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Neurosis of Childhood

By Norman J. Kelman

[In this lecture, Norman J. Kelman talks about how neurosis can begin to develop in early childhood. Topics include:

« A discussion of neurosis during childhood, at times the result human child's total dependence on adults.

Temperament is a property of the newborn infant that cannot be accounted for, however all infants have some physical and psychological commonalities. Namely, the dependence on others to survive.

Lack of comprehension of limits can lead to neurosis. Personal relationships help the human child learn of limits and mutual relationships. Parents are vital in helping the child find his real self. It is important that children aren't coddled and allowed to do for themselves. Some parents make the mistake of isolating their child. The growing child needs relationships.

The violent parent may also engender neurosis. Aggression in parents may produce a "weakling" child. Other complaints include a lack of interest on the part of the father. Discussion of troubled sons and their fathers.

Discussion of children who are pressed into chores or work if there is economic strain, causing them to miss out on play and extracurricular activity. Speaker goes on to note that children develop strategies to deal with strain.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from - AKS]

Neurosis of Childhood

NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, December 12, 1949

A distinguishing character of human beings is the relatively long period, in childhood, of physical dependence on adults for life. It is out of this early dependence on others that social organization develops. Neurosis can also develop out of these early relationships. Neurosis is essentially a way of life which arises out of living. Neurotic trends are efforts to secure some measure of unity and safety, and neurotic symptoms are a consequence of such efforts.

The premise for these statements is that all organisms tend to grow in the unity and continuity of themselves. This premise might seem to be contradicted by the hectic, self-destructive pace of many individuals who burn the candle at both ends. However, analysis has shown that destructiveness is a consequence of an effort to live, or to gain a feeling of aliveness, rather than an inherent toward death. Another premise we must make is that human beings are, in their essence, social organisms needing mutual relationships with other humans in order to live. The two premises we have stated provide the basis from which we may determine the development of the personality.

Now, the personality or character structure is the dynamic synthesis of efforts made by human beings in the process of living. It is through these efforts that an individual tries to define his “real self,” in terms of strengths and limitations, and begins to find his integrity and his relatedness. Now, in practice, how does this process go on — this effort to establish inner unity, as well as mutual relationships? It is important that we recognize the personality — the neurotic as well as the healthy — not as a static thing, not as disease or lack of disease, but as a process which is constantly going on to effect the two ends mentioned below.

Such a conception seems not only to be in accord with the truth, but it is also more optimistic in terms of prevention and correction of neurosis. Temperament is a property of the newborn infant for which we cannot account. But whatever the temperament, lively or sluggish, all infants have certain physical and psychological qualities in common. He has an absolute dependence on others and is completely helpless. If it were not for his relationships, and his capacity to grow into a mutually related, creative person, he wouldn’t survive.

The period of childhood is crucial for the development of the personality. At this time, changes of great magnitude occur from relatively slight influences. The dependent and boundless nature of the infant makes it imperative that psychological alterations occur if he is going to become a whole-hearted member of the community. Lack of definition of the self is held responsible for this boundlessness of the infant. Evidence to indicate what this means comes from observations made of the child’s conception of the universe and his use of language. For example, the explanation of movement outside himself is, at first, not comprehended as such, but as a property of himself. Later, he will attempt to scale precarious fences not out of bravado or courage, but because he does not know his own limits or the power of outside forces, such as gravity.

Lack of comprehension of limits applies in interpersonal relations as well. Usually, the child only asks for what he needs to live. It has been said that there is a childish omniscience and omnipotence. This does not mean that the child a little Napoleon or a wild, untamed beast who must be trained and curbed; he will make demands until they are fulfilled, or until he experiences reality. He will not give credit to forces more powerful than himself until he knows their power in relation to himself. He will operate as if he could move the sun, but when he knows that his own movements have limits, and that other people and outside forces have independent motion too, only then will he be checked.

We understand values through their relatedness to ourselves. The more accurately we know ourselves, the more precisely we can know others. This is the consequence of personal relationships and of living together. From this comes the diversity of which humans are capable: to live together and alone at the same time; to be an individual and to have mutual relationships with others. Without adhering to the classical statement that “there are no bad children, only bad parents,” we must still acknowledge that it is the parents or their surrogates who are of vital importance in aiding the child in his transition from the first, undifferentiated, dependent, boundless state to one of a real self.

The beginning of life is as follows: a new organism — the infant — comes into an already-existing and peopled world. He has the potentials and the tendencies to live which are the peculiar properties of living matter, of human beings, of his particular hereditary organization. The world into which he comes is one of cultural patterns, of history, of forces, and, more importantly, of people who also are engaged in this process of living. If life is to go on, this new infant and those he joins must establish some kind of a working relationship. Since parents in our culture are the most immediate and significant relations, we can approach the question of the origin of neurosis from this angle. You can see from this orientation that blame for neurosis cannot be placed on anyone if the goal of both the child and the adult is the same. Here, we are speaking broadly of the goal to live. However, the adult must be held responsible, if we speak in terms of responsibility.

