Dr Catherine Vanier is an analyst, member and former president of Espace Analytique Paris. Currently she is the President of Enfance en Jeu, an association for research in paediatrics, psychoanalysis, and pedagogy and is a psychoanalyst in the neonatology service of the Hôpital Delafontaine in Saint Denis. Her numerous articles and books include The Broken Piano: Lacanian Psychotherapy with Children (Other Press, 1999) and Premature Birth (Karnac, 2015). She was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honour in 2010.

Fears and Phobias in Child Analysis

Catherine Vanier

“His mother called him :“wild thing”and Max said

“I’ll eat you up!”    So he was sent to bed without eating anything.

-Maurice Sendak, “Where the wild

things are ”.

A little boy of 6 said to me recently, “The only monsters I’m afraid of are the ones I love. And children really do love monsters.  They all play at being one or inventing one.  They try to dominate them, tame them, look like them, and sometimes, during uncontrollable drive outbursts, they change into monsters themselves.  Max, the boy whose story Maurice Sendak tells us in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, is overcome by his devouring  wish to act like an animal , to the point where Sendak draws him disguised as a wolf.  He provokes, disobeys, and gets angry, finally threatening to eat his mother up.  He is punished, sent to his room alone and without dinner. 

Abandoned and deprived of food, the monstrous wolf is furious with his monstrous parents . Alone, he hoists the sails of a ship that takes him to an imaginary country, a country inhabited by terrifying creatures who welcome and acknowledge him, crowning him king of the monsters . After playing the role of their leader for a long time, Max grows tired of them and decides to send them to bed without supper the way his parents just did.  He wants to go back, but the monsters are sad and beg, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” But the little boy firmly rejects their devouring love and returns to his room. 

In this way the monsters that frighten him are mastered, just as the drive impulse in him is mastered.  He then abandons his wolf disguise, since, as was the case with his parents anger had transformed him into a monster, and he finds his room and his dinner once again.  He is reconciled with his parents and with himself

Children love scary stories, which enable them to deal with their anxiety.  Alone or with others, they know how to play with their fears in a game of mastery and symbolization reminiscent of the Freudian fort-da.

Scaring oneself and others triggers emotion, excitation, erotization.  This is also what we sometimes find in adults’ liking for horror films.  Between the ages of 2 and 7 children speak of their fears.  Speaking changes everything.  Freud tells the story of a 3-year-old boy who asked to be talked to:  “Aunt, say something to me; I’m afraid because it’s so dark.”  “What good will that do”, the aunt asked, “since you can’t see me?”  “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child.  “As soon as someone talks, it’s light.” 

Speech has considerable power.  Anxiety and fear are not in the same register.  We can speak of fear but not of anxiety, which can only be experienced in the body.  In the case of fears, on the other hand, children, like adults, have words to describe them.  They tell us that they’re afraid of twilight, of the apartment’s dark rooms where they need someone to take them, of animals with threatening teeth, or of insects swarming around them.  None of them has seen a wolf, but they’re all convinced that one is on the prowl, crouching in the shadow of the room.  Like the traditional crocodile hiding under the bed or the witch shut up in the closet, the wolf brings with it endless rituals of searching and verification.

The wolf that no longer exists, to the point where in certain parts of the world it has to be reintroduced artificially, is inscribed in culture and set down in language.  It is entirely an effect of language for children.

Fears do not begin to fade until children reach the age of around 7 or 8.  Adults are well aware of this and often provide reassurance to children younger than that. Sometimes, however, they are fascinated by the same fear, caught up in it themselves, and their interventions make the children even more anxious.  For example, spending hours with them in their room so that they can fall asleep can only confirm their idea that they are alone and in danger. Parents can make use of this fear whether to assert their omnipotence or to act sadistically toward the child.  The wolf then becomes a threat to make the child obey or to prove to him that grownups are the ones in charge .When the child isn’t able to play with fear, because he is still too small or because access to symbolization has been made difficult for him, fear becomes a symptom and prompts many consultations.  What is the child afraid of?

