Transference in Children

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After about a century of psychoanalysis, there is no longer any doubt that children are capable of transference. On the other hand, the characteristics of transference and its themes of love and idealization are the very elements that can cause parents to have reservations about their child undergoing analysis, particularlybut not onlyif they have not been sufficiently informed about this type of phenomena.

Moreover, this is what led Anna Freud to believe that the psychoanalysis of children was only possible in families that had already been genuinely won over by the ideas of psychoanalysis. Be this as it may, Donald Meltzer, in The Psycho-Analytical Process, went so far as to present child analysis as a much more pure situation than that of adult analysis, describing it in terms of a process divided into five successive phases, the first of which he called, precisely, "bringing together the elements of transference."

From a historical point of view, it is interesting to note that the first analysis of a child was that of "Little Hans"related in "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy" (1909) and involving the child's phobia to horsesand that Sigmund Freud conducted this analysis indirectly, based on the reports and notes of the boy's father, himself one of Freud's students. In other words, this analysis poses complex problems from the point of view of transference because it involved analysis of the child's transference onto the image of his father, against the background of the more or less idealizing transference of the boy's father himself onto Freud. This is something that is found, more or less, throughout the history of ideas relating to transference in children, particularly with regard to the question of whether or not children can form a joint transference onto their parents and onto their therapist.

It is thought that the child analyst's main difficulty is not the absence of transference but instead the very opposite: seeing the development of a transference of unusual intensity, with archaic components that are sometimes so massive and so violent that they become difficult for the analyst to tolerate. This massive, archaic transference, mainly linked to the mechanism of projective identification described by Melanie Klein, is a splitting transference that often corresponds to a type of part-object relationship.

The controversy between Anna Freud and Klein must be recalled here, in those aspects that touch upon the issue of transference. One of the arguments that Anna Freud initially made against the possibility of transference in children was the fact of the child's dependency in relation to his or her real objects, the parents. Klein countered this by arguing that the psychic structures were organized very early on, from the second semester of the child's life, that the problems for which the child needed analysis were already linked to repetitions of earlier organizations, and that because of this, the child's relationship with his or her real objects was already, in itself, a mixture of real and imaginary objects, or, to put things differently, of objective and subjective elements. Whether or not the parents were alive, and whether or not they intervene in the child's external reality, does not prevent the child from transferring onto the analyst the fantasmatic dimension of the relation to his or her internal parental objects.

The second, Kleinian point of view gradually became the dominant one and as of 2005 is commonly accepted among child analysts. Moreover, after 1926 Anna Freud herself moved perceptibly closer to Klein's positions on this point. As Didier Houzel and Gilles Catoire wrote in an encyclopedia article on child analysis: "Repetition, in the relationship with the analyst, of these early psychic structures, that is, the relation of the self to its internal objects, is what constitutes the transference."

This transference must be thought, understood, interpreted, and worked over with the child, but often, initially, it must only be tolerated and contained by the analyst, all the more so in that transference in children is often splitfor example, between outside of treatment (the relationship with the parents) and inside treatment (the relationship with the analyst). If the analyst does not accept the extratransferential roles that the child wishes to make him or her play, and if, on the contrary, the analyst is willing to contain in him- or herself all the aspects of the transference (including its negative and destructive aspects), this splitting can then gradually be reduced.

By means of "bringing together the elements of the transference" and analysis of these transferential repetitions, the child's ego is reinforced, anxieties are modified, and the major psychic functions are differentiated. This process is nevertheless long, often difficult, punctuated by the child's attempts at avoidance, and lastly, capable of triggering a whole series of different counter-transferential impulses in the analyst. It can be noted that with children, even more so than with adults, the establishment of the transference can produce changes in symptoms that may make it seem, superficially, that the child has been cured. Care should be taken to warn parents about this, to prevent them from falling into the trap of interrupting their child's analysis prematurely.

This attests to the importance of the therapeutic alliance with the parents, which is an integral part of psychoanalytic technique with children, as a vouchsafe for the possibility of continuity in the therapeutic process. As with adults, the idea of the therapeutic alliance benefits from being differentiated from transference properly speaking, although this concept of therapeutic alliance, even in 2005, remains controversial.

But there is no transference without counter-transference, with children as with adults. The idea of counter-transference encompasses both unconscious elements of the analyst's psychic functioning that pose an obstacle to the course of the treatment, which must be kept from the patient, and alterations of the analyst's psyche under the influence of the child's projections, which, as is well known, are the basis of a certain very primitive, preverbal level of his or her communication. Only by means of working at self-analysis can the analyst become aware of these different phenomena and sort out these two very different aspects of his counter-transference.

At this cost, the counter-transference is an irreplaceable tool in child analysis (in fact, in analysis in general), and the entire Kleinian and post-Kleinian movement has strongly emphasized it. Indeed, with mute or psychotic children, or with very young children prior to language acquisition (infans ), analysis of the counter-transference is sometimes the only means of giving meaning to the infraverbal material provided by the child, on the understanding that the dynamics of transference and countertransference are in fact indissociable and that in a way, they are one and the same.

The management of the counter-transference as a means of perceiving a part of the child's communication in fact requires some delicacy, owing, in part, to the closely interwoven relationship between what the child's projections induce in the analyst and what in turn is reactivated in the child by the analyst's counter-transference (which can be caught in the trap of a neutralizing projective counter-identification), all the more so in that it is possible that the child's projections may correspond to real aspects of the analyst's personality. In such cases, the analysis can only progress if the analyst truly gives herself the means to become aware of these aspects of her own personality and at the same time preserve herself from the child's projections, or rather, contain them and work them over.

Antonino Ferro, in L 'Enfant et le Psychanalyste: La question de la technique dans la psychanalyse des enfants (1997; The child and the psychoanalyst: the question of technique in child analysis), distinguishes among the three levels of listening among which the analyst must oscillatethe level of events, the level of fantasies, and the level inherent in the two-person field deployed within the analyst/analysand pairand clearly shows how transference in children is an eminently dynamic process that "speaks" just as much about the present, against the background of the past, as it does about the past against the background of the present.

Finally, with regard to babies, their ability (or lack thereof) to transfer has for several years been at the center of a certain number of debates (Serge Lebovici, Bertrand Cramer, and others) about what has come to be known as joint parent/infant therapies, generally conducted by analysts. What has come out of this is that babies appear to be able to incite in their new relational partners interactive modalities that they have had the occasion to try out with their first objects of attachment, but whether or not it is possible, within this framework, really to talk about transference remains an entirely open question, even though these interactive repetitions can occur without significant intervals of time passing between the different experiences in question.

Bernard Golse

See also: Child analysis; Counter-transference; Negative therapeutic reaction; Psychoanalytical Treatment of Children ; Technique with children, psychoanalytic; Transference.


Ferro, Antonino. (1997). L 'Enfant et le Psychanalyste: La question de la technique dans la psychanalyse des enfants. Ramonville-Saint-Agne, France:Érès.

Freud, Sigmund. (1909). Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

Houzel, Didier, and Catoire, Gilles. (1986). La psychanalyse des enfants. Encyclopédie médico-chirurgicale, Psychiatrie. Paris: Encyclopédie médicale-chirurgicale. Fasc. 37-812-A-10.

Meltzer, Donald. (1967). The psycho-analytical process. London: Heinemann Medical.

Further Reading

Furman, Erna. (2002). Transference and countertransference in child analysis. Child Analysis, 13, 113-188.