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Anna Freud: Background, Theoretical Perspective and Contributions to the Field of Psychology Research Paper

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Anna Freud (1895-1882) is a famous psychoanalyst, very much recognized for founding and developing the discipline of child psychoanalysis. Her work has made tremendous contribution to the general understanding of the psychology of children whereby she devised several techniques to be used in the treatment of children. Anna Freud particularly noted the difference between children’s and adult symptoms and argued that children’s symptoms were very much related to their differential developmental stages. She has also been recognized for her great works in explaining the status of the ego and her tireless efforts in making child psychoanalysis a worldwide concept (Edgaumbe, 2000, p.56).


Anna Freud, one of the pioneers of child psychology was born in 1895 at the Austrian town of Vienna. She was the third daughter and youngest child of Sigmund Fred and his wife Martha Freud. At the time of her birth, Anna’s mother was already exhausted from child bearing and rearing and she chose not to breastfeed the new infant. The situation created a distance relationship between mother and daughter early in Anna’s life and as the girl grew up, she could not help to notice the preference her mother gave to the other five older children. The young Anna sought comfort from a rich world of fantasies that made her feel condemned to utter loneliness but was nevertheless the favorite child of her father (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.85: Valliant, 1995, p.249-250).

Despite Anna Freud outstanding grades in school, her father never encouraged her to pursue further education but she instead trained as a school teacher at the tender age of 16 years, a job she practiced until she was 21 years of age. However, she later in life received honorary degrees from various institutions one of them being the famous Columbia University. On reaching puberty, Anna Freud developed beating fantasies that drove her father to put her under analysis between 1918 and 1922, and then for a brief period in 1924. At the age of 18, Anna Freud took up a role in her father’s career life, serving as his secretary until 1924, while still teaching at the elementary school. She also attended lectures that her father gave at the Vienna University, and in 1923 when Sigmund Freud started experiencing bouts of ill health; Anna became his nurse and remained the dominant woman in his life until his death. This great woman psychoanalyst never committed herself to marriage and remained childless all her life. To substitute the distant relationship that she had with her biological mother, Anna Freud found surrogate loves and sustained psychological mothers such as Dorothy Burlingham, Lou Andres-Salome and Princess Bonaparte (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.85; Vaillant, 1995, p.251-263).

Anna Freud began her activities as a lay child analyst in Vienna in 1923 after one year’s membership at the Psychoanalytic Society in Vienna where she also served as secretary and later vice-chairman of the organization. Her special interest in children had however begun in her career as a primary school teacher. She worked in her hometown of Vienna until 1938 when the uncertainties of war forced her and the parents to emigrate to London. Before her emigration, she had worked with others in Vienna to establish various institutions such as the Oberhollabrum Institute in 1918, and the Jackson Nursery for disadvantaged children in 1937 among others. She also organized various lectures in the field of child analysis targeting both parents and teachers, through which she hoped to exert substantial influence on the educational measures used by the two groups (Holder & Slotkin, 2005, p.31-32).

Theoretical Perspective

The first attempt made by Anna Freud to share her ideas on child psychoanalysis was in 1927 through a publication entitled Introduction to the Technique of Child Analysis. In this publication, she recommended various techniques for observing or analyzing children such as the use of a child’s dreams, as well as employing drawings and play techniques. At this early stage of child psychoanalysis, Anna Freud proposed that analysts should assess a child patient by adopting psychoanalytical as well as educational attitudes. Much later, she dropped this approach when she discovered that children developed defense mechanisms that also played a great role in determining the course that psychoanalysis would take. According to Anna Freud, defense mechanisms have a vital role of protecting the ego from internal dangers as long as such mechanisms do not get over-developed. Overdevelopment of the same would be dangerous to the ego, subsequently leading to very damaging restrictions on the ability of the ego (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.85-86, 258).

Anna Freud believed that psychoanalysis was beneficial to both adults and children, giving special attention to child analysis as crucial to building up of knowledge about human development. But she also feared that sexual talk and aggressive wishes could be destructive to children’s innocence or that psychoanalysis might loosen children’s impulses. According to Anna, psychoanalytic knowledge applied to educational handling offers sufficient protection for development and analysis should only be applied for cases reflecting severe disturbance. Anna Freud dismissed her father’s theory of life and death instinct as a biological theory but nevertheless adapted her father’s later ideas to develop the psychological aggression theory; which she pursued within the context of a structural theory. She held the opinion that a child’s overdependence on the parents would create an atmosphere of resistance towards other caretakers and proposed that psychotherapy was only possible in an atmosphere where the therapist makes the initial effort of developing a relationship with the subject under therapy. Anna seemed to be clearly aware of the crucial role that a child’s actual relationships played in facilitating the child’s overall psychological development (Edgaumbe, 2000, p.56, 58-59).

Throughout her life, Anna Freud strongly identified with her father but also developed very many original ideas. In one of her great works, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense published in 1936, Anna Freud drew a fine distinction between primitive and developed defense methods by exploring the interaction between the id and ego as well as external reality and superego. Apart from analyzing the already known defense mechanisms, she also developed new ones such as altruistic surrender and identifying with the aggressor. She proposed that when used excessively, defense mechanisms were very likely to lead to an impoverished ego, therefore distorting the manner in which reality was perceived. Her early writings reflect a woman who attached very significant importance to the psychoanalytic view of direct child observation which she believed was essential in helping analysts to have a clear understanding of children even as early as the infancy stage (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.86).

