Understanding Sigmund Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development

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December 29, 2019
Sigmund Freud's Stages of Psychosexual Development - Matthieu Bourel Duplicity
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Sigmund Freud is regarded as the father of psychodynamic theories, the founder of psychoanalysis and the creator of psychosexual stages theory of human development. Regardless of the acceptance or disapproval of his ideas about human development, his influence over psychology was enormous. During a puritan era he managed to construct a theory of unconscious motivation, of human sexuality and instinctual aggression.

Introduction to the Freudian Theory

The ontogenetic landmarks of the freudian thesis possess a series of particularities:

  • they are recurrent – meaning that they are analysed from the adult point of view on his or hers childhood;
  • they are based on the adult psychic pathology (mainly affective) for which Freud has tried to find the origins;
  • they do not explain the ontogenesis (the evolution of the psyche, in this case) overall, but are mostly inclined to the affective domain of development.

Methodologically, the freudian theoretic construction is predominantly anamnestic (it is constructed from the recalling memories of the clients). Freud did not directly analyse children, but he did discover and, later on, searched for the child and childhood in the stories of his adult patients. He used the free association technique, dream interpretation, discourse analysis and examined what later came to be known as Freudian slips (forgetting words, psychic blindness and word substitution).

Key Concepts of the Freudian Thesis

One of the most original contribution of Sigmund Freud is the idea which posits that human behaviour is not solely governed by conscious processes, but also by unconscious actions.

Among these there is an instinctual drive named by Freud libido (present ever since birth) that constitutes the motor force which quietly, or not so much, determines almost all of our behaviours. 

Other elements of the unconscious present themselves over time taking the form of defense mechanisms – normal, unconscious, automatic strategies we turn to on a daily basis in order to reduce our anxiety. Among others, we mention: repression, denial, projection, rationalisation and sublimation.

In Freud’s eyes, starting almost from birth, man is motivated by irrational needs for obtaining pleasure. Rational behaviour stems from the conflict between social requirements and the child’s instincts, which are sublimated (transformed so as to become socially accepted) in the course of the child’s adaptation to his or hers environment. To Sigmund Freud, intelligence or adaptation are both secondary to a socialized sensuality.

The author proposes three conflictual aspects of the human personality: Id, Ego and Superego.

The Id stores all the unconscious impulses which remain unknown to the person.

The Superego is his conscience, which forms in childhood by internalising the values and standards of the parents or caregivers.

The Ego is managing the adaptation processes of the individual, mediating the eternal conflict between what he wants to do (Id) and what he is not allowed to (Superego).

The Psychosexual Stages

Freud’s vision of man is both evolutionist and interactionist. The biological needs of the human are part of their evolved nature. His development occurs by interacting with the external reality constantly transforming him, surmounting level after level of progress. Constructing a rational behaviour almost inevitably means renouncing impulses based on their gratifying aspect. Consequently, most civilised persons are anxious. Children are not anxious until they start differentiating themselves from their environment and confront the requirements of reality.

Freud defines five stages of psychosexual development (libidinal evolution) that the child must navigate in a predetermined order. During every psychosexual stage, the libido fixates itself in the region of the body that is the most sensitive at the child’s respective age – the erogenous zone. For the newborn, the mouth is the most sensitive zone of the body where the libidinal energy is directed. In consequence, this stage is named oral. Later on, as the neurological development takes its course, other parts of the body become more responsive, and the location of the libidinal energy moves towards the anus (anal stage) and afterwards towards the genital zone (phallic and genital stages). A period of latency, characterised by the attenuation of the sexual drive, separates the phallic from the genital location

Freud’s psychosexual stages were the source of inspiration for the psychosocial stages developed by psychologist Erik Erikson (read about his theory of psychosocial development), as he believed (like most neo-Freudians) that the sex drive isn’t the only strong motivator which shapes our evolution as children. 

The Oral Stage

Age: 0-1 years old

Erogenuos zone: Mouth

Hedonic activities (pleasurable actions): to suck, to bite

Sources of conflict: breastfeeding, weaning, nutritional diversity

Affective object: the breast – the mother as its substitute, perceived not as a person, but as a matrix situation for the state of wellbeing

Positive relational experiences: viewing the feeding situation as ambivalent and also forming a sense a security for the child. The care shown for the needs of the infant and the careful introduction to new states can generate happiness and trust.

Posible negative consequences

  • the child dissatisfaction, real (neglect, brutality, hyperstimulation) or imagined, can be somatised (leading to gastric and psychological problems, like anorexia) or repressed, thus creating a fertile ground for fixation
  • the adult personality fixated in the the oral psychosexual stage will present the symptoms of a chronic insatiability, being dependent in reality or in a symbolic form of oral activities: alcoholism, tabacosis, overeating and talkativeness.  
  • the fixation that took place in the second period of the stage (6-12 months, the oral-sadistic stage) can lead to a vengeful personality, always in a state of attack.

Complexes of the oral stage: withdrawal, abandonment.

