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Analysis of a phobia of a five-year-old boy
One of the key themes of Freud’s work is the importance of the first few years of life in the subsequent development of personality. He also believed that children experience emotional conflicts, and their future adjustment depends on how well these conflicts are resolved.
Another theme within Freud’s work concerns the unconscious mind, which is the part of our mind which we are not aware of. Freud believed that the unconscious contains unresolved conflicts and has a powerful effect on our behaviour and experience. He argued that many of these conflicts will show up in our fantasies and dreams, but the conflicts are so threatening that they appear in disguised forms, in the shape of symbols.
The Oedipus complex is an important concept in Psychoanalysis and Freud believed that this case study of Little Hans supports this idea. Freud believed that children pass through five stages of development, known as the psychosexual stages because of Freud's emphasis on sexuality as the basic drive in development. These stages are: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latency period and finally the genital stage. It is the first three stages which take place in the first five years of life of a child.
The phallic stage, from three to five years old was the stage where the child's sexual identification was established. During this stage Freud hypothesised that a young boy would experience what he called the Oedipus complex. This would provide the child with highly disturbing conflicts, which had to be resolved by the child identifying with the same-sexed parent.
Freud thought that, during the phallic stage, the young boy develops an intense sexual love for his mother. Because of this, he sees his father as a rival, and wants to get rid of him. The father, however, is far bigger and more powerful than the young boy, and so the child develops a fear that, seeing him as a rival, his father will castrate him. Because it is impossible to live with the continual castration-threat anxiety provided by this conflict, the young boy develops a mechanism for coping with it, using a defence mechanism known as 'identification with the aggressor'. He stresses all the ways that he is similar to his father, adopting his father's attitudes, mannerisms and actions, feeling that if his father sees him as similar, he will not feel hostile towards him.
The aim of the study was to report the findings of the treatment of a five-year-old boy for his phobia of horses.
Freud used a case study method to investigate Little Hans’ phobia. However the case study was actually carried out by the boy’s father who was a friend and supporter of Freud. Freud probably only met the boy once. The father reported to Freud via correspondence and Freud gave directions as how to deal with the situation based on his interpretations of the father’s reports.
Freud noted that it was the special relationship between Hans and his father that allowed the analysis to progress and for the discussions with the boy to be so detailed and so intimate. The first reports of Hans are when he was 3 years old.
As this was a very in depth case study there are many findings.
The first reports of Hans are when he was 3 years old when he developed an active interest in his ‘widdler’ (penis), and also those of other people. For example on one occasion he asked ‘Mummy, have you got a widdler too?’
Throughout this time, the main theme of his fantasies and dreams was widdlers and widdling.
When he was about three years and six months old his mother told him not to touch his widdler or else she would call the doctor to come and cut it off. Around the same time, Hans’ mother gave birth to his sister Hanna, and Hans expressed jealousy towards her though this disappeared after a few months.
Hans had considerable interest in other children, especially girls, and formed emotional attachments with them.
When Hans was almost 5, Hans’ father wrote to Freud explaining his concerns about Hans. He described the main problem as follows: ‘He is afraid a horse will bite him in the street, and this fear seems somehow connected with his having been frightened by a large penis’. The father went on to provide Freud with extensive details of conversations with Hans. Together, Freud and the father tried to understand what the boy was experiencing and undertook to resolve his phobia of horses.
Freud noted that Han’s fear of horses had developed just after the he had experienced some anxiety dreams about losing his mother, and around the time he had been warned about playing with his widdler. Freud argued that Hans, who enjoyed getting into bed with his mother, had a repressed longing for her, and had focused his libido (sexual energy) on her.
One month later, the correspondence revealed that the phobia (which Hans refers to as his ‘nonsense’) was much worse. Hans’ father made a connection between the phobia and Hans’ interest with his widdler, so he said to him ‘If you don’t put your hand to your widdler any more, this nonsense of yours’ll soon get better’.
Hans’ anxieties and phobia continued and he was afraid to go out of the house because of his phobia of horses. Hans told his father of a dream/fantasy which his father summarised as follows: ‘In the night there was a big giraffe in the room and a crumpled one: and the big one called out because I took the crumpled one away from it. Then it stopped calling out: and I sat down on top of the crumpled one’. Freud and the father interpreted the dream/fantasy as being a reworking of the morning exchanges in the parental bed. Hans enjoyed getting into his parents bed in a morning but his father often objected (the big giraffe calling out because he had taken the crumpled giraffe - mother - away). Both Freud and the father believed that the long neck of the giraffe was a symbol for the large adult penis. However Hans rejected this idea.
When Hans was taken to see Freud, he was asked about the horses he had a phobia of. Hans noted that he didn’t like horses with black bits around the mouth. Freud believed that the horse was a symbol for his father, and the black bits were a moustache. After the interview, the father recorded an exchange with Hans where the boy said ‘Daddy don’t trot away from me!’;
Hans' became particularly frightened about horses falling over. He described to his father an incident where he witnessed this happening (later confirmed by his mother). Throughout this analysis the parents continued to record enormous examples of conversations and the father asked many leading questions to help the boy discover the root of his fear. For example:
Father: When the horse fell down did you think of your daddy?