 How can we distinguish among anxiety, fear, and the phobias?  How can fears play a structuring role, and what place do they have in the course of a child analysis?  Since, as always, it is the children who teach us, let’s listen to  Juliette, a little girl 5 years of age.

At the initial appointment she was presented by her parents as a willful, bossy child who liked to order people around, to assert herself both at home and in school.  She was lively and mischievous, rather advanced in terms of her attainments.  Yet, clearly, this little girl, who was afraid of nothing, made her parents afraid.  They found her “odd,” too mature, to sure of herself.  At school she was quick to get into fights, even with older, stronger children.  According to the adults she had no sense of danger.  Nothing scared her; she was no more afraid of the risks involved in swimming or climbing than of ogres, witches, nightfall, wolves, or storms.  She didn’t like to have stories read to her, closed her fairy-tale books, and was amazed that her 3-year-old sister begged for a night light to be turned on, was afraid of the neighbor’s dog, and was constantly asking for adult reassurance.  No monster, no dragon, no princess threatened by a wicked fairy inhabited Juliette’s dreams. 

But could Juliette dream?  She didn’t play and seemed to spend no time with imaginary things.  She didn’t tell herself stories any more than she liked to be told them.  Her pediatrician had told her parents at the most recent visit, “What are you complaining about?  Your little girl is in perfect health and presents no symptoms.  Your minds should be completely at ease, nothing to worry about.

The parents would say nothing more during this first session.  As for Juliette, she remained silent, barely answering my questions when I addressed her.  She seemed withdrawn and distant, little involved in our meeting.  How to work with this little girl whose symptom was to be asymptomatic, and who seemed to have no demands, in contrast to her parents, who were very worried about her?  I was about to suggest that they return alone to talk about their concerns, when Juliette got up and handed me the drawing she had made while her parents were speaking.  The sheet of paper was covered with brightly colored shapes attached one to the other.  When I pointed out to her that, on her drawing, she used up all the space, she said, “I don’t like white.  So I always fill up my drawings, and the teacher gets mad.” 

The mother confirmed that, at school, Juliette didn’t want to draw a man or a house, nothing representational.  The teacher thought this wasn’t normal.  I asked Juliette, “And what do you think about that?”  “I don’t like that the teacher scolds me.”  I then asked her whether she wanted to come back to see me on her own, so that she can have all the space to tell me about it next time.  She said yes.  “You’re sure you won’t change your mind?” the mother kept asking, clearly worried for her daughter but even more worried to let her come into my office alone the next time.  “No, no, I’ll come back,” said Juliette

In the next session, Juliette, accompanied by her parents, who stayed in the waiting room, was all smiles as she entered my office.  She took another sheet of paper and again drew shapes, joined one right up against the other, filling all the empty spaces.  When I asked her about this, she said, “Those two mustn’t come apart.” I asked what would happen if they weren’t stuck together.  She replied, “I don’t know, but they mustn’t.  That’s all.”  At the end of the session, the parents asked to speak with me.  They said that last time they forgot to tell me something they felt was important.  Juliette said it was OK for all of us to go back into the office.  It was on the occasion of this second session that they told me the story of “the little girl who was never afraid.”

As Juliette was leaving for a vacation with her grandparents the summer she was 3, there was a car accident.  Her older sister, age 10, and her maternal grandfather, who was at the wheel, were killed immediately.  Alone in the back seat, Juliette was thrown onto the road, both legs and her pelvis fractured.  She saw the car burning, then, rescued by the fire squad, she was taken to the hospital, which she didn’t leave until she was 4, after many months of rehabilitation.  According to the doctors, she had no after-effects of the accident today.  During that year she seldom saw her mother, who was herself hospitalized for depression and attempted suicide.  As for the father, he had to take care of the younger sister, who was still a baby, and had little time to come see Juliette.  But the hospital indicated that she was doing fine and showed no signs of anxiety. 

