Main points Freud's theory of psychosexual development had its origins in, and was a generalization of, Josef Breuer's earlier discovery that traumatic childhood events could have devastating negative effects upon the adult. This view assumed that early childhood sexual experiences were the crucial factors in the determination of the adult personality. Freud's believed that from the moment of birth, the infant is driven in his actions by the desire for bodily/sexual pleasure. Initially, infants gain such release, and derive such pleasure, through the act of sucking. Freud termed this period the oral stage of development. This is followed by a stage in which the locus of pleasure or energy release is the anus, particularly in the act of defecation, and this he termed the anal stage. Then the young child develops an interest in its sexual organs as a site of pleasure and an accompanying sexual attraction for the parent of the opposite sex, while developing a subtle hatred for the parent of the same sex. This, Freud called the phallic stage of development. Following this the child then enters what Freud called the latency period, in which sexual motivations become much less pronounced. This lasts until puberty, when the mature genital stage of development begins, and the pleasure drive refocuses around the genital area.
This developmental sequence best described the progression of normal human development, according to Freud. A child at a given stage of development has certain needs and demands, such as the need of the infant to nurse. Frustration occurs when these needs are not met. Freud called these frustrations conflicts, and the child encounters them as part of the developmental process. Successful resolution of the conflict is crucial to adjustment and eventual adult mental health. According to Freud, when a child experiences a significant degree of frustration or overindulgence around these conflicts, the child's sexual urges become stuck to some extent in that stage of development. He called this inability to resolve the conflict a fixation. The child then continues to repeat the maladaptive behaviors that are indicative of that unresolved conflict. In contrast, if the child progresses normally through the stages, resolving each conflict and moving on, then the sexual urges do not become fixated and will progress normally.
In Freud's view, many mental illnesses, particularly hysteria, can be traced back to unresolved conflicts experienced at one of these developmental stages or to events which otherwise disrupt the normal pattern of infant development. For example, homosexuality is seen by some Freudians as resulting from a failure to resolve the conflicts inherent in the phallic stage, particularly a failure to identify with the parent of the same sex. The obsessive concern with washing one's hands and personal hygiene, which characterizes the behavior of some neurotics, is seen as resulting from unresolved conflicts/repressions occurring at the anal stage.
Explanation: Oral stage The oral stage of psycho-sexual development begins at birth when the oral cavity is the primary focus of psychosexual energy (libido). The child, of course, preoccupies himself with nursing and receives the pleasure of sucking and accepting things into the mouth. The child who is frustrated at this stage and unable to get his needs met adequately, because his mother refuses to nurse him on demand or who ends nursing sessions early, is characterized by pessimism, envy, suspicion, and sarcasm. The overindulged infant, whose nursing urges were often excessively satisfied, is optimistic, gullible, and is full of admiration for others around him. This stage culminates in the primary conflict of weaning, which both deprives the child of the sensory pleasures of nursing and of the psychological pleasure of being cared for, mothered, and held. This stage lasts approximately one and one-half years.
Examples A child fixated at the oral stage of development may become very dependent on his or her mother, clinging to her and becoming fearful of being away from her. This, according to Freud, results because the child was unable to adequately resolve the dependency needs in the oral stage of development.
Explanation: Anal stage At approximately 18 months of age, the child enters the anal stage of psychosexual development. With the advent of toilet training comes the child's obsession with the anus and with the retention or expulsion of the feces. This represents a classic conflict between the id, which derives pleasure from expulsion of bodily wastes, and the ego and superego, which represent the practical and societal pressures to control the bodily functions. The child meets the conflict between physical desires and the parent's demands in one of two ways: Either he puts up a fight or he simply refuses to go. The child who wants to fight takes pleasure in excreting maliciously, perhaps just before or just after being placed on the toilet. If the parents are too lenient and the child manages to derive pleasure and success from this expulsion, it will result in the formation of what Freud called the "anal expulsive character." This characterizes adults who are generally messy, disorganized, reckless, careless, and defiant. In contrast, a child may opt to retain feces, thereby spiting his parents while enjoying the pleasurable pressure of the built-up feces in his intestine. If this tactic succeeds and the child is overindulged, he will develop into an "anal retentive character." This type of person is stereotypically viewed as neat, precise, orderly, careful, stingy, withholding, obstinate, meticulous, and passive-aggressive. The resolution of the anal stage, which includes proper toilet training, permanently affects the individual's inclinations to possess and their attitudes toward authority. This stage lasts from ages one and one-half to two years.
Examples According to psychoanalytic theory, if a child becomes fixated at the anal stage, it carries over into the rest of the person's life. For instance, an adult who has anal expulsive traits may like crude or inappropriate bathroom humor or exhibit passive-aggressive behavior toward others. Those characterized by the anal retentive trait may be overly concerned with order, cleanliness, or organization. This behavior is sometimes diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder and may pose significant problems for the person as he or she attempts to carry on normal activities of living.
