Bruce’s Story : learning from my mistakes and my discovery of transference

Date Posted: Saturday, 9 June 2007



This is in part the story of my relationship with a young man I taught when I was a young teacher. It is also an explanation of how I came by crude means to some understanding of the psychodynamic phenomenon known as transference. In my view it is a phenomenon of which all those who work with children and young people should be aware. In recognising it and responding to it sensitively workers can gain a deep understanding of a young person’s inner world which in turn can help in the development of a healthy therapeutic relationship.

When I refer to transference I am considering a notion introduced by Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic movement. Transference when working with children and young people is the young person’s unconscious re-enactment in his relationship with a care worker, of his feelings towards a significant adult from the past,usually a parent. The feelings evoked may be hostile and this is known as negative transference (Freud,1915).

In referring to counter-transference I am using Paula Heimann’s notion that in counter-transference the care worker becomes aware of the feelings unconsciously aroused within herself by the young person’s transference. Heimann’s observation has therapeutic potential for a care worker. By comparing and reflecting on her own feelings in relation to the content of the young person’s associations and the qualities of his behaviour, the care worker can use the comparison to check whether she has understood or failed to understand the young person she is looking after (Heimann, 1950).

The time Bruce and I spent together passed mainly in the group setting of a classroom, but a key episode in our relationship occurred in one of those impromptu situations which can occur when you work in a place people live.
At that time I had no understanding of psychodynamic theory or its related therapy. I was employed as the head teacher in a large children’s home, not because I had any theoretical or practical knowledge of human development or relationships but because I was a qualified teacher and perhaps because I was a man and so, in the spirit of that time, I was considered more able to control children whose main problem was deemed to be their bad behaviour. All this may have to be borne in mind by present day readers.

In the 1970s I was the headteacher of a school attached to a local authority observation and assessment centre – a large children’s home in which the needs of young people ( who for a number of reasons were currently unable to stay with their own families) were assessed for a period of 6 weeks. During this short assessment period the young people’s behaviour was observed and assessed in social, psychological and educational terms in order that a suitable long term residential placement might be found for them. History now views this as a flawed system principally because the assessment of the young person was made without any consideration of the family dynamics which had brought about his placement in the care system. In short, adults were believed and young people’s views were not heard.

Bruce was 14 years old and came to us six months after his mother had died of cancer. Until his placement with us Bruce had lived at home with his father and his 18 years old elder brother. He had been placed with us because his father and brother felt they could no longer cope with Bruce’s anti-social behaviour. According to his father this behaviour had first become evident soon after Bruce’s mother died, an event which coincided with Bruce becoming attracted to the punk movement. Bruce began to wear leather clothes festooned with chains and safety pins which were associated with the movement and he became interested in its music and in the bands who performed its nihilistic songs. Bruce’s father and his brother were embarrassed by Bruce’s appearance and they equated his new interests with social rebelliousness. They often chastised him for this, but his father thought that Bruce did not respond in the way he believed Bruce should to this chastisement. At school prior to his mother’s death Bruce’s teachers had regarded him as a bright and well-behaved boy but following his mother’s death they had become critical of him because he insisted on wearing his punk clothing rather than his school uniform. The concern expressed by Bruce’s teachers reinforced his father’s view that Bruce was out of control. After some weeks of continuous conflict with his father and brother Bruce began to truant from school and stay out late. On his return he would not give any explanation for his absence. Having failed to control Bruce’s behaviour with verbal chastisement, Bruce’s father and his brother now felt impelled to chastise him physically. In response to this Bruce began to stay out overnight at the home of a girl he knew. The girl’s mother attempted to reconcile the differences between Bruce and his family but to no avail and when Bruce returned home one morning with safety pins pierced through his ears and eyebrows, Bruce’s father contacted social services. His father explained that all his attempts to control Bruce had failed to change his behaviour. It was his father’s representation to social services, which led to Bruce being placed for assessment at the centre where I taught.

A part of the purpose of Bruce’s placement at the centre was to assess his educational performance and so he attended our school. At first Bruce was quiet during my lessons though my two female teaching colleagues soon had a friendly rapport with him. After a few days Bruce began to refuse to do the work I set him. Initially I thought he did not like the academic subjects I taught and preferred the more practical and creative subjects my colleagues taught. When I asked him why he was not doing his work Bruce shrugged his shoulders and gave no explanation. After a few days I began to express to Bruce my concern at his refusal to do his work. Whenever I did this he turned his head away and looked out of the window. I began to feel at a loss as to what I should do. I felt certain that the other young people and my colleagues would expect me to take action about Bruce’s refusal to do his work. I decided for the moment to ignore him and to work with the other young people. During the second week Bruce ripped up his exercise books. When I asked Bruce why he had done this, he shrugged and looked away. I told him he had wasted scarce materials and though I would on this occasion replace them, he must not repeat this behaviour. I felt hurt by Bruce’s behaviour towards me. I could not see that I had been unreasonable to him. I accepted, and to an extent sympathised with his identity with the punk movement and I had not expressed any negative comments about his dress or his beliefs. Once more I decided to attend to the other students and I did not engage with Bruce any further on that day.

On the following day Bruce refused to attend my lessons, and would not give the residential child care workers who were responsible for his care outside of school any explanation for this. When I asked for an explanation he shrugged and leaning on his elbows, put his hands over his face. More as a smokescreen to hide my failure to persuade him to join me in school rather than providing him an opportunity to consider what was happening, I told Bruce I would not deal with his matters immediately but I would give him the rest of the day to consider what he was doing and what it might mean for his future. As I made this comment I was aware that it may have carried a vague threat about his continued placement at the centre, but I let it stand.