During the entire account by her parents, Juliette didn’t move.  She had a faraway look, absent from the others and from herself.  Her mother reported that she would sometimes find her at night with this strange inward gaze.  The child didn’t call out; she could stay like that for hours lying on her bed.

When I turned to Juliette to say that maybe, at night, she was thinking of things that are hard to talk about, she got up from her chair and nestled into her mother’s arms.  The father told me that the accident was never mentioned anymore at home.  His wife was still fragile, and he was afraid she’d relapse; they had to go back to square one and try to erase this memory.  Besides which, they were currently expecting another child.  “Life goes on,” he said, “and we have to think of the future.”

Some time later, in spite of everything, the mother did come around to speaking of the painful bereavements they had had to go through. At one session, she came and asked me to speak in front of her daughter, she said that she was called in by the school principal because Juliette had locked herself with a little boy in the bath room. The principal, clearly deeply shocked by this behavior, which she considered depraved, had severely reprimanded the mother, criticizing the way she was bringing up the child. At this moment Juliette, who had never taken an interest in the office toys, rushed over to a baby doll and undressed it.  I turned to her and said that she might be wondering whether it was a little brother or a little sister who was going to be born soon. 

The mother said that this was a question she no longer asked, since the same week as the incident in the school, they knew from the ultrasound that it was a little boy.  Moreover, she was surprised by Juliette’s reaction.  The child began to ask lots of questions, whereas up to that time she had shown no interest in the baby and never talked about it.  Since the announcement of the infant’s sex, she had a thousand questions, even asking to see the photos, and saying she didn’t understand how the doctor could know it’s a boy.  That very evening she had awoken in tears after a nightmare—this child who, according to her parents, never had nightmares.

In the following months Juliette began to draw shapes in the sessions, this time with a slight space between them.  Shortly after this, her father told me,  that she suddenly didn’t want to drink milk anymore, or eat yogurt or anything white.  She also refused to wear white clothing and got very angry if this was insisted on.  She seemed to have initiated a phobia of whiteness at the same time that it became possible for her to leave white on her sheet of paper, and also at the same time that her teacher reported that she was venturing to paint and to play more with the other children.  And indeed, in the sessions, she began to draw figures who would gradually come to life and for whom she would take the risk of telling stories, stories that were always violent, in which a wolf armed with a knife now appeared, a murderous and devouring wolf.  I let her story line unfold.

One morning she came to the session bringing me a letter she asked me to read. It was the report , that her mother gave for me, of the psychologist at the hospital in which she was treated after the accident. Juliette said it was O.K for me to read it for her, but she wanted me read it aloud . It mentioned a wolf that Juliette apparently talked a lot about at the time, a wolf that savagely killed other wolves.  But though the hospital staff wanted Juliette to talk about the accident, the arrival of the wolf was not welcomed, and the doctors tried to eradicate it, telling her that wolves don’t eat people anymore, that that was all nonsense and she didn’t have to be afraid of it.

The psychologist noted in her report that she then offered Juliette a game with puppets, in which the wolf wanted to kill its father and mother but was prevented from doing so, whereupon it became nice and harmless once again.  The cure was spectacular.  In the hospital Juliette no doubt decided to take care of the psychologist’s fear by never again talking about the wolf.  But today her wolf was coming back, as it had done when her sister died and her mother attempted suicide.  It was coming back in place of the white space, the blank gap in her speech, now armed with a knife at the time a little brother was arriving.

For Freud there are only two kinds of trauma:  birth trauma and the traumatic discovery of sexual difference.  For the trauma constituted by the accident occurring in reality is in fact different.  This traumatic accident seems to have frozen, arrested this little girl’s potential for imagination, blocked the path of the formation of her infantile neurosis, as if it had prevented the necessary trauma of this neurosis.  This often seems to be the case with children who have experienced violent scenes in reality where the sole affect is terror (in German, Schreck). For the child, this encounter with the real is impossible to symbolize:  the quantity of excitation is too large.  The child finds itself in a situation of absolute distress and finds it impossible to think. 

