A Critique of the Tavistock Method of Observation

The Tavistock model was developed in Great Britain but later it become spread all over the world. This model gives a perfect opportunity to estimate the influence of external and internal conditions of the development of children. When it comes to early child development human relations are more important that just physical data.

Lisa Miller, as well as Ether Bick, was one of the founders of the Tavistock Clinic where this method was initially implemented. Miller and Bick developed main principles of this method and found the correlation between infant observation and clinical practice. “She discusses the particular qualities, derived from an awareness of psychoanalytic ideas and insight, which distinguish the Tavistock method of brief interventions with young children and their families from other models of intervention” (Volkan, 115). Initially Esther Bick developed the method of infant observation which  included observation of  infants in their family environment since birth till the age of two.  In this method the observer should visit infant in his or her family surrounding. Usually observations must take place two times a week.  It is important that observer keeps neutrality during these visits. The main focus of attention during visit should be relations between the baby and its mother.

The Tavistock Clinic presents many practices, which do not only include child observation, but also training and teaching, working with parents, infants and young children. Lisa Miller worked in this clinic till her retirement in 2004.

Soon after it was introduced to public and specialists this method has become one of the leading methods of child observation. It has become of great use not only for psychoanalytical clinics but also for behaviorists and sociologists. It presents an opportunity to see the picture of the family, analyze human relations and make assumptions about future possible problems in child’s development.

Bick’s method was, first of all, aimed on mother and child’s observation but later the sphere of its application  became wider and today is used even in the organizational life.

This method is aimed to investigate the emotional atmosphere of child’s development, however, it also takes into account such factors as social status, sexual identity, family position, race which also have an impact on child’s personality.  Observation in the family allows to take into account all particular details of child’s emotional, social and physical state. Such experience can be compared with other children’s observation and then it becomes possible to find  some regularities of similar family situations. “Each research is a small research study in its right: stirring and challenging the observer intellectually and emotionally” (Mahler, 93). Such research sometimes can help to avoid serious psychological problems in the future life of the child.

The Tavistock method is applied for the diagnostic and correction of psychological state of infants. The infants’ age group varies from the birth to two years. The observer or practitioner comes to the infant’s home once a week and his visit lasts one hour.  The observer takes a neutral position and makes no remarks, he or she just observes relations between the child and the mother, makes notes and then he or she does a deep analysis of the behaviorist patterns together with other colleagues at the Tavistock Clinic. “The field of observation is the relationship that is established between the baby and its mother, within the context of the transference instituted between the mother and the observer, and between the mother and her baby. The objective is training the observer in analytic work rather than the fabrication of an instrument for research” (Volkan, 115). This method is very successful for early treatment. Bick developed this method at John Bowlby’s request and presented it as practical experience for childhood specialists and therapists.

“The field of observation is the relationship that is established between the baby and its mother, within the context of the transference instituted between the mother and the observer, and between the mother and her baby” (Bion, 145).  Since observation and neutral position are of primary importance of the specialists who work with this method special training is implemented in order to develop necessary qualities of psychoanalytic. In this case the primary goal of   training for this type of observation becomes the training of analytic work. This method became effective for training psychoanalysts and childhood specialists. Later researches  proved that method became effective not only for diagnostics but also for early treatment.

In 1948 under the request of John Bowlby Bick united her findings into the method of infant observation in the family context.  This method became the basement of educatory course for the therapists at the Tavistock Clinic. 15 years later Bick introduced her method to the British Psychoanalytical Society. Finally, representatives of different English schools of psychoanalytic agreed to include this course into the first-year curriculum. There are several advantages which appear thanks to this method. It enables to collect information about fundamental emotional experiences of the infant. Grandson of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Freud liked this method and made his best in order to promote it at the Anna Freud Center. He addressed this method as Infant Observation in Relevance Psychoanalytic Training. Bick’s method became the part of training courses in Spain and Belgium. Bick herself believed this method to be effective for all professionals who work with children’s mental health.

In France Andre Green reacted negatively on the method of direct observation. He believed that the use of such method had potential dangers. He believed that “it carries the risk of externalizing psychic life and confusing the infantile with the actual infant, which runs contrary to the work of representation and the spirit of psychoanalysis” (Green, 112).

At the same there are a lot of prominent specialists all over the world who believe this method to be effective and useful for the work with infants. Martha Harris called this innovative method a “stroke of genius”.

There are several important points concerning this method. First of all, observer should have the right position inside the family he observes. He or she should take a position which would be sufficiently neutral. At the same time this neutrality should not be turned into indifference.  The observer should have a desire to help but this wish should not make him interfere with the inner space of the family. The observer should be able to get a feedback about baby’s emotional state without taking any action. It is important that the observer is not burdened by theoretical preconceptions and investigates family situation and baby’s emotional state without direct interference. Each session of observation must end in a written report which presents observer’s experience and enables to share it with the work group. This group work is important because it helps to share experiences and give a better understanding of the material. Flexible mind is important characteristic of a good practitioner of this method. The observer should be flexible enough in order to get the viewpoint of each family member. “This flexibility makes it a sound preparation for analytic work” (Mahler, 47).  Observer’s task is not only to collect information about the atmosphere in the family and a baby and his mother’s emotional state. Observer should also collect information about the reaction that mother feels from the baby. Such information may provide information about the impact of mother’s fantasies and perceptions on baby’s mental state and baby’s response to them. This is important because “the specific type of affective and counter-transferential opening up inherent in observation makes it an aid to the development of the future analyst’ capacities for free-floating attention”( Mahler, 52).

