‘An Experiment in Group Upbringing’ by Anna Freud and Sophie Dann

Anna Freud and Sophie Dann (1951) An experiment in group upbringing Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 6:127–168

The behaviour of the six children in this study confounded all expectations; rescued from the Tereszin concentration camp by the Russians and sent to England with other rescued children, they were destined to be fostered in the US but funding was provided from the US for a year’s rehabilitation in the UK. Accommodation in England was loaned to the project and the staff were drawn from the Hampstead Nursery run by Anna Freud and the English reception camp to which the children had been sent. Thanks to the dedication of the staff and the careful recording of the children’s behaviour, we have a unique account of development in the absence of adult attachment and recovery from severe deprivation.

Key Points

  • Children who have not made secure attachments to adults can make strong attachments to peers.
  • Very young children can develop a strong sense of fairness.
  • Children deprived of adult relationships will respond to adults in very immature and aggressive ways.
  • Children expect adults to respect the rules of their group if the adults are to be part of it.
  • Children who have suffered severe deprivation catch up very quickly when exposed to a stimulating environment
  • Children who have severe behavioural difficulties are not necessarily deficient, delinquent or psychotic.

Content

The authors describe how six German-Jewish orphans, who had been separated from their parents who had been deported to Poland and killed in the gas chambers, had been handed from refuge to refuge until they reached the Tereszin concentration camp between the ages of six months and one year. Placed in the ‘ward for motherless children’, they had been cared for by the inmates but there had been no toys and limited play space. Two to three years later, in the spring of 1945, they had been liberated by the Russians and taken to a Czech castle where they had been well cared for. They had been included with 300 other children from concentrations camps in a group that arrived in August 1945 at a reception camp in Windermere.

There a decision had been made to keep them together and to move them to ‘Bulldogs Bank’, West Hoathly, West Sussex, with sponsorship for one year from Foster Parents Plan for War Children Inc., New York, which had sponsored the Hampstead Nursery from 1940 to 1945. Sisters Sophie and Gertrud Dann from the Hampstead Nursery, Maureen Wolfison from Windermere and Judith Gaulton were appointed as staff. The children arrived in October 1945.

The children, here given pseudonyms, had all had several moves before their arrival at Bulldogs Bank and their only experiences of life had been institutional. They reacted badly to the move, destroying all the toys and responding with cold indifference or active hostility to the adults. They would only turn to the adults for own needs and used ‘Tante‘ (as in Tereszin) or ‘blöde Tante‘ or ‘blöder Ochs.’

They stuck together in a way which made it impossible to treat them individually; if one did not want to go out for walks, the others would not go without her and they refused to accept different treatments for different ailments. Leadership passed round the group though the boys tended to respond to Miriam’s wants and there was some discrimination against Leah. They always insisted on everyone getting the same. There was a lot of verbal aggression among themselves and they would turn on an adult who tried to interfere.

In the first half of 1946 relationships between them became more peaceful except that Ruth, who had been known to have a previous relationship with an adult, began to express envy, jealousy and competition.

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They initially all used biting as aggression, much as toddlers do, and also spitting or urinating. They also hit or smacked adults when restricted while out walking in traffic or shouted and were noisy. From Spring 1946 they began to use the verbal aggression more characteristic of an older infant.

From November 1945 they began to insist that staff take turns or share and from early 1946 wanted to know where the adults were when they were absent; they also began to exhibit consideration and helpfulness to the staff and by the spring of 1946 to identify with the adults. However, though their relationships with adults improved, they were never more important than their relationships with each other.

In January 1946 Miriam formed a passion for Mr E, a neighbour, who visited and taught the children songs and by March she would only let him brush her hair. Though Mr E left the village, Miriam did not forget him and carried a postcard from him around for ages.

Four of the children were thumb suckers and they ignored comments from adults about it; it increased when knew they would be leaving Bulldogs Bank. One had masturbated in Tereszin and continued to do so; while at Bulldogs Bank he had exposed himself to one of the girls and also asked one of the staff to kiss his penis; however, he later tried to stop masturbating.

They were all poor eaters and the staff got them to eat things by putting sugar, sent over from the US, on food. They had initially refused to sit down for their meals and thrown the cutlery and crockery around. But after the first week they began to play turns with the plates and to begin to be interested in the food; they were fascinated by the markings on the spoons – apparently the only possession people had in Tereszin was a spoon – and they often had arguments over spoons.

They had all been dry by the time they left Tereszin but four had relapsed; one stopped after receiving a gift of trousers from his prospective foster parents.