In this state of stupor he is unable to construct his “philosophy of the world,” to confront lack and sexual difference, unable to develop his curiosity and elaborate his own infantile sexual theories.  Freud speaks of neurosis for a child only when the infantile neurosis fails.  If the child passes through this phase in normal fashion, the symptoms give way to secondary repression.  When symptoms persist, what we have is neurosis proper and the child is completely unable to deal with the problematics of castration.  This is what we find in the adult in either neurotic or psychotic form.

During the infantile neurosis, fears and phobias normally accompany the castration complex.  When all goes well, they are left behind at the end of the oedipal period.  This moment, when the child finds himself confronted with his lack, is the logical time for the constitution of his desire.  Seized with panic if nothing comes to reassure him at that moment, the child institutes repression and phobia appears.  If the parents are too nice, they may be transformed into terrifying monsters playing the part of agents of castration, like the wolf.  In contrast, the psychotic child is in the grip of terrors that have no object.  The constitution of a phobic object in the treatment of a psychotic often represents a crucial turning point favorable to the child’s development. 

For Freud, it is not repression that creates anxiety but anxiety that causes repression.  In the case of Juliette, the absence of anxiety surely signaled the difficulty, stemming from her traumatic history, of reaching precisely this possibility of repression.  She was left in the lurch, petrified, absent from herself, as though imprisoned in a blank spot, a white gap, of her history with which she couldn’t deal, constantly repeating, in her absences from herself, the moment of stupor of the accident, so that she could finally try to symbolize it, to give it a meaning.

In the course of the sessions the infantile neurosis got back on track.  The wolf was no longer received as a symptom to be eradicated, but as a signifier that organized her fantasy during this period that was, for her, that of the confrontation of sexual difference. 

Several sessions later she drew a frame.  This, she said, was a picture hung on the wall.  The picture showed a burning house.  “It’s the wolf’s house,” she explained.  She drew red lines across the house.  With the accident in mind, I associated the red lines with flames and asked, “Are these flames drawn in red?” 

But it is not for analysts to associate to children’s drawings.  And Juliette did not fail to point out that I was mistaken. “No way!” she said “The flames aren’t in the picture.” She was right.  Something else really was going on here.  She corrected me:  “The red, see, is the wolf’s anger.”  “Is it the wolf’s anger that’s scary?” I asked.  “No,” she said, “what’s scariest is that the picture might fall.”  And indeed, in this session, the framework of her fantasy was established.

From then on Juliette constructed an imaginary world, and the phobias multiplied.  She was afraid not only of white, but also of the night, leaving the house, leaving her mother, and being eaten by the wolf.  The wolf was always very present.  She seemed to have passed from anxiety to fear and could now say what she was afraid of and complain about it.  This inevitably resulted in a complaint from the mother.  “It’s terrible,” she told me during this time.  “Everything bothers her.  I was so proud of having a child who was never afraid of anything.  I don’t want her to be a fragile girl.  She was so strong before.  These wolf stories make her ridiculous.  For myself, I’ve been feeling better recently.  It’s as though she took up the torch.  Now she’s the one who’s not well.”

Maud Mannoni used to say that we often have to look for the child’s unconscious in the unconscious of the parents.  For Lacan, the symptom can in some cases represent the truth of the familial couple, and in others, closer to psychosis, it can be the correlative of the maternal fantasy.  The child is then the mother’s object, and his only remaining function is to reveal the truth of this object.  The analyst enables the child to locate and identify the fantasmatic meaning he took on for his parents when he was born.

In Juliette’s case, the impact of the event experienced in reality can be read only in the light of fantasy.  She was grappling with a mother who was coming up against the problematics of castration and with a father who, for his own peace of mind, wanted to know nothing about it and did his best to avoided it.  The trauma of the dramatic accident came to be inscribed in that fantasmatic story and, simultaneously, to claim a certain place and a certain meaning.  The signifying value will not be the same from one subject ( person) to the next.  As we know, the same accident never has the same impact on two children from two different families.

