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Anna Freud (1965) offered the most comprehensive account of the reasons why children do not make use of free-associative techniques and why they resist the verbal interpretations offered by the analyst. The psychodynamic considerations she raises can be cast into a general two-stage developmental framework, examining the reasons why free association is unworkable with both the (1) oedipal and the (2) latency-age child. It should be noted that the general psychoanalytic task is to bring unconscious material into consciousness.
Several reasons can be offered for why the young, oedipal child is unable to make use of free association toward this goal:
1. The natural mode of expression for the young
child is action. Thus the oedipal child prefers to "act out" thoughts,
fantasies, and conflicts rather than to talk about them, since the verbal facility
for such expression is relatively weak.
Somewhat different reasons are invoked to explain why the latency-age child cannot make use of free association:
1. Latency, by definition, is
a period during which id impulses are stifled. made latent. Numerous defenses
and resistances are called upon to prevent the surfacing of threatening unconscious
What does a cognitive-developmental understanding add to this psychodynamic explanation? In order to answer this question, it is first necessary to distinguish between three related aspects of free association as a therapeutic technique with adults: the actual process itself, the intended effect, and the therapeutic goal:
The actual process requires that the patient suspend logical thinking and report
everything that passes through his or her mind; one is urged not to censor thoughts.
A cognitive-developmental analysis of why this technique cannot be employed fruitfully with children can be directed toward two Piagetian stages of development, the preoperational and the concrete operational period, which correspond to the oedipal and latency periods, respectively. The natural mode of thought for the preoperational child is by definition associative or "transductive" as Piaget described it; the child does not reason inductively or deductively, but cognitively moves from one thought to another, stringing them together nonlogically. Thus, the actual process of free association would not seem to be the problem for the young child.
The limitations of the preoperational period which make use of free association problematic would appear to be as follows:
The effect of the free-associative process, to bring unconscious material into
consciousness, may not be tolerated by the young child. Fantasy material, directly
produced by the child, may be extremely frightening to the extent that the tendency
toward "realism" is operative during this period. That is, the child's
confusion between fantasy and reality may cause him or her to interpret a scary
thought as a "real" event and not just the product of his or her thoughts
or imagination. This, in turn, would stifle further productions.
Assuming that certain limitations of preoperational thought are overcome during the period of concrete operations, why should the use of free association also be problematic at this more advanced stage?
1. The advent of concrete operations brings with it
a general penchant for the logical organization and classification of the objects,
events, and occurrences in the child's world, a thrust which runs counter to the
demands of free association. Thus, the concrete-operational child would have considerable
difficulty engaging in the actual process of free association.
this type of analysis, then, we can appreciate why free association is an inappropriate
technique for children. Clinicians have long been aware of this fact, an awareness
which has promoted the search for alternative therapeutic techniques. However,
this conclusion has typically been based on psychodynamic considerations. There
has been much less emphasis on how cognitive-developmental factors influence or
limit the effectiveness of free-association as a technique. The primary purpose
of this examination and review has been to illustrate how a consideration of the
developing child's cognitive level can illuminate our understanding of how effective
a particular form of therapeutic intervention might be. As such, it sets the stage
for the next section, which will explore how cognitive-developmental factors influence
the child's understanding of emotions, motives, and the self.
Reflection Exercise #6
Online Continuing Education QUESTION
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