‘Wayward Youth’ by August Aichhorn

August Aichhorn (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago (first published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag)

August Aichhorn (1878-1949) draws on a wider range of experience of working with delinquents than most of the authors cited in the Key Texts. Originally a teacher, he worked in a child guidance clinic operating a diversion from custody scheme (if his treatment was successful, the young person got a non-custodial sentence) and he also ran an experimental training school for delinquents. So he is not concerned about the merits of a particular method of dealing with young people but with the general principles that should underlie work with delinquents and he takes for granted working with the families of the delinquents he is asked to help.

Key Ideas

–           Delinquency is a failure in normal development.

–           Behaviour has multiple causes.

–             Punishment only suppresses overt behaviour; it does nothing to the causes of the delinquency.

–           Most delinquency is a result of relationship difficulties.

–           The cause of delinquency is different for every delinquent.

–           The worker needs to understand and start where the client is.

–           The relationship between the worker and the delinquent is central to treatment.

–             The relationship between the worker and the delinquent’s family may be significant.

–           A worker can never by a ‘friend’ to a client.

–             The relationship between a group leader and the group is central to the behaviour of the group.


In the Foreword Sigmund Freud argues that, based on Aichhorn’s account, it is important to distinguish psychoanalysis from education; psychoanalysis is not appropriate for children because they are not sufficiently mature for it.

In the Preface K.R. Eissler summarises Aichhorn’s life as a teacher who opposed militarism, organised the home in Ober Hollabrun and developed child guidance clinics in Vienna.

In Chapter 1 Introducing, Aichhorn says he wants to explore the application of psychoanalysis to pedagogy. He argues that children begin asocial and progress towards becoming social as their basic drives are civilised by experience. If that process is disturbed, they become ‘latent delinquents’ whose delinquency will become manifest on provocation; so treatment is in general intended to deal with children’s ‘susceptibility’ to delinquency. Where a neurosis overlays normal development, that neurosis has to be treated to allow education to proceed but, even where there is no neurosis, pedagogical skills need to be informed by psychology, psychiatry, sociology, economics, culture and so on.

In Chapter 2 The analysis of the symptom, he uses the example of a boy who ran away taking only some things from the house to illustrate the importance of not relying on a single explanation of behaviour because behaviour always has multiple causes. He also argues that delinquency cannot be changed by kindness or punishment, only by understanding it.

In Chapter 3 Some causes of delinquency, he argues that much delinquency is the expression of emotional disturbance while truancy, vagrancy and theft are symptoms of it. You need to remove the cause of the delinquency rather than treat the overt behaviour. Punishment merely suppresses overt behaviour.

He illustrates this with examples of his work with three young people who had experienced a variety of traumas surrounding their parents’ deaths and with a girl who had witnessed a fight between her mother and her father’s mistress at the age of four.

In Chapter 4 Some causes of delinquency (continued), he gives an extended account of his work with an 18-year-old boy who was the only boy in a family of women after his father died when he was four and whose difficulties surrounded appropriate male relationships within the family.

In Chapter 5 Underlying causes of delinquency, he uses examples of situations young people can find themselves in to argue that you need to understand the psychological situation at the time the delinquency begins, not just what may have happened in the past.

In Chapter 6 The transference, Aichhorn argues that delinquency can arise from both internal and external conflicts over relationships and that workers can use the general tendency for children to transfer relationships to carers in their work. This can be difficult :

–             when children are brought into care, because they often instinctively regard carers as the enemy, something workers should not be surprised at, and

–             in diversionary work when the worker has to work very quickly to get to the problem to prevent a custodial sentence

He stresses the importance of first impressions and of acknowledging your social role; workers should not try to be ‘friends.’ Rather they should find some common interest, for example, sport for boys, clothes for girls, toys for younger children, though he admits these don’t always work. He also acknowledges that diversionary work may be only partially successful – changing the nature of the ‘manifest’ delinquency but not really dealing with the underlying problem – or risky as when he deliberately provoked a young person to run away so that he would talk about the underlying problem on his return.

In Chapter 7 The training school, he describes some of the experiences he had with the residential school he set up where the residents had the same food as the staff. He quickly found that age/sex groups would not work and he had to create needs-based groups. He admits that things were always going wrong but argues that “specific educational methods are far less important than an attitude which brings the child into contact with reality” (Aichhorn, 1951, p. 150), a sentiment with which, from a different starting point, Makarenko (1936) would agree.

He found that he needed both men and women staff for younger boys but men for older boys. However, staff had to be optimistic, the mood of any group reflected the mood of the group leader and what succeeded with one teacher could be a total failure with another.

Most of the residents were from broken homes and a crucial decision was the sort of work they did in the training school; he says it is important to talk frankly about sexual topics and that “hate is a reaction to an unsatisfied need for love” (1951, p. 164) .

In Chapter 8 The aggressive group, he describes how, when they allowed the children to find their own groups, they ended up with a group of twelve aggressive children which Aichhorn took over with two women staff because the other staff disagreed with his refusal to deal harshly with them. They were all from broken homes and all behind educationally; marital conflict at home had forced them to take sides and they could speak tenderly to an animal one moment but threaten a human the next.

