Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, 1973

Source: Courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

Albert Solnit, Anna Freud, Dorothy Burlingham, and Joseph Goldstein (left to right) in Cork, Ireland after the publication of Beyond the Best Interests of the Child

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIP

The child’s psychological tie to a parent figure is not the simple, uncomplicated relationship which it may appear to be at first glance. While it is rooted inevitably in the infant’s inability to ensure his own survival, it varies according to the manner in which protection is given and the physical needs fulfilled. Where this is done impersonally and with routine regularity, as in institutions, the infant may remain involved with his own body and not take an alert interest in his surroundings. Where the adult in charge of the child is personally and emotionally involved, a psychological interplay between adult and child will be superimposed on the events of bodily care. Then the child’s libidinal interest will be drawn for the first time to the human object in the outside world.

Such primitive and tenuous first attachments form the base from which any further relationships develop. What the child brings to them next are no longer only his needs for body comfort and gratification but his emotional demands for affection, companionship, and stimulating intimacy. Where these are answered reliably and regularly, the child-parent relationship becomes firm, with immensely productive effects on the child’s intellectual and social development. Where parental care is inadequate, this may be matched by deficits in the child’s mental growth. Where there are changes of parent figure or other hurtful interruptions, the child’s vulnerability and the fragility of the relationship become evident. The child regresses along the whole line of his affections, skills, achievements, and social adaptation. It is only with the advance toward maturity that the emotional ties of the young will outgrow this vulnerability. The first relief in this respect is the formation of internal mental images of the parents which remain available even if the parents are absent. The next step is due to identification with parental attitudes. Once these have become the child’s own, they ensure stability within his inner structure.

As the prototype of true human relationship, the psychological child-parent relationship is not wholly positive but has its admixture of negative elements. Both partners bring to it the combination of loving and hostile feelings that characterize the emotional life of all human beings, whether mature or immature. The balance between positive and negative feelings fluctuates during the years. For children, this culminates in the inevitable and potentially constructive struggle with their parents during adolescence.

Whether an adult becomes the psychological parent of a child is based thus on day-to-day interaction, companionship, and shared experiences. The role can be fulfilled either by a biological parent or by an adoptive parent or by any other caring adult—but never by an absent, inactive adult, whatever his biological or legal relationship to the child may be.

The best qualities in an adult’s personality give no assurance in themselves for a sound result if, for any reason, the necessary psychological tie is absent. Children may also be deeply attached to parents with impoverished or unstable personalities and may progress emotionally within this relationship on the basis of mutual attachment. Where the tie is to adults who are “unfit” as parents, unbroken closeness to them, and especially identification with them, may cease to be a benefit and become a threat. In extreme cases this necessitates state interference. Nevertheless, so far as the child’s emotions are concerned, interference with the tie, whether to a “fit” or “unfit” psychological parent, is extremely painful. . . .

We propose three component guidelines for decision-makers concerned with determining the placement and the process of placement of a child in a family or alternative setting. These guidelines rest on the belief that children whose placement becomes the subject of controversy should be provided with an opportunity to be placed with adults who are or are likely to become their psychological parents.

PLACEMENT DECISIONS SHOULD SAFEGUARD THE CHILD’S NEED FOR CONTINUITY OF RELATIONSHIPS. . . .

PLACEMENT DECISIONS SHOULD REFLECT THE CHILD’S, NOT THE ADULT’S, SENSE OF TIME. . . .

CHILD PLACEMENT DECISIONS MUST TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE LAW’S INCAPACITY TO SUPERVISE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AND THE LIMITS OF KNOWLEDGE TO MAKE LONG-RANGE PREDICTIONS. . . .

WHY SHOULD THE CHILD’S INTERESTS BE PARAMOUNT?

Some will assert that the views presented in this volume are so child-oriented as to neglect the needs and rights of the adults. In fact, this is not the case. There is nothing one-sided about our position, that the child’s interests should be the paramount consideration once, but not before, a child’s placement becomes the subject of official controversy. Its other side is that the law, to accord with the continuity guideline, must safeguard the rights of any adults, serving as parents, to raise their children as they see fit, free of intervention by the state, and free of law-aided and law-abetted harassment by disappointed adult claimants. To say that a child’s ongoing relationship with a specific adult, the psychological parent, must not be interrupted, is also to say that this adult’s rights are protected against intrusion by the state on behalf of other adults.

As set out in this volume, then, a child’s placement should rest entirely on consideration for the child’s own inner situation and developmental needs. Simple as this rule sounds, there are circumstances which make it difficult to apply even with ample evidence in support of the child’s interests. The injunction disregards that laws are made by adults for the protection of adult rights. . . .

 

Source: Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit, Beyond the Best Interests of the Child (New York: Free Press, 1973), 17-20, 31, 40, 49, 105-106.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
E-mail: adoption@uoregon.edu
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