Explanation: Phallic stage The phallic stage is the setting for the most crucial sexual conflict in Freud's psychosexual model of development. In this stage, the child's genital region becomes the focus. As the child becomes more interested in his or her genitals and in the genitals of others, conflict arises. This conflict, which Freud labeled the "Oedipus complex" for boys and the "Electra complex" for girls, involves the child's unconscious desire to possess the opposite-sexed parent and to eliminate the same-sexed one.
In the young male, the Oedipus conflict stems from his natural love for his mother, a love which becomes sexual as his libidinal energy transfers from the anal region to his genitals. Unfortunately for the boy, his father stands in the way of possessing his mother. The boy therefore feels aggression and envy towards this rival, his father, and also feels fear that the father will strike back at him. The boy, by this time, has undoubtedly noticed that women, his mother in particular, do not have penises. Although he understands that this is a male-only fixture, he fears that his father will do something to take away his penis. Freud called this fear "castration anxiety," which helps the boy to repress his desire for his mother. Moreover, while the boy recognizes now that he cannot possess his mother, because his father does, he can possess her vicariously by identifying with his father and becoming as much like him as possible. This identification indoctrinates the boy into his appropriate sexual role in life.
While the Oedipal conflict was developed in great detail, Freud did not provide as much clarity on the Electra complex. The Electra complex has its roots in a young girl's discovery that she, along with her mother and all other women, lack the penis that her father and other men possess. Her love for her father then becomes both erotic and envious, as she yearns for a penis of her own. She comes to blame her mother for her perceived castration, and is struck by "penis envy," the apparent counterpart to the boy's castration anxiety. The resolution of the Electra complex is far less clear-cut than the resolution of the Oedipus complex is in males. Freud stated that the resolution comes much later and is never truly complete. Just as the boy learned his sexual role by identifying with his father, so the girl learns her role by identifying with her mother in an attempt to possess her father vicariously. At the eventual resolution of the conflict, the girl passes into the latency period, though Freud implies that she always remains slightly fixated at the phallic stage.
Fixation at the phallic stage develops a phallic character who is reckless, resolute, self-assured, and narcissistic. The failure to resolve the conflict can also cause a person to be afraid of or incapable of close love. Freud also postulated that fixation could be a root cause of homosexuality.
Examples Freud believed that adults may unconsciously replay unresolved conflicts from their childhoods if fixated at that stage. Perhaps the best example is young adults who seek the company of the opposite sex, and may eventually marry someone like their own mother or father. Freud would say that this not only represents familiarity, but an unconscious effort to resolve the fixated conflict from the phallic stage of psychosexual development. The young person may try to "win" the affection of the desired one in an effort to finally achieve the maternal or paternal closeness for which they have longed.
Explanation: Latency The resolution of the phallic stage leads to the latency period, which is not a psychosexual stage of development, but a period in which the sexual drive lies dormant. Freud saw latency as a period of unparalleled repression of sexual desires and impulses. During the latency period, children pour this repressed libidinal energy into asexual pursuits such as school, athletics, and same-sex friendships. But soon puberty strikes, and the genitals once again become a central focus of libidinal energy. The latency stage extends approximately from ages six to 12. Critics claim that Freud's assumption of a latency period of sexual development, especially at this stage of growth, represents a significant weakness in his theory.
Examples Boys and girls in the latency stage, for the most part, have same-sex playmates and show little interest in being in the company of peers of the opposite sex. During this period, boys and girls typically begin evidencing their sex roles through play. Boys gravitate to those activities characterized as masculine, participating in more aggressive play. Girls tend to favor more feminine activities such as playing with dolls or dressing up.
Explanation: Genital stage In the genital stage, as the child's energy once again focuses on his or her genitals, interest turns to heterosexual relationships. The less energy the child has fixated in unresolved psycho-sexual development, the greater the capacity will be to develop normal relationships with the opposite sex. Freud thought that if a person did not get trapped in any of sequential psychosexual stages, then adolescence would mark the beginning of an adult life and normal sexual relations, marriage, and child-rearing. If, however, the person remained fixated, particularly in the phallic stage, development would be troubled as he or she struggled to resolve the points of contention. Unfortunately, the person will often resort to repression and other defense mechanisms because he or she does not know how to truly resolve the unconscious issues. Freud, unlike Erik Erikson who expanded his stages to cover the full span of life, believed that the crucial conflict of the genital stage occurred between the ages of 12 and 18, but left the impression that the genital stage continues indefinitely.
Examples The genital stage primarily comprises adolescents who are intensely interested in the opposite sex, dating, and sexual experimentation. If young people have resolved the previous conflicts in earlier psychosexual stages, they should be able to contain their genital urges in an appropriate manner. If not, they will, according to Freud, act out their unresolved conflicts in aberrant ways. For instance, a male who has not resolved the phallic stage conflict may become possessive and jealous of his girlfriend, attempting to restrict her social life and thereby demanding loyalty to him exclusively.
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