Hans: Perhaps. Yes. It’s possible.
Hans also developed an interest in toilet functions, especially ‘lumf’ (a German word indicating faeces). Hans had many long discussions with his father including conversations about lumf, the birth of his sister, the colour of his mother’s underwear and his liking for going into the toilet with his mother or the maid.
Like many children Hans had an imaginary friend who he called Lodi after ‘saffalodi’, which is a German sausage. Hans’ father pointed out to Hans that saffalodi looked a bit like lumf, and his son agreed.
Hans’ fear of the horses started to decline and Freud believed that two final fantasies marked a change in Hans and lead to a resolution of his conflicts and anxieties.
Firstly, Hans had described a fantasy where he was married to his mother and was playing with his own children. In this fantasy he had promoted his father to the role of grandfather.
In the second fantasy, he described how a plumber came and first removed his bottom and widdler and then gave him another one of each, but larger.
At age 19 the not so Little Hans appeared at Freud’s consulting room having read his case history. Hans confirmed that he had suffered no troubles during adolescence and that he was fit and well. He could not remember the discussions with his father, and described how when he read his case history it ‘came to him as something unknown’
Freud believed that the findings from the case study of Little Hans supported his theories of child development.
In particular, the case study provided support for his theory of Oedipus Complex in which the young boy develops an intense sexual love for his mother and because of this, he sees his father as a rival and wants to get rid of him. Freud believed that much of Hans’ problem came from the conflict caused by this wish. The final fantasy of being married to his mother supported this idea.
According to Freud the cause of Little Hans’ phobia was related to his Oedipus complex. Little Hans’, it was argued, was afraid of horses because the horse was a symbol for his father. For example the black bits around the horses face reminded the boy of his fathers moustache, the blinkers reminded him of his fathers glasses and so on. Freud believed that as Little Hans was having sexual fantasies about his mother he feared his father’s retaliation. Little Hans therefore displaced his fear of his father onto horses who reminded him of his father.
Freud argued that Hans was not in any way an abnormal child. He pointed out that unlike most other children of the time, Hans was able to communicate fears and wishes that many children do not have the opportunity to express. He argued that as a result Hans had been able to resolve conflicts and anxieties that would remain unresolved in other children. Freud also notes that there is no sharp distinction between neurotic and the normal, and that many people constantly pass between normal and neurotic states.
Evaluation of Procedure
Case studies, such as this one carried out by Freud, are particularly useful in revealing and treating the origins of abnormal behaviour. In fact some forms of psychotherapy rely on building up a long and detailed case history as an aid to understanding and then helping the client.
The case study provided a very in-depth picture producing lots of qualitative data. In fact Freud argued that it was the special relationship between Hans and his father that allowed the analysis to progress and for the discussions with the boy to be so detailed and so intimate.
This case study only relates to one individual and we therefore have to be careful generalising from the findings. We have no way of assessing how typical Little Hans is. Therefore we have to ask whether this study is unique to the relationship between Little Hans, his Father and Freud or whether we can generalise it to other cases.
This case study is really Freud's interpretations of Hans' father's interpretation of his son's own phobia. Freud only saw Little Hans on one or two occasions. It can be argued that this leads to a drastic reduction in objectivity, particularly as the father (Max Graf) was a supporter of Freud’s ideas.
Evaluation of Explanation
A major problem with Freud's arguments is that other explanations can be found for Little Hans' phobias.
For example, Bowlby, who was also a psychoanalyst, argued that Hans' phobia could be explained in terms of attachment theory. Bowlby believed that most of Hans' anxiety arose from threats by the mother to desert the family. In fact Hans' parents did eventually split up.
A further, and simpler, explanation for Hans' phobia is that he was classically conditioned to fear horses. Or in other words, Hans witnessed a horse fall and collapse in the street. Hans then generalised this fear to all horses.
A major problem with Freud's explanations are that they are androcentric and ethnocentric. This study describes the Oedipus complex which is of course unique to boys. Girls, Freud argued, develop penis envy, which later becomes converted into a desire to bear children as the young child begins to recognise that it is impossible for her to develop a penis of her own. I am sure you can make up your own mind if this is sexist or not.
The idea of the Oedipus complex is ethnocentric because Freud assumed that all boys must experience this stage. However Freud was writing about a particular group of people at a particular period of time. Many cultures including our own do not have families consisting of a Mother and Father living together in one home. Freud, for example, argued that through the Oedipus complex boys identify with their fathers and this established their sexual identification and if this process could not take place, Freud considered that the young child would be likely to grow up homosexual. Evidence does not support this argument.
Finally, and importantly, Freud originally wanted to explain why so many of his female adult patients seemed to have deeply traumatic memories of sexual encounters with their fathers. Initially, he thought that it must be real incest, but he was eventually persuaded that this was not so and developed his ideas about the Oedipus and Electra complex (the female version of the Oedipus complex). It would seem that Freud was originally on the right track after all
Freud, S. (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306
GROSS, R. (1999) Key Studies in Psychology, 3rd Edition. London: Hodder and Stoughton
BANYARD, P. AND GRAYSON, A. (2000) Introducing Psychological Research; Seventy Studies that Shape Psychology, 2nd Edition. London: Macmillan