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Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana


War and Children, Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham: The War Nurseries.

Maria Anna Tallandini

(Padova), Associate Member of the Società Psicoanalitica Italiana, Centro Veneto di Psicoanalisi.

At a difficult time in European history, it is helpful to recall the vital contribution made by psychoanalysis in helping children affected by the often traumatic experiences wrought by war. I have in mind the establishment by Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham of the three War Nurseries in October 1940. I intend to recall the first publication on the subject (Freud, A, Burlingham, D., War and Children, Medical World Books, 1943), the annual report written for the association, The Foster Parents Plan for War Children[1], which financially supported the initiative. The topic would then be taken up by A. Freud in the publication Infants without Families: Reports on the Hampstead Nurseries (in The Writings of Anna Freud, vol.3. International Universities Press, 1973), in which the later years of this experience are also described.

Far too many Ukrainian children have had to leave their homes without knowing where they are going, whether they will find a safe place to stay, and if they will be able to return. The affective situation and relationships with family members are profoundly altered. Children see their parents in the grip of profound fears and sometimes no longer feel protected. Adult frailties that are tolerable and not apparent in regular periods become evident in wartime. The child then feels a loss of security and reliability in the face of these hardships. Never more than in wartime does the sense of home, the familiarity of the household, and what is contained therein take its toll on our daily living. The figure of the adult as a source of security and inner peace proves indispensable, and separation in such a dramatic context is all the more intolerable.

The subject of this paper is a report by the two authors, A. Freud and D. Burlingham, on the experience and data collected during the first year of operation of the War Nurseries, 1941. That experience ended with the end of the war in 1945. Here we do not observe the use of psychoanalysis in the context of a therapeutic setting but in that of acute and in-depth observation of child behavior. The focus is primarily on how the war affects the child’s psychological development in their needs for personal attachment, emotional stability and continuity in the educational process. Through observation, comprehension of the child’s emotional needs is aimed at making the war experience less traumatic in their daily lives.  

At the beginning of World War II, London, especially its eastern part, was pounded by heavy bombings daily. Thousands of families had to spend many hours in the dark in subway shelters or sleep in bunk beds built in subway stations. Upon returning to the surface, they often discovered that their homes had been shelled and rendered uninhabitable. Faced with the death and destruction experienced by the children, Anna Freud wished to build spaces to provide a peaceful environment for the children and, at the same time, give the parents peace of mind in their work. The kindergartens were designed for children under five because, at the beginning of the war, the British government evacuation program had not considered children of this age, regarding them as protected by their mothers. However, this was not always possible as mothers were frequently engaged in work outside the household, often in support of the war.

In the introduction to the notes on this experience, which lasted throughout the war period, Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham write:

“Work in War nurseries is based on the idea that the care and education of young children should not take second place in wartime and should not be reduced to wartime level. Adults can live under emergency conditions and, if necessary, on emergency rations. But the situation in the decisive years of bodily and mental development is entirely different. It has already been generally recognised …..that the lack of essential foods, ….. in early childhood will cause lasting bodily malformation in later years …. It is not generally recognised that the same is true for the mental development of the child. Whenever certain essential needs are not fulfilled, lasting psychological malformation will be the consequence. These essential elements are: the need for personal attachment, for emotional stability, and for permanency of educational influence.…. To counteract these deficiencies, wartime care of children has to be more elaborate and more carefully thought than in ordinary times of peace” (my italics). (pag.12).”

[1] Hampstead Nurseries consisted of three homes where an average of 90 children were housed. The Foster Parents’ Plan for War Children helped protect children starting in 1936 when Spanish children faced civil war in their country. Later they cared for children in other European countries affected by the war.


