The problem with using psychoanalysis on children

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Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

Children with problems or problem children? That is the question often asked by parents and teachers alike. If a child is naughty in school, are they a “bad” child or are they facing mental ill health?

Most analysis focuses on children being the problem – a highly individualistic take which resonates with Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. This is a theory which dates back well over a hundred years, with strong roots in focusing on childhood problems influencing adult behaviour.

Psychoanalysis developed over the course the 20th century, and although the approach has been dismissed by many, we live in a society where there is still an obsession with “psychoanalysing” children. This inevitably labels children as a problem rather than recognising the problems that affect wider society.

What drives behaviour?

Psychoanalysis specifically relates to Freud’s own school of thought, which believes a person’s behaviour is determined by early childhood experiences. According to Freud, a person has instinctive drives within the unconscious that influences their behaviour – unconscious material can be found in dreams and unintentional behaviour.

Freud’s focus was on specific sexual stages of development that influence our personalities as we develop in life. At the oral stage of development for example, (from birth to one year) Freud implied that oral stimulation could lead to an “oral fixation” in later life – such as sucking your thumb in times of stress.

Psychoanalysts believe that therapeutic interventions can bring the effects of this unconscious material into consciousness with the aim of resolving these issues.

Questioning Freud

Freud’s psychoanalytical theory, and other versions of psychoanalysis, are problematic for so many reasons. For a start, Freud’s theories are based on the “unconscious mind”, which is difficult to define and test. There is no scientific evidence for the “unconscious mind”. And it would be difficult to say who would be qualified to make assumptions about this when nobody really knows what the unconscious mind is.

For children, this means teachers, social workers, nurses, psychiatrists and other professionals make assumptions about them based only on their present behaviour – and without considering any wider social issues. This makes psychoanalysis ignorant of difference and diversity, and over-generalised. Particularly so when directed at young children – given that personality and behaviour can change over the course of someone’s life.

There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ child. Shutterstock

Research also shows that “naughty” behaviour in schools can be because children lack aspirations and a drive to do well. This can stem from many factors such as low self-esteem and high anxiety – as well as growing up in a low income household. Children who are in care, children with disabilities and children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are also more likely to be excluded from mainstream school if they live in deprived areas.

Stop blaming children

It is relatively easy to criticise the use of psychoanalysis, particularly when people are “psychoanalysing” without understanding what it is or isn’t. In this sense, Freud and the general idea of psychoanalysis has become a part of our language – and our analysis of trying to make sense of human behaviour.

And this is not without reason. Freud’s theories still play a role in the teaching and learning of many counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists today, despite facing much criticism since its inception. Indeed, many types of therapies emerged post-Freud – including transpersonal therapy which is a more humanistic take on therapy – and many people have benefited enormously from these approaches.

But ultimately, the problem with psychoanalysis is that the focus is still primarily on the individual being the problem. And in the case of children, to keep focusing on them as the problem, while ignoring wider, social problems is dangerous.

Labelling a child as a ‘problem’ from a young age can have detrimental consequences. Shutterstock

Psychoanalysis does also not fully acknowledge the power of labelling and stereotyping that takes place within schools and in other aspects of a child’s life. It is almost like there is reassurance in focusing on a “problematic” child because there is always a box to tick, which might provide some idea of the “problem” and then result in a resolution.

But it is impossible to do this properly while ignoring the major issues children face in their world. This includes a lack of resources due to high poverty rates, alongside the increasing levels of mental health issues such as self-harm. Individuality can of course not be ignored but neither can the wider social problems that children face. This is important because ultimately it is these external factors that have the power to really influence the mental health and well-being of children.The Conversation

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is Dance Movement Psychotherapy?

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Vicky Karkou, Edge Hill University

Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) uses the body, movement and dance as a way of expressing oneself and findings ways of exploring and addressing psychological problems or difficulties. It is an approach to psychological treatment that does not rely on talking about problems as the only way of finding solutions.

According to the Association of Dance Movement Psychotherapy UK:

DMP recognises body movement as an implicit and expressive instrument of communication and expression. DMP is a relational process in which client and therapist engage in an empathic creative process using body movement and dance to assist integration of emotional, cognitive, physical, social and spiritual aspects of self.

It is often regarded as one of the arts therapies, which also includes music therapy and dramatherapy, and a type of embodied psychotherapy, and also a relatively new profession, founded in the 1940s in the US and only in the 1980s in Britain. It is also practised in Australia and Germany. In all cases, therapists receive specific training and licence to practise in the discipline and offer their services to a wide range of vulnerable people, working in private practice, hospitals, schools, social services, charities, care homes or prisons offering one-to-one or group work.

In these different settings, practitioners may follow different approaches but they all adopt a specific direction based on the needs of the clients. Our early research outlined some of the common features of this therapy across settings and client populations.

• Dance: a range of different practices including breath, posture, gesture, pedestrian movement, rhythmical movement and – less often – a more technical or style-specific form of dancing. Skill is not a requirement for people to begin this therapy and learning steps isn’t what takes place within sessions.

• Embodiment: the connection one may have with your own physical self is of high value because it can support a “body-mind” integration.

• Creativity: the process that enables patients to find new solutions to problems.

• Imagery, symbolism and metaphor: important tools used to access unconscious or difficult feelings such as anger, shame or fear. Using these tools allows the patient to work through problematic issues indirectly.

• Non-verbal communication: people don’t always have the words to express what they are feeling. Sometimes it is easier to reach and communicate emotions to other people non-verbally.

Does it work?

Our research suggests that DMP can contribute to a person’s overall well-being. But, to confidently answer the question of whether it is effective as a treatment, there is a need to improve the number, size and quality of the studies in this area. Both practitioners and researchers are still exploring what are the important components of this psychological intervention that contribute towards positive change.

Results from systematic reviews of studies with all client groups suggest that DMP can have a relatively large impact on a wide range of symptoms. The authors conclude that the degree to which DMP can achieve therapeutic change can be compared to other forms of psychotherapy. A more recent study also suggested that this form of therapy can increase quality of life, well-being, mood, body-image and can offer substantial decrease in levels of depression.

Other reviews look at work with different client populations. For example, we found that DMP is a promising intervention in the treatment of depression when compared to standard care, especially with adults.

The ConversationStudies on effectiveness of DMP on people with schizophrenia suggest that it can reduce symptoms such as apathy, lethargy, blunted emotional responses and social withdrawal. Improved quality of life was the main finding from the review of studies on DMP in cancer care. A review on the treatment of dementia and a study on autism suggest that further research is needed. But in all cases the results seem positive, making this form of therapy a very attractive alternative to conventional psychotherapies.

Vicky Karkou, Director of Postgraduate and International Affairs, Leading the research group on Arts for Wellbeing, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.