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)

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