Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is one of the most well-known and controversial theories in psychology. Freud believed that personality was, for the most part, established by the time a person was six years old and that when a predetermined sequence of stages was successfully completed, it would result in a healthy personality, while failure to do so would lead to an unhealthy personality.
Freud believed that the stages in the sequence were based on erogenous zones (sensitive parts of the body that arouse sexual pleasure, desire, and stimulation) and that failure to complete a stage would make a child fixated on that erogenous zone. This would lead the person to over- or underindulge once he or she was an adult.
In this stage, a child focuses on oral pleasures like sucking because they create a sense of comfort and trust. If there is too little or too much gratification in this stage, the child will develop an oral personality or oral fixation and become preoccupied with oral behaviors. According to Freud, people with this type of personality are more likely to bite their nails, smoke, drink, or overeat, and will be gullible, depend on other people, and will always be followers.
During this stage, a child’s main focus turns towards bladder and bowel control, and a child gains pleasure from controlling these activities. Freud believed that success was achieved in this stage as a result of parents using praise and rewards while toilet training, leaving their child feeling capable and productive—such behavior would lead to the child having a competent, creative personality later on in life. If parents were too lenient to the child during toilet training, he believed, it could lead to an anal-expulsive personality and the child would be destructive, messy, and wasteful. If the parents took an approach that was too strict, or forced toilet training too soon, this could lead to an anal-retentive personality, and the child would develop an obsession with perfection, cleanliness, and control.
At this stage, Freud believed the pleasure zones turn towards the genitals, giving rise to one of his most famous ideas, that of the Oedipus complex. Freud believed that, at this stage, a boy unconsciously develops a sexual desire for his mother, sees his father as a competition for her affection, and wishes to replace his father. Additionally, the boy will develop castration anxiety as he begins to view his father as someone who is trying to punish him for his Oedipal feelings. Rather than fight with the father, however, the boy will identify with him in an effort to vicariously possess the mother. Fixation at this stage, Freud believed, could lead to sexual deviance and being confused about or having a weak sexual identity.
In 1913, Carl Jung coined the term the “Electra complex,” which describes a similar relationship that young girls experience with their fathers. Freud disagreed with this concept, however, believing that girls were actually experiencing penis envy (where resentment and discontent exist because the girls wish that they, themselves, had a penis).
At this stage, sexual urges are suppressed and the sexual energy of the child is directed towards other exchanges like social interactions and intellectual activities. It is during this stage that children play mostly with children of the same sex, and there is no psychosexual development or fixation that occurs.
The last stage in Freud’s model involves the reawakening of sexual urges and a sexual interest in the opposite sex. If all of the previous stages were completed successfully, the person will be caring and well-balanced, and pleasure will be focused on the genitals. If there is fixation at this stage, the individual may have sexual perversions.
Of course, Freud’s theory does have its critics. Freud focused almost exclusively on the development of the male. His research was not based on the behavior of children, but rather on what he was told by his adult patients. Because of the long delay between the hypothetical childhood “cause” and the eventual adulthood “effect” in his theories, it is incredibly difficult to measure or test whether Freud’s ideas of psychosexual development are accurate.