Now let us examine, in broad categories, some of the major efforts parents make to live, and see how these affect the growing child. You will recall these three categories which describe basic orientations toward life: moving toward, away from, and against people. This can be broadened to include all problems. These orientations can be described as compliance, aggression, and detachment. You are also aware of the fact that these movements can be healthy and necessary, and if properly exerted, comprise healthy relationships. However, one move is often dominant, rigid, and compulsive, while others become repressed, although effective. For example, a compliant individual represents a façade of geniality, appeasement, and closeness to people; detachment and aggressiveness seem to be absent. But compulsive compliance has its fee, and usually bears subtle demands which dominate others quite thoroughly. This is a picture of a person who seems so accommodating, whose philosophy is extremely ethical, who raises friendship to a virtue, but who wrests from his associates the strictest obedience.

A compulsively compliant parent might say to his child, “You see? I do everything for you! Therefore you must do everything for me” — and what is more — “in order that I do not have to be assertive with my demands, you must anticipate them, or else you are an ungrateful wretch.” Now, what happens to such a child in relation to a parent? The first implication, “I do everything for you,” is in itself a disastrous thing even if it were not accompanied by the other demands. The child is effectively prevented from experiencing his own strength or developing his own resources. If he should make an effort, he is thwarted, since he his success would mean that the parent is useful. The next implication is this: “I am here, ready and able to do for you, and in return you must forgo your own strength and initiative, without a murmur.” The manifestations of this are legion, and are concealed beneath a host of acceptable rationalizations. Here is a child who wants to dress himself, but is not permitted, because, mother can do it more neatly, daddy is waiting, or grandma is coming and is so fussy, or “you’re too young now, and if you watch me a few more times, you’ll be able to do it perfectly yourself,” or “children shouldn’t be rushed into things, and failure for them is so discouraging.” Beneath this reasoning is a need that the child be completely dependent on the parent and accepting of what he offers.

Now, when detachment is the parent’s major orientation toward life, the child is confronted with another obstacle to his growth. This is dramatically illustrated in the case of twelve-year-old Helen. Helen, an only child, wrote a letter in which she pleaded for the return of a foster sister. Her mother, who was under the impression that she was bringing evidence which applied only to her daughter, showed me two letters which began as follows: « Dear Mother and Father, I am writing because you never listen when I talk. I want you to bring Joan back — otherwise, my life is useless. I know that when she was here, I didn’t want her, but now that she’s gone, I want her badly. »

A great deal is revealed about Helen in the letter, but right now we are interested in the role that her parents have played. Helen’s parents may have been physically present for her, but obviously they were nonexistent when she wished to communicate with them. It was presumed that they didn’t even make the pretense of listening, although the parents denied this. There is all the difference in the world between listening and hearing. The wall the parents erected around themselves has effectively muffled Helen’s every cry. She could not have been more thoroughly isolated, were she locked in a dungeon.

A less dramatic, but more common example of isolation is reflected in the child who bellows with the volume of an insistent alarm clock. His parents are, for practical purposes, slumbering while he is needing them. We can see how such parents affect the child when they realize that the growing child needs relationships in order that he discover his own worth and limits. In a sense, the child needs something outside himself against which to bang. If parents are insubstantial zephyrs, he plunges into a bottomless pit, hitting or contacting nothing. He feels alone, isolated, thrown on his own resources. Since his resources are limited, and he is unrelated to others, he becomes anxious and detached.

The child whose parent is predominantly aggressive meets other obstacles to his growth. A crass example is where tenderness toward the child is never expressed or felt, or the angry voice, or the male fist express the only means of communication. This child cannot avoid a feeling of helplessness, worthlessness, and fear when he measures himself by such brutality and power. There is usually a double standard of values applied, in which assertiveness is the prerogative of the adult. The child may assert himself only when he is commanded to do so. For instance, the father will regale his family with his exploits against his schoolteachers when he was a boy, but just let his son come home with a “D” in deportment. In many instances, aggression and assertiveness in the parents enervates the child so much that he becomes compliant and submissive. He becomes a weakling and a source of hurt pride to the parent.

Now, alienation from the self — from feelings of self — is a result of neurosis. The neurotic predominantly feels some variation of self-contempt and humiliation. His efforts are inevitably directed to minimize these feelings to the point of emotional deadness. Healthy emotions, felt and expressed, are significant in the following illustration from a peasant community folkway: two friends are partying; absence from each other will be long; they sit face-to-face for some minutes. Not a word passes between them. Then, each rises and leaves. In those minutes, something happened between two people. Each drew strength and warmth from the other to endure the parting and the uncertainties of the absence. These same feelings can transpire through a glance, a handshake, or a deed. It is during the communication of two people that each feels himself and the other mutually related to himself.