IMGs source: Children at the Hampstead Nursery 1940 – Fonte: www.annafreud.org

Keeping these considerations in mind, nursery staff were continuously monitored by A. Freud and D. Burlingham and assisted in their activities with the children. At first, the staff consisted of refugees who had fled Germany and Austria, such as Anna Freud herself, and who had psychological and psychoanalytic interests at their origin. Many of them became well-known names in the field of psychoanalysis such as Ilse Hellman, who had been a student of Charlotte Buhler and was thus able to bring her empirical research experience to the kindergartens (Kennedy, H., 2009). They were young and keenly involved people who had gone through the experience of “evacuation” from their home country. Other prominent people included Mr. and Mrs. Robertson, who later continued their work with J. Bowlby, to whom they provided much of the clinical data on which Bowlby documented his theory of attachment. A general practice, which continued in the Hampstead Clinic after the war, was that any person in the kindergartens with whatever job description had to have psychoanalytic developmental psychology as a theoretical basis and work accordingly in contact with children. For example, James Robertson operated as a social worker and, in particular, had to hold relations with parents; at the same time, he also had to act as a “handyman” who maintained the building and, in particular, its plumbing.

Constant attention must be devoted to children because the price the child pays for being removed from the dangers of war is steep. Indeed, children in this context face the trauma of being separated from their mother which, says A. Freud, is a far more dramatic experience than what they may experience when they see their home destroyed by bombs.

“Children have only one kind of punishment to use against everyone who hurts them: the person should leave and not return. In the child’s mind, this means they must die …. These negative feelings probably produce, in this period, the separation response. The father and the mother whom, at a certain point, the child wishes to be dead, immediately after are returned to their children’s love…. In this period the negative feelings towards the parents are only transitory…It does not appear to the child to be dangerous to kill a parent in fantasy if, at the same time, he or she can see that their parent is alive and in good health…. Conversely, the separation results in an unbearable proof of all these negative feelings if … the natural pain linked to the separation thus turns into a tense waiting for their coming back which is  difficult to bear. When the parents are absent the orders and prohibitions, which were previously resisted, are now thoroughly carried out. In this situation children are particularly good”.(p.30)

But what happens in the face of death when the parent is truly gone:

The case of Bertie (pp. 68-69).

“Bertie, .. was four years old at the time when he still refused to admit the truth of his father’s death. He was ill in bed at the time of the spring air raids, had a whole tray full of paper houses on his bed and played indefatigably. He would build the house up, cover them with their roofs, and then throw them down with small marbles which were his bombs. Whereas in the other children’s game any number of people were “killed” and in the end everything was left in bits and pieces, the point in Bertie’s play was that all his people were always saved in time and all his houses were invariably built up again. The other children repeated incidents of a more impersonal kind in their games: they played active and embellished versions of events which had actually happened. This served the purpose of relief and abreaction. Bertie’s play, on the other hand, had the opposite intention- he wanted to deny the reality of what had happened- since the denial was never completely successful the play had to be repeated incessantly- it became compulsive. The game of the other children remained transitory.

Bertie stopped playing in this way when half a year later, he, at last, gave up his denial and was able to tell his story: “My father has been killed and my mother has gone to the hospital. She will come back at the end of the war but he will not return”.

One of the tasks of the kindergarten staff was to observe and keep note of child behaviors using “free-floating” attention, similar to the mental disposition of the analyst. Observations were to be written down promptly using non-theoretical language, detailing the observed behaviors as thoroughly as possible. There was no interpretation, but rather interventions defined by Anna Freud as “educational” that considered the noted observations. For example, in this case, letting the child have time to accommodate, if possible, the burden of enormous grief as his surroundings seemed capable of accommodating him and giving him a chance to feel safe; that they would not destroy him. No one intervened to interrupt his compulsive play, but he was helped out of his shell by, for example, being taken for a group walk when he wanted to participate.

It seems that to comment further on this vignette would be to intrude on the reader’s reflections and feelings. We can better understand Bertie by taking him with us into our lives to learn that the world of children can be deeply painful and fragile, even if this is not strictly psychoanalytic theory.


Freud A., Burlingham D, (1943). War and Children Medical War Books. New York NY: Medical War Books.

Kennedy H. (2009). Children in Conflict. Anna Freud and the War Nurseries. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 64,1,306-319.

Hellmann I. (1990). From War Babies to Grandmothers: Forty-EightYears in Psychoanalysis. London, Karnac Books.

Robertson J. and Robertson J. (1967-1876). Young children in brief separations. Britain: Concord Films Coumcil; USA: New York, University Film Library Five Films Series.

Maria Anna Tallandini, Padova

Centro Veneto di Psicoanalisi


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