The next morning Bruce was persuaded by the other teachers to attend my lesson. I was not pleased that others had been successful in persuading him to attend when I had not. After all I was the headteacher! When Bruce entered the classroom I gave him a new exercise book and said if he did not do his work, there would be no point to him attending school. Bruce immediately ripped the exercise book up. Without considering the implications of what I was saying – since I did not have the sole authority to exclude him from the school – I declared he would have to accept the consequence of his actions. Bruce stood up, spat on the damaged exercise book, pushed over his desk and shouted, “ Fuck your school, everybody hates it, everybody hates you, even the other teachers”. He stormed out of the classroom. Shocked and upset by Bruce’s response to me, I settled the other young people, asking a colleague to tend to them while I looked for Bruce. I was upset, not only because Bruce had said nobody liked me, but also because he made me feel hated. I could not understand how he could feel this way because he hardly knew me and though I had been in conflict with him I did not feel anything I had said or done really warranted this reaction. I felt also that I did not want to be hated. Soon afterwards I found Bruce curled up in an armchair in a small sitting room in the main house where the young people lived. I sat in an armchair quite near to him. I remained silent because I sensed he was still angry with me. After a few minutes he asked, “What do you fucking want?” In this setting with only the two of us present, I got in touch with what had been my insecurity. I did not seem to feel the same need to enforce my authority as I would have done in the presence of others and so I did not experience Bruce’s question as aggressive or threatening in the way I would have done had his response to me been made in the classroom. I said, “I don’t think we can go on this way. We need to get on better.” I noticed how without conscious intention my tone had changed from the one I had adopted in the classroom. Since he remained silent, I said, “I can’t understand why you’re so angry with me or why you hate me so much. We only met a few days ago”. Bruce continued to be silent. I imagine it was because I was beginning to be aware of my own feelings about being rejected that I said, “I’m not trying to get rid of you”.
“ Yes you fucking are. You’re just like my Dad. Everything you say has got to be right and anything anyone else says is shit.” Although what was happening seems self-evident to me now, Bruce’s observations surprised and upset me. I did not know then were words forthese feelings :that I was the recipent of his transference and that the anxiety and insecurity I experienced (my counter-transference) was related to my own feelings about rejection I had become aware of transference. Bruce was angry and upset with me because he was angry and upset with his Dad. My demeanour, and the way I spoke to him brought him in touch with these feelings. Bruce communicated them to me because he sensed I too would reject him in the way he believed his Dad had done. He was right. I had experienced primitive feelings of wanting to “get rid” of him because of the threat I had felt he posed me. In my own insecure state I had determined that it would be better that he was rejected before I was. He had made me feel that I was a bad father, something which as the father of two children I was not prepared to feel about myself.

I said, “I don’t know your Dad and I’m not your Dad.” After a short pause, I went on, “ But I’ll remember in future what you said your Dad was like.” I apologised to Bruce if he found anything I had said had felt like I wanted to get rid of him and that I would be more careful not to give that impression in future. I asked him if he would return to the classroom with me. He was silent for a few moments and then said “OK.”

In the following weeks Bruce and I were able to work together better. There continued to be situations where I experienced his negative transference but it seemed that I now recognised his displaced feelings and had become able to deal with my fear that Bruce was a threat to me. A safe mental space had been created which our relationship of student and teacher could safely occupy. Whether or not it was as a consequence of the new basis of our relationship Bruce began to make progress in the subjects I taught him.

Comparing my work with Bruce directly to a psychodynamic approach to care is a dubious if not spurious exercise. I had not been formally introduced to psychodynamic principles, yet the opportunity Bruce and I had to be together on our own allowed me to listen – without fear for myself – to what it was Bruce was feeling about his father and indirectly about me. It also allowed me to respond to him as the kind of concerned adult that he needed at that time. My skills had not tangibly developed but my disposition had changed. Although working principally in a group setting, I was awakened to the importance of finding time to meet with people individually in order to assure them that they are valued as unique individuals and equal partners in a relationship. More importantly my hope is that the re-negotiation of our relationship allowed both Bruce and me to be aware that there is potential for damaged relationships to be repaired.

Over the years reflection on my relationship with Bruce has provided further insight. I recognise now that the positive relationship which my female colleagues enjoyed with Bruce was a consequence of his positive transference towards them in that he displaced on them feelings he had for his mother. I believe also my female colleagues, unimpeded as they seemed by the anxieties and defences I experienced and exercised, were more able to be emotionally in tune with the huge loss Bruce had experienced when his mother died and with his need for time and space to mourn this loss.

Unfortunately during his time at the centre no work was done to address Bruce’s relationships with his father and his brother and so it was much later after Bruce had spent a number of fruitful years being cared for by a foster family that he was able to re-establish links with his family.

I use the word unfortunately because at that time there was little recognition, certainly not on my part, of the emotional impact the loss of a loved wife and mother had on each of these three men.



Freud, Sigmund (1915) ‘Remembering, repeating and working through”. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Freud, vol 14 , pp. 121-145

Heimann, Paula (1950) ‘ On Counter-transference’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis Vol. 31.
Charles Sharpe
January 2004

© and Charles Sharpe



Alistair King writes

This is an interesting take on the psychodynamic concept of transference. While accepting that transference is going on all the time in every day life, I have never before thought of any wider therapeutic function for it other than in the consulting room but it seems to me that people from many caring and educational disciplines might be helped by the implied message of this article.

Byron McFee comments

I hadn’t heard of transference. It seems like it is a useful thing for residential child care workers to think about. Can anyone advise me on where I might find out some more about it ?
Charles Sharpe responded

Byron, I will e mail you a booklist related to your wish to research tranference further. A number of texts I include in my recommended reading article particularly those of a psychodynamic or psychoanalytic nature discuss transference at length.
Best wishes,
Charles Sharpe