According to the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud , children go through a series of psychosexual stages that lead to the development of the adult personality. Freud's stages of human development, which consisted of five psychosexual stages of development, described how personality developed over the course of childhood.
While Freud's theory of personality development is well-known in psychology, it has always been quite controversial, both during Freud's time and in modern psychology.
One important thing to note is that contemporary psychoanalytic theories of personality development have incorporated and emphasized ideas about internalized relationships and interactions and the complex ways in which we maintain our sense of self into the models that began with Freud.
Overview of Freud's Psychosexual Stages of Development
Freud believed that personality developed through a series of childhood stages in which the pleasure-seeking energies of the id become focused on certain erogenous areas. An erogenous zone is characterized as an area of the body that is particularly sensitive to stimulation.
During the five psychosexual stages, which are the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages, the erogenous zone associated with each stage serves as a source of pleasure.
Psychosexual energy, or the libido , was described as the driving force behind behavior.
Psychoanalytic theory suggested that personality is mostly established by the age of five. Early experiences play a large role in personality development and continue to influence behavior later in life.
Each stage of development is marked by conflicts that can help build growth or stifle development, depending upon how they are resolved. If these psychosexual stages are completed successfully, a healthy personality is the result.
If certain issues are not resolved at the appropriate stage, fixations can occur. A fixation is a persistent focus on an earlier psychosexual stage. Until this conflict is resolved, the individual will remain "stuck" in this stage. A person who is fixated at the oral stage, for example, may be over-dependent on others and may seek oral stimulation through smoking, drinking, or eating.
The Oral Stage
Age Range: Birth to 1 Year
Erogenous Zone: Mouth
During the oral stage, the infant's primary source of interaction occurs through the mouth, so the rooting and sucking reflex is especially important. The mouth is vital for eating, and the infant derives pleasure from oral stimulation through gratifying activities such as tasting and sucking.
Because the infant is entirely dependent upon caretakers (who are responsible for feeding the child), the child also develops a sense of trust and comfort through this oral stimulation.
The primary conflict at this stage is the weaning process--the child must become less dependent upon caretakers. If fixation occurs at this stage, Freud believed the individual would have issues with dependency or aggression . Oral fixation can result in problems with drinking, eating, smoking, or nail-biting.
The Anal Stage
Age Range: 1 to 3 years
Erogenous Zone: Bowel and Bladder Control
During the anal stage, Freud believed that the primary focus of the libido was on controlling bladder and bowel movements. The major conflict at this stage is toilet training—the child has to learn to control their bodily needs. Developing this control leads to a sense of accomplishment and independence.
According to Freud, success at this stage is dependent upon the way in which parents approach toilet training. Parents who utilize praise and rewards for using the toilet at the appropriate time encourage positive outcomes and help children feel capable and productive.
Freud believed that positive experiences during the toilet training stage serve as the basis for people to become competent, productive, and creative adults.
However, not all parents provide the support and encouragement that children need during this stage. Some parents punish, ridicule, or shame a child for accidents.
According to Freud, inappropriate parental responses can result in negative outcomes. If parents take an approach that is too lenient, Freud suggested that an anal-expulsive personality could develop in which the individual has a messy, wasteful, or destructive personality.
If parents are too strict or begin toilet training too early, Freud believed that an anal-retentive personality develops in which the individual is stringent, orderly, rigid, and obsessive.
The Phallic Stage
Age Range: 3 to 6 Years
Erogenous Zone: Genitals
Freud suggested that during the phallic stage, the primary focus of the libido is on the genitals. At this age, children also begin to discover the differences between males and females.
Freud also believed that boys begin to view their fathers as a rival for the mother’s affection. The Oedipus complex describes these feelings of wanting to possess the mother and the desire to replace the father. However, the child also fears that he will be punished by the father for these feelings, a fear Freud termed castration anxiety .
The term Electra complex has been used to describe a similar set of feelings experienced by young girls. Freud, however, believed that girls instead experience penis envy .
Eventually, the child begins to identify with the same-sex parent as a means of vicariously possessing the other parent. For girls, however, Freud believed that penis envy was never fully resolved and that all women remain somewhat fixated on this stage.
Psychologists such as Karen Horney disputed this theory, calling it both inaccurate and demeaning to women. Instead, Horney proposed that men experience feelings of inferiority because they cannot give birth to children, a concept she referred to as womb envy .
