Stages of Psychosexual Development: Early Childhood

29.04.2020 |

Episode #7 of the course The theories of Sigmund Freud by Psychology Insights Online


“A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.” ―Sigmund Freud

Welcome back! Many of Freud’s theories were controversial at the time he proposed them, and they continue to be so today. Among his most provocative ideas was his perspective on sexuality and the role of sex in human development. In the next two lectures, I will delve into how sexual themes served as the basis for Freud’s views of human development from infancy to early adulthood.

Freud envisioned adult personality as something that is shaped over several stages, beginning in infancy and continuing throughout childhood. Each stage is related to a specific erogenous zone. As children, our task is to complete one stage and then move on to the next as we age. Moving through stages is associated with normal development; however, some people can become “stuck” in a stage. The individual does not complete the developmental challenge of the stage and as an adult, will continue to focus on that stage. Freud called this Fixation.

He outlined five psychosexual stages in total: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Today, we will focus on the first two stages, and I will address the remaining three in tomorrow’s lecture. Let’s look at the oral and anal stages and what it means to successfully (or unsuccessfully) progress through each.

Oral stage. The first stage occurs from birth to approximately two years of age. Infants explore the world around them using their mouths. The natural instincts of rooting, sucking, and swallowing are crucial for survival. The mother-child bond is also critical, as the infant is completely dependent upon her. When these needs go unmet (e.g., they are hungry), the infant will express their frustration by crying. The extent to which the mother is responsive vs. unresponsive will dictate whether the child successfully progresses through this stage. In particular, if the mother takes too long to respond or outright neglects them, the child will feel the loss of this attachment, as well as the loss of trust. Conversely, if the mother overindulges her baby, the child will experience too much gratification, which will inevitably delay them in becoming independent of the mother. Developing a sense of self or Ego will be postponed. Therefore, Freud believed that weaning from the breast was the primary challenge of the stage.

What are the consequences of unsuccessful progression through the oral stage? In adults, a clear sign is found in disproportionate oral preoccupation, or “oral characters,” as Freud called them. This could be anything from excessive drinking, eating, and smoking to nail-biting. Adults stuck in the oral stage may also display a dependent personality and unrealistic optimism (if they were overindulged) or pessimism (if they were neglected).

Anal stage. Next, the anal stage occurs between about two to three years old. The primary erogenous zone shifts from the mouth to the bowel and bladder. Children at this age experience pleasure from both excreting and retaining feces. Of course, for adults, feces are normally seen as being something that warrants disgust. However, Freud believed that children experience no innate feelings of disgust and may even view feces as being something that is “part of them.” As you can imagine, toilet training would result in conflict between the child and their mother. For the child, holding onto the feces (vs flushing it away) is a defiant act, whereby they are exerting their independence. Not surprisingly, most parents can attest that toilet training is often challenging for all involved.

Freud believed that how parents approach toilet training can have a long-lasting impact. Successful navigation of the anal phase requires that parents are supportive and provide positive reinforcement during toilet training. Parents who are too lenient risk having their child develop an anal-expulsive personality in adulthood. These people generally lack self-control, are impulsive, and are messy/disorganized. Conversely, the consequence of overly strict toilet training is the development of an anal-retentive personality, with the person being excessively focused on neatness, perfection, and following rules.

Today’s task: It is likely too difficult for us to remember that far back into our childhoods. Instead, think about how your parents may have experienced this phase of your life. Have they ever described your behavior during that period? Was toilet training easy or hard? In either case, do you see any anal-expulsive or anal-retentive traits in yourself as an adult?

In tomorrow’s lecture, we are going to examine the remaining psychosexual stages. See you then!


Recommended book

Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis by Peter Fonagy


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