A common assertion in play therapy texts is that children are unable to
free associate, and therefore play is employed as an alternative medium of expression.
When one considers that the natural mode of thought for the young child is associative
in nature, upon first glance such an assertion may seem somewhat paradoxical.
The young child happily produces a chain of associations as he or she flits from
one thought to another in seemingly illogical fashion. So what does it mean to
say that free association is developmentally inappropriate? I will first examine
the reasons suggested by those psychodynamically oriented therapists, and then
attempt to indicate how the application of cognitive-developmental principles
provides a complementary set of explanations.
(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
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.
2. The expression of id impulses may
be too threatening. The analysis of primary process material depends upon strongly
developed secondary thought processes, which have not yet been developed by the
3. Unlike adult patients, the young child is less likely to accept
a contract with the therapist to obey the "rules" of treatment, one
of which involves free association.
4. The young child cannot adopt a long-term
perspective in which temporary anxiety, experienced in the short run, is tolerated
because it is viewed as necessary for long-term gain. Thus the young child chooses
simply to avoid activities which cause immediate anxiety and discomfort.
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
a. Since the ego is precariously balanced and extremely fragile during
the emergence of this new stage, the defenses which are mobilized may be particularly
b. Since emerging new defenses join the existing more primitive defenses,
the repressive barrier is exceedingly difficult to penetrate.
2. Related to
these changes in latency is an amnesia for the past and the urge to outgrow or
reject the events in one's early childhood. The unveiling of id material runs
counter to the ego's desire for mastery.
3. During latency there is also little
motivation to engage in a contract with the therapist. The child does not understand
the need to go "backward" in order to progress "forward."
Furthermore, there is a tendency for the child to externalize conflict; environmental
solutions are thus preferred to internal or intrapsychic analysis and change.
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.
The effect of so doing is to sidetrack or overcome repression and thereby to bring
forth unconscious material into consciousness.
3. The therapeutic goal is to
make interpretive connections by the analyst possible, and, as a result, bring
unconscious material into the range of the patient's conscious insight.
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.
the young child may generate associations, the prelogical child is unable to appreciate
the connections and to view them as casually or meaningfully related. The lack
of logical thought makes it impossible for the young child to understand, much
less accept, the therapist's analysis of the freeassociative productions. Thus,
the therapeutic goal cannot be achieved.
3. The egocentrism of the preoperational
period further mitigates against the acceptance of an interpretation by the therapist,
since the young child cannot yet adopt the psychological perspective of another
person. Thus, the young child cannot utilize different perspectives as a potential
means of correcting his or her own perspective.
4. Finally, Inhelder and Piaget
(1958) have pointed out that the form and complexity of adult language, not yet
mastered by the young child, is unsuited to his or her affective needs. For this
reason young children create their own system of symbols and signifiers, those
found in make-believe play. Therefore, direct interpretations made by the therapist
are not likely to be understood.
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
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.
2. The newfound
logical abilities which emerge during this period are directed toward an analysis
of concrete events in the external world, as the title of this stage implies.
The child shows little interest in analyzing internal events such as thoughts,
wishes, or fantasies. To the extent that one can coerce a child of this stage
to produce associations, they will tend to be a logical ordering of publicly observable
phenomena in the real world, that is, lion, tiger. elephant, zebra, kangaroo,
or Staubach, Plunkett, Bradshaw, Tarkenton! Thus, the intended effect of the free-associative
process will not be achieved.
3. The very ability to think about one's thinking,
to reflect on one's thoughts, may simply not be present at this cognitive-developmental
level. The analysis of free-associative material may well depend upon a form of
introspection which requires higher level skills of abstraction that do not emerge
until the period of formal operational thought, at adolescence- Thus, although
the child of this stage is able to think logically about certain concrete events,
the therapeutic goal will not be realized given that he or she cannot treat his
or her own internal thoughts as an object of reflection.
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.
- Schaefer, Charles
& Kevin O'Connor, Handbook of Play Therapy, John Wiley & Sons, New York:
Pretend Play, Coping, and Subjective Well-Being in Children
- Russ, Sandra W., Primary Process Thinking, Divergent Thinking, and Coping in Children., Journal of Personality Assessment 52:539–48.,1988.
Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information
about why children cannot free associate. Write three case study examples regarding
how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Halfon, S., Yılmaz, M., & Çavdar, A. (2019). Mentalization, session-to-session negative emotion expression, symbolic play, and affect regulation in psychodynamic child psychotherapy.Psychotherapy, 56(4), 555–567.
Meany-Walen, K. K., Cobie-Nuss, A., Eittreim, E., Teeling, S., Wilson, S., & Xander, C. (2018). Play therapists’ perceptions of wellness and self-care practices.International Journal of Play Therapy, 27(3), 176–186.
Siu, A. F. Y. (2021). Does age make a difference when incorporating music as a rhythmic-mediated component in a theraplay-based program to facilitate attunement of preschool children with social impairment? International Journal of Play Therapy, 30(2), 136–145.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION
20 Anna Freud's account of the reasons why children do not make use of
free-associative can be cast into what two-stage developmental framework? Record
the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.