Now, mutually related feelings are necessary, and can exist between parent and child. These feelings are invited by the parent who provides those avenues which will lead the child out of his vagueness. This parent will make all possibilities of contact available to his child. The child — a nebulous being — hardly participates or responds in the first months of life; his situation is similar to that of a man in a dark, unfamiliar room, who uses his eyes, his feet, his organs of equilibrium with which to orient himself. The man listens, reaches out his arms and uses his nose to seek relationships with the outside. We cannot say that the child tries consciously to do these things, but parents — analogues to the objects in the dark room — can make these reference points available to him.

Our civilization is verbal and intellectual. A consequence of this prevailing condition is an impaired feeling atmosphere for the child. Frequently, one hears that an infant is so uninteresting. Fathers are the chief offenders of the following complaint: that he showed little interest until Johnny was able to talk or was old enough to go to the ball-game. Mothers are guilty of the same lack of interest, but cultural demands often cover up for her. Numerous studies in institutionalized infants bring confirmation of the ravages of this deficient contact. The same disaster is produced in the natural home as well, although it is often concealed by a variety of esteemed disguises. There was a time when child psychologists and pediatricians thought that a crying should be left unhandled in scheduled feedings. Today, we realize that the child is in need of an outside contact when he reaches out with one of his few instruments — his voice. He should not be disregarded.

In this age of cliff-dwellers with small apartments and city traffic, the crib, the carriage, the playpen, and the harness provide a double-edged sword. Surely, each of these contrivances has its use and value. But the world becomes artificially constricted for the child under the guise of “convenience” or “protection.” His contacts are minimized; his experiences are lessened. He may become a big frog in a little pond, but he has to live in a big pond if he is going to be healthy. Destructive feelings, as well as positive ones, can seep out in spite of an appearance of warmth. This is illustrated in the following interviews of three fathers of three very disturbed adolescent boys. Each child was a disappointment to his parents, and each was able to hurt his parents by expressing a sharp contempt or disrespect. All the fathers complained, “I have done everything for my son. I have given him an education finer than mine. Now he gives me nothing! I don’t want gratitude — I don’t even care if he respects me. But he should at least respect his mother. I’d cut off my hand before I’d hit him, though. The last few words were accompanied by a gritting teeth, a flushed face, and a dramatic gesture. These are fathers whose aggressiveness is severely repressed. Aggressiveness is often concealed by a pride in reasonableness or kindness; however, wrath and anger emerge from these honeyed words, and cannot be hidden from the discernment of feelings.

Culture can be a factor in causing neurosis. It is another relationship which influences the development of character. Dr. Horney’s first book — The Neurotic Personality of Our Time — excellently appraises this. Before we decide whether culture is a factor, though, we must be careful not to externalize. We must avoid seeing inner conflicts of the parents and the child as being external. We must bear in mind the intimate and dynamic relationship which life holds; that a single unit is the synthesis of many experiences; that there is an experiencer as well as there are experiences. If parents, and those who are closest to the child in his early years are ideally healthy, the child’s experience with the outside world in later years should have little negative effect upon his character. Since this is not so, external or cultural factors do have a more significant effect.

Too often, we encounter children who at the age of eight are “little old mothers,” and who have been mothered themselves by their twelve-year-old sisters. This is what one finds in large families in our present culture. Mother is always pregnant, and children succeed each other in monotonous sequence, because of ignorance, law, or religion. Regardless of how healthy the mother was at first, certain real facts prevent her from being a very effective parent. Father, who was rarely ever able to support his large family, is subjected to stresses which tax what health he may have. As each child can assume household tasks, he is necessarily pressed into service. He misses out in play, and in important extra-curricular socializing. The strained economic circumstances mean that he has to leave school early even though he has aspirations for higher education. Or if one of the children is chosen to go ahead, the others must submerge their own wishes, to live vicariously through the advancing echelon of the family. Parents who have the time frequently do not have the capacity to influence the child constructively, and external experiences become more meaningful. It is then that the school, where the child spends large part of his day, becomes a significant factor. If he lives in a city like New York, he is one of a tremendous class, and may experience the relationship of as many as five teachers in one year. The positive quality he may gain in such a situation is minimal. If his teacher is brutal and untrained, he may be subjected to a definite retarding experience.