Anna Freud stressed the importance of education as a co-process in child analysis and put great emphasis on the crucial role that the educator played in motivating the child to actively participate in the educative process. She ruled out the presence of conflicts in the mind of a child during early infancy arguing that soon after birth, a child’s mind is initially dominated by the principle of pleasure and that conflict only occurs with anyone who tries to oppose the child’s wishes. Anna proposed that children suffering from a superego would best be helped through the educational process rather than analysis. This as she argued was because the superego occurs through a very gradual developmental process. By restricting the Oedipus complex to the 3-5 year age bracket, denoting this period as the consolidation period for infantile neurosis, Anna Freud seems to have had a disregard for the fact that earlier disturbances could have been present in such a condition. She was a widely read woman, reading as many as ninety weekly reports on treatments, as well as volumes of research, clinical and educational papers (Edgaumbe, 2005, p.56, 64-67).

But Anna’s technical and theoretical approach lies in her original notion, lines of development, a concept that she put down in her book entitled Normality and Pathology in Childhood, published in 1965. Through this concept, she argued that a trained psychoanalyst could derive valuable information about a child’s inner-world functions by observing in detail, the behavior of the particular child. The concept provided good basis for her work in which she proposed several ways that would help psychoanalysts to go through the complex phenomena that characterize a child’s development from infancy, through adolescence and up to the age at which adulthood sets in. Some of these phenomena are such as different types of anxiety that develop as a child evolves in age, the change from dependence to autonomy in infants, and transformations such as feeding and toilet training that develop as bodily functions continue changing. Anna Freud emphasized the importance of analyzing the overall development of individual children as the basis from which psychoanalysts would be able to help the children back into normal development (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.86-87).

Contributions to the field of psychology

Anna Freud’s tireless commitment towards the expansion of psychoanalysis was the strong force behind her efforts to lay foundations upon which psychoanalytical institutions would be established; the first one being a nursery school set up to cater for underprivileged young children in her home town of Vienna. This she did with the assistance of her long-time friend, Dorothy Burlingham whose two children Anna had already put under analysis as early as 1923. During her exile in London, Anna Freud once again teamed up with Dorothy Burlingham to establish a center for children who had been separated from their parents during the war; the Hampstead War Nurseries. Through this institution, Anna Freud was able to assess the impact that mother-child separation had on the lives of young children and strongly campaigned for hospital visitation by mothers to the children in hospital (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.87).

Through her war nurseries, Anna Freud was able to develop a training program for prospective child psychotherapists. Having begun a training program in 1947, she went on to establish the Hampstead Child Therapy Training Course and Clinic (HCTTCC) in 1952. This institution later changed names to Anna Freud Centre. In 1970, the British Psychoanalytical Society officially recognized Anna Freud’s training program. Together with Heinz Hartmann and Ernst Kris, she also founded a journal, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (Quinodoz & Alcorn, 2005, p.86-87, 210).

Anna Freud was a woman greatly endowed with great organizational skills as reflected in her efforts to set up children’s nurseries in Vienna and the war nurseries in Britain. Various lecturers that she organized to try and impact the discipline of child psychoanalysis on others have been commended for giving rise to other famous child analysts like Erik Homburger Eriksson, Berta Bornstein, Annie Katan, Edith Sterba, Marianne Kris, Jenny Waelder-Hall, Elisabeth Geleerd and Margaret Mahler among others. Her clinic at Hampstead was the first institution of its kind that offered training to child psychoanalysts through an approach that was fully independent from adult training, admitting candidates who had no prior exposure to psychoanalysis (Holder & Slotkin, 2005, p.29-30).

New ideas are very crucial for the continued development of any discipline but more so if such ideas are recorded and passed on to future generations. Anna Freud played a very important role in the development of child psychoanalysis through her participation in the publication of The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, a US based journal among other publications. She displayed an ability to attract the co-operation and interest of others especially in the USA towards the funding and also running of various institutions, particularly the Hampstead clinic. In 1979, Anna Freud started a series of international informal gatherings that would be held annually and whose attendance included colleagues in Britain, Europe and the USA. She also developed a system of maintaining recorded observation and clinical material which accumulated over time and were availed to various study groups for scrutiny, helping to transfer ideas to later groups (Edgaumbe, 2000, p.80-81).


Perhaps it would be logical to describe Anna Freud as a structural theorist of modern times. By the time of her death in 1982 at the age of 86 years, Anna Freud’s ideas had spread out to the whole world through the people she had trained or worked with, earning her a beloved and very famous legacy and creating a very important discipline in psychology, the field of child analysis (Vaillant, 1995, p.249).


Edgaumbe, R. (2000). Anna Freud: A view of development, disturbance and therapeutic techniques. London, UK: Routledge.

Holder, A. and Slotkin, P. (2005). Anna Freud, Melaine Klein, and the psychoanalysis of children and adolescents: Applications, settings and controversies. London, UK: Karnac Books.

Quinodoz, J. and Alcorn, D. (2005). Reading Freud: A chronological exploration of Freud’s writings. London, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Vaillant, G. (1995). The wisdom of the ego: Sources of resilience in adult life. Standort: Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press.

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