Developmental Psychology has provided many theories on how our individual personalities are formed. Some of these theories still ring true, and some merely serve as relics that have provided a springboard for more modern ideas. Perhaps Sigmund Freud’s stages of psychosexual development falls into the latter category, however as any Psychology 101 student knows, despite his seemingly crazy ideas, Sigmund Freud has laid a solid foundation for the evolution of Developmental Psychology.
In this article, we will explore Sigmund Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, the conflicts within each stage, and how these conflicts lead to adult personality traits and behaviors.
What are Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development?
Sigmund Freud believed that we all go through 5 stages of development which are driven by the pleasure-seeking energies of the id (focused on certain erogenous areas), which he called the “libido.” During each of these stages, the individual faces conflicts that can either have a negative or positive outcome in the developed personality.
If certain issues are not resolved at each stage of psychosexual development, fixations can arise. These fixations, Freud believed, are the primary causes of neurosis and negative behaviors.
Anatomy is destiny.Sigmund Freud
Overview of Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
- Oral Stage (0 to 1.5 years of age): Fixation on deriving pleasure from the mouth.
- Anal Stage (1.5 to 3 years of age): Primarily related to developing healthy potty-training habits, and deriving pleasure from the bowels/anus.
- Phallic Stage (3 to 5 years of age): The development of healthy substitutes that replace the sexual attraction boys and girls have towards their parent of the opposite gender
- Latency Stage (5 to 12 years of age): When the id is suppressed by the ego, and children strive to relate to the community and have a strong focus on friendship/collaboration.
- Genital Stage (Puberty to Death): Development of strong interest in the opposite sex and pursuit of that desire.
The Role of Conflict in Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Before diving into Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, is important to understand Freud’s emphasis on conflict during each of the stages of psychosexual development. Conflict occurs at in each phase of Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, and is caused by the the id (the primitive and instinctual part of our psyche) being in conflict with the superego (the societal/authoritative expectations part of the psyche).
In order to illustrate how conflicts play out at each stage of psychosexual development, Freud used the metaphor of a war. During a war, troops are sent into battle against their opponents. With each sequential victory, the troops may gain steam and work their way up to the final mission of defeating the king. However, if the troops lose a battle or conflict, it will be more difficult them to regain steam for the next battle. These troops may end up getting stuck, depleted and lose sufficient resources to wage the next battle.
Similarly to the war metaphor, an individual may get stuck in a certain stages of psychosexual development and may not have sufficient resources to successfully work through the next stage. Thus, this individual has a stunted development pattern and may exhibit certain neurosis or behaviors as an adult. Freud suggests that these neurosis and behaviors can be directly tied back to earlier childhood developmental difficulties.
A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.Sigmund Freud
Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
1. Oral Stage (0 to 1.5 years of age). Erogenous Zone: Mouth
The oral stage is named after the oral orifice, which Sigmund Freud believed was the primary zone of pleasure for the infant. Freud divided the oral stage into two phases: the sucking phase and the devouring phase. In this stage, the infant derives pleasure from sucking on their mother’s breast or a bottle and eventually separates the nourishment factor for other methods of gratification (sucking thumb, putting toys in mouth, gurgling sounds, cooing, etc).
Freud believed that this stage of psychosexual development is when the ego is formed and eventually becomes becomes a part of judgement and reality testing (Nagera, 1969, p. 41). To the infant, the world is primarily based on the mouth’s interactions with it. The infant masters the world and merges with it by engaging with it orally.
The conflict that arises in the oral stage of psychosexual development is the weaning from the primary care giver. In the successful transcendence of this stage, the infant is successfully weaned from the mother’s breast. In the successful case, Freud suggests that this individual would grow up into a healthy and independent adult.
In the opposite case, where an infant is weaned too early, it may lead to an “oral fixation” which may manifest itself later in life as certain behaviors (incessant need to chew gum, smoking cigarettes, chewing things, overeating, nail biting, etc). This individual may also exhibit manipulative, aggressive and addictive personality traits.
2. Anal Stage (1.5 to 3 years of age). Erogenous Zone: Bowel and Bladder Control
Freud characterized the transition of erogenous zones from the mouth to the anus as the anal stage of psychosexual development. During this stage, the libido (sexual energy) is shifted from the mouth to the anal sphincter without abandoning the oral erogenous zone. This is when the toddler would find pleasure in defecating.
During the anal stage of Freud’s psychosexual development, the toddler is eventually confronted with potty-training. The resulting personality development of this stage is largely dependent on the parent’s approach to potty-training.
The conflict that arises in the anal stage of psychosexual development is the battle between wishful impulses of the id and the ego. The toddler confronts this conflict when they realize that they are in control of where they place their feces/urine, and by their own doing, can either receive praise or ridicule from their mother. In successful potty-training, when a parent gives praise where praise is due, the toddler would develop a sense of pride and accomplishment and see themselves as capable and competent. Freud argued that positive experiences during potty-training would serve as a basis for competent, productive and creative adults.
