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Galenson, E. Roiphe, H. (1971). The Impact of Early Sexual Discovery on Mood, Defensive Organization, and Symbolization. Psychoanal. St. Child, 26:195-216.

(1971). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 26:195-216

The Impact of Early Sexual Discovery on Mood, Defensive Organization, and Symbolization

Eleanor Galenson, M.D. and Herman Roiphe, M.D.


In this paper we reported observations on the development of a child with a congenital defect that required repeated medical examinations and the constant wearing of a corrective device during her first year of life. The resulting early disturbance in body schematization and in the developing mother-child relationship distorted and delayed the separation-individuation process and interfered with the establishment of an optimally stable maternal mental representation. Yet, with the development of free locomotion, there was a spurt in individuation and in symbolic development between Ruth's 14th and 17th months, as evident in the disappearance of stranger anxiety, the emergence of symbolic play, and in her enlarging verbal capacity. This ongoing individuation process brought her in due time to the awareness of anal, urinary, and genital anatomy and function, along with their appropriate sensations.

In this already vulnerable child, however, the discovery of the sexual anatomical difference and sexual sensations brought with it overwhelming disappointment and anger at the mother, with loss of self-esteem and the marked inhibited and depressive reaction which continues to characterize her. The incomplete and unstable fusion of the good and bad maternal images gave way under the impact of her anger; the maternal images were split and the bad image was projected onto other figures. A basic mistrust prevails,

and it is likely that she will continue to have difficulties in separating from her mother. Another consequence of the distorted development of body schematization and object relations was a concurrent split in the mental representation of her own body (the boy doll and eating companion) and a weakening of several aspects of ego functioning (such as general curiosity, play, and symbolization).

Ruth's very early object relations, self identity, and other ego functions appear to have been indelibly affected by bodily experiences in her first year. We observed the impact of the discovery of the sexual anatomical difference during her second year and attempted to delineate the fateful consequences for defensive organization, object relations, mood, and style of play behavior.

Follow-up at 31 Months

A sister was born when Ruth was 26½ months old. Ruth seemed fond of the new baby and initially showed no hostility toward her. Just after the baby returned home, Ruth showed a spurt in doll play, but soon she abandoned it almost completely. Blocks became her favorite toy and the Empire State Building her favorite block-building project.

Toilet training had been accomplished before the baby sister was born. Although speech was advanced, the use of the personal pronoun "I" had not yet been achieved. Ruth continued to show marked anxiety in relation to even minor injuries. On one occasion she insisted on wearing long trousers to cover her scraped knee, long after the bandage had been removed. Following an injury to her lip she refused to eat for 3 days and made persistent attempts to hide her face from the view of others. And her tolerance of separation continues to be well below the expected level.

In summary, Ruth's earlier difficulties in the areas of self-esteem, object relations, and other aspects of ego functioning, such as nonverbal and verbal symbolization, were still in evidence as she entered the oedipal period; and the castration anxiety of her second year of life had never disappeared.

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