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Freud's Psychosexual Stages of Development

According to Sigmund Freud, what we do and why we do it, who we are and how we became this way are all related to our sexual drive. Differences in personalities originate in differences in childhood sexual experiences. In the Freudian psychoanalytical model, child personality development is discussed in terms of "psychosexual stages". In his "Three Essays on Sexuality" (1915), Freud outlined five stages of manifestations of the sexual drive: Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, and Genital. At each stage, different areas of the child's body become the focus of his pleasure and the dominant source of sexual arousal. Differences in satisfying the sexual urges at each stage will inevitably lead to differences in adult personalities. Conflicts between the sex drive and rules of society are present at every stage. A proper resolution of the conflicts will lead the child to progress past one stage and move on to the next. Failure to achieve a proper resolution, however, will make the child fixated in the present stage. The latter is believed to be the cause of many personality and behavioral disorders.

1. Oral Stage (Age 0 - 1.5)

Erogenous Zone in Focus: Mouth

Gratifying Activities: Nursing - eating, as well as mouth movement, including sucking, gumming, biting and swallowing.

Interaction with the Environment: To the infant, the mother's breast not only is the source of food and drink, but also represents her love. Because the child's personality is controlled by the id and therefore demands immediate gratification, responsive nurturing is key. Both insufficient and forceful feeding can result in fixation in this stage.

Symptoms of Oral Fixation:

  •  Smoking

  • Constant chewing on gum, pens, pencils, etc.

  •  Nail biting

  • Overeating

  •  Drinking

  •  Sarcasm ("the biting personality") and verbal hostility

2. Anal Stage (Age 1.5 - 3)

Erogenous Zone in Focus: Anus

Gratifying Activities: Bowel movement and the withholding of such movement

Interaction with the Environment: The major event at this stage is toilet training, a process through which children are taught when, where, and how excretion is deemed appropriate by society. Children at this stage start to notice the pleasure and displeasure associated with bowel movements. Through toilet training, they also discover their own ability to control such movements. Along with it comes the realization that this ability gives them power over their parents. That is, by exercising control over the retention and expulsion of feces, a child can choose to either grand or resist parents' wishes.

Anal Fixation

         Anal-Expulsive Personality: If the parents are too lenient and fail to instill the society's rules about bowel movement control, the child will derive pleasure and success from the expulsion. Individuals with a fixation on this mode of gratification are excessively sloppy, disorganized, reckless, careless, and defiant.

         Anal-Retentive Personality: If a child receives excessive pressure and punishment from parents during toilet training, he will experience anxiety over bowl movements and take pleasure in being able to withhold such functions. Individuals who fail to progress pass this stage are obsessively clean and

         orderly, and intolerant of those who aren't. They may also be very careful, stingy, withholding, obstinate, meticulous, conforming and passive-aggressive.

3. Phallic Stage (Age 4 - 5)

Erogenous Zone in Focus: Genital

Gratifying Activities: Masturbation and genital fondling

Interaction with the Environment: This is probably the most challenging stage in a person's psychosexual development. The key event at this stage, according to Freud, is the child's feeling of attraction toward the parent of the opposite sex, together with envy and fear of the same-sex parent. In boys, this situation is called the "Oedipus Complex" (aka the Oedipal Complex), named after the young man in a Greek myth who killed his father and married his mother, unaware of their true identities. In girls, it is called the "Electra Complex".

Boys, in the midst of their Oedipus Complex, often experience intense "castration anxiety", which comes from the fear of punishment from the fathers for their desire for the mothers. Girls' Electra Complex involves "penis envy". That is, according to Freud, the girl believes that she once had a penis but that it was removed. In order to compensate for its loss, the girl wants to have a child by her father. Success or failure in the Oedipus conflict is at the core of either normal psychological development or psychological disorder. If a child is able to successfully resolve the conflict, he or she will have learnt to control their envy and hostility and begin to identify with and model after the parent of their own sex, and are ready to move on to the next developmental stage.

Phallic Fixation:

         For men: Anxiety and guilty feelings about sex, fear of castration, and narcissistic personality.

         For women: It is implied that women never progress past this stage fully and will always maintain a sense of envy and inferiority, although Freud asserted no certainty regarding women's possible fixations resulting from this stage. Similarly, Freud admitted uncertainty on the females' situation when he constructed the "penis envy" theory in the first place.

4. Latency (Age 5 - puberty)

Erogenous Zone in Focus: None

Interactions with the Environment: This is a period during which sexual feelings are suppressed to allow children to focus their energy on other aspects of life. This is a time of learning, adjusting to the social environment outside of home, absorbing the culture, forming beliefs and values, developing same-sex friendships, engaging in sports, etc. This period of sexual latency lasts five to six years, until puberty, upon which children become capable of reproduction, and their sexuality is re-awakened.

5. Genital Stage (From puberty on)

Erogenous Zone in Focus: Genital

Gratifying Activities: Masturbation and heterosexual relationships

Interaction with the Environment: This stage is marked by a renewed sexual interest and desire, and the pursuit of relationships.

Fixations: This stage does not cause any fixation. According to Freud, if people experience difficulties at this stage, and many people do, the damage was done in earlier oral, anal, and phallic stages. These people come into this last stage of development with fixations from earlier stages. For example, attractions to the opposite sex can be a source of anxiety at this stage if the person has not successfully resolved the Oedipal (or Electra) conflict at the phallic stage.

What do you think? Some people find Freud's psychosexual development theory intriguing but difficult to verify in real life. Others feel that it was built on shaky grounds because, although the entire theory focuses on early childhood experience, it is not based on studies of children, but memories and dreams of Freud's adult patients. Some people reject Freud's theory for other reasons, such as the idea that sexual desires are the primary motivation of all our actions and psychological development, and its condescending notions about women.
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