Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud, proposed that events in our childhood shape personality and carry great influence over the trajectory of our adult lives. Although some consider his theories controversial, Freud’s leadership role as the inventor of psychoanalysis compels us to understand his fundamentals and their contribution to the domain of behavioral and developmental processes.
The Adult Personality as Shaped by Childhood Experience
Freudian theory states that adult personality is determined by childhood experiences, embodying the ongoing struggle between three aspects: the id, the ego, and the superego.
Id exists at birth, consisting of primal motives and desires for oxygen, food, water, and pleasure. Parents may instruct children who want a snack to eat fruit. If an “id-dominated” child really wants a cookie, they’ll tend to focus on satisfying their own pleasures and take a cookie against their parent’s wishes.
Ego begins right after birth and develops rapidly when children discover that they are separate from their environment. Characterized by reason and common sense, the ego helps children interpret reality and make choices that don’t overstep societal boundaries. Through id, children want what they want. Through ego, children develop a sense of respect for the world around them and learn to confidently take non-disruptive initiatives. Ego is self-control, it allows children to consciously operate within the context of reality. When a cookie-loving “ego-dominated” child wants a snack (specifically, a cookie), but knows that only fruit is allowed, ego helps the child choose an apple.
Superego begins to develop around age four. The conscience of superego has supreme respect for what it perceives to be the moral values of society. Superego-dominated children may be so fearful of doing wrong that they fear taking chances—and as a result—do not develop a sense of purpose or initiative.
As the ego navigates the tensions between the id and superego, stress ensues. Humans utilize various defense mechanisms and coping strategies to manage these pressures while often concealing the true, anxiety-laden motivations for behavior. Psychotherapy (and/or intimate self-reflection) encourages us to take a deeper dive to articulate the differences between where we are and where we want to be.
Five Stages of Psychosexual Development
According to Freud, children pass through five stages of psychosexual development—from birth to adulthood—fueled by their inherent desire for pleasure.
Oral Stage (Birth to 1 year)
Babies derive great satisfaction from putting things in their mouths; sucking, nibbling, and breastfeeding. Oral fixations last into the toddler years with thumb-sucking and can manifest in adulthood as nail-biting and smoking, especially under conditions of anxiety or stress. During the oral stage, close relationships with caregivers are critically important, helping children feel safe and loved. If experiences during this stage are not positive, children can develop personalities characterized by dependence, passivity, and helplessness. Foundational in the development of later social relationships, Freud believed that there is no connection more important than the bond shared by the infant and his or her mother.
Anal Stage (1 to 3 years)
Aware that they are their own individual person, children in the anal stage derive great pleasure from defecating. During potty training, adults impose restrictions on the when and the where, causing children to perceive feelings of inconvenience. Potty training represents the child’s first real conflict; the way this is handled can influence future inclinations toward all forms of authority. A smooth transition through potty training can help set a life trajectory for positive mental health. Premature or harsh potty training can lead children to become anally retentive as adults.
Phallic Stage (3 to 6 years)
Children develop an awareness of their anatomical sex differences. Conscious of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents, children engage their curiosity by exploring their genitals. This Third Stage establishes the understanding of differences between males and females.
Awareness of the physical gender differences between “male/boy” and “female/girl” alter the psychological dynamics of the parent-child relationship. One of Freud’s most controversial ideas (and one many outright reject) is the Oedipus complex. In boys, the Oedipus complex arises due to the boy developing sexual desires for his mother. Wanting to possess her exclusively, the boy imagines that if his father were to find out, the boy would lose—in his mother—what he loves the most. Realistically, the boy’s greatest affinity is for his penis, and he develops castration anxiety. The boy sets out to resolve this problem by imitating, copying, and joining his father in masculine dad-type behaviors. Through this process of identification (when children adopt characteristics of their same-sex parent), boys resolve their Oedipus complex, internally adopting dad’s values, attitudes, and behaviors.
In girls, the Oedipus (or Electra) complex is even more complicated. The girl develops sexual desires towards her father but also knows that she doesn’t have a penis. This leads to feelings of penis envy and the wish to be a boy. The girl resolves this by repressing her desire for her father and substituting the wish for a penis with the wish for a baby. The girl may even blame her mother for her “castrated” state, but eventually comes to terms and begins the identification process with her mother.
Latency Stage (6 years to Puberty)
During this Fourth Stage, libido is dormant and most sexual impulses are repressed, energies are directed toward school, friendships, and hobbies. Much of the child’s vitality is channeled into developing new skills and acquiring new knowledge; play time is largely restricted to other children of the same gender.
Genital Stage (Puberty to Death)
Sexual experimentation begins during adolescence and instincts are directed to heterosexual pleasure. For Freud, boys are normally sexually attracted to girls, and girls are normally sexually attracted to boys. This Fifth and Final Stage marks the start of our journey into sexually charged conflict between males and females, provoking within us feelings such as attraction, fear, and jealousy. With a more developed ego and superego, individuals begin to use less abstract and more realistic ways of thinking, establishing a multitude of social relations apart from the family.
Regarding personality development, the balancing act performed by the ego in managing tensions between id and superego exemplifies the human struggle of wanting to please ourselves while also wanting to please others. We can reflect on Freud’s Five Stages of Psychosexual Development as we consider the best ways to support our kids as they progress through childhood.
The standard edition of Sigmund Freud’s classic work on the psychology and significance of dreams, the most complete translation of the work in print.
Sexuality and the Psychology of Love is Freud at his most brilliant, raising the curtain on a new era of sexual and social awareness.
PLEASE NOTE: As an Amazon Associate, Fathers Truly Matter earns from qualifying purchases. The information in this post should not be construed as providing specific psychiatric, psychological, or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.