Teaching Psychoanalysis with Children’s Literature *

by Lawrence D. Blum

I’ve designed a syllabus for a novel way to teach basic psychoanalytic principles and child development. Although originally developed with undergraduates in mind, a course based on this syllabus has been taught with great success to candidates at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia by my friend and colleague, Dr. Susan Adelman. I’m posting here about the course both to encourage others to use it as the basis for possible courses of their own and to solicit from readers (students and teachers alike!) suggestions for improving or expanding it.

The basic goal of the course is to learn about child development more directly from children themselves. For the most part, human development is taught through inference from the adult psychoanalytic literature, in conjunction with the literature of child observation (“baby-watching”) and developmental psychology. What’s missing is more direct communication from children’s own hearts and minds. This course tries to fill that gap by drawing on both the clinical literature of child psychoanalysis and the world of beloved, classic children’s books. The clinical articles reproduce children’s communications (through their behavior, play, and language) of their inner experiences. What the works of children’s literature add—despite the fact that they were all written by adults—is an ample assortment of the stories that children, over the past several centuries, have made clear they like best, which means they surely have much to teach us about the worlds of childhood and about child development.

There are many ways one might structure such a course, and there are many great children’s books one could assign. I’ve drafted the syllabus without the benefit of being either a children’s analyst or an expert on children’s literature, so I’m eager to hear readers’ suggestions, which I’ll collect, collate, and share, in this venue and others, so that other psychoanalytic educators can profit from them as well. There are also many additional important topics that the present form of the course doesn’t address, so topic suggestions are welcome as well—particularly if they’re accompanied by reading suggestions. For example: Is anyone aware of clinical reports that focus on children’s relationships with their siblings that could be paired with children’s books on those relationships? What about readings related to the female triangular/Oedipal phase? Also, the present version of the course includes only a few readings from non-Western cultures, even though there’s a vast wealth of relevant non-Euro-American materials out there. Some of us just aren’t sufficiently familiar with it and therefore need your suggestions.

As a course on development, the selected readings can be used to discuss the many intersections of topics such as: intertwining of attachment, relationships, object relations, psychosexual stages, unconscious conflicts, affect tolerance, shifts from less mature to more mature defenses, symptom formation, the development of character, and childhood versus adulthood neurosis. The course also lends itself to discussions of technique. For example: how to work with children of different ages, or with the parents of infants; how to conduct play-therapies; and how to move on to more fully verbal interactions with adolescents. This course could be oriented toward any of the three traditional tracks in psychoanalytic curricula: technique, development, and psychopathology/adaptation.

In my experience, helping college students to learn directly from primary sources, however challenging, can be much more interesting and useful to them than relying on secondary sources. Given the many interesting paths that follow from the materials, a teacher willing to help undergraduates with ambitious clinical and theoretical readings could readily adapt this syllabus to suit their needs and interests, thereby providing them with an introduction to what psychoanalysis is and what it can accomplish.

In fact, with my friend and colleague Dr. Barbara Shapiro, who is a children’s analyst, I already teach such an undergraduate course here at Penn: “Psychoanalytic and Anthropological Perspectives on Childhood.” In this course, we explore psychoanalytic ideas about development in relation to ethnographic materials from all around the world. Anyone who’d like to see our syllabus for that course is welcome to email me at: ldb@lawrenceblum.com—which is also the address to use if you have any readings or topic-areas to suggest (for either course). I hope to hear from you, and, if your responses yield sufficient new material, a brief follow-up will be published here. Many thanks—in advance—for any and all recommendations.

And here’s the proposed (ten-week) course outline for “From the Mouths of Babes: Psychoanalytic Principles and Developmental Psychology via the Child Analytic Literature and Children’s Classics”:

Week 1. Infancy; Developmental Tasks; Early Pathology; Constancy and Dependency.

Fraiberg, S. (1982). Pathological defenses in infancy. Psychoanalytic Quarterly 51: 612-635.

Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon (1947) (could be read aloud in class)
P. D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? (1960)

Possible topics for discussion:
constancy; attachment, different forms; development of concepts of self and other; affect tolerance and intolerance; primitive defensive operations; intergenerational transmission of trauma; techniques of working with infants and parents; orality

Week 2. Later Presentation of Early Trauma. Anger and Adaptation.

Coates, S. (2016). Can babies remember trauma? Symbolic forms of representation in traumatized infants. JAPA, 64(4):751-76.
Rudolph, J. (1981). Aggression in the service of the ego and the self. JAPA, 29:559-79.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963) and In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Possible topics for discussion: representation of early trauma; self/other differentiation; anger, projection, and splitting; handling of affects; defenses in relation to patients’ capacities; early developmental ideas about gender (viz. In the Night Kitchen)

Week 3. Separation – Individuation, Object Constancy, and Childhood Illness.

Sherkow, S. (2011). The dyadic psychoanalytic treatment of a toddler with autism spectrum disorder. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 31(3):252-75.
Bornstein, B. (1949). The analysis of a phobic child: Some problems of theory and technique in child analysis. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 3:181-226.
Fivaz-Depeursinge, E., Lavanchy, C., Favez, N. (2010). The young infant’s triangular communication in the family: Access to threesome intersubjectivity? Conceptual considerations and case illustrations. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 20(2):125-140.

Margaret Wise Brown, The Runaway Bunny (1942)
Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (1922)
Hallee Adelman, My Quiet Ship (2018)

Possible topics for discussion: rapprochement; problems in separation-individuation; borderline presentations in childhood; trauma and aggression in object relations; sequelae of childhood illnesses

Week 4. Triangular Phase (Male) Oedipus Complex, Structural Model

Fraiberg, S. H. (1996). The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp. 179-93 and 202-09 (“Jimmy”).
Erreich, A. (2002). “The littlest balls ever company.” Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 57:245-69.

Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Circus (1956)
Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957)
A. A. Milne, two poems from When We Were Very Young (1924): “Disobedience” and “Buckingham Palace”
Indian folktales concerning Ganesha
Possible topics for discussion: male triangular/Oedipal conflicts; emergence of Oedipal conflicts from prior development; Dr. Seuss’s father’s work as a zookeeper in relation to Dr. Seuss’s work; the structural model as exemplified in The Cat in the Hat

Week 5. Triangular Phase (Female)

Herzog, J. (2008). Falling down: A girl’s struggle with her Oedipus complex and her family’s dilemmas. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 36: 62-72.
Yanof, J. A. (2000). Barbie and the tree of life: The multiple functions of gender in development. JAPA, 48(4):1439-69.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812): “Snow White” and “Cinderella”

Possible topics for discussion: female triangular/Oedipal conflicts and development; girls’ continued relationships with mother; Persephone myth; competition between women (possible examples from films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding)

Week 6. Non-normative Development

Blumenthal, E. (1998). We all need our tails to lean on: An analysis of a latency-age girl with a gender identity disorder. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 53:181-198.
Ehrensaft, D. (2014). Listening and learning from gender-nonconforming children. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 68:28-56.

Richard Peck, The Best Man (2016)
Jacqueline Woodson, The House You Pass on the Way (1997)

Possible topics for discussion: varieties of developmental pathways; cultural and microcultural variations; development of gender identity; development of object choice

Week 7. Latency (early): Friendships and Siblings

Karush, R. K. (1998). The use of dream analysis in the treatment of a nine-year-old obsessional boy. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 53:199-211.
Wright, J. L. (2009). The princess has to die. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 64:75-91

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (1921) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928)
Beverly Cleary, Beezus and Ramona (1955), Ramona the Pest (1968), and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1981)
Dave Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain Underpants (1997)

Possible topics for discussion: latency and its cultural variations; relationships with siblings and friends; reality-testing; changes in and varieties of play, including those related to gender

Week 8. Latency/Pre-adolescence.

Chused, J. (1991). The evocative power of enactments. JAPA, 39:615-639.

