Interviewing leaders

in mental health

Interviewing leaders in mental health

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In this legacy interview, leading psychologist Clinical Professor (at the University of California and New York University) Stephen Seligman, shares his lifetime’s clinical practice and thinking as an acclaimed psychoanalyst/psychotherapist with adults, children and infants.

He argues that today’s research on attachment and human development changes how we should think about babies, brains, families and psychotherapy.

Stephen discusses his extensive work with children and families, teaching and writing on childhood. He shares his in-depth study of psychoanalytic theory, the history of psychoanalysis and practice alongside developmental and attachment research.

In this wide-ranging discussion with Jane O’Rourke, Stephen urges his colleagues to get out of their ‘theoretical and professional silos’ to better serve the children and families they work with.

He proposes an integration of traditional psychoanalytic theories from Freud, Klein and Winnicott, alongside an understanding of infant-parent subjectivity, attachment theory, and child development, which he discusses in detail here.

He encourages all child (and adult) therapists to develop a real depth of understanding of children’s psychology that is rooted both in tradition and the latest thinking.

Stephen shares many case examples to illustrate how his ideas and practice have evolved, particularly in his work with parents and infants.  This has been directly influenced by the model developed by Selma Fraiberg and her colleagues with whom he worked for over thirty years.


0:00  Start

0:55  Why did Stephen Seligman become a psychotherapist?

2:15  Importance of bringing in thinking from different areas of expertise, getting out of our ‘silos’ makes us do better work.

3:35  Reference to Stephen Seligman’s latest book, ‘Relationships in Development’.

3:40  The Relational School what it is – led by Stephen Mitchell

He ‘offered a more flexible and open stance with regard to theory, contact with adjacent disciplines and clinical work’. Relational psychoanalysis encourages us to acknowledge us as humans and understand development.

5:35  Meaning of a ‘Developmental’ approach in psychotherapy.

It’s the capacity of individuals and systems to change over time. Children have the most growth potential, forward-moving development is important to keep in mind, along with the restrictions of the past.

7:41  Intersubjectivity – what it is and why it’s so important in relationships and shaping who we are in every moment.

“Individuals are who they are by virtue of their relationship with other people”

9:24  How can relational, developmental and intersubjective approaches be helpful working with children?

These approaches make us aware of how we are always affecting one another.  Also, OUR OWN experience and contributes to every situation as well as how we are affected by them. Example of how a teacher can apply this approach

10:39  We are responsive to others’ suffering and lots of other influences. We should not be ashamed of that. Our capacity to connect and respond to others is a resource we can share with colleagues.

It enables us to see we are part of many networks when working with children—families, cultures, neighbourhoods, brains.  We are not on our own. Hard science shows this to be correct.

11:39  Emotions and reflection lie at the heart of intersubjectivity.

Emotions are individual and social simultaneously. The physicality of emotions can be observed by others, which has a significant effect on them.

13:20  Importance of early intervention with young children.

Picture of James Heckman’s The Heckman curve – shows economic impact of investing in early childhood learning. The earlier we intervene the more effective we are.  Ultimately taxpayers save money the earlier we intervene.

15:21  Brain development in the first few years.

Early relationships are the most important predictors of developmental outcomes in later years – preponderance of positive emotions, secure attachment and secure sense of self.

17:09  The history of Attachment Theory

Knowing about Attachment Theory is important for our thinking about our work with children, although it is not the only theoretical model.

18:55  Rivalries between different schools of thinking in psychoanalysis

Quality of relationship is the most important factor regardless of theoretical model

20:20  Melanie Klein’s theories can be very valuable for incorporating into thinking, especially for post-traumatic situations

21:16  Sometimes, though, “psychoanalysts are not always thinking about real children”.

Theories sometimes get in the way of experiencing children really as they are. They can isolate children from their surroundings. Theories are often more negative than the reality of children and isolate children from their surroundings.

23:00  The history of parent-infant psychotherapy:

Working with parents and the influence of Selma Fraiberg infant-parent program

Building an alliance with parents is vital. Aim to find an image of the child that is shared.

25:00  Balancing negative feelings in parent work of what’s going right and wrong. We have to provide a balance to the negativity. This can be moving and mark the basis of recovery.

Case examples of parent-child psychotherapy:

26:33  |  The power of play working with a family wrongly accused of abusing their child. Illustrative of working developmentally, enhancing growth of child and parent.

30:48  |  Mistakes I’ve made as a clinician – case example of not accepting a gift from a patient. When in doubt be forthcoming and don’t be a skinflint about engaging!

33:04  |  Being prepared to talk about differences e.g. race and power. Case example working with a black father.

35:12  |  Case of mother who was helped to realise she was interacting with her son in a way that was a negative repetition of her own childhood.

36:54  ‘Relationships in Development: Infancy, Intersubjectivity and Attachment’ by Stephen Seligman.

Telling the story of how the evolution of how childhood has been conceptualised, the history of psychoanalysis and incorporating new thinking.

Important to ‘not throw out old psychoanalytic baby with bath water,’ whilst being critical about what we do keep in our thinking.

39:37  We should resist generalisations

Some psychoanalytic discourse makes inferences and generalisations about things we do not have evidence for, which weakens psychoanalysis in the world.

42’08  Empirical science is not the only source of validation

of what we do. Certain things in psychoanalysis such as the unconscious and importance of relationships are strongly supported by cognitive neuroscience. But we do not have evidence that babies have irrational instincts that Klein and Freud described.

