Melanie Klein's Object Relations Theory Video

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  • 0:03 Melanie Klein
  • 0:49 Childhood Fantasy Life
  • 3:07 Psychic Defense Mechanisms
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about object relations theory, a psychoanalytic approach developed by Melanie Klein. Klein was one of the first psychoanalysts to work directly with children and made a significant contribution to the field of psychoanalysis.

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein was born in Vienna in 1882 and would become one of the most influential psychoanalysts. She drew great inspiration from the work of Sigmund Freud, while expanding upon his work and producing her own significant theories.

Klein had a very difficult personal life, which caused her to seek out psychotherapy while living in Budapest, Hungary. During this time, Klein's therapist encouraged her to try psychoanalysis on her own children. Ultimately, this would lead to the development of object relations theory, which deals with the way we develop our psyche in relation to the things around us. The way that we relate to objects in our infancy, says Klein, shapes our development throughout life.

Children Fantasy Life

Freud, along with other prominent psychoanalysts working during Klein's time, had a number of theories on child development. There was, however, a key difference. Unlike Klein, none of the other psychoanalysts actually worked with children. They based their theories on their work with adults. Klein was the first to work directly with young children, and she started with infants.

Klein believed that all children are born with an unconscious fantasy life, not as blank slates. Fantasies are constructions of reality that allow infants to make sense of the world; however, they're different from daydreams. Objects are very important to these fantasies in Klein's theory, but they're not inanimate objects, but instead are humans or related to humans. The most important object in a child's life is the mother's breast.

Klein believed that infants categorize the objects they see as good or bad. For example, the mother's breast can be good or bad based on whether it is providing the infant with milk or not. If the child is hungry, he or she will become frustrated and begin to see the breast as a bad object. An infant is not able to understand that the breast is the same object.

This results in the infant feeling conflicted because an object he or she loves is also an object he or she hates, depending on whether or not the child is full or hungry. So, for Klein, infants have life and death drives. In other words, infants want to both have an object, but also to destroy it. According to Klein, this results in two positions: the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.

The paranoid-schizoid position results from the child getting mad at an object. In this moment, the child sees the object as bad, and when this happens, he or she will fantasize about killing it. This results in the depressive position, where the infant is sad that he or she killed the object during the fantasy episode. When this happens, the child feels motivated to try and get the good object back.

Klein sees these positions as ways for the infant to gain control of the anxiety that comes from seeing the same object as good and bad. She theorized that infants do this through a few defense mechanisms.

Psychic Defense Mechanisms

There are some ways that infants can protect their fragile egos. One way is through introjection, which happens when an infant wants to try to take a good object in so that it is always there, almost making it a part of themself. This could be, for example, fantasizing that the mother's breast is always there. Or, a child could incorporate aspects of a parent's persona into him or herself.

Projection happens when a child casts his or her bad thoughts or anxieties onto another person, usually a parent. Then, as mentioned before, infants engage in the process of splitting, which is viewing the same object as good or bad. Splitting allows children to compartmentalize their good versus bad feelings about objects.

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