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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Fritz Redl: Matchmaker to child and environment – a retrospective

David Wineman

Redl’s description of ego disorganization in the aggression-filled young delinquent is concrete and empirical. In Children Who Hate (Redl & Wineman 1951) some 23 commonly occurring mini-collapses of ego functioning in the children’s daily lives are documented, crisscrossing major areas of the control system. For example, fear and anxiety from any source, however mild, often result in complete breakdown of controls, precipitating total flight and avoidance, or ferocious attack and diffuse destructiveness. Similar failures occur in dealing with mistakes, disappointments, case history flare-ups, coping with even mild temptation, or with unexpected gratification, and even with success or victory in a game. And, while more normal youngsters tend to use materials in ways that are consistent with their inherent potential to offer gratifications, these children show a kind of “sublimation deafness” tending to use objects and materials to gratify basic urges directly. Redl argues that the breakdown and disorganization of ego-adaptive functions on the daily life scene is itself a causal source of hate from the pure overflow of stress and frustration thereby engendered. This system of hate is also seen, however, as being fed by developmental trauma and past nurturance deficits, in this way reflecting traditional theory’s claims of the damages of libidinal neglect.

As though the stored-up inner misery of such children and the poverty of their coping functions do not present an enormous enough clinical challenge, still another fascinating but tortuously baffling complexity stares us in the face. Side by side, with the puniness of the children’s ego functions, there lies an enigmatic and unexpected power. The selfsame ego, so unable to cope with the impulses themselves and other minimal daily stresses, suddenly, with an exasperating and ruthless efficiency, performs super-human tasks in defending impulse gratification at all costs rather than showing any tendency to reconcile reality demands, desires and social values.

This “delinquent ego” is depicted as battling on four fronts against surrender of impulse gratification:

  1. by the ingenious use of defenses against inner guilt, embarrassment or shame that could result from whatever rudiments of superego that might reside in the inner self;
  2. by alertness and tirelessness in searching for delinquency support, both externally (such as in expert “diagnosis” of and immediate alliance with other delinquents, or in refusal to budge from delinquency supportive environments), or internally, from within the self (such as “You know what a lousy temper I’ve got – how could I help clobbering the son-of-a bitch!?”);
  3. by direct defense against change when exposed to situations which present a frontal exposure of the delinquent side of the self (such as not being able to admit a theft in the face of unshakable evidence and total immunity from punishment), and (4) through “mechanized warfare against change agents,” involving such techniques as attempts to weaken staff morale through “anticipatory provocation” – efforts to lure adults into mean, hostile rejecting behavior – or an amazing range of highly fluent, sophisticated legalistic arguments as counter-interview techniques when it came to an attempt to lure them into a confession of a misdeed or confront them with a particularly untenable piece of behavior, or to shock them into an admission of guilt, unfairness or what not, related to a specific incident in their group.

Redl, F. & Wineman, D. (1951) Children who hate. Glencoe, IL: Free Press

Wineman, D. (1991). Fritz Redl: Matchmaker to Child and Environment – A Retrospective. In Morse, W.C. (Ed.) Crisis Interventions in Residential Treatment: The Clinical Innovations of Fritz Redl. New York: Haworth Press pp. 32-33

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