In the opposite case, when parents are either overly lenient or too critical with their toddler’s toilet training, the toddler may develop more negative personality traits. Freud believed that these negative personality traits would manifest themselves as either anal-retentive or anal-expulsive personality types (related primarily to behaviors related to money). In the adult years, these behaviors might look like being overly stingy with money, obsessively neat, overly strict or disorganized and rebellious.
3. Phallic Stage (3 to 5 years of age). Erogenous Zone: Genitals
The phallic stage (alternatively called the “early genital stage”), is when the libido shifts erogenous zones from the anus to the genitals, specifically the penis and the clitoris. During this stage of psychosexual development, the child becomes increasingly aware of his/her own genitals and the genitals of others. Children at this stage become aware of gender and generational differences.
During the phallic stage, children become curious and begin asking many questions and formulate comparisons. Freud also believed that along with an increase in genital sensations and curiosity, a development of fantasies can arise that are based on the gratification of genital wishes. Freud theorized that these fantasies are often directed towards the opposite sex parent, whilst a simultaneous rivalry is manifested against the same-sex parent (Oedipus Complex and the Electra Complex).
The conflict that arises at this stage is between the child’s relationship with their same-sex parent. Freud believed that this conflict is caused by the oedipus complex in boys and the electra complex in girls. This is to say that the child realizes that their same sex parent represents competition for the affection of their opposite sex parent. For example, a boy who’s father is present and attentive during this phase will facilitate a means for the boy to identify with him.
In the opposite case, when the boy’s father is not present, the boy may fail to develop a strong sense of manhood. Freud believed that the boy in this case may develop a mother fixation, which may manifest itself later in life as questioning their own sexuality, aggressiveness towards women, and a constant need to compete with other men. In the female’s case, she may develop an inferiority complex towards men (penis envy).
4. Latency Stage (5 to 12 years of age). Erogenous Zone: Sexual Feelings Become Inactive
The Latency Stage of psychosexual development is when the child naturally transmutes the libido into new interest in the external world. Freud suggested that children in this stage are more focused on acquiring greater levels of socialization.
Freud believed that during this stage of psychosexual development, the libido changes its focus to developing sex roles, physical prowess, intellectual understanding, acquisition of culturally valued knowledge, social roles, and skills.
The conflict in the latency stage might represent itself as one’s ability to successfully integrate into and become a contributing member of society. Individuals who are not able to obtain adequate knowledge or integrate well socially may develop certain fixations and exhibit behaviors such as immaturity and an inability to develop close interpersonal relationships with others as an adult.
5. Genital Stage (Puberty to Death). Erogenous Zone: Maturing Sexual Interests
The genital stage begins at puberty when the young adolescent begins the final stage of sexual maturation. During this stage of psychosexual development, the libido becomes active again. The erogenous zone become the genitals, and the seeking of gratifying these sensual desires. At this time, the adolescent develops a strong sexual interest in the opposite sex which continues on for the remainder of the individual’s life.
This stage of development is the first stage in which the libido transfers from individual needs, to the interest in the welfare of others. Freud believed that the healthy expression of sexual instinct was through heterosexual relationships and sexual intercourse.
The conflict during the genital stage of psychosexual development is a battle between the id and both the ego and superego. This is to say that the adolescent must learn to express their genital desires in socially and culturally appropriate ways. Freud believed that this is the stage when all three components of the mind become fully developed (the adolescent learns to check their desires and keep them in accordance with society’s standards and expectations).
Freud believed that the genital stage is when the failures at transcending previous stages may manifest themselves in perversions, which may prevent healthy sexual relationships from forming. These perversions may manifest themselves as someone who finds more pleasure in kissing or oral sex (oral stage), desires for anal sex or other anal related fetishes (anal stage), a sexual attraction to knowledge (latency stage), etc..
Although Freud’s stages of psychosexual development have been heavily criticized, his framework for developmental psychology has survived the test of time and can be seen in many later works such as Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development. Some of the primary criticisms of Freud’s stages of psychosexual development are the following
- Freud’s theory is almost entirely focused on male development, with little focus on female psychosexual development
- Freud did no use empirical testing for his theories, and his ideas are impossible to measure.
- Freud’s predictions for future behaviors are very vague, and not testable.
- Freud’s stages of psychosexual development are entirely based on his personal experience and that of the recollections of his adult patients, not actual observation of children.
Nonetheless, Freud’s stages of psychosexual development are an interesting relic in the field of psychology and should be treated with respect. His work strongly expressed the importance of early childhood experiences in the development of personality. Perhaps Freud’s strongest contribution to psychology was the idea that unconscious influences have a powerful effect on human behavior.
Do you think Freud’s stages of psychosexual development hold any truth, or do you believe they are complete madness? Please leave a comment below!
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Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. In J. Strachy, & A. Freud (Eds.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII (1901-1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works (pp. 123-246). London: Hogarth Press.
Benveniste, D. (n.d.). Sigmund Freud and libido development – nwaps.org. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.nwaps.org/sites/default/files/Freud%20and%20Libido%20Development.pdf
Nágera, H. et al (1969). Volume I: Basic Psychoanalytic Concepts on the Libido Theory.
London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.