Letting the child play with his fears along the signifying chain is the work of location and construction of the fantasy that leads to progress in analysis.  Juliette, for whom the absence of symptoms was not a good sign, was able to resume her oedipal journey.  The initial phobias corresponded to the moment when the trauma of the discovery of sexual difference burst in on her.  The process already begun before the accident could now be remobilized, and separation became possible.  From the picture fallen to its death, she was able to call forth the possibility that her mother could come to be without her, too.  At the same time, the mother spoke of the death of her older daughter and the fear that Juliette would become separated from her as well, leaving a void between them.  The father no longer came to the sessions, but the wolf had made his entrance on the stage.

For Freud, phobias, like fears, are in the register of normality.  It is certain, he says, that all we can see in them are just symptoms that may belong to various neuroses, and we cannot rank them among independent disease entities.  When the child is anxious, this is because he doesn’t know exactly what he is afraid of.  His body is seized by the distress that the anxiety brings.  We know that even infants experience anxiety.  Later on, the fears of children of around 2 or 3 are many.  They are afraid of everything that makes them feel insecure.  In the case of a phobia, it is a particular object that triggers a frightful panic.  The child is then able to do all he can to avoid it, including risking an accident crossing the street so as not to meet up with, for example, the dog coming along the sidewalk. 

The ego recognizes castration anxiety.  In connection with Little Hans, Freud says he believes he knows the motive for repression.  It is anxiety in the face of a threat of castration.  Phobic anxiety is castration anxiety.  Hans’s father paid a lot of attention to his son, but the mother would not allow him to put a little distance between Hans and herself.  The boy slept in her bed, followed her into the bathroom.  His father left him to struggle with an overbearing mother who did not take her husband’s intervention into account.  Hans wondered what it was that she could want of him, what she expected of him, this mother who never left him.  The overly intimate bond she maintained with Hans panicked the little boy.  His fear of being punished, castrated by his father, devoured by his mother or devouring her himself had been transformed into a fear of being bitten by the horse.  He didn’t know what his mother wanted of him, but he knew what the horse wanted:  obviously, it wanted to bite him.  Given this construction, when there were no horses around Hans could feel safe, even in his mother’s presence.  The devouring was all on the horse’s side, and there was no longer any risk on the mother’s side.

As Alain Vanier emphasizes, Anxiety is a signal in the ego.  It warns the subject of a danger that is that of an enigmatic desire having to do with his being as something that can get lost and canceled out, his being as the object that he can be for the other.  It is only then that repression occurs. The phobia that takes form at that moment protects the child, introduces an order.  If the danger is the wolf or the night, he can feel safe when there is no wolf or the light goes on.  Ogres, wolves, and crocodiles refer to the risk of being devoured by the mother’s excessive love for her child (“cute enough to eat”), a mother for whom the father does not come and set limits, her desire being entirely focused on her little one.

This is how Lacan describes it in The Reverse of Psychoanalysis:  The big crocodile whose mouth you’re in is the mother.  At any time she might suddenly decide to shut her mouth.  That’s mother’s desire. 

The phobic object makes it possible for fear to offer protection from anxiety by giving it a name.  It makes it possible for the person to escape the Other’s imaginary jouissance. It makes it possible for him not to dedicate himself to occupying the place of what the Other lacks.  This Other is usually the mother, an imaginary place in the case of neurosis, a real one in the case of psychosis.  The result is that the phobia temporarily becomes the characteristic symptom of the infantile neurosis at the time when the choice of structure is going to be made.

As Freud explains, phobia is the signal feature of the Oedipus complex.  The fear of the object is beyond all reality.  The child knows very well that there is no wolf and that witches exist only in fairy tales.  But he needs to believe in them so as to protect himself from anxiety, to curb terror, by maintaining separation, lack.  Anxiety appears when attachment makes it seem that there can be no separation.  It is not when the child is apart from his mother that he becomes anxious, but when he has too much of her.  The phobia comes along and protects the child by offering him a separating and prohibiting function, a recognizable object.  It is a metaphor, an appeal to the father who alone can keep the crocodile’s teeth from closing on the child.  The subject,  ( person ) will use the phobic object to construct himself, either in an obsessional mode by appealing to an authoritarian, feared father, or in a hysterical mode in the case of an appeal to a beloved, marvelous father.

