Chapter 7: Klein – Object Relations

Part 2: Psychoanalysis of Children

Another important contribution by Klein was the method of play analysis.  She acknowledged that some psychoanalytic work had been done with children prior to 1920, particularly by Dr. Hug-Hellmuth (Klein, 1955/1986).  Dr. Hug-Hellmuth used some drawings and play during psychoanalysis, but she did not develop a specific technique and she did not work with any children under the age of 6.  Although Klein believed that even younger children could be psychoanalyzed in the same manner as adults, that doesn’t mean they have the same ability to communicate as adults.  Klein’s interest in play analysis began with a 5 year-old boy known as ‘Fritz.’ Initially Klein worked with the child’s mother, but when his symptoms were not sufficiently relieved, Klein decided to psychoanalyze him.  During the course of psychoanalysis, she not only listened to the child’s free associations, she observed his play and considered that to be an equally valuable expression of the child’s unconscious mind (Klein, 1955/1986).  In The Psycho-Analysis of Children (1932/1963), she described the basics of the technique:

On a low table in my analytic room there are laid out a number of small toys of a primitive kind – little wooden men and women, carts, carriages, motor-cars, trains, animals, bricks and houses, as well as paper, scissors and pencils.  Even a child that is usually inhibited in its play will at least glance at the toys or touch them, and will soon give me a first glimpse into its complexive life by the way in which it begins to play with them or lays them aside, or by its general attitude toward them. (pg. 40)

This is a color image of a child coloring on a piece of paper. There are several colored pencils on the table, and the child is holding a red pencil in their right hand.
Picjumbo_com-54 images. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

It is interesting to note that although Anna Freud often commented on Klein’s work, Klein seldom mentioned Anna Freud.  It may be that Anna Freud felt compelled to address the work of a leading figure whom Anna Freud considered to be incorrect, whereas Klein felt no such need to address the work of the younger Anna Freud.  Klein certainly cited Sigmund Freud’s work extensively, but when she mentioned Anna Freud, she typically failed to give credit where credit is due. For example, in The Psycho-Analysis of Children (Klein, 1932/1963), she mentions Anna Freud only once in the introduction to the book:

Anna Freud has been led by her findings in regard to the ego of the child to modify the classical technique, and has worked out her method of analysing children in the latency period quite independently of my procedure…In her opinion children do not develop a transference-neurosis, so that a fundamental condition for analytical treatment is absent…My observations have taught me that children can quite well produce a transference-neurosis, and that a transference-situation arises just as in the case of grown-up persons…Moreover, in so far as it does so without having recourse to any educational influence, analysis not only does not weaken the child’s ego, but actually strengthens it. (pg. 18-19)

This quote not only emphasizes a fundamental disagreement between Klein and Anna Freud, it also seems to dismiss the value Anna Freud placed on her educational background.  Later in her career, Klein even went so far as to suggest that she herself was closer to Sigmund Freud’s perspective than Anna Freud was:

I do not know Anna Freud’s view about this aspect of Freud’s work.  But, as regards the question of auto-eroticism and narcissism, she seems only to have taken into account Freud’s conclusion that an auto-erotic and a narcissistic stage precede object relations, and not to have allowed for the other possibilities implied in some of Freud’s statements such as the ones I referred to above.  This is one of the reasons why the divergence between Anna Freud’s conception and my conception of early infancy is far greater than that between Freud’s views, taken as a whole, and my view. (pg. 206; Klein, 1952/1986)

Clearly, whereas Anna Freud felt that Klein was reading too much into her analysis of children, Klein felt that Anna Freud had failed to consider the wider perspectives allowed by the work of Sigmund Freud.  Given the complexity of individual personality, it may be that the true answer to this question is different for each person undergoing psychoanalysis.

Before continuing our examination of object relations theorists, it is important to stop and ask why the psychoanalysis of children received so much attention.  Many people think of early childhood as a carefree time to run and play, a time when our parents take care of every need, and we have no responsibilities at all.  However, for many children, life holds many more challenging problems than just the normal psychological processes of growing up. Abuse, neglect, being caught in the middle of a bitter divorce, these are just some of the things that occur in the lives of too many children.  In considering situations where society is forced to intervene, Anna Freud and her colleagues believed that we should shift our focus from thinking about the “best interests” of the child and think instead about providing the “least detrimental available alternative for safeguarding the child’s growth and development” (Goldstein, Freud, & Solnit, 1973).  Their reasoning was that in cases of abuse, neglect, divorce, etc., the “best interests” of the child are no longer possible, and certainly cannot be restored by a judge. Therefore, the best that society can hope to do is to help the child as much as possible. Obviously, psychotherapy may play an important role in this process for those children who are emotionally disturbed.

The question remains, however: at what age can psychoanalysis be effective?  The answer depends somewhat on your perspective. As we have already seen, Anna Freud did not consider children capable of fully participating in psychoanalysis as adults can; she did not consider their play behavior to be the same thing as free association.  Melanie Klein, however, did consider children to be good subjects for psychoanalysis at very early ages. In fact, Klein took it one step further: she practically considered psychoanalysis necessary for normal development! Klein’s childhood was not easy. Her father seemed to care only for her sister Emilie, and Emilie and their brother Emmanuel constantly harassed Klein.  Her closest sister in age, Sidonie, took pity on Klein and taught her arithmetic and how to read. However, when Klein was only 4 years old, both she and Sidonie came down with tuberculosis. Sidonie died, and her death was very traumatic for Klein. Klein suffered from depression throughout her life, and even spent some time in a hospital being treated for it during her 20s (Sayers, 1991; Segal, 2004).  This may have had a lot to do with Klein’s focus on the death instinct and aggression during early childhood development. Her own descriptions of childhood can seem quite frightening:

We get to look upon the child’s fear of being devoured, or cut up, or torn to pieces, or its terror of being surrounded and pursued by menacing figures, as a regular component of its mental life; and we know that the man-eating wolf, the fire-spewing dragon, and all the evil monsters out of myths and fairy stories flourish and exert their unconscious influence in the fantasy of each individual child, and it feels itself persecuted and threatened by those evil shapes.  (pgs. 254-255; Klein, 1930/1973)

Not only are such early childhood challenges frightening for individuals, Klein also believed that all attempts to improve humanity as a whole have failed because no one has understood “the full depth and vigor” of the aggressive instincts in each person.  Klein believed that psychoanalysis could help both individuals and all humanity by alleviating the anxiety caused by the hatred and fear that she proposed that all children experience during their psychodynamic development (Klein, 1930/1973).

Supplemental Materials

Understanding Melanie Klein Theory

This video [6:30] briefly describes Melanie Klein’s object relations theory, reviewing concepts related to the good/bad breast, play analysis, ambivalence, and splitting.



Melanie Klein Part 1

This video [19:04] describes Melanie Klein’s theory of object relations. The video starts with a brief overview of Klein’s childhood and personal life, and then moves on to describe how her work grew from Freud’s theory.



Melanie Klein Part 2

This video [19:33] reviews Klein’s perspective on development and how these phases are different ways of experiencing, dealing with, and managing anxiety.  The video also covers Klein’s ideas related to projection, splitting, transitional objects, introjects, and projective identification.



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

Diana Simon Psihoterapeut.  (2016, August 18). Understanding Melanie Klein theory.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

StudentHack.  (2018, March 14).  Melanie Klein 1. [Video File].  Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

StudentHack.  (2018, March 14).  Melanie Klein 2. [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.