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Processes In The Context

Denial is the growing child's most primitive defense. It is also one of the most common regressive defenses used by all adults during recurrent stressful situations in life. Let us say that a child experiences painful anticipation either of punishment or rejection by a loved and needed parent because of a real or fancied transgression. To cope with the anticipated catastrophe, the child may say, for example, "I hate you, I wish you were dead. I want mommy (or daddy, as the case may be) and wish you would go away. You can't hurt me." This child is denying certain basic realities in the social situation. He is telling himself that the punishment anticipated or the imminent rejection can be ignored, since the source of this is of no real importance. He is stating that the threatened loss of approval, love, and support from this source is, in fact, no threat at all, because the parent is not essential or is expendable. The inescapable facts of the situation are, however, quite different. In later life, regressive manifestations of this same defensive mechanism are betrayed in Micawber-like facades which are put on under acutely stressful circumstances where one may firmly believe that "everything somehow is going to turn out all right," when the realities of the situation indicate quite the contrary. Conscious suppression may play a large part in causing us to say, "Well, I won't think about that today, since there is plenty of time to settle the problem tomorrow." Yet, under certain circumstances, it would appear that this mechanism does materially alter the climate and behavior of the moment, although in a generally unsuccessful manner. For a further discussion of denial, see Chapter 16.


Fantasy activity provides a rich and often gratifying defense for the child who encounters a powerful and mysterious world with seemingly infinite alternatives for the immediate future. Incidentally, the mature person is to be distinguished from the immature or childlike one in that he tends to deal with realistic day-to-day alternatives or decisions on a statistical basis. Many of life's most difficult problems, among these, the most vexing diagnostic problems of physicians, become very difficult to solve because, like children, we sometimes tend to consider infinite rather than finite alternatives in our diagnostic formulations. The mature and generally successful person plays the odds. On the other hand, the creative and imaginative genius often rejects these statistical alternatives, and is therefore led to consider others which would not generally be suspected. In this regard, the creative person in science or in the arts is still a child.

The child creates a fantasy world populated by individuals and circumstances he can readily and unequivocally control. The circumstances are of his own making, and the people are under his complete domination. He can present not only people and circumstances which can provide an experience of internal security because they are so completely consistent with his own needs and desires but also people and circumstances which are so impossibly terrifying that his conquest of them is a source of tremendous reassurance and gratification. Many of his serious conflicts are played up, dealt with, and worked through by him in fantasy. Such fantasy activity is, in fact, a very important part of the problem-solving behavior of childhood, as has been emphasized by, among others, Anna Freud.

The normal child stages and initiates the behaviors which assist him in working through his conflicts about environmental domination in solitary play up to the age of two or three years. These same conflicts later are brought into sharper focus and manipulated in more mature ways in social play with peer groups, siblings, and, on occasion, with adults. Such play activity provides a vent for his aggressive and destructive drives and permits him to test the acceptable or forbidden aspects of his behavior on a stage more secure than that of harsh daily reality. By the same token, his play and acting out in such circumstances may serve also to "stir up the pot" in such a way that the parental environment is not only informed but actually restructured in terms of reinforcement and the aversive contingencies provided.

Phobic Defenses

Anxiety has been defined as an experience or inner state characterized by intolerable apprehension and dread without recognizable focus and without an identifiable source for the apprehension. Man is a problem-solving animal given to exploration and perpetually impatient with mysteries. His need to explain mysteries and give focus to provocative experience is universally represented. Anxiety is intrusive, inescapable, and intolerable. It is the provocative experience par excellence, and thus demands focus. One of the most common focusing mechanisms involves the translation of unidentified and unspecified apprehension into specific fear. This translation is represented in a phobic defensive maneuver. In normal children, fear of the dark exemplifies one of the earliest phobic focusing mechanisms of anxiety. It appears between the ages of three and five, and may appear even earlier in a home environment where parents or older children directly or indirectly reinforce such a focus. Fear of the dark is not a particularly successful focusing mechanism, since the focus is obviously quite blurred. Another factor may account, in part, for fear of the dark in certain children. Many children, as is known, have extremely threatening nightmares which abruptly awaken them in a dark room. Very possibly the association of the dark bedroom with anxiety might make the former a conditioned stimulus for fear. More fanciful and sharply focused and, therefore, more successful answers to intolerable anxiety are commonly elaborated by older children, as represented in fear of wild animals, monsters, witches, boogie men, and, in this particular period of our history, creatures from outer space. These answers are more successful because they entail, of course, less restriction of activity.

Anxiety is a recurrent life experience, and such phobic focusing mechanisms, as developed early in childhood, appear in all normal individuals later in life. The specific focus selected may clearly vary with the life history, background, and technical training of the individual. Thus, physicians may tend to focus on relatively obscure, sophisticated, or complicated physical illnesses, particularly during medical school years, while social scientists may select the focuses more consistent with disordered psychic function, or perhaps even with global catastrophe. The developmental history of a common phobic focus, such as fear of heights, may be extremely complex and difficult to document.

MAGICAL ACTIONS (COMPULSIVE ACTIVITIES)RUMINATIONS) Childhood play is peppered with magical incantations and ritualistic activities. Children are remarkably versatile in their ability to create private languages, as well as behaviors, which remain unintelligible and erect an inscrutable and impenetrable barrier to adults who have long since forgotten or repressed the magical frame of reference of the child. Ritual behaviors in children are best understood in the functional context of behaviors which postpone aversive consequences. The broad implications of aversive control will be considered in Chapters 15 and 16. The normal child is led to believe, through the bewildering experiences of unpredictability and through positive learning experiences in the magic domain of fairy tales, that his thoughts have unusual power, that they are mysteriously translated into action under circumstances largely beyond his understanding. This fact makes magical thinking particularly important to him. Recalling the struggle for autonomy which is waged by the normal child with and against his all powerful parents, one is amused, for example, at the childhood game which involves the careful avoidance of sidewalk cracks while chanting, "Step on a line and break your father's spine; step on a crack and break your mother's back." Under particularly unfavorable circumstances, the seeming translation of such magical thoughts into reality creates the traumatic source for a severe and self-perpetuating protective ritual. Such a circumstance may obtain when, for example, a brother or sister entertains strong death wishes toward a rival sibling who actually does die as a result of acute illness or accident. Where the resentful death wishes of the surviving child have been strongly repressed, as they must be in an environment where overt expressions of negative feelings and wishes are frowned upon, profound disabling guilt must inevitably appear in the surviving child. This occurs because of his conviction that his wish for the sibling's death has, in fact, caused the death of the brother or sister, and thus provides an example of accidental reinforcement. Note here the magical power which is close in kinship to the magical incantation in many popular fairy tales.

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Human Behavior