Sigmund Freud (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five-year-old boy

By William Sims,2014-05-09 22:26
16 views 0
Sigmund Freud (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five-year-old boy

Sigmund Freud (1909) Analysis of a phobia of a five-year-old boy


    One of the key themes of Freud’s work is the importance of the first

    few years of life in the subsequent development of personality. He

    also believed that children experience emotional conflicts, and their

    future adjustment depends on how well these conflicts are resolved.

Another theme within Freud’s work concerns the unconscious mind,

    which is the part of our mind which we are not aware of. Freud

    believed that the unconscious contains unresolved conflicts and has a

    powerful effect on our behaviour and experience. He argued that

    many of these conflicts will show up in our fantasies and dreams, but the conflicts are so threatening that they appear in disguised forms, in the shape of symbols. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

The Oedipus Complex

    This is an important concept in psychoanalysis and Freud believed that this case study of Little Hans supports this idea. Freud believed that children pass through five stages of development, known as the psychosexual stages because of Freud's emphasis on sexuality as the basic drive in development. These stages are: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latency period and finally the genital stage. It is the first three stages which take place in the first five years of life of a child.

    During the phallic stage the child’s interest also focuses on their opposite sex parent. A boy loves his mother and, at this time, comes to have sexual desires for her. This places him in conflict with his father who now becomes his rival. As a result the boy wishes his father dead, which arouses guilt feelings. The boy fears that his father will find out his feelings and punish him by castrating him (cutting off his penis). Freud called this the Oedipus complex after a Greek legend where Oedipus killed his father and married his mother.

    The successful outcome of all this loving and rivalry is that the boy comes to identify with his father and cease desiring his mother. Identification means he takes on his father’s attitudes and

    ideas. Identification is crucial for gender identity and moral development. The boy cannot develop a conscience until he has identified with his punishing parent (Freud called this the process of identification with the aggressor).

Little Hans

    The participant in this case study is a 5-year-old boy called Little Hans. His father was Max Graf, a music critic and early supporter of Freud and member of the psychoanalytic society. Hans’ parents wished to bring their son up in a ‘modern’ manner – they believed that he should be allowed to

    express himself without being intimidated by them, for example being forced to do things or being laughed at.

    During his summer holiday Hans spent much time alone with his mother while his father returned to work in Vienna. This led Hans to realise that he actually quite liked to be on his own with his mother and wished his father to be permanently away. When his father was there, Hans experienced separation from his mother.

    When Hans was 3? his baby sister was born. This was a further cause for separation between him and his mother. Not surprisingly he expressed hostility towards his new sister Hannah. This

    was expressed indirectly in terms of fearing baths. He had previously liked having a bath but now said he was afraid that his mother would drop him when she was bathing him.

    When his father talked to him about this Hans admitted that he had watched his sister having a bath and wished his mother would let her go. This unconscious desire became translated into a

    fear that his mother might equally let Hans go.

    According to Freud, Little Hans was going through the phallic stage of development at the time of the case study and the details of his feelings and behaviour provide support for Freud’s theory.

    The study also shows how psychoanalytic theory can be used to successfully treat an anxiety disorder in this case a phobia of horses.


    The aim of the study was to report the findings of the treatment of a five-year-old boy for his phobia of horses.


    Freud used a case study method to investigate Little Hans’ phobia. However the case study was actually carried out by the boy’s father who was a friend and supporter of Freud. Freud probably

    only met the boy once. The father reported to Freud via correspondence and Freud gave directions as how to deal with the situation based on his interpretations of the father’s reports.

    Freud’s famous couch, which you

    can see in the Freud Museum in

    Swiss Cottage. In the case of Little

    Hans, however, he didn’t use the

    couch because Hans’ father

    undertook the interviews.

    Freud noted that it was the special relationship between Hans and his father that allowed the analysis to progress and for the discussions with the boy to be so detailed and so intimate. The first reports of Hans are when he was 3 years old.


    As this was a very in-depth case study there are many findings.

Little Hans and his ‘widdler’

    The first reports of Hans are when he was 3 years old when he developed an active interest in his ‘widdler’ (penis), and also those of other people. For example on one occasion he asked ‘Mummy, have you got a widdler too?’

Hans, like all small children, had an interest in that part of his body he called his ‘widdler’. He

    reasoned that this organ was a key distinction between animate (living) and inanimate things.

Non-living things don’t have widdlers. Hans observed that animals had big ones, especially an

    animal like a horse. He assumed that both his parents must have big ones because they were fully-grown, but it would have been helpful to check this out for himself.