He decided that they would only intervene to prevent injuries and the boys’ initial reaction was increased violence because they saw the staff as weak; eventually, the staff’s lack of response to their aggression led to evidence of increased guilt followed by a change in the character of the aggression which became a show for staff. Eventually the boys began to break down weeping and there was then a period of instability punctuated by outbreaks of violence during which there was no apparent progress. But after they had all celebrated Christmas normally, a change occurred and they moved into new premises where a psychologist took over as group leader and all of them made up for lost school work. Aichhorn is at pains to stress the mistakes the staff made during this experience, notwithstanding its eventual successful outcome.

In Chapter 9 The meaning of the reality principle in social behaviour, he first sets out the Freudian hypothesis that a child begins from the ‘pleasure principle’ but has to learn to postpone pleasure in order to come to terms with reality and learn to act from the ‘reality principle.’ He argues that deprivation can lead to either a failure to develop the ‘reality principle’ or a distortion in the ‘pleasure principle.’

Education is always about developing the ‘reality principle’ and both rewards and punishments can work but both can fail, for example, when parents are overindulgent and the ‘pleasure principle’ does not give way to the ‘reality principle.’ But punishment can lead to pleasure in rebelling which also sustains the ‘pleasure principle.’

Delinquency may be a result of abnormal development or of normal development which is pushed back, by an excess of love and by an excess of severity; indeed, in some cases the combination of excesses of both love and severity can lead to children never attaining the ‘reality principle.’ However, as he explains in the next chapter, neurosis does not underlie every instance of delinquency.

In Chapter 10 Significance of the ego-ideal in social behaviour, he explores another Freudian hypothesis about how personality development is linked to identification with others. Children of delinquent parents may become delinquent because they have taken some of their parents traits into their ego-ideal.

Delinquency may also arise because a child develops guilt about nor following their ego-ideal and does things to be caught and be punished; but punishing a child in these circumstances does not address the child’s real difficulty with her/his ego-ideal.

So every delinquent requires a different approach but, because the ego-ideal is so important, the personality of the workers who may contribute to the young person’s ego-ideal is central to bringing a positive influence to wayward youth.


Though Aichhorn is frequently cited as an influence on later workers, it is easy to dismiss Wayward Youth as a collection of anecdotes hung around an old-fashioned theory; yet it is remarkable how many of Aichhorn’s speculations have been borne out in subsequent research.

For example, his argument that delinquency has multiple causes was supported fifty years later by Rutter (1978) and more recently by Farrington and Painter (2004). His hypothesis that relationship difficulties underlie many instances of delinquency has been taken up the advocates of restorative justice (Marshall, 2005). His argument that the relationship between the worker and the client, rather than the method or technique used, is central to success has been supported indirectly by, among others, Taylor and Alpert (1973) who found that no method or technique is associated with successful residential care; instead successful outcomes are associated with children who have sustained family involvement. It never seems to occur to Aichhorn that he should not work with the clients’ families, sometimes directly intervening in the family system to effect change, thus anticipating family therapy by at least half a century.

His argument that the worker must always understand where the client is before s/he can do any work with them fell out of favour in the second half of the 20th century as pressure for short term change squeezed out the sort of holistic assessments that are needed to support such work.

He warns that workers can never become ‘friends’ with clients because they always have a social role which prevents them from being a friend. This does not mean they cannot be friendly or concerned or caring but they cannot be a friend.

His observation that both too much love and too much severity can create disturbance was echoed by Clegg and Megson (1968) and has been borne out in subsequent research (Ladd, 2005).

Finally, it is interesting that Freud concluded from Aichhorn’s work that psychoanalysis was inappropriate for children; both A. N. Neill (1962) and Mr Lyward (Burn, 1956) started by using psychoanalysis but abandoned it as it had no effect compared with the effect of the milieu. Similarly, Clare Britton (Winnicott and Britton, 1957), one of the first psychiatric social workers, while stressing the importance of her psychoanalytic training in assessing children’s needs, made no direct use of it to meet children’s needs, emphasising a healing environment rather than specific therapy.


Aichhorn, A (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago First published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag

Burn, M (1956) Mr Lyward’s answer London: Hamish Hamilton See also Children Webmag May 2009.

Clegg, A B & Megson, B E (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin

Farrington, D P & Painter, K A (2004) Gender differences in risk factors for offending Home Office Findings 196 London: Home Office

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poèma See also Children Webmag February 2009.

Marshall, C D (2005) Satisfying justice – victims, justice and the grain of the universe Justice Re?ections 10(69), 1-19 Reprinted from Australian Theological Review May 2005

Neill, A S (1962) Summerhill: a radical approach to education London: Victor Gollancz See also Children Webmag July 2009.

Rutter, M (1978) Early sources of security and competence In J S Bruner & A Garton (Eds) Human growth and development Chapter 2, pp. 33-61 Oxford: Clarendon Press Wolfson College Lectures 1976

Taylor, D & Alpert, S W (1973) Continuity and support: following residential treatment New York: Child Welfare League of America See also Children Webmag March 2009.

Winnicott, D W and Britton, C (1957) Residential management as treatment for  difficult children In D W Winnicott (Ed.) The child and the outside world: studies in developing relationships Chapter II:6, pp. 98-116 London: Tavistock

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.