The Anal Stage

Age: 1-3 years old

Erogenuos zone: Bowel and Bladder Control

Hedonic activities (pleasurable actions): the excretory activity seen as the source of the first product which attracts the attention of the entourage

Sources of conflict: toilet training

Affective object: the adult entourage as a source of gratification and, also, as an object of social manipulation

Positive relational experiences

  • the excretory function is also viewed as a source of the child’s discovery of the force he holds over himself and his environment
  • if the parents understand and support his or hers new interest, the premises for a normal psychosexual development are put in place. The natural solution for the conflict between the instinctual gratification and the need for parental gratification. As a consequence, the child will gain a positive orientation towards order, cleanliness and submission.
  • choosing the right moment for beginning toilet training is crucial. Fixed too soon, he can interfere with a neurophysiological underdevelopment and can lead to the frustration of the child being unable to meet his parents expectations.

Posible negative consequences

  • both extreme possibilities can generate a fixation phenomenon. If the parent wins in the anal conflict, the fixation can manifest itself in the behaviour of the adult a child as excessive routine, orderliness, conformism, along with feelings of culpability and fear. If the child “wins”, the fixation symptoms can bring to light a rebel personality, hostile and provocative, especially when interacting with individuals in positions of power.
  • According to Sigmund 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.

Complexes of the anal stage: authority problems.

The Phallic Stage

Age: 3-6 years old

Erogenuos zone: Genital

Hedonic activities (pleasurable actions): investigation of the genital area, autoeroticism

Sources of conflict: parental interdictions with regard to these practices

Affective object: the opposite sex parent manifested as an ambivalent relationship marked by attraction and jealousy

Positive relational experiences:

  • the discovery of the sexual differences and the newly found interest for this problem open un a new stage in the process of adult identification. If in the last stages of psychosexual development, the identification was only primary, based on the fusion with the model (usually, the mother), now we can move on to the structured identification. The Ego and the Superego are consolidated using the model given by the same sex parent, trying to conquer the libidinal object (the opposite sex parent).
  • the conditions and components of a structured identification are: cognitive aspects (the perception of similarity), affective aspects (empathy towards the model), volitional (wants to resemble the model) and pragmatic aspects (imitating or adopting the behaviour of the model).
  • the last phase of identification occurs after puberty and it’s called independent identification because the model is followed being guided by personal experiences.

Posible negative consequences

  • traumatizing experiences that block the change to structured identification (maltreatment, abuse) can cause the fixation of the complexes Oedipus or Electra which favorize the apparition of dysfunctions in the development of the sexual identity and in couple relationships.

Complexes of the phallic stage: Oedipus, Electra (Carl Jung).


The Latent Stage

Age: 6-12 years old (onset of puberty)

Erogenous zone: sexual feelings are inactive

Positive relational experiences:

  • 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 contribute to this period of calm. The stage begins around the time that children enter into 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 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.
  • The hibernating libido gives rise to an increased interest to other activities that bring pleasure, other than sexual related. There is a marked decrease in interests regarding sexuality and these themes are viewed as taboo.

Possible negative consequences:

  • 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: 12 – death (puberty to death)

Erogenous zone: maturing sexual interests

Positive relational experiences:

  • Where in earlier psychosexual 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.
  • This period leads to the eroticisation of the libido which conducts to expressing it in the relationships with members of the opposite sex. It gradually begins to focus on a single affective object – the partner. Libidinal maturity seems possible if the individual invests enough in his or hers affective object, task that requires a minimum of narcissism.
  • Unlike the many of the earlier psychosexual 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.

Evaluative Observations

Controversial and even shocking sometimes, the freudian thesis holds the merit of raising awareness in the scientific community and in the current educational practice on the subject of the infantile universe. After the work of Freud was published, this age could not be regarded anymore as idillic. Its traumatic potential, along with the conflicts, vulnerability and retroactive impact have been brought to light.

Psychoanalysis has shown the crucial importance that everyday family interactions and their significances hold for the infantile development. Absolutely natural, common sense and apparently trivial processes have been presented in a very different light: as sources of distortion in the capacity of relatedness of the child, as a means of generating and expressing interpersonal conflicts, of interiorizing and intrapsychic echo.

Criticisms of the Psychosexual Stages:

  • 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 upon 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.

The Neo-Freudians

Neo-Freudian psychologists were thinkers who agreed with many of the fundamental tenets of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory but changed and adapted the approach to incorporate their own beliefs, ideas, and opinions. Among them, we mention: Carl Jung (go to the Analytical Psychology section), Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson (read about his theory of psychosocial development) and Karen Horney.

There are a few different reasons why these neo-Freudian thinkers disagreed with Freud. For example,  Erik Erikson believed that Freud was incorrect to think that personality was shaped almost entirely by childhood events.

Other issues that motivated neo-Freudian thinkers included:

  • Freud’s emphasis on sexual urges as a primary motivator
  • Freud’s negative view of human nature
  • Freud’s belief that personality was shaped entirely by early childhood experiences
  • Freud’s lack of emphasis on social and cultural influences on behavior and personality.

Many of the neo-Freudians felt that Freud’s theories focus too heavily on psychopathology, sex, and childhood experiences. Instead, many of them chose to focus their theories on more positive aspects of human nature as well as the social influences that contribute to personality and behavior.

While the neo-Freudians may have been influenced by Freud, they developed their own unique theories and perspectives on human development, personality, and behavior.


While few people are strong proponents of Sigmund 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 of 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.

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