43’55  The importance of nuance and the risks of overgeneralization in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic theories sometimes lack nuance which can lead to confusion and clumsy clinical work because it’s being driven by our generalities.

45’30  It does not serve patients to come with one therapeutic viewpoint/lens.

Therapists who stick to one tradition may sometimes be idealizing that tradition, which protects them from uncertainty and even feelings of inferiority.

Psychoanalytic institutions prone to cultures built around identifications and theories.

47’00  “Important to think in different registers, otherwise we end up looking for the patient we want to see”. Some analysts impose their viewpoint on the patient. We should find a common language.

47’27  How child psychotherapy training benefits therapeutic work with adults.

The adult as a child is very much in mind.

Stephen Seligman says he’s acquired a ‘kinetic sense’ of movement and emotion learnt from working with children. Learned special language of ‘primary process’ that children use and being more directly engaged with patients particularly in transference and countertransference.

50’11  Relational psychoanalysis and self-disclosure.

Relational analysis has led on convincing all analysts to be more reflective about understanding their patients in the context of their own impact on them.

53’32  Crucial role and contribution of women to psychoanalysis eg Anna Freud and Melanie Klein

57’17  Impact of infant development research Babies as real people—impact of infant development research in 1970’s transforms the view of the infant.

Before then dominant view in psychoanalysis was that babies were pathological, disorganised.

Efforts of Middle Group (Bowlby and Winnicott notably) supported an interest in direct observation of babies and parent-infant interaction and babies seen as active participant and social from the beginning.

1’ 00 15  The impact of infant research on policy

1 01’00  Feminism’s impact on the contribution of mothering and childcare being taken more seriously

1’ 01 57  Taking the long view, building connections with colleagues

Why having long associations and connections between colleagues with different expertise is helpful and inspiring

1 03’08  Advice to people starting out as a child psychotherapist?

Be patient with yourself, find what’s natural in yourself, use imagination, study psychoanalysis and child development and be conscious of the social world.

More about Stephen Seligman

Stephen Seligman is Clinical Professor at the University of California, San Francisco and the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis. He was Joint Editor-in-Chief of Psychoanalytic Dialogues and is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California.

He is the author of Relationships in Development: Infancy, Intersubjectivity, Attachment (Routledge, 2018) and co-editor of the American Psychiatric Press’ Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: Core Concepts and Clinical Practice.  He was a member of the founding executive board of the Journal of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy.  He has authored over 75 papers, chapters, reviews, and other publications.

Stephen’s recent work has focused on translating psychodynamic concepts to the broader arenas of work with infants, both in infant-parent psychotherapy and in work with special populations, such as abused and neglected infants and infants with developmental disabilities, as well as applying knowledge about infancy to psychoanalytic theory and practice.  He practices, teaches and writes about infant intervention from the perspective of the continuing evolution of the original model of designed by Selma Fraiberg and her colleagues, in which he was directly involved for over three decades.

For more interviews from leading practitioners in child mental health visit our interviews page.

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Selected Publications

Seligman, S. (1993). Infant Observation and Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 62:274-278.

Seligman, S. (1994). Applying Psychoanalysis in an Unconventional Context. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 49:481-500.]

Seligman, S. (1994). Infant Observation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 63:396.

Seligman, S., Shanok, R.S. (1995). Subjectivity, Complexity and the Social World: Erikson’s Identity Concept and Contemporary Relational Theories. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 5:537-565.

Seligman, S. (1997). Historical Legacies and Contemporary Innovation: Introduction to Symposium on Child Analysis Part I. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 7:707-723.

Seligman, S. (1999). Integrating Kleinian Theory and Intersubjective Infant Research: Observing Projective Identification. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 9:129-159.

Seligman, S. (2000). Clinical Implications of Current Attachment Theory, Journal of American Psychoanalysis Association, 48:1189-1194.

Seligman, S. (2000). Clinical Interviews with Families of Infants. J. Infant Child Adolescent Psychotherapy, 1:77-96.

Seligman, S. (2003). The Developmental Perspective in Relational Psychoanalysis. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 39:477-508.

Seligman, S. (2005). Dynamic Systems Theories as a Metaframework for Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 15:285-319.

Seligman, S. (2007). Mentalization and Metaphor, Acknowledgment and Grief: Forms of Transformation in the Reflective Space. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 17:321-344.

Seligman, S. (2010). The Contemporary Analyst at Work. Psychoanalytic  Dialogues, 20:251-253

Seligman, S. (2010). The Sensibility of Baseball: Structure, Imagination, and the Resolution of Paradox. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 46:562-577.

Seligman, S. (2014) Paying Attention and Feeling Puzzled: The Analytic Mindset as an Agent of Therapeutic Change. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 24:648-662 

Seligman, S. (2016) Disorders of Temporality and The Subjective Experience of Time: Unresponsive Objects and the Vacuity of the Future, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 26:2, 110-128, DOI:10.1080/10481885.2016.1144954

Seligman, S. (2018).  Relationships in Development: Infancy, Intersubjectivity, Attachment London and New York: Routledge.

Seligman, S. (2018) Illusion as a Basic Psychic Principle: Winnicott, Freud, Oedipus, and Trump. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 66:263-288

Seligman, S. (2021) Reconstructing the Depressive Position: Creativity and Style in Winnicott’s “Concern” Paper. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 69:491-512



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