It is impossible to fulfill this observation without identifying points of view of different family members. This observation makes the core of observer’s work. Analyses of countertransference in relation to mother and baby’s perceptions make the core analytical work.

As it was mentioned above, the role of psychoanalytic is much more complicated than only collecting information about the emotional state of family member and noting their perceptions of each other. The observer brings change to the infant-mother relations by his presence. Research proves that his of her present has positive impact on family relations. They help mothers to overcome postpartum depression, they can help parents to develop their abilities to communicated with the child.

Bick created a lot of new possibilities in the field of psychoanalytic.  Infant observation has not only become home practice. It was introduced in different hospitals, day care facilities and other institutions. This method gives a unique way to distinguish and even prevent disorders rooted in the early childhood. This method proved to be useful in the cases of autistic and psychotic pathologies.

Usually infant observation is an effective method which is used to cure diseases of different child psychological disorders. This kind of observation can be especially effective for some cases. The first case when this method is necessary is mental dysfunction of infant’s mother.  In this case observation may give protection to the child. It may later help the child to reshape his or her images and wrong perceptions. This method should also be applied in the cases when children go though foster care situations because of  inadequate behavior on the part of their parents. Observer’s presence will be very useful when children move from one place to another.

Cases when children have disabilities are especially traumatic for the parents. The presence of observer is very desired in this situation, as well. Observer in this situation may give parents ideas about their children’s special needs. They also can help children and parents understand each other better. Early autistic or psychotic disorders also require presence of the observer. In these special cases observer becomes that bridge which will unite parents and their children. Moreover, observe may be very useful identifying the roots of the disorder and this may be the first step to overcome them. “The observer serves as a support for child-raising and the parents. He or she identifies the sources of suffering, defense mechanisms, and factors that hinder the child’ development, and helps to improve the family’ responses in the form of caregiving and listening skills” (Kanne, 243). All situations mentioned above may be the sign that help of infant observer is necessary.

Observation is a recognized tool of prevention and treatment. It has proved its effectiveness in many fields. After it had been introduced in the field of infant psychology and psychoanalytic it has showed good results in this field, as well. Observation is very useful for babies because the variety of methods the infants are very miserable. This method is a perfect means to understand infants’ needs, fears and anxieties and to improve infant-mother relations.

Traditional method of child observation is concentrated on the child’s physical parameters, while the Tavistock method takes into account all aspect of child’s development. The traditional method observes children apart from their mothers and families, while the Tavistock method presents a complex observation in the family context.

However, this method has a number of weaknesses. First of all, it is only a passive infant observation. Observers do not interact into the process of mother and child’s communication but just make some observations and only later make  psychoanalytical analysis of the behaviorist patterns and sometimes these observations serve only for the clinical investigations rather than improvement of particular infant situation. Secondly, observer’s assumptions are very subjective. Usually only one observer visits one family. Taking into account the human factor, this observer can make wrong conclusions especially if the case is unique and has not been investigated earlier.  Moreover, such observation can disturb normal and harmonic relations between mother and her child. Especially young mothers being not aware of the rightness of their behavior can feel unconfident and even loose connection with their child. Appearance of the third person, who is in addition a therapist, can prevent mother from natural behavior and make her pretend to be a perfect mother. Mother can have two different behavior patterns: one in the appearance of the observer and another in his absence. It can have negative consequences for the child’s development and relations between mother and child. As a result, this method will only disturb normal family life and instead of solving infant problems will add the new ones.

To sum up, the Tavistock model is a model of child observation based on the psychoanalytical approach. It allows to observe relations between mother and child and solve possible emotional and social problems on the early stage of their development. It was invented by Ether Bick in the 1940s in Great Britain, London. It assumes that every week an observer visits one particular family, makes observations and then these observations are discussed in small groups.

This method has led to different reactions among other researchers and practitioners. For example, Andre Green, a French therapist, criticized the Stavistock method sharply stating that it creates danger for the normal infant development making an accent on assumptions about infant emotional state rather than the child himself.

The Tavistock method has its strong and weak sides. On the one hand, it is an innovative approach that allows to get rid of traumas, possible problems and complexes on the early stage of their appearance. It is a complex investigation of relations between mother and child. On the other hand, it is a passive and subjective observation, so there is a possibility of mistakes and wrong diagnosis.

However, this method being developed in Great Britain has been spread all over the world nowadays and is used by different analytics, therapists and other professionals.

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