Show Summary Details
Page of

(p. 393) Instincts and Normal Difficulties 

(p. 393) Instincts and Normal Difficulties
(p. 393) Instincts and Normal Difficulties

Donald W. Winnicott

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Clinical Psychology Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 18 September 2020

Originally published in The child and the family: First relationships (pp. 74–78). London: Tavistock, 1957. Also published in The child, the family, and the outside world (pp. 98–102). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1964. Broadcast 29 March 1950, as ‘Symptoms of illness.’ I. Benzie (Producer), as the final part of the series How’s the baby? Home Service. London: British Broadcasting Corporation. (see the broadcast list [CW 12:3:2]). Recorded as part of ‘The ordinary devoted mother and her baby’ [CW 12:3:3].

When it comes to illness, talks and books are rather misleading. What a mother needs for her ill child is a doctor who can see and examine the baby and have a discussion with her. But the common troubles of ordinary healthy children are a different matter, and I think mothers find it rather helpful when it is pointed out to them that their well children are not to be expected to go straight ahead without giving any cause for worry and anxiety.

Ordinary healthy children undoubtedly do present all kinds of symptoms.

What is it that causes these troubles in infancy and early childhood? If we take it for granted that your management has been skilled and consistent, so that you can be said to have laid down the foundations for the health of this new member of society satisfactorily, what is it that determines that the child still presents problems? The answer is, I think, chiefly to do with the matter of instincts. It is about this that I wish to write now.

It may be that just for the moment your child is lying quietly over there sleeping, or cuddling something, or playing, in one of those quiet periods that you welcome. But you know only too well that in health there are recurring excitements. You can either look at it one way and say that the child gets hungry, that the body has needs, or instincts, or else you look at it another way, and say that the child begins to have exciting ideas. These exciting experiences play a very important part in the child’s development, promoting as well as complicating growth.

(p. 394) During excitement the child has impelling needs. Often you are able to satisfy them. The needs, however, can be very great indeed, at certain moments, and some of them cannot be satisfied fully.

Now some of these needs (hunger for example) are universally recognized and easy to bring to your notice. The nature of other kinds of excitement is less widely understood.

The fact is that any part of the body may be excited at one time or another. The skin, for instance. You have seen children scratching their faces, or scratching the skin in other places, the skin itself becoming excited, and developing some kind of rash. And there are certain parts of the skin that are more sensitive than others, especially at certain times. You can go over the whole of the body of the child and think out the various ways in which excitement becomes localized. We certainly cannot leave out the sexual parts. These things are very important to the infant, and they make up the high lights of the waking life of infancy. Exciting ideas go along with the bodily excitements, and you will not be surprised if I say that these ideas not only have to do with pleasure, they also have to do with love, if the baby is developing well. Gradually the infant becomes a person capable of loving persons, and feeling loved as a person. There is a very powerful bond between the baby and the mother and father and other people around, and the excitements have to do with this love. In the form of some bodily excitement, love periodically becomes acutely felt.

The ideas that go with the primitive love impulses are predominantly destructive, and are nearly related to those of anger. The result for the baby feels good, however, if the activity leads to instinctual gratifications.

You can easily see that during such periods there is inevitably a great deal of frustration, and this leads in health to anger, even rage. You will not think your infant is ill if from time to time you are presented with a picture of rage, which you learn to distinguish from sadness, fear, and pain. In rage the infant’s heart is beating faster than it will ever beat again. In fact, as many as 220 heart beats a minute can be counted, if you want to listen. Anger means that the child has got as far as believing in something and in someone to be angry with.

Now, a risk is taken whenever emotions are fully felt, and these experiences of excitement and rage must often be very painful; so you will find your perfectly normal child trying to discover ways of avoiding the most intense feelings. One way of avoiding feelings is by a damping down of instinct for instance, the infant becomes unable to let the full extent of the excitement of feeding take place. Another way is accepting certain kinds of food but not other kinds. Or other people may give the feed, but not the mother. Every possible variation can be found, if one knows enough children. This is not necessarily illness; it is simply that we see little children discovering all sorts of techniques for managing feelings which are intolerable. They have to avoid (p. 395) a certain amount of natural feelings because these are too intense, or else because the full experience brings about painful conflicts.

