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Sterba, E. (1946). An Ill Bred Child. Psychoanal. Rev., 33(3):341-352.

(1946). Psychoanalytic Review, 33(3):341-352

An Ill Bred Child

Editha Sterba

In times when everyone is concerned with the problems of increasing juvenile delinquency, the presentation of a case in which at an early age the most common symptoms of delinquent acts in children were to be found, might give deeper insight into the structure and the technique of treatment of such cases.

Little eight-and-a-half year old Mary, who was in the third grade at school, was sent to my child guidance clinic because nobody could manage her; there was no one who could deal with her highly intractable nature. According to the school reports, Mary was entirely unsocial; she took absolutely no part in the lessons, never answered any of the questions and appeared to everyone to be feeble-minded.

I took little Mary under my own observation to determine whether she was really backward mentally, or whether a neurotic disturbance was merely making her seem so. When the little girl was first brought to me in my child guidance clinic, she gave me the impression of being feeble-minded. Fair, very weak, and delicate looking for her age, the little girl stood before me, utterly apathetic both in the expression on her face and in her general deportment; her under-lip hung out, she squinted, clenched both hands tightly in her muff, and would give no answer at all to any of my questions. Only when I asked her if she would come to see me in my office, where I had a play-room, did she say shortly and with great determination, “No!”.

At my request she was then sent for observation, for a few days, to the children's ward of the psychopathic hospital in order to rule cut any organic basis for her behavior. There, however, they stated that they were unable to come to any conclusion, since the little girl refused stubbornly to answer any questions. They considered that, “The child appeared, as the result of a weak and nervous constitution, to be entirely unsocial,” and recommended a stay in a convalescent home for children, later on, when her hostile attitude had lessened.

Mary came from a very poor and bad environment. The father was a traveling salesman, who was able to make his living only with great difficulty.

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