Understanding Anna Freud

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Getty/Evgeniia Siiankovskaia
The effects of mental health challenges can be tough to manage

Most everyone has heard of Sigmund Freud, an important figure in the early development of psychology and the founder of psychoanalytic theory and free association techniques.

But not as many have heard of his youngest daughter, Anna Freud. Anna was the youngest child of six children in the Freud household, born in Vienna, Austria on December 3, 1895. Being the daughter of the founder of psychoanalysis, it was not unlikely that she would follow in Sigmund Freud’s famous footsteps.

Anna became a pioneer in the psychoanalytical treatment of children along with Melanie Klein and Hermine Hug-Hellmuth.

Early life

Anna was known as a precocious, lively child who was in constant comparison to her sister Sophie, two and a half years her senior. When Sophie got married and left the house, Anna felt that she could truly make her own light shine. As a teenager, she was allowed to sit in on the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society meetings that her father hosted. She started reading her father's work in 1910 but had not yet decided on a life in the profession. She went to the Cottage Lyceum, graduating in 1912. Anna wanted to improve her English, so she went on a trip to England, alone, in 1914. When war broke out, the entire Freud family, including Anna, had to return to Vienna. Upon her return, Anna started teaching at her old school, the Cottage Lyceum.

Finding a profession

Being a teacher, Anna was very interested in the development and care of children. Her involvement in her father's field of psychoanalysis didn't begin until 1918, when he began psychoanalyzing her. Around this same time, she began exploring psychoanalytic literature and doing translation work for the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. 

This practice further piqued Anna's interest in the field. During this time, Anna attended many psychoanalytical conventions with her father. "The more I became interested in psychoanalysis," she wrote, "the more I saw it as a road to the same kind of broad and deep understanding of human nature that writers possess." (Source: www.freud.org.uk) She resigned from teaching in 1920.

Child psychoanalysis

In 1922, Anna wrote one of her first papers, "Beating Fantasies and Daydreams." A year later, she started her psychoanalytical venture with children. Two years later, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute invited Anna to teach a seminar on her child therapy method. The granddaughter of Tiffany & Co. founder Charles Lewis Tiffany, Dorothy Burlingham, arrived in Vienna from New York in 1925, her four young children in tow. According to historians, they were Anna's first analysis clients. This led to Anna's first book, "Introduction to the Technique of Child Analysis," in 1927.

While running her child analysis practice, Anna held the prestigious position of General Secretary of the International Psychoanalytical Association from 1927 to 1934. The International Psychoanalytical Association was founded by her father, who in 1902 invited four colleagues to meet each week to discuss his work.

When her father was diagnosed with cancer in 1923, Anna became his chief caretaker, moving to Berlin with him for treatment. During that time, she was also teaching seminars and managing her child psychoanalytic practice. In 1935, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Training Institute named Anna as their director, given her father’s failing health. Freud published her study "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense" the following year.


Vienna to London

In 1937, Anna combined her psychoanalytical work with charity work when she, Burlington, and a foster care manager founded Jackson Nursery in Vienna. It was a nursery school for underprivileged children. The observations and work done with infants and young children in this nursery school were highly sought after by parents. Unfortunately, in March 1938, this nursery school had to be closed when the Nazis took over Austria. With the help of lifelong family friend, Ernest Jones, the Freuds left Austria, including Sigmund, who was in declining health.

At this time, Sigmund and Anna emigrated to London. Shortly after this move, in September 1939, World War II began and Sigmund passed away. Fortunately, Anna had already launched her child psychoanalysis headquarters in London and was able to teach seminars in English. The area of child psychoanalysis was a very new venture in the 1920s and 1930s, and Anna was one of the trailblazers in this field. She and a team of  prominent child developmental analysts used developmental psychology to uncover the relevance of developmental stages and the child development process. 

Alongside friend and life partner Dorothy Burlingham, Anna co-established the Hampstead War Nurseries to care for and study children who had been separated from their families and improve psychoanalytic research into early childhood. Freud and Burlingham’s goal was for children to develop connections with teachers and mothers. These mothers were mostly single parents because their spouse died in the war. Anna also worked with children from the Theresienstadt concentration camp and helped these children develop positive human connections. Her observations during this time provided important insight into a child’s normal development. 

