Although she questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of Sigmund Freud, Klein always considered herself a faithful adherent to Freud's ideas. Klein was the first person to use traditional psychoanalysis with young children. She was innovative in both her techniques (such as working with children using toys) and her theories in infant development. Strongly opinionated, and demanding loyalty from her followers, Klein established a highly influential training program in psychoanalysis. She is considered one of the co-founders of object relations theory.
Klein's theoretical work incorporates Freud's belief in the existence of the "death instinct", reflecting the fact that all living organisms are inherently drawn toward an inorganic state, and therefore, in an unspecified sense, contain a drive towards death. In psychological terms Eros (properly, the life instinct), the postulated sustaining and uniting principle of life, is thereby presumed to have a companion force, Thanatos (death instinct), which allegedly seeks to terminate and disintegrate life. Both Freud and Klein regarded these biomental forces as the foundations of the psyche. These were human instincts ("Triebe") unrelated to the animal instincts of ethology. These primary unconscious forces, whose mental matrix is the "id," sparked the ego—the experiencing self—into activity. Id, ego, and superego—to be sure—were merely shorthand terms (like the "instincts") referring to highly complex, mostly uncharted, psycho-dynamic operations. Freud and Klein never abandoned the terms or the conceptualizations despite protests and controversies by many of their adherents.
While Freud’s ideas concerning children mostly came from working with adult patients, Klein was innovative in working directly with children, often as young as two years old. Klein saw children’s play as their primary mode of emotional communication. After observing troubled children play with toys such as dolls, animals, plasticine, pencil and paper, Klein attempted to interpret the specific meaning of play. Following Freud she emphasized the significant role that parental figures played in the child’s fantasy life, and considered that the timing of Freud’s Oedipus complex was incorrect. Contradicting Freud, she concluded that the superego was present from birth.
After exploring ultra-aggressive fantasies of hate, envy, and greed in very young, very ill children, Melanie Klein proposed a model of the human psyche that linked significant oscillations of state, with whether the postulated Eros or Thanatos instincts were in the fore. She named the state of the psyche, when the sustaining principle of life is in domination, the depressive position. This is considered by many to be her great contribution to psychoanalytic thought. She later developed her ideas about an earlier developmental psychological state corresponding to the disintegrating tendency of life, which she called the paranoid-schizoid position.
Klein's insistence on regarding aggression as an important force in its own right when analyzing children brought her into conflict with Freud's own daughter, Anna Freud, who was one of the other prominent child psychotherapists in continental Europe but who moved to London in 1938 where Klein had been working for several years. Many controversies arose from this conflict, and these are often referred to as the Controversial discussions. Battles were played out between the two sides, each presenting scientific papers, working out their respective positions and where they differed, during war-time Britain. A compromise was eventually reached whereby three distinct training groups were formed within the British Psycho-Analytic Society, with Anna Freud's influence remaining largely predominant in the US.
Today, Kleinian psychoanalysis is one of the major schools within psychoanalysis. Kleinian psychoanalysts are members of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Kleinian psychoanalysis remains a large and influential school of psychoanalysis within Britain, in much of Latin America, and to an extent in continental Europe. Within the United States of America, the Psychoanalytic Center of California is the only major training center that follows the work of Melanie Klein. Kleinian psychoanalysis with adults is characterized by the traditional method of using an analytic couch and meeting four to five times a week. Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis which focuses on the patient's ego, Kleinian analysis focuses on interpreting very "deep" and primitive emotions and fantasies from the very beginning of treatment.
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