Traumatic aloneness in children with narcissistically preoccupied parents

By Jay Frankel – June 22nd at 6 pm London time/ 7 pm Berlin time/ 8 pm Cape Town and Jerusalem time/ 1 pm New York time/ 12 noon Chicago time / 10 am Vancouver time

Part of the Psychoanalysis and Politics series Crises and Transmission

Nearly a century ago, the psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi discovered what he called “identification with the aggressor”—at the core of a child’s reaction to abuse by a family member, and profoundly damaging over the long term. (Ferenczi’s concept was somewhat different from Anna Freud’s later, and more familiar, use of the same term.) Further, Ferenczi saw the family’s emotional abandonment of the child as the most destructive element of the abuse. My clinical experience suggests that the effects of emotional abandonment by narcissistically preoccupied parents, even in the absence of gross abuse—a situation that describes the histories of many of our patients—are, in many ways, surprisingly similar to the effects of sexual abuse within families.

Several questions need to be addressed: How, exactly, do narcissistically preoccupied parents emotionally abandon their children? How do these children experience this abandonment? In what ways does it damage them? Why does it qualify as a trauma? And why do children react by identifying with the aggressor? Along the way, I’ll place these clinical findings in a broader analytic context, and I’ll evaluate them in terms of relevant systematic empirical research. Finally, I’ll discuss the implications for treating someone with a significant history of emotional abandonment.

Jay Frankel, Ph.D., is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with a private practice in New York City. He is an Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor, and Clinical Consultant, in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, at New York University; Faculty in the Trauma Studies Program, at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, in New York; Associate Editor, and previously Executive Editor, of the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues; co-author (with Neil Altman, Richard Briggs, Daniel Gensler, and Pasqual Pantone) of Relational Child Psychotherapy (2002, Other Press); co-editor (with Aleksandar Dimitrijevic and Gabriele Cassullo) of Ferenczi’s Influence on Contemporary Psychoanalytic Traditions (2018, Routledge); and author of three dozen journal articles and book chapters, and numerous conference presentations, on topics including trauma, identification with the aggressor, authoritarianism, the analytic relationship, the work of Sándor Ferenczi, play, child psychotherapy, relational psychoanalysis, and others.

This seminar has passed. The film based on the seminar is available for rental, see Films.