The Latent Period
Age Range: 6 to Puberty
Erogenous Zone: Sexual Feelings Are Inactive
During this stage, the superego continues to develop while the id's energies are suppressed. Children develop social skills, values, and relationships with peers and adults outside of the family.
The development of the ego and superego contributes to this period of calm. The stage begins around the time that children enter school and become more concerned with peer relationships, hobbies, and other interests.
The latent period is a time of exploration in which the sexual energy is repressed or dormant. This energy is still present, but it is sublimated into other areas such as intellectual pursuits and social interactions. This stage is important in the development of social and communication skills and self-confidence.
As with the other psychosexual stages, Freud believed that it was possible for children to become fixated or "stuck" in this phase. Fixation at this stage can result in immaturity and an inability to form fulfilling relationships as an adult.
The Genital Stage
Age Range: Puberty to Death
Erogenous Zone: Maturing Sexual Interests
The onset of puberty causes the libido to become active once again. During the final stage of psychosexual development, the individual develops a strong sexual interest in the opposite sex. This stage begins during puberty but last throughout the rest of a person's life.
Where in earlier stages the focus was solely on individual needs, interest in the welfare of others grows during this stage. The goal of this stage is to establish a balance between the various life areas.
If the other stages have been completed successfully, the individual should now be well-balanced, warm, and caring.
Unlike many of the earlier stages of development, Freud believed that the ego and superego were fully formed and functioning at this point. Younger children are ruled by the id , which demands immediate satisfaction of the most basic needs and wants.
Teens in the genital stage of development are able to balance their most basic urges against the need to conform to the demands of reality and social norms .
Evaluating Freud's Stages of Human Development
Freud's theory is still considered controversial today, but imagine how audacious it seemed during the late 1800s and early 1900s. There have been a number of observations and criticisms of Freud's psychosexual theory on a number of grounds, including scientific and feminist critiques.
Criticisms of the Psychosexual Stages of Development
- The theory is focused almost entirely on male development with little mention of female psychosexual development.
- His theories are difficult to test scientifically. Concepts such as the libido are impossible to measure, and therefore cannot be tested. The research that has been conducted tends to discredit Freud's theory.
- Future predictions are too vague. How can we know that a current behavior was caused specifically by a childhood experience? The length of time between the cause and the effect is too long to assume that there is a relationship between the two variables.
- Freud's theory is based on case studies and not empirical research. Also, Freud based his theory on the recollections of his adult patients, not on actual observation and study of children.
Another criticism of the psychosexual stages is that the theory focuses primarily on heterosexual development, and largely ignores homosexual development.
So how exactly did Freud explain the development of sexual preferences?
Freud's theory suggested that heterosexual preferences represent the "normal" outcome of development and suggested that homosexual preferences represented a deviation from this process. Freud's own viewpoints on homosexuality varied, at times expressing biological explanations and at other times social or psychological explanations for sexual preferences.
Unlike many thinkers of his time, Freud was unconvinced that homosexuality represented a pathology. He also believed that attempts to alter a person's sexuality were usually futile and often harmful.
In a famous 1935 letter to a mother who had written him to ask that he treat her homosexual son, Freud wrote that while he believed homosexuality was not advantageous, it was certainly not a vice or something to be ashamed of. Freud wrote, "...it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development."
While Freud's theory implied that homosexuality was a deviation from normal psychosexual development, many contemporary psychologists believe that sexual orientation is largely influenced by biological factors.
A Word From Verywell
While few people are strong proponents of Freud's theory of psychosexual development today, his work made important contributions to our understanding of human development. Perhaps his most important and enduring contribution was the idea that unconscious influences could have a powerful impact on human behavior.
Freud's theory also stressed the importance of early experiences in development. While experts continue to debate the relative contributions of early versus later experiences, developmental experts recognize that the events of early life play a critical role in the developmental process and can have lasting effects throughout life.
De kuyper E. The Freudian construction of sexuality: the gay foundations of heterosexuality and straight homophobia. J Homosex. 1993;24(3-4):137-44. doi: 10.1300/J082v24n03_10
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- Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (Annotated). Arcadia Ebook; 2016.
- Shaffer, DR & Kipp, K. Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescense. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.