The fear of horses

    When Hans was almost 5, Hans’ father wrote to Freud explaining his concerns about Hans. He

    described the main problem as follows: ‘He is afraid a horse will bite him in the street, and this fear seems somehow connected with his having been frightened by a large penis’. The father went on to provide Freud with extensive details of conversations with Hans. Together, Freud and the father tried to understand what the boy was experiencing and undertook to resolve his phobia of horses.

Freud noted that Hans’ fear of horses had developed just after the he had experienced some

    anxiety dreams about losing his mother, and around the time he had been warned about playing with his widdler. Freud argued that Hans, who enjoyed getting into bed with his mother, had a repressed longing for her, and had focused his libido (sexual energy) on her.

    One month later, the correspondence revealed that the phobia (which Hans refers to as his ‘nonsense’) was much worse. Hans’ father made a connection between the phobia and Hans’ interest with his widdler, so he said to him ‘If you don’t put your hand to your widdler any more, this

    nonsense of yours will soon get better’.

The Giraffe Dream

    Hans’ anxieties and phobia continued and he was afraid to go out of the house because of his phobia of horses. Hans told his father of a dream/fantasy which his father summarised as follows: ‘In the night there was a big giraffe in the room and a crumpled one: and the big one called out because I took the crumpled one away from it. Then it stopped calling out: and I sat down on top of the crumpled one’. Freud and the father interpreted the dream/fantasy as being a reworking of the morning exchanges in the parental bed. Hans enjoyed getting into his parents bed in a morning but his father often objected (the big giraffe calling out because he had taken the crumpled giraffe - mother - away). Both Freud and the father believed that the long neck of the giraffe was a symbol for the large adult penis. However Hans rejected this idea.

Horses and the Father

    Freud suggested that this was a good opportunity to tell Hans that his fear of horses was actually a fear of his father. The black around the horses’ mouths and the blinkers in front of

    their eyes were symbols for his father’s moustaches and glasses. Freud went on to suggest that

    these are the ‘privilege of a grown-up man,’ i.e. things that Hans might envy because he wanted

    to be grown up and able to have his mother’s love.

    This revelation appeared to release Hans and enable him to deal more directly with his phobia.

    When Hans was taken to see Freud, he was asked about the horses he had a phobia of. Hans noted that he didn’t like horses with black bits around the mouth. Freud believed that the horse was a symbol for his father, and the black bits were a moustache. After the interview, the father recorded an exchange with Hans where the boy said ‘Daddy don’t trot away from me!’

    Hans' became particularly frightened about horses falling over. He described to his father an incident where he witnessed this happening (later confirmed by his mother). Throughout this analysis the parents continued to record enormous examples of conversations and the father asked many leading questions to help the boy discover the root of his fear. For example:

    Father: When the horse fell down did you think of your daddy?

    Hans: Perhaps. Yes. It’s possible.

The Resolution

    Hans had always had an ongoing fantasy about his own children and how he was going to look after them. One day he was playing a game with these imaginary children and his father asked ‘are your children still alive?’ Hans replied that boys couldn’t have children, he had been their

    mummy but now he was their daddy. This led Freud to conclude that Hans had at last overcome his Oedipus complex and was now able to identify with his father.

    At the age of 19 the not so Little Hans appeared at Freud’s consulting room having read his case history. Hans confirmed that he had suffered no troubles during adolescence and that he was fit and well. He could not remember the discussions with his father, and described how when he read his case history it ‘came to him as something unknown’


    Freud believed that the findings from the case study of Little Hans supported his theories of child development.

In particular, the case study provided support for his theory of Oedipus Complex in which the

    young boy develops an intense sexual love for his mother and because of this, he sees his father as a rival and wants to get rid of him. Freud believed that much of Hans’ problem came from the conflict caused by this wish. The final fantasy of being married to his mother supported this idea. According to Freud the cause of Little Hans’ phobia was related to his Oedipus complex. Little Hans’, it was argued, was afraid of horses because the horse was a symbol for his father. For example the black bits around the horses face reminded the boy of his fathers moustache, the blinkers reminded him of his fathers glasses and so on. Freud believed that as Little Hans was having sexual fantasies about his mother he feared his father’s retaliation. Little Hans therefore

    displaced his fear of his father onto horses who reminded him of his father.

    Freud argued that Hans was not in any way an abnormal child. He pointed out that unlike most other children of the time, Hans was able to communicate fears and wishes that many children do not have the opportunity to express. He argued that as a result Hans had been able to resolve conflicts and anxieties that would remain unresolved in other children. Freud also notes that there is no sharp distinction between neurotic and the normal, and that many people constantly pass between normal and neurotic states.

Report this document

For any questions or suggestions please email