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Fritz Redl: Matchmaker to child and environment - a restrospective

The milieu
Clearly, while retaining the Freudian structural model Redl sees its constituent functions and processes as an open system, freely interacting with the surrounding environment. His approach – holistic, multifocal, present oriented – swings radically away from the atomistic, past-oriented, reductionism of the classical model.

But if ego psychology with its emphasis on ego autonomy and adaptive functions, provides a partial, conceptual framework for Redl's milieu theory, it tells us nothing about what happens once the action begins. The blueprint with its enormous success at visualization of finely-honed missiles to hurl at pieces of ego and superego dysfunction, and libidinal wreckage from the past, is one thing. But, "Just how does the milieu do it?", Redl asks in a provocative paper on the therapeutic milieu. In answer he urges highly focused research observation and tracking of specific ingredients, making it clear that children are never hit by the milieu as such but always in a specific form and at a given time and place (Redl 1966):

Rather than studying the "milieu" per se and then the "reactions of the children," how about making it a four-step plan? Let's keep the "milieu" as the over-all concept on the fringe; its basic ingredients come close to my youngsters only insofar as they are contained in a given setting. For example, my children on the ward can be found engaged in getting up and eating meals or snacks. They can be found roaming around the playroom or in a station wagon, with all their overnight gear, on the way to their camping site. They can be found in their arts-and-crafts room or schoolroom engaged in very specific activities. Enough of illustrations. The point is in all those settings the whole assortment of milieu aspects hits them in very specific forms: There is an outspoken behavioral expectation floating through the arts-and-crafts room at any time. There are spatial characteristics, tools, and props. There is the potential reaction of the other child or adult, the feeling tone of the group toward the whole situation as such; there is the impact of people's goal values and attitudes, as well as that of the behavior of a child's neighbor who clobbers him right now with his newly made Viking sword. In short, I may be able to isolate observations of milieu ingredients as they "hit" the child in a specific setting during a specific activity. On such a narrowed-down level of observation, I may also be able to trace the actual experience that such a concrete situation in a given setting produced in the child; and if I know what the child did with the experience, it may make sense, for I have both ends of the line before me: the youngster's reaction to his experience and the nature of the ingredients of the "setting" on both ends of the line, plus plenty of good hunches on the child's experience while exposed to its impact. (pp. 92-93)

This is the voice of Redl as believer in a full measure of naturalistic observation as the first step in trying to understand causality. As a research thinker Redl was less than happy with modern behavioral researchers' fixation on quantification, control machinery and "neatness in hypethesizing" before they really knew what they should be looking at. "Let's put the search back into research," he pleads in a seminal paper, based on his 1961 presidential address to the American Association of Orthopsychiatry. Redl's challenge to behavioral research remains unanswered.

Wineman, David. (1991). Fritz Redl: Matchmaker to child and environment - a restrospective.
In Morse, William C. (Ed.). Crisis Intervention in Residential Treatment: The Clinical Innovations of Fritz Redl. pp. 40-41.

References
Redl, F. (1966). When We Deal With Children. Glencoe, IL. Free Press. 

 

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