Psychosexual Development

Freud’s theories of the different stages of psychological development, and their complex relationship to sexuality.

Oral Fixation
Control of Bladder and Bowel Movements
Womb Envy
Fourth Stage

Definition of Psychosexual Development

Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is an influential model that explains how personality evolves throughout childhood.

It proposes that children’s psychological and sexual maturation occurs through a series of five distinct stages, each associated with a particular erogenous zone: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital.

During each stage, the child must resolve conflicts between their physical desires and social expectations to move to the next stage. This process shapes their personality as unresolved issues can lead to psychological problems later in life.


For example, if a child experiences too much or too little gratification during the oral stage they may develop an oral fixation which could manifest itself as smoking or overeating in adulthood. Similarly, if there are difficulties during the anal stage it could result in stubbornness or irresponsibility later on.

The Oral Stage

The oral stage of psychosexual development is the first stage in a child’s life. It spans from birth to 18 months and is marked by an infant’s exploration of the world through their mouth – the erogenous zone during the oral stage.

Oral activities, such as sucking and biting provide not only nourishment but also a sense of comfort and security.


Breastfeeding, for example, is an important part of this stage as it provides food while also offering comfort and safety through physical contact with the mother or caregiver.

Pacifiers and thumb-sucking can be another source of pleasure, helping babies self-soothe when they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed.


According to Freud’s theory, unresolved issues could result in an oral fixation in later life, which can manifest in the form of certain habits like smoking, nail-biting, finger-chewing, and overeating.

The Anal Stage

The second stage of psychosexual development is the anal stage, which occurs between the ages of one and three.

According to Freud, the ability to control one’s bladder and bowel movements now becomes a major focus of the libido. As the child learns to master this control through toilet training, they gain a sense of accomplishment and independence. However, the parents’ approach can have a big impact.

Praising and rewarding children for appropriate toilet behavior can encourage positive outcomes and instill a sense of capability and productivity. On the other hand, inappropriate parenting can result in two types of negative outcomes: anal-expulsiveness or anal-retentiveness.

An anal-retentive personality stems from parents who were overly strict or who began toilet training too early. This can lead to feelings of shame or anxiety surrounding bodily functions, and the personality type is marked by rigidity, obsessiveness, and excessive orderliness.


An anal-expulsive personality happens when parents are too lenient. This might result in delayed development of self-control and discipline, and the personality type is characterized by messiness and destructiveness.

The Phallic Stage

The phallic stage is the third stage of psychosexual development and takes place between the ages of 3 and 6.

According to Freud, the libido’s primary focus is now on the genitals. During this time, children start to recognize the physical differences between males and females while also experiencing strong feelings toward parents of the opposite sex. This is known as the Oedipus complex or the Electra complex respectively.

Believing that children develop an unconscious sexual attraction to their opposite-sex parent as well as a rivalry with their same-sex parent, Freud theorized that children try to resolve this internal conflict by identifying and imitating their same-sex parent – thus indirectly getting closer to the parent of the other sex.

This process is called ‘identification’ and it involves internally adopting someone else’s values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Freud’s idea of ‘penis envy’ also comes into play during this time as he believed that girls may feel envious of boys for having a penis. He suggested that girls experience feelings of inferiority upon realizing they lack a penis, leading them to desire one symbolically.

However, German psychoanalyst Karen Horney strongly disagreed and proposed that men instead feel inferior because they cannot give birth, which she called ‘womb envy’.


Oedipus and Electra Complexes

The Oedipus Complex is an important part of the phallic stage, and also one of Freud’s most controversial ideas. It refers to Freud’s belief that boys desire to replace their fathers because they view them as competition for their mother’s love. This creates a fear of punishment from the father, known as ‘castration anxiety’.

The name Oedipus Complex is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus Rex. In this story, King Laius orders that his son be killed after hearing a prophecy that his son will one day kill him. However, Oedipus survives and later in life, unknowingly kills his father before marrying his mother Jocasta. When he discovers what has happened, he blinds himself in despair by poking out his eyes.

Freud suggested that girls may experience similar feelings, but instead of castration anxiety, they have penis envy. Although it was Freud who developed the idea, he never gave the female counterpart a specific name. Eventually, it was Carl Jung — one of Freud’s contemporaries — who dubbed it the Electra complex in 1913. The term comes from the Greek myth of Electra and her brother Orestes, who planned their mother’s death as revenge for their father’s murder.


The Latency Stage

The latency stage is the fourth stage, spanning six years to puberty.

During this time, a child’s sexual impulses become repressed or dormant, allowing for a shift in focus toward acquiring knowledge and developing important life skills through school work, hobbies, and friendships. This is an example of ‘sublimation’; the child’s energy is still present but gets channeled into other pursuits.

This period is like a breeding ground for personality formation as children learn how to interact and relate to others. The time frame also coincides with a natural surge in cognitive abilities such as problem-solving and abstract thinking.


However, as with the other stages, Freud cautioned that if a child becomes fixated, they may struggle later in life. Fixation at this stage could lead to emotional immaturity, difficulties building meaningful connections with others, and even social isolation.

The Genital Stage

The genital stage is the fifth and final stage of psychosexual development, occurring from puberty onward. It is characterized by the reemergence of the libido.


The goal of this stage is to find a balance between the various life areas as we grapple with newfound physical changes and hormonal surges that can impact mood and self-esteem. In comparison to earlier stages of development, the focus shifts from being primarily on satisfying our own needs to a growing interest in the welfare of others.

People now start to experience sexual desires for others outside their family unit and seek to establish meaningful and intimate relationships – eventually leading to adult relationships with partners if desired.

Fixation and Regression

Fixation occurs when unresolved conflicts from earlier psychosexual stages linger, impacting us as adults. We have, in essence, become stuck at an earlier stage.

Regression, on the other hand, is a primitive defense mechanism where we revert to behaviors typical of earlier developmental stages during times of stress.

For example, someone who experienced trauma during the oral stage may resort to thumb-sucking when feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Similarly, an adult who did not resolve their conflicts during the anal phase may start wetting the bed when under stress.


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