Melanie Klein (1892-1960) was one of the founders of object relations theory. Although she believed aggression is an important and common force in children, Klein modified Freud’s drive theory. She maintained that drives are psychological forces (not biological) that seek people as their objects. That is, we are driven to interact with people, and to use those interactions to fulfill our needs.
According to this view, children construct an internal representation of people. These representations are rough estimates of reality. A young child doesn’t have to capacity to understand complex relationships, so they create simple images of the people in their world. Then, they apply these rules to real people (she’s like Mom; he’s like Uncle Fred).
This approach works well when you’re young but these early stereotypes make it hard to relate to people as they actually are. Because of these images, children are slow development realistic relationships with the world. They find it difficult to give up their unconscious fantasies; they prefer the fantasy that Mom is all good and Dad is a superhero. The truth is more difficult to accept. It’s harder to understand that Mom is good and sometimes mean, or that Dad can be dependable and strong yet not able to jump over tall buildings in a single bound.
Klein also believed that the superego developed before the Oedipal complex. Consequently, even young children can experience guilt, shame and complex emotions. To avoid the anxiety over mixed feelings (or aggressive impulses), children learn to separate their emotions from the target person (object). Objects tend to be good and feelings bad. This disconnect causes problems in later life.
In addition to traditional techniques (free association, analysis of defenses, etc.), she introduced innovative therapeutic interventions that are now considered standard practices. For example, Klein was the first to use play therapy. She had children play with toys, and used those sessions to get a better understanding of their drives and emotions.
Klein was strongly opinionated and a forceful advocate for her point of view. She was part of an on-going battle of words that threatened to destroy the British Psychoanalytical Society. Some of the conflict was over how to discover and interpret a child’s ego defenses. But much of the drama was not about the use of fantasy, projection and regression. It was a battle of personalities. It was the battle of giants: Melanie Klein vs. Anna Freud.
In this corner, was Melanie Klein: the first to apply psychoanalysis to children (beating out Anna Freud by four years). Klein was a radical, daring to challenge the ideas of Sigmund Freud. And in this corner, there was Anna Freud: youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud and heir to the Freud legacy and upholder of classical psychoanalysis. Joining Anna Freud group was Melitta Schmideberg, Melanie Klein’s daughter (with whom she never reconciled).
Each camp offered a training program, and held that their approach alone should be the official training program of the organization. More than that, each wanted the other expelled from the society.
The winner? Actually, the winner was a third group: the independents, whose primary concern was compromise. In the end, the Society did what all organization do: they solved the issue politically. Each side was asked to make formal presentations of their theories. A panel listened to all concerned and decided the Society would offer both training programs. A simple solution that only took 5 years to reach
For more on Anna Freud, check out this video on the NeoFreudians.