They were initially unable to use any play material and pushed the furniture around like toddlers; then they began to use the sandpit though they would still occasionally push the furniture. As they became interested in the adult world, so their interest in helping developed. On their first bus trip, they screamed and shouted when the conductor and another passenger try to help them get off the bus.

At the start of 1946 there was a period a passivity with the children veering from behaving like helpless infants to refusing to accept care. From the spring they began to take books rather than soft toys to bed and developed from reading an interest in writing. They also began to be interested in more normal nursery school activities. The speed of their progress in making up for missed development was noticeable.

When they arrived, they knew nothing of town or country life; so everything involved new impressions; by the time they left they understood the traffic code, the names of trees and flowers and what weeds were. The village people had greatly assisted them in sharing new experiences with them.

The first time they encountered something and learned its name made a strong and lasting impression so that, if they had been told the wrong name, they would continue to use it. They had difficulty distinguishing essential and non-essential attributes and exhibited infantilism in some areas but maturity in others.

It appeared that the poverty of their previous experiences had deprived them of the opportunity to exercise the mental faculties they had.

They were terrified of dogs, perhaps because of a guard dog at Tereszin but also had other fears which were less explicable. However, they had no general fear of animals; the puzzle was why they had no other fears which could be related to concentration camp.

They talked German and Czech on arrival and, when the staff stopped talking German after one week, the children accepted this and were soon using double words like auto-car, doggy-Hund. From early 1946 they all spoke English but only used the present participle of verbs; they also carried over several errors from their German into English and continued to use ‘nicht‘ until the spring. They retained ‘meine‘ as an expression of affection even after they had lost the facility to speak German.

In conclusion, the authors argue that siblings are normally accessories to the child’s parents and that positive family relationships normally arise out of a child’s positive identification with their parents. However, where attachments are made to siblings, attachment to adults can disturb positive relationships with siblings, as happened with Ruth and as can happen with some twins.

Though the children had been deprived of a mother and had become ‘hypersensitive, restless, aggressive, difficult to handle! … But they were neither deficient, delinquent, nor psychotic’ (1951, p. 168); they were able to master anxieties and acquire new horizons.

Discussion

In one sense, we only get one side of the story; other than that the staff were incredibly patient, tried to provide a stimulating environment and occasionally took specific decisions, such as stopping speaking German after the first week, there is very little direct evidence about how the staff set about their task.

Some of the children’s behaviour, like destroying all the toys, is characteristic of disturbed children (Lennhoff, 1960), but their sense of fairness is not normally seen in children before adolescence (Wolins, 1973) and after the development of a secure attachment with an adult. Yet they had not lost the capacity to make attachments to adults. Instead, they had different difficulties from the ones that children who make secure relationships with adults first have, having to balance their relationships with adults and with peers. Moreover, their response to good care was entirely normal for children who have experienced severe deprivation (Clarke and Clarke, 1976).

But perhaps the message which has been forgotten in the half century since this paper was published is that even very difficult behaviour may not be a symptom of learning difficulty, delinquency or psychosis. It may simply be a ‘normal’ reaction to having been in an abnormal situation.

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References

Clarke, A. M. and Clarke, A D B (1976) Studies in natural settings In A M Clarke and A D B Clarke (Eds) Early experience: myth and evidence Chapter 6, pp. 69-96. London: Open Books.

Freud, A. and Dann, S (1951) An experiment in group upbringing Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 6, 127-168 Reprinted in A. Freud (1969) Indications for child analysis, and other papers, 1945-1956 Chapter 8, pp. 163-229 London: Hogarth Press

Lennhoff, F G (1960) Exceptional children: residential treatment of emotionally disturbed boys at Shotton Hall London: George Allen & Unwin

Wolins, M (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care In D M Pappenfort, D M Kilpatrick and R W Roberts (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Chicago: Aldine Reprinted in M. Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Chapter 1, pp. 7-35 Chicago: Aldine See also Children Webmag June 2009

3 thoughts on “‘An Experiment in Group Upbringing’ by Anna Freud and Sophie Dann”

  1. There are a lot of mistakes in this story ,as one of the children in Bulldogs Bank home being looked after by Gertrude and Sophie Dann ,so if you would like to get in touch I will tell you where you have gone wrong ..My name then was Jona Spiegel

  2. Dear Ms. Spiegel,
    I would love to hear from you. If you have information about any of these children that would be great. I am the daughter a child who was brought from Tereszin to the castle in Prague in 1945.
    Thank-you,
    Sybil

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