Chapter 6: Anna Freud – Ego Psychology

Part 1: Neo-Freudians

Who were the neo-Freudians, and what exactly does this term mean?  Many early psychoanalysts remained basically true to Freud and his theories.  These individuals are collectively known as either neo-Freudians or as ego psychologists, for their emphasis on the ego.  Shifting from Freud’s emphasis on the id to an emphasis on the ego is a major change, but it does not require rejecting the basic elements of Freud’s theory.  The shift also encourages the study of children. After all, it is during childhood that most of this dramatic psychological development occurs. The neo-Freudians stand in contrast to Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, who intentionally distanced themselves from Freud, and Karen Horney, who initially brought a female perspective to psychodynamic theory (a perspective in which she directly challenged some of Freud’s ideas on women) but later shifted to a cultural perspective on the psychology of women.

Among the many neo-Freudians, there are some notable individuals we will not be covering.  First, we will examine Anna Freud’s contributions on the defense mechanisms. Although her father had described many of the defense mechanisms, he left it to his daughter to literally write the book on them (A. Freud, 1936/1966).  Anna Freud also moved beyond her father’s work in at least one significant way: she contributed to the study of applying psychoanalysis to children. Another early contributor to the application of psychoanalysis to children was Melanie Klein. Although Klein and Anna Freud shared an interest in studying children, they often did not agree.  This conflict led to a split in the English school of psychoanalysis (Mitchell & Black, 1995).

In one sense, it is not possible to put the neo-Freudians in context because to do so would be to suggest that these theorists have concluded their work.  As we will see, the process of modifying Sigmund Freud’s theories toward some final, comprehensive theory accepted by all psychoanalysts continues today. So we must keep in mind that we are really just putting those theorists in context, and this task is one that will continue into the future.

If you had been able to predict in 1910 what future perspectives on Freud’s theory would become, you might have easily done it.  Some theorists stayed true to Freud’s basic principles, others took radically different approaches, and the rest fell somewhere in between.  Not surprisingly, the strongest supporter of Freud’s theory was his own daughter, Anna. Although she shifted the focus of psychoanalysis from the id to the ego and emphasized analyzing children, these were reasonable extensions of Freud’s own work.  And more importantly, she made these changes only within the constraints that her father’s theory allowed.

In contrast, Melanie Klein made radical changes to psychoanalytic theory, and she directly challenged the views of Anna Freud.  This challenge led to a public battle, one in which Anna Freud seems to have been respectful toward Klein, but Klein did not return the courtesy.  Subsequently, a third group arose; a group of moderates who appreciated the direction Klein had taken, but who had their own differences of opinion with her.  Following a series of open discussions during World War II, it was agreed by all to acknowledge the differences among those who followed Anna Freud, Klein, or their own independent paths.

Eventually, subsequent theorists began to recognize the value in each different approach to psychoanalysis.  Today, theorists like Otto Kernberg have come a long way toward blending the different neo-Freudian approaches together.  But there remained an important area of psychology that needed further study in its own right: the psychology of women. The object relations theorists had laid an interesting foundation for what became a relational-cultural approach to the study of women, and ultimately, all people.

Supplemental Material

If You Know Nothing About Personality 06: Neo-Freudians

This video [7:49] provides a brief overview of the personality theories of Erikson, Horney, and other Neo-Freudians, including Anna Freud, Erich Fromm, and Melanie Klein.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Ken Tangen.  (2010, February 17).  If you know nothing about personality 06: Neo-Freudians.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.