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Child development: Freud

2015 July 11
by nannyjob

One of the first child development theorists was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud believed that all children had innate, basic aggressive and sexual desires, and the way that parents and other adults dealt with these desires would determine a child’s personality when they were grown up.

According to Freud babies are born with a selfish ‘ID’ which only cares about gratification of selfish urges. Later a child develops an ‘EGO’ as they learn that not all of their wants and desires can be fulfilled. The Ego is more realistic than the Id but still self-centred. Last to develop is the ‘SUPER-EGO’ which works with the Ego to control the Id and represents moral values. The Super-Ego is capable of acting altruistically and suppressing the desires of the Id and Ego which are self-serving.

A children develop they pass through certain psychosexual stages which are each defined by a particular conflict. In order to develop children need to find a way to resolve this conflict. Difficulty in resolving these conflicts, Freud thought, has a negative effect on development. Some children cannot move past a conflict and remain stuck or fixated on a particular stage. Freud thought this was because they were either frustrated by not having their needs met, or overindulged.

The stages according to Freud were

Oral – the mouth: actions such as sucking and swallowing

This first stage encompasses the baby’s first year of life. Needs are satisfied orally by sucking or biting, such as needing to be fed or needing to relieve teething pain. Freud believes that too much oral stimulation led to an oral fixation, in behaviour such as thumb sucking, biting nails or smoking in later life, especially when stressed.

Anal – the anus: expelling or withholding faecal matter

The second stage covers the period between 1 and 3 years old, a time when many children are potty training and thus in conflict with their parents or carers. A child is aware that they are their own person and exerts control over their environment by withholding their bowel movements of defecating. Freud believed that this was also related to the development of the Ego – for the first time the Id’s desires are in conflict with the outside world and the Ego is needed to control the Id – and set the pattern for a child’s relationship with authority. Freud coined the terms anally retentive for a child who was potty trained very early or very strictly and derived pleasure from withholding their bowel movements and anally expulsive for a child who was potty trained in a very liberal manner. He thought that anally retentive children grew up respect authority and order but also to hold onto their possessions and money. Anally expulsive children enjoy sharing but grow up to be disorganised.

Phallic – the penis or clitoris: masturbation

The third stage takes place during the preschool years. The child learns that there are differences between boys and girls and experiences conflicting emotions of jealousy, rivalry, fear and attraction. The child must learn to identify with the same sex parent in order to move past this stage, and a failure to resolve this conflict results in boys developing an Oedipus conflict and girls developing an Electra complex, although Oedipal complex is used to describe either. The idea is that the boy wants to possess his mother and replace his father but fears that his father will find out and take away what is most important to him – as this is the phallic stage Freud believed boys were most attached to the penis. Boys therefore copy their fathers’ behaviours and take on a male gender role. Girls, however, experience penis envy according to Freud and resolve their inner conflict by suppressing their desire for a penis and replacing it with a desire for a baby. The lack of a penis is seen as the mother’s fault and a girl must resolve this conflict by repressing her feeling and taking on a female gender role.

Latent – no sexual motivator

Freud believed that from the age of around 6 to puberty there was no psychosexual motivator and development was latent. Energy is directed towards making same sex friendships and school work.

Genital – the penis or vagina: sexual intercourse

From puberty Freud believed that adolescents moved through one last stage and experimented sexually before creating a successful monogamous relationship. The focus in this stage is heterosexual pleasure, unlike the phallic stage which focuses on pleasuring oneself. Freud believed that fixations at previous stages led to sexual perversions in a heterosexual relationship.


How can we apply Freud today?

Freud’s ideas were innovative. He identifies sensitive points and correlations such as a baby having their needs met orally, potty training being an area of conflict and children adopting gender roles in the preschool years. Today his ideas are seen as simplistic and overly focused on sex, but Freud used the terms sexual and psychosexual to refer to things which were pleasurable for children. His work is still applied in the field of adult psychology, and may help us to identify and encourage children to resolve innate conflicts. His idea of the early Id and the later developing Ego can also help us understand why some babies are ‘sucky’ babies who need a dummy or their fingers – their Ego is not sufficiently developed to control their basic oral needs.

This is the first in a series of blog posts on child development. You can find other posts using the child development tag or here: Piaget, Gesell, Erik Erikson, Bowlby.

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