Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child

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Sándor Ferenczi's original title for this article, prepared for the Wiesbaden Congress (September, 1932) was "The Passions of Adults and their Influence on the Development of the Character and the Sexuality of the Child."

The change in the name of the article is indicative of Ferenczi's new perception of the problem of traumatism; for the first time he established a clear distinction between the language and motivation (desire for tenderness, security, basic love, "passive object-love") of childhood and the reasons for passionate language in some adults, when they are seducers, desirous of genital excitation and a domination through violence. Recalling the central Freudian thesis of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Ferenczi expounded most eloquently in this text the notion of the hypnotizing and the terrorizing effects of suffering, which, because they are passionate punishments coming from the adult, allow the child to feel even more attached to that person: "The same anxiety, however, if it reaches a certain maximum, compels them to subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor. Through the identification, or let us say, introjection of the aggressor, he disappears as part of the external reality, and becomes intra-instead of extra-psychic" (1932/1955, p. 162).

This is how Ferenczi describes the introjection of the adult's guilt by children, followed by confusion, loss of confidence in their own perceptions, and fragmentation of the personality, particularly devastating when the traumatic shock has been incestuous. In this text he created his daunting metaphor for post-traumatic precocious maturity: "The precocious maturity of the fruit that was injured by a bird or insect" (p. 165).

The conclusions he came to on the basis of this pathological model had a bearing also on the practice of analysis; while they were not very well received at the time, some have turned out to be quite pertinent. A good number of these notions, articulated in his Clinical Journal, have influenced other prominent psychoanalysts, including Sacha Nacht in France; Michael Balint, his student and friend, in Great Britain; and Harold Searles and his students, Elizabeth Severn, Clara Thompson, Sándor Lorand, and Sándor Radó, in the United States.

Pierre Sabourin

See also: Childhood; Ferenczi, Sándor; General theory of seduction; Neurotica ; Passion; Primal fantasies; Psychic casuality; Real trauma; Relaxation principle and neocatharsis; Seduction scenes; Seduction; Sexual trauma; Tenderness; Trauma.

Source Citation

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1955). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. In Final contributions to the problems and methods of psychoanalysis (, p. 156-67). London, Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1932).


Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

Sabourin, Pierre. (1982). Préface. In Sándor Ferenczi, Oeuvres completes (Vol. 4). Paris: Payot.