Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

The Phallic Child: Its Emergence and Meaning in a Clinical Setting

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

The Phallic Child: Its Emergence and Meaning in a Clinical Setting

Article excerpt


The nature of human attachment is examined in the context of clinical material generated in the play therapy sessions of a ten-year-old boy. The relationship between the attachment drive and other drives is viewed in terms of Freudian theory, attachment theory, and object relations theory.


The classical Freudian understanding of the hegemony of the sex drive in the psychosocial development of the individual has been challenged by both attachment theory and object relations theory. Bowlby suggests that concerns related to attachment to significant others derive from an independent need system that is fundamental, and that attachment needs are not, as has been more traditionally thought, secondary to, or derivative from, other need systems. Rather, "attachment behavior is conceived as a class of behavior distinct from feeding behavior and sexual behavior, and of at least an equal significance in human life"(1) (p. 131). Although attachment theory may provide for a much needed correction to certain imbalances or distortions in the classical Freudian paradigm, it may not account for the close relationship between sexual concerns and attachment concerns seen in clinical practice.

Referring back to the work of Fairbairn, Guntrip summarizes one of the basic tenets of the object relations approach. "Fairbairn takes a wider view of libidinal need as not limited to the sexual but embracing all that is involved in the need for personal relationships, on however simple and primitive a level at the beginning; the goal of libidinal need is not pleasure but the object (at first the breast and the mother)"(2) (p. 67). Fairbairn, and most object relations theorists after him, suggest a fundamental modification of psychoanalytic theory on two related points: (1) That libidinal need is not exclusively sexual, and (2) That the fundamental aim of libido is not instinctual gratification but union with the object. To view libido as "embracing all that is involved in the need for personal relationship," represents a fundamental shift in the psychoanalytic paradigm , one with radical implications both for theory and practice.

In this paper I share some clinical material that emerged in my work with a ten-year-old boy. Over the course of a few weeks during treatment in play therapy, some very interesting imagery emerged to interpret the meaning that a number of life events have for him. As I attempted to understand the interplay between situation and image, it was evident that the images were primarily concerned with relationships with significant others and with internal representations of self and others. Yet the intensely sexual nature of both the images and his concerns was equally evident. Questions emerged with regard to understanding the relationship between the sexual forces within this boy's psyche, and his relationship or attachment needs. After presenting the clinical material, I posit that a theoretical formulation along the lines suggested by Fairbairn and Guntrip is more useful for clarifying the meaning of the clinical material than either the classical Freudian model, or attachment theory as articulated by Bowlby and his followers.


Eric (pseudonym), a ten-year-old boy of mixed racial background, had been seen by me in a combination of individual and family therapy for about six months at the time of the clinical material recorded in this paper. Having become unmanageable in his adoptive home, Eric was placed in foster care about a year before I began seeing him. Presenting problems included extreme oppositional behavior, prolonged displays of rage when frustrated, and considerable destruction of property in the home. Eric and two other boys, Jack and Mike, were adopted by a Caucasian couple who had one natural child, an eight-year-old girl we will call Sally. The couple had not been able to have more children of their own, and wished for a larger family. …

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