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129 NOVEMBER 2009
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Fritz Redl and the life space interview

Charles Sharpe

Fritz Redl was a distinguished child psychologist, child care worker and teacher. His theory is, as his practice was, predominantly underpinned by psychodynamic principles. Redl’s work and concern for troubled children and young people spanned 60 years firstly in Austria and subsequently in the United States of America. He made many significant contributions to the group care and education of troubled young people. His concepts influenced the development of the idea of the therapeutic milieu, the establishment of the notion of discipline rather than punishment in child care settings, the leadership role in group care, and the use of the group as therapy. This article is an introduction to what many consider his most original contribution to work with children and young people : the life space interview. The life space interview is a child care strategy which ‘exploits’ events in the everyday life of troubled young people for therapeutic purposes.

N.B. In this article I have used the term ‘life space worker’ to describe all those who work in the life space of children and young people and this would include all those who work in residential child care and residential school settings but I think the concept of the life space interview is of value to all those who work to help and support children and young people.

Fritz Redl

Fritz Redl was born in Austria in 1902. As a boy and growing into a young man he was a gifted academic student gaining a doctorate at the age of twenty three following his research into Kantian ethics. In Vienna he commenced training as a psychoanalyst and was for a time analysed by Anna Freud. At the same time he trained to be a secondary school teacher. During this period he met August Aichhorn, now perhaps more widely known as the author of Wayward Youth, who from 1908 to 1918, was in charge of managing homes for boys in the Vienna and who from 1918 was made responsible for setting up a residential school for delinquent young people in what was formerly a refugee camp. Aichhorn used psychoanalytic theory and practice to underpin the work of the school. This led Redl to become interested in applying some of the psychoanalytic theory he was learning to inform his own work in a project which provided support to school students who were socially and economically deprived. By providing them with additional educational support Redl helped to gain them access to higher levels of education which would normally not be open to them. Along with Bruno Bettelheim and Bettelheim’s then wife Gina, whom he had befriended, he set up monthly summer camps for deprived young people in the disused castle at Schallaburg. Redl was seen as a thoughtful yet outgoing and gregarious man and at these camps his uncanny ability to work therapeutically with groups was recognised and acknowledged by his colleagues.

In 1936, following an impressive presentation at a conference on childhood and adolescence, Redl was headhunted by the Rockefeller Foundation, which was then actively recruiting European intellectuals, and he emigrated to the USA. He went to Chicago, and first at the University of Michigan, and then at the University of Chicago, he continued to build on his reputation as an outstanding academic and teacher. In the years which followed Redl and his friends, (including Bettelheim who had fled from Austria to the USA in 1940) became deeply involved in plans for educational reform and set up summer camps for deprived adolescents. In 1940 Redl was appointed to a teaching post at the Wayne State University in Detroit and over time eventually became the Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Sciences.

Just as he had done in Austria, Redl established a reputation for his work with young people and in 1944 he and his then student David Wineman founded on behalf of the Detroit Group Project, Pioneer House, a home for boys aged eight to twelve with behaviour problems. Here they developed small group treatment for the boys in a low profile non-institutional setting with close and strong links to the boys' home community. As a notable aside, this aspect of Redl's work anticipated by several decades the movement towards providing a more community based residential service.

Not surprisingly for a man analysed by Anna Freud, Redl's work at Pioneer House was theoretically based on ego psychology and was made manifest by the creation of a therapeutic milieu in which giving love and affection with no strings attached was paramount, and where great significance was laid on providing the child with stimulating and gratifying life experiences irrespective of whether they might be considered deserved. Though the work of Pioneer House was widely considered a success, it closed in 1946 due to a lack of funding.

During the 1950s his work and research at Bethesda for the National Institute of Mental Health which he carried out in conjunction with Wineman, provided the platform from which he began to develop his ideas and refine his techniques for helping young people and this eventually flowered into his most original contribution to child care : the life space interview.

From the 1960s until his death in 1988 Redl served as a consultant to psychiatric hospitals for children throughout the USA. He was always in demand as a speaker at child care conferences throughout the world. It is clear from all who speak and write of knowing him that Fritz Redl was a compassionate, loving man who himself was loved and respected.

The Life Space Interview

Fritz Redl developed the Life Space Interview as a therapeutic tool because he felt the environment of the traditional individual therapeutic session was artificial and too far detached from a child’s reality. He also thought scheduled 50 minute therapy sessions were impractical in helping troubled children who were living in a group residential setting. In its place he felt the need to develop a set of techniques for residential child care workers that would allow them to provide what Redl called ‘therapy on the hoof’.