It is because Juliette brought the wolf into her sessions that something of a separation from her mother could be worked out.  When her little brother was born, her relationship to her father, which had previously consisted of anger and opposition, underwent a change.  It became more seductive toward the man who gave babies, more oedipalized. At the beginning of the the treatment, this little girl who was afraid of nothing seemed to experience moments of dreadful anxiety, of total annihilation of her being, moments of white blankness of stupor she could not put into words.  Fear without an object is ravaging.  When we try to reassure someone in the grip of anxiety by saying, “It’s nothing,” we increase his panic even more, since it is precisely this that he is feeling:  he is no longer anything.  Seized in his body, he may even go so far as to faint.  He is not a subject ( person) who is panicky; he has entirely become this panic.  Remember how often the signifier “nothing “, arose in the parents discours or in Juliette’s, at the beginning of the cessions ? That is exactly what that “nothing” was made of.

Anxiety, Lacan says, is not without an object.  But it is an object one knows nothing about, a lost object, connected with fantasy.  In order to emerge from stupor, the person has to find an object to which a name can be given, an object that is frightening, about which one can speak, with which one can play—even better, an object about which one can laugh.  This is what Juliette did with the wolf, which she eventually civilized by using humor.

For certain children, as for this little girl, treatment can bring them back on the track toward the Oedipus by remobilizing the course of the infantile neurosis.  For that to happen, it is important to be able to work in the sessions with children’s fears.  But the wild part is not always easy for analysts to bear; they find themselves immersed in the very heart of these terrifying ideas.  The encounter with these children sends the analyst back to his own unanalyzed material.  Just as with adults, it is with his own unconscious that he will have to work, but the archaic part will most often be in the forefront.  He will also have to get the parents to face the role played by the infantile neurosis, the violence, and the fears that have remained in abeyance for them and are now being projected onto the child.  In Television Lacan explains that Little Hans’s phobia was where the boy took Freud and his, Hans’s, father to, but since then analysts have been afraid of going there.

This fear that children reawaken is not only found among analysts.  We seem to be witnessing, in our modern world, a generalized fear of the child.  In present-day France, a great many projects of screening and prevention of early problems are underway, though we don’t really know what predictive science could say whether a 3-year-old child will fail in school or become a delinquent.  People are so afraid of youngsters’violence that even legal measures have been under consideration, starting this year, to make provision for prison sentences for minors.  It is as though the atypical child of 3 might become dangerous, and we must protect ourselves from him.  In order to reassure the grownups, he must behave like a little adult.  Only then will he be held to be of value. 

And yet nowadays he is assigned more value than ever.  But what kind of valuation is this?  The child who has become king is nevertheless burdened by the boundless attention adults pay him.  Everything revolves around him.  More than ever he is the comfort of his parents in a difficult world.  The happiness that does not exist, but that is always thought possible, will have to come from him.  He is the consolation, the hope of a better life.  The child has never been so wished for and loved, which, as we know, does not preclude putting him in various kinds of danger.

“We’re afraid of what we love most,” said the little boy I was telling you about at the beginning.  It is as though, in the name of the love we have for children and for which they love us, we were seeking to have a relationship of equals with them by suppressing all “typically childish” symptoms.  Will childhood have to be eradicated?  Consultations are becoming more and more common; the recipes and educational advice spread by the media are widely followed; and medications to calm children down in school, to stop enuresis, to help them sleep without fear of the wolf, and especially to keep them from posing any problem for grownups have been highly successful.  But on this point we can trust the children.  They have more than one trick up their sleeve, and grownups are not ready to get rid of the wolves and monsters of childhood, nor, despite all their efforts, are they ready to get rid of the unconscious.