What Is Psychoanalysis? What Is Child Psychoanalysis?

Published on August 14, 2009 by Paul C. Holinger, M.D. in Great Kids, Great Parents

Psychoanalysis, according the dictionary, is a method of understanding psychological phenomena and treating emotional disorders. Psychoanalysis has been called "talking therapy." The treatment component involves sessions during which the patient is encouraged to talk freely about personal experiences, including feelings, fantasies, relationships, childhood, parents and siblings, dreams, and so on. With children, play is the method of expression until they get older and can talk more freely.

Psychoanalysis is best seen as an evolving science, with both treatment and research components. Psychoanalysis attempts to understand the inner psychological world of human beings - what people do (behaviors), and why they do what they do (motivations). The field was begun by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Psychoanalysis has evolved and changed significantly since then, resulting in a more sophisticated understanding of the psychological world of human beings and being increasingly integrated with current neurobiology. Important figures in this process include Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Sandor Ferenczi, Renè Spitz, Donald Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, Margaret Mahler, Silvan Tomkins, and Daniel Stern.

What is "Child Psychoanalysis"? Child analysis is a form of treatment and research which uses the play of children to help them with their problems. The goal is to aid children - and their parents - to understand their feelings and behaviors and get their development back on track. As the child gets older and moves toward and into adolescence, the therapy involves less play and more talking. Work with the parents is an important part of child and adolescent analysis.

Virtually all "talk therapy" derives from psychoanalysis - e.g., individual psychotherapy, family therapy, "counseling," cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT), group therapy, and so on. In addition, the very important advances in the understanding of infant and child development have emerged primarily from the psychoanalytic study of children and adolescents.

The treatment aspect of psychoanalysis proper tends to involve three to five sessions per week, with patients often reclining on the couch as they talk. Child analysis, which may be useful in children as young as two or three years old, involves the analyst playing and talking with the child; as the child grows older, the talking increases and the play tends to decrease. The term "psychotherapy" usually refers to talk therapy involving one to two sessions per week, with the patient sitting up.

There are many psychoanalytic organizations worldwide, with the main ones being the International Psychoanalytical Association, the Association for Child Psychoanalysis, and in the United States, the American Psychoanalytic Association (

The goals of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy include helping ease patients' suffering, aiding people in reclaiming and reorganizing their lives, and getting development back on track. Contrary to popular opinion, there is much research documenting the effectiveness of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, and a few of these studies and summaries are noted below.

Leichsenring F, Rabung S (2008). The effectiveness of long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy: A meta-analysis. JAMA 300:1551-1565.

Galatzer-Levy R et al. (2000). Does Psychoanalysis Work? New Haven: Yale University Press. Terr L (2007). Magical Moments of Change: How Psychotherapy Turns Kids Around. New York: WW Norton.

Roth A, Fongagy P (2005). What Works For Whom? A Critical Review of Psychotherapy Research (Second Edition). New York: Guilford.