Feeding difficulties are common in normal children, and it often happens that mothers have to put up with very disappointing months, and even years, in which a child wastes all their ability to provide good food. Perhaps a child only takes routine food, and anything prepared with special care or delicacy is rejected. Sometimes mothers have to let children refuse food altogether for quite a long time, for if they try to force it in such circumstances they only increase the child’s resistance. If they wait, however, and do not make a ‘thing’ out of it, at some time or other the child will start eating again. One can well imagine a mother who is not experienced being worried during such a period, and needing a doctor or a nurse to reassure her that she is not neglecting her child, or doing harm.

Infants periodically have various kinds of orgy (not only feeding orgies), and these orgies are natural, and very important to them. Their excretory processes are particularly exciting to them, and the sexual parts of their bodies even more so, at appropriate moments, as they grow. It is of course easy to see the boy’s erection, and difficult to know what the little girl baby feels sexually.

By the way, you will have noticed that babies do not start off thinking the same as you do about what is nice and what is nasty. Stuff that is got rid of with excitement and pleasure is likely to be felt to be good, and even good to eat, and good to smear the cot and the walls with. That may be a nuisance, but it is natural, and you will not mind too much. You will be contented to wait for more civilized sentiments to turn up of their own accord. Sooner or later disgust turns up, and, even quite suddenly, a baby who was eating soap and drinking bathwater will become prudish, and go off any kind of food that even looks like excretions, which were (till a few days previously) handled and pushed into the mouth.

Sometimes we see a return to the infant state in older children, and then we know that some difficulty has blocked the way to progress, and the child has a need to go back over the ground covered in infancy, in order to re-establish the rights of infants and the laws of natural development.

Mothers watch these things happening, and, as mothers, they do indeed play a part in it all; but they would rather watch a steady and natural developmental process than impose their own ideas of right and wrong.

One trouble that comes from trying to impose a pattern of right and wrong on an infant is that the infant’s instincts come along and spoil it all. The moments of excited experience break down the baby’s efforts to gain love through compliance. The result then is that he or she becomes upset, instead of strengthened, by the operation of the instincts.

The normal child has not too severely squashed the powerful instinctual feelings back, and is therefore subject to disturbances, and these look like (p. 396) symptoms to the ignorant observer. I have mentioned rage; temper tantrums and periods of absolute defiance are usual at two and three. Nightmares are frequently experienced by little children, and the piercing yells at midnight make the neighbours wonder what you are up to. But the truth is that the child has had a dream with some kind of sexuality in it.

Young children do not have to be ill to be frightened of dogs, doctors, and the dark, or to be imaginative about sounds and shadows, and vague shapes in the twilight; and they do not have to be ill to be liable to colic, or to sickness, or to going green when they are excited about something; they do not have to be ill to refuse to have anything to do with an adored father for a week or two, or to refuse to say ‘ta’ to an aunt; and they do not have to be ill to want to put the new sister in the dustbin, or to be rather cruel to the cat in a big effort to avoid hating the new baby.

And you know all about the way clean children become dirty, and dry ones wet, and how, in fact, in the period from two to five almost anything can happen. Put it all down to the workings of the instincts, and to the terrific feelings that belong to the instincts, and (since with all bodily happenings there are ideas) to the painful conflicts that result from all this in the child’s imagination. Let me add that at this critical age the instincts are no longer just infantile in quality, and in describing them we do not say enough if we keep to the nursery terms, such as ‘greediness’ and ‘messing’. When a healthy three-year-old child says ‘I love you’ there is meaning in it like that between men and women who love, and who are in love. It can, in fact, be sexual in the ordinary sense, involving the bodily sex parts, and including ideas that are like those of adolescents or adults in love. Tremendous forces are at work, yet all you need to do is to keep the home together, and to expect anything. Relief will come through the operation of time. When the child is five or six, things will then sober down a lot, and will stay sobered down till puberty, so you will have an easier few years, during which you can hand part of the responsibility and part of the task over to the schools, and to the trained teachers.