Redl originally denominated the life space interview ‘the marginal interview’ because he and his colleagues saw it as a concurrent side commentary on what was going on for a young person at the centre of his life space. The ‘marginal’ was dropped in favour of ‘life space’ because of what were felt the negative connotations of the adjective ‘marginal’.

Not only did Redl hold that the life space interview was a therapeutic opportunity available to life space workers more than to those of other professions who have a more formal counselling and relationship building role, he also believed that it offered an opportunity to develop relationships which have therapeutic potential using as the medium those interactions that arise from the variety of natural situations which are part of the daily run of life in any venture charged with looking after troubled youngsters. It is a technique and also a way of being which becomes more effective as the relationship between the life space worker and the young person becomes more secure and trusting. Although in more recent times the life space interview has been promoted as method of control, in my view Redl’s intention was that it should be used widely as a structure and a method which would help those who look after children and young people to develop relationships with them. Certainly in the United Kingdom the potential of having this wider view of the life space interview was recognized and further elaborated by Haydn Davies Jones in his teaching at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne during the 1970s and 1980s.

Redl thought that the life space interview carried out in the ordinary exchanges of daily living had therapeutic value because :

  1. It plays an important part in the daily lives of all young people.

  2. It assumes a mediating role between the young people and what life holds for them in the present and the future.

  3. Used wisely, strategically and correctly with unhappy young people it has vital therapeutic and dynamic potential.

  4. It is central to any therapeutic approach to troubled young people.

  5. It is closely built around the young person's life experience and it connects directly with the issues which are the focus between the young person and the life space worker.

  6. It is valued by young people because the life space worker is perceived by a young person as being part of his natural habitat (the life space) and as a adult who has clearly understood her role and influence in the young person’s daily living, as opposed to a more specialised and formal counselor : for example, psychotherapist.

  7. It is a technique which is already a constituent if not yet highly developed skill of a sensitive and insightful adult which is improved by training, the life space worker's experience in her day to day work, and on thoughtful reflection upon that work.

  8. It engenders an atmosphere in which young people and their carers have sincere, consistent and continuous engagement and in consequence it encourages the development of a therapeutic milieu where healthy attachments between young person and adult can develop.

The goals of the Life Space Interview are :

a) To use of daily events to enrich the experience and create insights in the young person.

b) To encourage young people to recognise reality when they are socially near-sighted to the events they are involved in — where fact is glided over unless the view is arrested or focused by the member of staff.

c) To foster socially healthy areas in the young person to show that benefits through secondary gain as a result of acting-out or any anti-social behaviours is not, in the long run satisfactory.

d) To increase the young person's self-esteem by stroking and encouraging those parts of the young person's persona which are seen as having positive value.

e) To seek out alternative acceptable defences to any socially unacceptable ones the young people may use so that their adaptational skills are widened.

f) To encourage young people to move across the boundaries of self by helping them to expand the boundaries so that they include and show respect for other people, benign adults, the peer group and the wider community.

g) By creating insight, encouraging social awareness, nullifying benefit through secondary gain, increasing self-esteem, finding acceptable defences and expanding self boundaries; to build personal confidence to the extent that painful issues from the past, perceived as malign may be faced, coped with, or resolved.

In summary, the Life Space Interview makes use of a series of momentary daily spontaneous life experiences in order to extract from them a level of insight, within healthy relationships which makes it is possible to achieve long-term therapeutic goals.

Life space interview techniques

Redl elaborated upon his concept of the life space interview by describing different therapeutic strategies and techniques which could be adopted and used in the life space interview to help foster healthy emotional development. English was very much Redl's second language and some find his descriptions of life space interview techniques eccentric and inaccessible. In my view they are amusing and helpfully literal. What follows is my interpretation and summary of these different strategies and techniques.

Reality rub in

Redl suggested that most of troubled young people life space workers look after can lack social insight and don’t accurately read the meanings of events in which they get involved, unless the worker symbolically uses a huge script for them and underlines it all in glaring colours. Others he argued have developed almost delusional defences in which they appear to misinterpret life situations to the point where even the most glaring contradictions are denied or ignored unless their views are arrested and focused on from time to time.

Redl argued that life space workers often deal with young people who may indeed have a perception of reality but who defend their conscience by representing a situation differently from what has actually occurred. For him it is important that such young people experience an immediate ‘reality rub in’ from adults who have witnessed the scene or are at least thoroughly familiar with its dynamics.

