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How Anna Freud changed the world of child psychology

PUBLISHED: 16:25 12 October 2012

Dr Nick Midgley will give a talk on the history of the Anna Freud Centre to mark its 60th anniversary. Picture: Polly Hancock

Dr Nick Midgley will give a talk on the history of the Anna Freud Centre to mark its 60th anniversary. Picture: Polly Hancock

Polly Hancock

Before Anna Freud and her fellows shook up the world of child psychology, babies would go under the knife without anaesthetic and experts refused to believe children could suffer grief or depression.

The Jewish refugee set about helping to change the face of her field in a quiet corner of Hampstead that, 60 years on, still helps shape the treatment of youngsters across the world.

Dr Nick Midgley, who has been working at the Anna Freud Centre in Maresfield Gardens for 14 years, said: “It got to the point where the things Anna Freud was doing became common sense and she would have been delighted with that. But when she started those things were not common sense at all.

“For example, simple things like listening to children and when children play, their play is not something silly. It’s a way in which they express something going on in their internal world.

“People didn’t think babies could experience pain and so doctors used to operate on them without anaesthetic and experts didn’t think children could suffer from grief or depression.

“Anna Freud did not single-handedly make those changes but she certainly contributed to the way we now respect children.”

Born to founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha in Vienna in 1895, she began her foray into psychoanalytic child psychology by looking after orphaned Jewish children in Austria.

Anna realised that although she could only directly help a small number of children, through research and training of doctors and nurses she could influence the wider world of child psychology.

After fleeing Adolf Hitler’s tightening grip on Europe in 1938, she and her family settled in Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead.

Not wanting to waste the work she had begun in her native country, Ms Freud set up the Hampstead War Nursery during the Second World War, fostering up to 120 children.

Some were orphaned during the Blitz and others were often dropped on the doorsteps of the smart house in the leafy corner of the capital if parents could not cope.

Anna’s radical and innovative methods led to a whole-scale change in the way doctors viewed children and especially how children dealt with separation and grief.

Traditionally children would be taken from their parents without any explanation in the belief that the anticipation would cause them distress and visits from parents should be restricted to a bare minimum so they could get used to it.

But Dr Midgley, who is set to give a history talk on 60 years of the Anna Freud Centre on Thursday (October 18), said the pioneering psychoanalyst went against the status quo and would actively encourage parents to visit.

“She believed you needed to do everything you could to allow those emotional relationships to mend,” he said.

“That was very innovative at the time. That made it very difficult when the parents left again. They would be very distressed but their emotional life would also come alive again.

“More traditional ways of dealing with separation often led to children being institutionalised but she realised that part of emotional development is managing difficult feelings.”

In the post-war years the nursery became the Hampstead Clinic in 1952, becoming the Anna Freud Centre when she died.

Her three core beliefs were that the centre should treat people, be at the heart of research and could also help in the training of doctors and nurses in the field.

Although the centre might have moved away from its traditional roots of psychoanalysis since Anna’s death in 1982, it still sticks fiercely to these principles with thousands of doctors and nurses passing through its doors each year for training.

“Some people would feel that the centre has changed a lot from how it was originally and feel quite upset about that,” said Dr Midgley, who has recently released a book, Reading Anna Freud, on the relevance of her pioneering work today.

“In a way, particularly in terms of the centrality of psychoanalysis, something has been lost in the changes. She was Sigmund Freud’s daughter and one thing that was essential for her was the commitment to psychoanalysis and its ideas.

“But thinking has developed and moved on and I don’t know how she would have felt about that.

“But I think fundamentally Anna Freud was interested in learning about the child and seeing what we can do to improve children’s lives. And I think that’s still the core of how the Anna Freud Centre works today.”

Dr Midgley’s talk will be held the Anna Freud Centre, 12 Maresfield Gardens, NW3 5SU. Tickets cost £20. To book visit www.annafreud.org/history

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