Freud and Burlingham observed infants and young children housed in three nurseries and their joint work later led to the publication of “Infants Without Families” (1943), which summarized their work and has had a lasting impact not only in child therapy but also adoption. While at the Hamstead War Nursery, they also wrote several studies over child development. According to the Adoption History Project, the pair “described young children who sucked their thumbs obsessively, rocked mechanically, knocked their heads against floors and cribs, and displayed all kinds of strange and alarming behaviors in order to draw attention to themselves.” The book concluded that residential institutions were “bad because they produced abnormal development in children” and that attachment “was the wellspring of healthy emotional development.”

Hampstead child therapy course and clinic

Following the end of World War II, Anna and psychoanalyst Kate Friedlander created the Hampstead Child Therapy Course in 1947 to teach both English and American therapists about her theories in child psychology. Anna also established the Hampstead Clinic, a children's clinic, in London in 1952. The Hampstead Child Therapy Course and Clinic was established as a non-profit to provide treatment, training, and observational research in child psychology.

The Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic was renamed the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in 1984 and continues today to address and transform mental health in the United Kingdom. The Anna Freud Centre reaches more than one million children, young people, and their families and in 2020 trained more than 8,000 mental health professionals.

Anna’s work in the United States

Beginning in the 1960s, Anna lectured and taught regularly at Yale Law School, focusing her seminars on crime and the family.

In 1965 she authored “Normality and Pathology in Childhood: Assessments of Development,” in which she describes how to assess “normality” and to measure and classify pathology in childhood in terms of prevented progress rather than symptom severity. The approach is considered practical and clinical but at the same time is considered to have made a significant theoretical contribution to the field of psychology.

During the 1970s, she became increasingly concerned with emotionally deprived and socially disadvantaged children who were often lacking normal development. In 1973, she and social scientists Albert J. Solnit and Joseph Goldstein published “Beyond the Best Interests of the Child,” a book that considered children’s rights and whether their need for reliable emotional ties can be met inside the legal system, particularly as it relates to cases involving child placement and custody decisions.

Anna wrote many papers, most of which is published by the International Universities Press in “The Writing of Anna Freud,” which features eight volumes of her work ranging from the Introduction To Psychoanalysis to the Psychoanalytic Psychology Of Normal Development.

Mechanisms of defense

According to Sigmund Freud, the human mind could be divided up into three distinct parts: the id, the ego, and the superego, and he outlines several ego defenses. Anna's work upheld her father’s theory, and her 1936 book "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense" explored ego psychology and the 10 defense mechanisms she felt were natural but could pose difficulties if they were used to prevent a person from coping with the underlying anxiety. Anna suggested that at least five mechanisms of defense are used by any one person each day. 

The effects of mental health challenges can be tough to manage

Denial: When a problem arises, a person will refuse to face the problem or refuse to admit that it exists. 

Projection: A person doesn't want to recognize a problem in themselves, so they blame that problem on someone else. 

Turning against the self: This is when someone has a bad thought about themselves (which isn't an awful thought on a scale of 1 to 10) in order to avoid a worse thought about themselves (which may be an awful thought on a scale of 1 to 10).

Sublimation: When you take negative life experiences and channel them into finer outlets, this is sublimation. This may be the most expected of the mechanisms of defense. 

Regression: When things get tough, we go back to how we dealt with a similar problem or situation when we were young and did not have much responsibility.

Rationalization: We will make an excuse to make an outcome one that we can more easily accept. If the outcome of a situation is not one that we want to accept, we think of something that makes that outcome more acceptable.

Intellectualization: If dealing with an uncomfortable or negative situation, instead of thinking how or why it occurred, we think of a more intellectual topic like current or historical events. 

Reaction formation: Instead of doing something that you deep down really want to do, you do the complete opposite because it is more acceptable to the general population.

Displacement: Instead of being aggressive or angry with someone who you are mad at, you take the anger or aggression out on someone who is less threatening. This may be someone who you are the closest with and who you feel safest with.

Fantasy: This can be daydreaming, imagining away your troubles, getting carried away from the real world with your thoughts…anything that keeps you from dealing with the issues that face you in a real and productive manner.


Anna passed away in 1982, and the London home she lived in for 40 years was made into the Freud Museum in 1986. The Freud Museum is dedicated to the Freud family, notably Sigmund Freud, who lived in the house for just one year after escaping Nazi annexation of Austria. If you feel that any of Anna Freud's mechanisms of defense are becoming problematic for you, you should contact a trained professional to assist you. Going to BetterHelp can be your first step to getting the help you need. The policy for both online therapy platforms is designed to keep your sensitive information. Online therapy is convenient and will be one of the best things that you can do for yourself and your wellness. Do something today that your future self will thank you for.

Explore mental health options online
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started