In yet another cunning manoeuvre to keep her nose away from any possible contact with an academic grindstone, my eldest daughter has started babysitting.

She circumvents paternal reprimand by throwing me tidbits of information, which my Freud-addled brain finds impossible to resist.

“Jack’s so difficult to handle. He’s really over-excited and all he wants to do is play the same game over and over again”

“And what game is that?” I ask, knowing that at this point I have been well and truly suckered.

“I’ve got to be a crocodile and he has to run away and then he has to kill me by kicking me. It’s a bit annoying really. He’s also got a phobia of spiders” she remembers.

“And what does he think the crocodile will do if it catches him?”

“Oh I don’t know… something about biting his bottom” she said, beginning to feign adolescent boredom in direct response to my growing interest.

She was less bored the following evening when Jack woke up in the middle of the night in a state of utter terror, screaming for his mother. The wearisome little monster was suddenly revealed as the vulnerable and frightened child he always was. It was evident, even to a sixteen year old, that the night time terrors must be there during the day but somehow held in check. An understanding of his repetitive game, with its explicit phantasy content and pre-determined roles, now had a practical relevance.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott may have helped. Noted for his work with children, he emphasised one of the major functions of play in his popular book The Child, the Family and the Outside World:

“Whereas it is easy to see that children play for pleasure, it is much more difficult for people to see that children play to master anxiety, or to master ideas and impulses that lead to anxiety if they are not in control.” (p144)

The anxiety in this case is evidently castration anxiety, which is somehow warded off by the crocodile game in which the child repeats and ‘overcomes’ the threat each time. Through the game, Jack puts himself in control of a situation which can seem dangerously out of control at other times. Thus his night time terrors, or his sudden fear of a spider in the room as he is taken, naked, out of the bath.

Child psychoanalyst Anne-Marie Sandler gives a similar example: a young boy who controlled his anxiety through games and fantasies of being attacked by foreign soldiers with bayonets, but found his coping mechanisms broke down when he was required to go swimming.

But what of the meaning of the crocodile itself? Jack’s choice has some illustrious precursors which Ernest Jones described in his paper ‘A study of the holy ghost concept’.

“On the one hand the crocodile was notable to the ancients for having no external genital organs, no tongue and no voice (symbolic indications of impotency [that is to say, castration]), and yet on the other hand – in spite of these purely negative qualities (or perhaps just because of them) – he was regarded as the highest type of sexual virility, and a number of aphrodisiac customs were based on this belief.”

There is no need to hypothesise that children have some intuitive understanding of such archaic beliefs. We can often find out what children believe by simply asking them. That’s why, as I have said many times before, the term ‘castration complex’ appears first in Freud’s writing in his paper on ‘The Sexual Theories of Children’ (1908).

My guess is that an opportunity to discuss what is really bothering him may be of immense psychological relief to little Jack. On the other hand, such behaviour and fears are so common during the Oedipal period that we might consider them ‘normal’.

Schools discussion topic
What kind of conversation could you have with Jack which would help alleviate his anxiety?

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