Parents often blame bad company for the delinquency of their children. They emphasize this factor to the exclusion of all others. Invariably, these parents have given them too little to guarantee a healthy start. It was the child who chose to go with that gang — but he is a lonely child, and finds some feeling of belonging in his gang. A bit of prestige, thin and unhealthy as it is. There is no playground for him, or no neighborhood center worth his name, perhaps. There is only an overcrowded school, manned by embittered, biased, and underpaid teachers. It would be wrong to blame such entirely cultural factors for delinquency of the child, but it would be incorrect to leave them out. Cultural contradictions create and amplify inner conflicts. They have their roots in our competitive economy; in racial and religious intolerance. They grant privileges to wealth. Intelligence is esteemed as a value, but it is frequently wasted by the community and passed over in favor of political expediency. Age and sagacity is revered, but a man of forty is often threatened with the loss of his job, and finds that there is no other place that he can use his knowledge. He sometimes discovers that he is no longer a useful member of society. Children are affected by these cultural patterns and contradictions.

A more realistic definition of “self” is the process of growth. This process allows one’s relations to others to be whole-hearted, and self-esteem to be felt. Genetically, the individual experiences interpersonal relations. The more constructive these relations become, the healthier the personality will be. It is necessary, however, to point out how the growing individual continues to create an unhealthy or hostile world long after the realistically hostile world which bred him has receded into the past. These are the wages of neurosis, and the self-fertilized soil which makes it flourish. As the growing child meets danger and uncertainty, he must act to gain safety — he learns which move has a greater likelihood of bringing this safety. This of course oversimplifies the matter, but is very illustrative.

One child finds that compliance, non-assertiveness, and passivity brings down less wrath than other modes of behavior. He may find that such an attitude evokes more contact with his parents in the form of reward, commendation, and warmth. Such a move would tend to become his major orientation toward life. Another child finds that squalling and destructiveness attracts attention, even though it is of a punitive nature. A third child finds he gets little contact from his compliance or aggression, but that sucking his thumb or handling his genitals makes him feel something. He will tend to detach himself from others, and find satisfaction in himself.

A healthy child must be able to fight, or to comply, or withdraw, as the situation merits. But when the world is hostile to him in the beginning, one of the moves becomes dominant and the others repressed. It is obvious that an individual who is dominantly one or another of these three types is not going to accommodate himself easily to changing needs and relationships. Since the basic orientation used is vital to his safety needs, it becomes an imperative and compulsive, rigid movement. In this way, a world not hostile can become a potentially hostile one. The aggressive child will definitely bring retribution from the community; the compliant child will get himself involved with people who will take advantage of him, or he will attempt things which are beyond himself, and the odds will then seem overwhelming to him; the detached child, by his very move, isolates himself from hostile elements as well as from the warmth and security that comes from being with people. His, too, is a self-defeating move.

The preferred basic orientation to life is linked with other movements which still function, even though they are repressed or disguised, and must figure in the maintenance and development of neurosis. In the compliant child, the appearance is of an easy-going, polite, and accommodating youngster. But he may slyly tattle on his younger sister and play crashing car games. The detached child, who often embraces compliance as a prominent admixture, may wet his bed. There is gratification in his lone pursuit, but it is mixed with vindictiveness which is directed toward the one who is inconvenienced by the wetting. Conflicts develop out of this matrix.

An individual develops a basic orientation for safety which must be rigid and compulsive. He gains a spurious self-esteem based on this, for he takes pride in his strength, his courage, his good nature, his understandingness, in his ability to get along by themselves. In addition to this, there is the corollary of contempt, variously expressed for those who do not share his so-called virtues. Then his needs to live with other people, reality, and his repressed moves become apparent, and jam up this rigid pattern. In this fashion, the compliant child finds his hidden aggressiveness cropping up and conflicting with his compliant trends. An inner conflict develops when a person discovers that he isn’t as easy-going as he thought he was. A frantic, anxiety-ridden conflict develops with a realization, perhaps unconscious, that the safety device — for instance, his compliance — may not be working. The individual is continually trying to maintain a measure of unity and self-esteem, however spurious. He finds his major solution threatened from within; he may externalize to reduce the disintegrating effect of the conflict and say, “I am an easy-going person, but one has limits when people — other people — are so nasty.” He may resort to another course of action, and subtly change the basic orientation to a more complex one. For instance, if aggression is covert, the façade of being a good boy may be maintained by taking pride in his ability to conceal aggression from others. In this way, a pseudo-unity is re-established, and anxiety is temporarily curbed.

When the child attempts to cope with a hostile world, he develops what Horney calls “strategies to gain safety.” The false feeling of self which follows becomes the nucleus of character trends in the pursuit of unity. The character trends which arise in relation to a hostile environment carry within themselves the possibilities for conflict and the progressive diminution of one’s actual value. The resulting inner disunity causes disturbing interpersonal relations, and the conjuring up of a potentially hostile world. Thus, the individual creates within himself a world a world as fearsome as the one which nurtured him so inadequately in childhood, and his neurosis thrives.