Mark Twain, from Tom Sawyer (1876): Tom and Becky
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)

Possible topics for discussion: transitions into early adolescence; changes in technique with patients’ advancing ages; types of regression with transition to adolescence

Week 9. Adolescent Conflicts.

Shapiro, B. (2003). Building bridges between body and mind: The analysis of an adolescent with paralyzing chronic pain. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 84:547-561.
Fischer, N. (1989). Anorexia nervosa and unresolved rapprochement conflicts. A case study. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 70:41-54.

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding (1946)
W. L. Idema, The Butterfly Lovers: The Legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai: Four Versions, with Related Texts (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2010); versions also available on-line
Marjorie Shostak, from Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (1981), Chapters 4 & 5

Possible topics for discussion: early, middle, and late adolescence; reworking of psychosexual conflicts and object-relations; reworking of interpersonal relationships and of sense of self; interdependence and independence; difference and conformity; involvement in the larger world.

Week 10. Young Adulthood

Hoffman, L. (2008). Oedipus and autonomy assertion, aggression, and the idealized father. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 36:85-100.
Awad, G. A. (2000). The development and consequences of an aggressive symbiotic fantasy. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 55:180-201.
Blum, L. D. (2010). The “all-but-the-dissertation” student and the psychology of the doctoral dissertation. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 24:74-85.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragi-Comic (2006)
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Possible topics for discussion: consolidation of character; love, work, and play; ability to understand and adapt to the influences of one’s background

* A somewhat different version of this post was published in The American Psychoanalyst 54.1 (2020).


And here, already, are some further suggestions from colleagues. Please share your own in the “Comments” section or by sending an email to: ldb@lawrenceblum.com.

on the female triangular phase
Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess (1980)
Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There (1981)

on siblings and gender issues
Hoffman, L. (2010). The impact of opposite-sex younger siblings. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 9:68-85.

on pre-adolescence
Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964)

on children’s narcissism
Helen Palmer, A Fish Out of Water (1961)

Teaching Winnicott: On Listening and More Than Listening

by Jordan Alexander Stein

We teachers don’t always know how to walk the line separating the pedagogical from the extra-pedagogical.  Years ago, when I was fairly new to the job, I found myself in office hours listening to a student in some amount of pain.  I gave her a hearing, brokered an accommodation, and sent her on her way.  But as the day went on, I began to fret that I hadn’t done enough––that I could and should have been more encouraging, or at least told her I recognized the bravery that comes with asking for help.  So I turned to friends for advice, and one memorably emailed to say “Therapy is 95% listening and 5% things you’re not qualified to do.”  Their point was that, in doing no more than listening, it may well be that I’d done enough.

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Impossible Professions: Teaching Literature and Psychoanalysis

by Emma Lieber

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud famously claimed that psychoanalysis is one of the three “impossible professions”—the others being education and government. The recent political environment in America certainly gives us a lens onto the impossibility of the latter, and perhaps what “impossible” means in these contexts, though the high drama of the Trump administration may also obscure what’s at stake. What is the aporia—the irreducible, unassimilable gap—at the heart of these vocations? What are their desires and aims, and what within them challenges, not so much the achievement of those aims, but any conventional notion of what achievement means? In what way do these pursuits underscore what Lacan for one designates as the impossibility of desire? And how might recognizing the impossibility of these endeavors influence the aims and techniques of their practitioners?

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The Use of a (Cinematic) Object: Emotional Experience with Film

by Kelli Fuery

Psychoanalysis and the field of cinema and media studies have shared a long, if turbulent, history. From the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, both Freudian and Lacanian approaches contributed to the method that became known as psychoanalytic film theory, serving as the cornerstone of cinematic apparatus theory as developed by Jean-Louis Baudry (1974) and Christian Metz (1974, 1982). Cinematic apparatus theory sought specifically to examine the interrelated structures of cinematic space, screen, and spectacle within the predominantly linguistic frame of Lacanian psychoanalysis. During the same period, psychoanalytic film theory expanded to include theories of spectatorship, feminist film theory (de Lauretis 1984, 1987; Doane, 1987, 1991; Mulvey 1975; Penley 1989), and cinematic textual analysis.