“Hey let’s examine truthfully what really happened here”.

Symptom estrangement

Unlike the vast majority of their peers, who may have developed some neurotic behaviours typical of the adolescent period, young people who have been placed in group residential settings may have developed more pathological defences and have learned how to benefit from their symptoms through secondary gain, and so are not inclined to accept the notion that something is wrong with them or that they need help. Redl felt that in this situation it was important for the life space worker to seek out those healthy parts of the young person’s ego which have not totally succumbed to pathological defences. He believed there is a need for workers to begin to help the young person accumulate a stock of good life experiences which will provide real evidence that their pathological defences don’t really pay off. He also thought that the young person who is paying too heavy an emotional price for the meagre secondary gains he draws from his pathological defences, may be helped to find the deep satisfaction he seeks in other forms of problem solving or pursuits of life.

Redl insisted that symptom estrangement is a strategy to be used consistently by the whole staff team. For him it does little good to talk in the life space interview about the inappropriateness of a pathological symptom if the social reality is that the environment does not provide or encourage opportunities to let go of such symptoms.

A therapeutic milieu created by the life space workers’ unified endeavours should be used to support and encourage the development of insight so that the young person’s ego can begin to be liberated from his pathological defences.

“There are other ways of dealing with this and really solving the problem. Look we solved this together and it was relatively painless” — can develop to — “Hey you solved that without any pain” — and then to — “Hey I solved that and now I feel good”.

Massaging numb value areas

For almost all the young people life space workers look after — no matter how much at times workers may feel that the young persons are bordering on the psychopathic behaviours — a worker invariably can sense that there are potential areas where positive social values exist in a young person and which give hope for the young person’s personal healthy survival and development. Redl believed that these positive areas seem to have been numbed by negative experiences and that they have to be massaged to bring life and feeling back to them. He observed that admitting to such positive social values just as admitting to a hunger for love can be embarrassing for many troubled young people, but these are, according to Redl, areas which though they may not be free from early deprivation, may at least be exempt from peer group shame. Even at a time when a young person would rather be seen dead than appearing sweet and conforming, value concepts such as “fairness” still have appeal. Redl felt that in order to prepare the ground for value arguments altogether, the pulling out of issues like fairness or similar values from the events from daily life eventually brings therapeutic reward to the young person.

New tool salesmanship

Young people whether they are in a position to accept it or not need to discover new ways of managing situations which bring out their pathological defences. This is achieved in the life space by building a relationship with a young person to the extent that he feels safe to discard, however tentatively, his pathological defences and to begin to adapt new socially safe defences through introjection of healthy models from staff and from other young people who are further along the road of development. To this extent the worker is indirectly selling her own model of behaviour and trying to get the young person to buy it.

This requires stamina and determination on the part of the worker. Even the seemingly simple recognition that seeking out an adult to talk over a problem, rather than lashing out at nothing in wild fury may need to be worked at long and hard in the life space interview.

Manipulation of boundaries of the self

Redl saw that life space workers often have to help prevent young people who have inadequate coping abilities from being sucked into negative group dynamics, and being manipulated to become the group’s acting out expression. This what the English psychotherapist Barbara Dockar Drysdale referred to as “merging”. Young people living in a group setting often unconsciously allow the boundaries of self to be manipulated in negative areas. The life space interview can be used to move in on this if it is used consistently and determinedly as a strategy. The boundary of the self is dynamic — it does not stand still — but Redl argued that any expansion of a young person’s boundary of self should be encouraged to stretch in positive social directions.

Emotional first aid on the spot

Although life space workers through life space interviews expose young people to long term work on their pathologies, Redl thought it important it to remember that troubled young people remain forced to live with their symptoms until they can shed them, and it is important to remember they are still children going through emotional and physical development. This means that the adults who support them through this phase should — with re-assurance and comfort — encourage them through those demands of daily life which they cannot manage on their own.

Redl defined this as 'emotional first aid on the spot' which he suggested consisted of the following five categories of technique:

Drain off of frustration acidity
Most young people can experience infuriation when pleasurable exploits must end and this is often even more critical for young people who tend to have a low tolerance of frustration. Anticipating this during the life space interview by offering sympathetic communication with the young person about the discomfort of having pleasurable activity interrupted can help to drain off surplus hostility.

