integrity of the mind.
While psychoanalytic theories have been criticized for their esoteric jargon and complicated dynamics, they can also be highly informative models for appreciating the uniqueness of the human experience. When asked how psychoanalysis can benefit children, I respond that children’s minds are no less complex than those of adults and deserve to be recognized accordingly.
If you are interested in working with children, you may find the course, Psychodynamics of Child Abuse and Trauma, helpful.