Austrian psychotherapist Sigmund Freud described personality development during childhood in terms of stages based on shifts in the primary location of sexual impulses. During each stage libidinal pleasure is derived from a particular area of the body—called an erogenous zone—and the activities centered in that area. If the problems and conflicts of a particular stage are not adequately resolved, the child—and, later, the adult—may remain fixated at that stage.
A fixation consists of a conscious or unconscious preoccupation with an area of the body (such as the mouth in a compulsive eater), as well as certain personality traits. Freud believed that some degree of fixation is present in everyone and that it is an important determinant of personality.
During the three pregenital stages that occur in a child’s first five years, sexuality is narcissistic: it is directed toward the child’s own body as a source of pleasure rather than outward. In the oral stage, which occupies approximately the first year of life, pleasurable impulses are concentrated in the area of the mouth and lips, the infant’s source of nourishment.
The child derives pleasure from sucking, mouthing, swallowing, and, later, biting and chewing food. The mouth is also used for exploring. The primary emotional issues at this stage of life are nurturance and dependency.
A person who develops an oral fixation—for example, by being weaned too early or too late—is likely to focus on forms of oral gratification such as smoking, drinking, or compulsive eating. Personality traits may include excessive dependency and desire for the approval of others or a drive to acquire possessions that recalls the infant’s drive to incorporate food.
The next stage—the anal stage—takes place during the infant’s second year. At this point, voluntary control of elimination becomes physically possible and is inculcated through toilet training. This is a child’s first major experience with discipline and outside authority and requires the subordination of natural instincts to social demands.
Experiences at this stage play a role in determining a person’s degree of initiative and attitude toward authority. A child who is harshly disciplined in the course of toilet training may later rebel against authority or become overly fastidious, controlled, or stingy. Conversely, a child who is rewarded and praised for attempts to control elimination is more likely to develop a willingness to “let go” that is associated with generosity and creativity.
Between the ages of two and three years, the focus of a child’s attention and pleasure shifts from the anal to the genital area, initiating what Freud termed the phallic stage. During this period, important changes take place in the child’s attitude toward his or her parents. Sexual longings are experienced toward the parent of the opposite sex, accompanied by feelings of rivalry and hostility for the same-sex parent.
Freud called this situation the Oedipus complex for its similarity to the plot of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, in which the central character unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. While the broad outlines of the Oedipal stage are similar for both sexes, it takes a somewhat different course in male and female children.
A boy fears that his father will punish him for his feelings toward his mother by removing the locus of these feelings, the penis. This fear, which Freud called castration anxiety, causes the boy to abandon his incestuous attachment to his mother and begin to identify with his father, imitating him and adopting his values, a process that results in the formation of the boy’s superego.
To describe the experience undergone by girls in the Oedipal stage, Freud used the term “Electra complex,” which was derived from the name of a figure in Greek mythology who was strongly attached to her father, Agamemnon, and participated in avenging his death at the hands of her mother, Clytemnestra. Paralleling the castration anxiety felt by boys, girls, according to Freud, experience penis envy.
The girl blames her mother for depriving her of a penis and desires her father because he possesses one. Ultimately, the girl, like the boy, represses her incestuous desires and comes to identify with the same-sex parent, the mother, through the development of a superego.
As the phallic stage ends, its conflicts are resolved or repressed, and it is followed by the latency period, during which sexual impulses are dormant. The latency period separates pregenital sexuality from the genital stage, which begins with adolescence and lasts through adulthood. In the genital stage, narcissism is replaced by focusing sexual energy on a partner of the opposite sex, ultimately resulting in sexual union and extending to feelings such as friendship, altruism, and love.