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Sperling, M. (1950). Children's Interpretation and Reaction to the Unconscious of their Mothers. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 31:36-41.

(1950). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 31:36-41

Children's Interpretation and Reaction to the Unconscious of their Mothers

Melitta Sperling, M.D.

In this paper I shall attempt to demonstrate with material from the simultaneous analyses of severely disturbed children and their mothers that the symptoms of these children represented their responses to their mother's unconscious wishes. Neurotic reactions, as well as strangely eruptic behaviour (to all outward appearances psychotic), could be understood as an unconscious answer to an unconscious wish of the mother for the child to act in this particular way. Neither mother nor child was aware of the underlying unconscious motivations.

This phenomenon, the production of neurotic behaviour or illness in the child, in response to the 'unconscious' of the mother, could impress one as a process brought about by telepathy or thought transference. Close analytic observation of mother and child, however, made it possible to explain these phenomena psychologically as the carrying out by the child of an unconscious wish of the mother. This wish was transmitted to the child by some clues in the mother's demeanour to which the children in my cases showed great sensitivity.

We know that between mother and child there exists a kind of pre-verbal communication and that infants are aware of changes in facial expression, shades in voice-tone of their mothers, etc. In a moving picture, M. Fries demonstrated the infant's extraordinary sensitivity to the mother's feelings, of which the mother herself may be unaware, but which are perceived by the infant, e.g. in the way he is being held by his mother.

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