top of page

Freud: The Psychosexual Stages of Development

The theory of psychosexual development, established by the findings of Sigmund Freud's clinical study of emotionally unsettled people, is one of the earliest theories explaining how personality develops in human beings. Freud (1856-1939) is regarded as the first psychological theorist to emphasize the critical role of early experiences during infancy and childhood in establishing the basic character structure of an adult. "Psychoanalysis profoundly transformed many traditional perspectives, uncovered the unsuspected initial diversity and wealth of potentialities in human nature" (Zukier, 1985, p. 5). He claims that the individual goes through a series of differentiated developmental stages and mishaps at various stages, particularly in early childhood, play an important role in the etiology of psychological problems, along with mental disorders.

Photographic portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt.

Based on his study, Freud discovered that symptoms of mental problems in adulthood are related to erotic instinct frustrations which are common as early as the first year of life and last throughout childhood. Freud was thus prompted to believe that children displayed sexual urges and that any theory of personality must account for infantile sexuality. Sexual instinct was a psychophysiological process with both mental and physical manifestations, to Freud. He used the term "libido" to refer to the mental force that represents the sexual instinct and sexuality to refer to an individual's erotic life. He asserted sexuality is not only a problem for adults, but also for children. The first manifestations of sexuality appear in relation to nonsexual bodily functions such as feeding and waste elimination. However, the concepts advanced by Freud regarding the erotic life of infants and young children drew the most criticism.

Baby Sucking His Toes by Choi Julie.

Each stage of psychosexual development is characterized by the phase of response of a specific zone of the body. During the first 18 months of a newborn, the mouth is the primary area of dynamic activity. As a result, this stage is known as the oral stage. During this stage, sucking is the primary source of pleasure for the child. Sucking entails both tactual stimulations of the mouth and swallowing. When the child's teeth pop up, it uses its mouth for biting and chewing. Because the child is primarily concerned with seeking pleasure, it requires immediate satisfaction with its needs. As the erotic drive is localized in the mouth, the infant's need for pleasure is adequately met by sucking the mother's breast, fingers, or toes.

The oral stage is followed by the pleasure derived from elimination functions, which is referred to as the anal stage lasting for another 18 months. This stage begins around one and a half years of age and ends about three years of age. During the early stages of the anal stage, there is a pleasurable sensation of excretion, followed by erotic stimulation of the anal mucosa through feces retention. The child starts learning to postpone the pleasure of relieving anal tensions with toilet training. It is expected to conform to the orders of toilet training during the anal period. The child must learn that retention is more satisfying than expulsion. Toilet training has far-reaching effects on specific personality traits and values, depending on the mother's method.

Andromache and Astyanax

The phallic stage, during which the sex organs evolve as the prevailing zones, comes after the anal stage. The mouth, anus, and external genitalia become the crux of the child's erotic life depending on the stage of development. This stage starts when the child is three years old and lasts until it is five. At this stage, rudiments of sex can be observed. The child relieves tension and derives pleasure by playing with its genitals. Erotic activity is initially linked, both psychologically and physically, to urination-related activities and sensations since it helps the child establish its gender identity. A boy realizes he is a boy through the process of urination; similarly, a girl realizes she is a girl through the process of urination. The main events of the phallic stage are thought to be the emergence of the Oedipus and Electra complexes. The Oedipus complex is named after the Theban king who murdered his father and married his mother. It is characterized by a sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and a hostile attitude toward the parent of the same sex. The boy wishes to seize his mother and depose his father. According to Electra complex, the girl wishes to possess her father and depose her mother. These feelings manifest themselves in the child's fantasies while masturbating.

In the fifth year, the child enters the latency period, during which sexual urges are suppressed. The pregenital impulses are reactivated with the onset of adolescence, and the person enters the genital stage of development. At the end of the fifth year, infantile sexuality is gradually suppressed due to social fear. The child is not consciously involved in sexual matters and its active interest shifts outward. The child learns how to act in society and develops its ideals. Attachment to parents and friends is an overt manifestation of sexuality. Interest in the opposite sex is at an all-time low. The child expends all of its energy in order to succeed and prove itself.

Puberty by Edvard Munch.

The pregenital impulses are reactivated with the onset of adolescence, and the person enters the genital stage of development. Adolescence characterizes the beginning of this stage. During the genital stage, sexual feelings resurface intensely. As a result, the child's attachment to parents and friends is channeled into sexual relationships. Sexual attraction, socialization, group activities, vocational planning, and marriage and family planning begin to emerge. The person matures from a pleasure-seeking, self-centered infant to a reality-oriented, socialized adult. The most important biological function of the genital stage is reproduction.

Consequently, the theory of psychosexual development by Sigmund Freud establishes five stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Adult behavior, according to psychoanalysis, is the result of the infantile psychosexual stages. "The sexual instinct of adults arises from a combination of a number of impulses of childhood into a unity" (Freud, 1905, p. 231). It can result in the development of normal or abnormal behavior depending on the individual's experiences during the psychosexual developmental stages. His theory has aroused several criticisms under feminist, scientific, and anthropologic lenses. It is related to "the contemporaneous embrace of Freud by literary critics and the efflorescence of what is sometimes called 'the literary Freud'" (Robinson et al., 1993, p. 14).

Bibliographical References

Craib, I. (1998). Sigmund Freud. Key Sociological Thinkers, 59. E-book. Retrieved from

Davidson, A. I. (1987). How to Do the History of Psychoanalysis: A Reading of Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.” Critical Inquiry, 13(2), 252–277.

Freud, S. (1901-05). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII. E-book. Retrieved from

Freud, S. (2014). On the Sexual Theories of Children. Read Books Ltd. E-book. Retrieved from

Person, E. S. (1980). Sexuality as the Mainstay of Identity: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Signs, 5(4), 605–630.

Robinson, P. A., & Robinson, P. W. (1993). Freud and his critics. Univ of California Press. E-book. Retrieved from

Lantz, S. E., & Ray, S. (2021). Freud Developmental Theory. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved from

Zukier, H. (1985). Freud and Development: The Developmental Dimensions of Psychoanalytic Theory. Social Research, 52(1), 3–41.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Melis Güven

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page