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How Psychoanalysis Helped Me Rethink Police Brutality

by H. N.

This article addresses sensitive political matters regarding the Hong Kong/mainland China relationship. The author has decided to not provide their full name or contact information to avoid running afoul of Beijing’s national security law for Hong Kong.

“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!” “Five demands, not one less!” “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!” These chants of protestors penetrated me as I marched with a million peaceful demonstrators. I was initially hesitant to join in the cursing of the families of corrupted cops, wondering how spreading further hatred could be helpful at all. But the urgent cries for justice brought back images of police brutality; rage seemed to infiltrate and spur me, and I found myself, too, chanting fiercely the words of hatred: “Corrupted cops, may your whole family die!”

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War Neuroses on the Twenty-First-Century College Campus

by Michael McAndrew

The United States has been engaged in the “Long War” of post-9/11 conflicts for eighteen years. If that war were a person, it might be getting ready to go to college. Indeed, many of the almost three million veterans who have served in the post-9/11 conflicts are also returning to college—though many may be significantly older than eighteen, as they now begin or continue their college educations.

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Race and Psychoanalysis: Some Resources for Undergraduate Education and Counseling

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

Note: There are terrific posts by Kelli Fuery, Michael McAndrew, H.N., and others awaiting publication—please be on the lookout for them in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, given our extraordinary present circumstances and—as educators, students, and clinicians—our need to adapt to them as we prepare for an uncertain new academic year, it seems important to jump the queue with this selected bibliography of resources—to which readers are welcome and encouraged to contribute in the “Comment” section.

Many of us will be spending the summer preparing to resume teaching in a world transformed, not only by Covid-19, but also by the revitalized struggle against systemic assaults on black bodies and minds. The psychic fallout of state-sponsored violence—including racially motivated police brutality and the extrajudicial murder of black men, women, and transgender folk—has scarcely begun to be calculated, much less adequately addressed, by the psychoanalytic community. How might those of us who teach psychoanalysis at the undergraduate level, or provide psychodynamic therapy to college students, do a better job of centering black lives—and matters of race even more broadly—in our classrooms and counseling facilities?

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Psychoanalysis and the Pre-Med

by Harris Avgousti

As a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, I study biology and chemistry, and I plan to pursue a medical degree after graduation. Throughout my education, I’ve been very STEM-focused, doing research in radiation oncology, tutoring for organic chemistry and physics, and so on. But a recent course on psychoanalysis helped me begin thinking in new ways about what I’m learning now and how I might someday practice medicine.

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When the “Enemy” Inside Meets the “Enemy” Outside: Therapy in the Context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Keren Friedman-Peleg

Entering a bustling shopping mall on the west side of Manhattan after a beautiful walk on the High Line, I was struck by the sight of a large, multicolored mural (by the artist Jamilla Okubo). It featured a woman looking into a mirror, but, instead of seeing her face, she saw the words: “When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside cannot hurt you.” I was surprised and fascinated to find, in the middle of a vast urban shopping mall, a message addressing the intimate life of the passerby as a psychological being rather than merely a consumer. For days afterward I thought about its message and about the ubiquity of such pop-psychological encouragements to think of oneself as a vessel carrying an “inner self”—a notion that still has a great deal of currency in mainstream psychological thought: the notion that this “inner self” is the principal source of our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors; the place where secret, internal enemies accumulate and thrive, threatening to harm us and daring us to conquer them.

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Teaching Freud To Both Undergraduates and Analytic Candidates*

. by Lawrence D. Blum

Teaching Freud, for me, is always part of a larger project of teaching psychoanalysis. My inclination, perhaps informed by students’ impressions of Freud as a mere historical footnote, and psychoanalysis as a famous cadaver, has been to emphasize how fully alive Freud’s ideas are now, in our culture and in contemporary psychoanalysis. I offer an approach that honors Freud’s ideas by showing students not only how those ideas continue to influence us but also how other, more recent thinkers have helped transmit and transform them.

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