Anna Freud (1895-1982)

Source: Available through the National Library of Medicine,

Anna Freud

Source: Courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

In the Hampstead Nursery shelter during World War II, where Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham observed firsthand the damage done to children by separation and lack of attachment.

Anna Freud was the youngest child of Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha. As a young adult in 1918, she entered analysis with her father. By 1922, she had become a full-fledged member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. She made her father’s profession her own and child analysis her specialty. Anna Freud never married or had children. She was her father’s constant companion, his colleague, and his nurse during the final years of his life. After the Nazis invaded Austria, the Freud family fled to England. Anna lived in the London house she shared with her father until her own death more than four decades later. Their home was then transformed into the Freud Museum.

Anna Freud’s impact on adoption originated in her wartime studies of British children separated from their parents for their safety during the Nazi blitz. Freud and her lifelong friend, Dorothy Burlingham, observed babies and young children housed in three Hampstead Nurseries, all supported by the American philanthropy, Foster Parents’ Plan for War Children. After the war ended, the nurseries were renamed the Hampstead Child Therapy Training Course and Clinic. After Anna Freud’s death, they were renamed again and are now known as the Anna Freud Centre.

Freud and Burlingham summarized their war work in Infants Without Families. They described young children who sucked their thumbs obsessively, rocked mechanically, knocked their heads against floors and cribs, and displayed all kinds of strange and alarming behaviors in order to draw attention to themselves. According to Freud and Burlingham, what they saw proved that emotional contact was a powerful, natural drive and also that the “artificial families” institutionalized children formed could never satisfy that drive. The book reached two conclusions increasingly evident in the general literature on development as well as in the specific field of adoption science. First, residential institutions were bad because they produced abnormal development in children. Second, attachment—especially to the mother—was the wellspring of healthy emotional development. Inability to attach spelled lifelong trouble.

The implication for children in need of adoption was not merely that families were better places to grow up than orphanages. That conclusion, after all, had been the force behind the longstanding movement toward placing-out. Freud and Burlingham began from the psychoanalytic premise that the instinctual (or “libidinal”) satisfaction necessary for all constructive human development took place within emotionally intensive parent-child relationships, or what Freudians called “object relations.” Consistent instinctual frustration—either through repeated interruptions in parenting or environments that were emotionally barren and devoid of parents—deprived children of the single most important resource they needed to grow up well: permanent emotional bonds. That was the theoretical reason why permanent placement was desirable as early in life as possible.

American Freudians, such as René Spitz, a pioneer in the field of infant psychiatry, offered even more evidence for the institutionally-caused syndrome called “hospitalism,” which he claimed laid the foundations for delinquency, feeble-mindedness, psychoses, and other psychopathologies during the first year of life. The studies Spitz conducted, and his 1943 film, “Grief: A Peril in Infancy,” bolstered the consensus that early attachment to the mother was a developmental imperative, ignored at great peril.

But so did non-Freudian research. Psychologist Harry Harlow’s famous experiments raising baby monkeys with “surrogate mothers” proved that secure emotional attachment to a mother-like figure was a pre-requisite for normal development in non-human animals. The babies assigned to wire mesh mothers were adequately fed, but their needs for psychological nurture and tactile comfort were ignored, and they consequently displayed behaviors resembling autism. Babies assigned to terry cloth mothers, in contrast, appeared to develop far more normally. Why? Their psyches had been nourished along with their bodies.

By midcentury, a chorus of developmentalists endorsed direct placements of infants and newborns in their adoptive homes, agreed that permanent damage could be done during critical periods of infancy and early childhood, and championed the notion that mothering labor was primarily psychological rather than physiological. If a terry cloth surrogate offered more tactile and emotional nourishment to a baby monkey than a wire mesh surrogate, then loving adoptive parents were surely capable of bonding as completely with their children as birth parents. Concerns about genetic influence on how children turned out never disappeared entirely. But research that drew on both Freudian and other paradigms gravitated sharply toward nurture rather than nature by the middle of the twentieth century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Anna Freud traveled frequently to the United States, where she lectured on children and psychoanalysis. Courses she offered at Yale Law School led to a collaboration with Joseph Goldstein and Albert Solnit that was, in many ways, the culmination of therapeutic trends in adoption and a manifesto for the party of nurture. Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (1973) also illustrated how profoundly the psychology, law, and practice of child placement had changed since the time when adoption was avoided at all costs and considered particularly unwise for babies and young children.

In their book, Freud and her co-authors argued that children’s fundamental need for ongoing and reliable emotional ties should trump other considerations in adjudicating cases where child placement and custody decisions were in conflict. They prioritized swift and permanent decisions, for example, not only because delays were detrimental, but out of respect for children’s own foreshortened sense of time. Instead of suggesting that legal and social work professionals try to create “ideal” families, they stressed humility. Courts could not manage human relationships. Science could not predict how children would turn out. Preventing harm, on the other hand, was a reasonable goal. In adoption, as well as other placement and custody cases, it was appropriate to “provide the least detrimental available alternative for safeguarding the child’s growth and development.”

Above all, they called for protecting the continuity of primary relationships in children’s lives, a guideline that stressed the preservation of ties to the main source of nurture: the “psychological parent.” This key term was defined as follows: “A psychological parent is one who, on a continuing, day-to-day basis, through interaction, companionship, interplay, and mutuality, fulfills the child’s psychological needs for a parent, as well as the child’s physical needs. The psychological parent may be a biological, adoptive, foster, or common-law parent, or any other person. There is no presumption in favor of any of these after the initial assignment at birth.” The psychological child-parent relationship, they concluded, was “the prototype of true human relationship.” At its core was a child who was wanted as well as loved. No absent or deeply ambivalent adult could function as a psychological parent, regardless of genetic or legal relationship to the child.

The psychoanalytic tradition represented by Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud decisively shaped modern adoption. Starting with the complex relational hothouse in which human animals developed into socialized individuals, psychoanalytically inclined professionals and parents—as well as formally trained analysts—paid close attention to unconscious motivations, the role of fantasy, and the determining power of early attachment or its absence.

These left an indelible mark on adoption that is evident to this day, even though Freudian theories can be (and have been) used to prove that adoptive kinship is either psychologically suspect or perfectly equal.


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