Through a child’s eyes: Anna Freud’s vision
In this blog Liz Allison and Chloe Campbell reflect on Anna Freud’s legacy on her 126th birthday.
When Anna Freud’s nephew looked back on his experience of being in her classroom at the Matchbox School in Vienna in the 1920s, he recalled that she ‘had the rare gift of being able to identify and empathise intuitively with us children and an endearing habit of seeing the world through a child’s eyes herself…[in her classes] we thought the world was open to us.’ (Midgley, 2012, p.12).
Today, as we celebrate Anna Freud’s 126th birthday, we remember her remarkable ability to see the world through a child’s eyes and her stress on the need for different professionals to recognise the limitations of the ways they looked at children in order to understand and help them better:
She stressed that physicians and nurses see only the sick child, teachers deal only with the well child; nursery school teachers have contact only with the young child, while school teachers know little about toddlers. Child therapists are too exclusively exposed to the mentally disturbed child. She questioned the existing divisions along age lines, between education and upbringing, theory and practice—in brief, the specialisation of training in the children's field. (Solnit & Newman, 1984).
Understanding that infants, children and young people have minds that need to be recognised, nurtured and supported is a vital part of Anna Freud’s legacy which remains core to the Centre’s work. Anna Freud’s work was informed by the principle that children should not be treated like miniature adults and that their difficulties need to be understood in the context of their development. Today the Anna Freud Centre, the charity she founded, is still striving to ensure that the guiding principle of the child developing in their social world is fully assimilated into services for children and young people.
The importance of understanding the child or young person’s perspective and developmental needs might seem obvious, but many children have had experiences of not being understood in this way, whether at home, at school or in healthcare settings. The historical chronic underfunding of children and young people’s mental health and social services is a powerful indicator of this lack of recognition. The hope that mental health problems in children and adolescents will resolve themselves naturally over time in the course of future development has contributed to a tendency to assume that mental health problems do not start and/or do not need to be addressed until children reach adulthood. While some problems may resolve themselves without any need for structured support, there is plenty of evidence that more often than not, difficulties start early (Solmi et al., 2021). The stigma around mental health problems and the systemic tendency for the political process to neglect children because they cannot vote, have also contributed to the tendency to overlook children and young people’s mental health needs.
The experience of having your thoughts and feelings recognised and acknowledged as meaningful and significant by someone else is very important for all of us, but it is crucial for children and young people needing to adjust to the world around them. It indicates that people who surround them value them, have thoughts and expectations about them, and are fundamentally invested in them and their wellbeing. At an evolutionary level, such experiences communicate that their thoughts and feelings, their minds matter and that considering other people’s minds is worthwhile. In the long term it enables them to prioritise the human imperative of collaborating and cooperating with others. Feeling that the way they see the world has been recognised, establishes trust and opens the world up to the child, enabling them to learn, ask questions and make contributions of their own.
Remembering Anna Freud, who impressed everyone who knew her with her humility, reminds us that if we want our children and young people to share in the feeling she was able to give her nephew and his classmates, that ‘the world was open to us’, we need to avoid presuming that we have all the answers to the problems they bring us. The first step is always to listen, to be curious, and to be open to learning from them. This deceptively simple and modest approach is her legacy which, we are proud to say, lies at the heart of the Anna Freud Centre’s work today.
This blog has been adapted from Chapter 1 of Transforming Child Mental Health: Principles of Sustainable Development by Liz Allison and Chloe Campbell, which was published by the Anna Freud Centre in 2019.
Image: Courtesy Freud Museum London.
- Midgley, N. (2012). Reading Anna Freud. London: Routledge.
- Solnit, A. J. & Newman, L. M. Anna Freud: The Child Expert. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 39, 45-63.
- Solmi, M., Radua, J., Olivola, M., Croce, E., Soardo, L., Salazar de Pablo, G., ... Fusar-Poli, P. (2021). Age at onset of mental disorders worldwide: large-scale meta-analysis of 192 epidemiological studies. Mol Psychiatry. doi: 10.1038/s41380-021-01161-7.