Support for the management of panic, fury and guilt
Redl argued that a difficulty for troubled young people is that they not only have more feelings of panic, shame, guilt and fury than most other young people experience, but they don’t know what to do with them when they get them. It is important that life space workers should intervene and give first aid as soon as these emotions are given expression by an individual child or the group. Communication between the caring adult and the young person should not be lost no matter how severe any tantrum attack may become. The knowledge that the adult will stay with him and is interested in protecting him from his exaggerated wishes as much as protecting him from the negative intent of others is in the long run experienced as deeply supportive by the young person.

Communication maintenance in moments of relationship decay
One of the reactions which Redl suggested that the life space worker fears the most is when a young person — as a response to emotional turmoil — breaks off all communication with the worker and retreats into a rigid world of persecutory fantasy into which the worker is not allowed entry. It is important that this process be anticipated and stopped as soon as it appears imminent. While at such a moment it may be futile to make any impact on what may seem the young person’s fantasy, the worker should keep communication flowing however trivial or far removed it may be from the point at issue.

Regulation of behavioural and social traffic
Redl feared life space workers might think this aspect of the life space interview — the regulation of behavioural and social traffic — too superficial to be given the status of a life space technique. Yet for him it is an essential element He likens it to the work of a “traffic cop” in reminding people of the “basic rules again and warns” the young people “of the vicissitudes of the next stretch” While a young person’s development in a group living setting may mean that he has not yet internalised the policies, routines and rules, and indeed he may struggle with them, it remains important that the life space worker re-directs the young person by keeping him in mind of them and helps the young person anticipate the difficulties they may pose for him.

Umpire Services — in decision crises as well as in loaded transaction
Redl believed this aspect of emotional first aid to be firstly the traditional umpiring task of intervening in quarrels, disputes and sometimes fights about the rules of games or to the management of what he called ‘loaded transactions’ in the social lives of the young people such as swapping, borrowing and trading. If these issues are left without an adult’s umpiring voice they carry the potential for serious unmanageable consequences.

Secondly Redl saw the umpiring aspect at the core of the relationship between the young person and the worker where the life space worker makes herself available when the young person uses her to help him weigh up his current internal dilemmas.

The life space interview: Redl's achievement

Though Redl understood his catalogue of aspects of the life space interview to be a “tool shed full of strategies and techniques that are being used in talking or playing with kids in such a way that their disturbances hopefully be forced to disappear”, he did not see it as a collection of items which could be added to randomly. He felt room always remains in the shed for more tools but that it is important that they are added to serve an overall planned therapeutic strategy which as Redl says ‘exploits’ both the individual relationships between young people and adults and the group dynamic for therapeutic purposes. The life space interview is at the core of the notion of a therapeutic milieu.

The concept of the life space interview came to Redl when he observed that residential child care workers were, by carrying out natural every day roles in the life space of the young people they look after, building relationships with the young people which have measurable therapeutic value and so allowed therapy to take place outside the formal consulting room as well as in it. For a person trained in the orthodoxy of psychoanalysis, this departure from the discipline's strict framework by using psychoanalytic theory in the way he did in a group living setting for children was innovative. On reading Redl I am always aware not only that I am listening to a person of intellectual and emotional insight but also to someone who is practical and who has long experience of working with the nuts and bolts of his job. It is my view that the genius of Fritz Redl is how he has seamlessly created the bridge from the mundane, practical events of day to day life toward the potential for healthy emotional growth. This makes the concept of the of the life space interview empowering for a group of workers whose skills and insights are so often under-rated and under-valued.


Davies Jones, H. (1984) My own personal notes from two lectures delivered by Haydn Davies Jones in October 1984 at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Dockar Drysdale, B. (1969). Therapy and Consultation in Child Care. London : Free Association Books 1993.

Garfat, T. (1987) 'Remembering Fritz Redl' Address to the 1987 National Conference of the National Association of Child Care Workers in Johannesburg. Accessed on 18.10.09 at

Morse, W. C.(ed.). (1991). 'Introduction and perspective' in Crisis Intervention in Residential Treatment: The clinical innovations of Fritz Redl. New York : Haworth Press. pp.4-6.

Redl, F. and Wineman D. (1957). The Aggressive Child. New York : The Free Press.

Redl, F. (1966). When We Deal With Children. New York : The Free Press. pp.35-67.

Sutton, N. (1995). Bruno Bettelheim : The Other Side of Madness. London : Duckworth.

Whittaker, J. (1979) Caring for Troubled Children : Residential Care in a Community Context. San Francisco Jossey-Bass

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