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What does Sigmund Freud have to Say about Sexual Development in Early Childhood?

Sexual Development in Early Childhood

The genius we know as Sigmund Freud was way ahead of his time and his foresightedness brought to us the concept of infantile sexuality which was both audacious and revolutionary for his era. Freud did not view ‘sex’ as a mere action that involved intercourse between the male and the female. But to him, it was life-governing energy that he called ‘libido’ and defined it as “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude…of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised of under the word ‘love’.” It is analogous to the force that drives us to fulfill certain psychological as well as biological needs. 

Isolated from the popular belief that sexual urges typically begin at puberty, Freud believed that sexuality has its roots in infancy. Pleasure fulfillment, to Freud, is not only focused on the pleasure achieved by manipulating one’s genitals but it is rather an all-pervasive sensation that covers all activities that can achieve gratification.

During the first few years of a child’s development, the child’s erotic instincts are fulfilled through different functioning modes. If the child’s erotic urges are frustrated, it could become the source of neurosis or other mental disorders or concerns in later life. Freud mentions that the erotic instincts of a child during infancy are centered on some body parts that give rise to erotic wishes. These erotic wishes are associated with a different bodily part which Freud called the ‘erogenous zones’. Erogenous zones are extremely sensitive parts of the skin or mucous membrane which harbors an irritation which on manipulation in one way or the other removes the irritation and provides sensual pleasure. The child moves through the different dynamic stages of sexual development by satisfying its erotic urges.

Stages of Psychosexual Development in Early Childhood:

During the oral stage (birth to 12 months) of psycho-sexual development, the oral area of the child is the erogenous zone and the child draws pleasure by sucking on the nipples of its mother with the help of its lips and mouth. The child’s primary source of pleasure at this stage is feeding and its physical intimacy with the mother’s breast.

anal stage

The next stage is known as the anal stage (1 year to 3 years) in which the erogenous zone of the child shifts to the anal region (lower digestive tract) and the child drives its pleasure from excretion and bladder elimination. The child’s ego starts to form as it gets toilet trained by the parents. The child faces a conflict between the id (demanding immediate gratification through elimination) and the ego (demanding to delay gratification by holding on to one’s urges of elimination). This stage helps the child to control one’s actions, gain environmental order, and also learn to be independent. 

phallic stage

This stage succeeds the phallic stage (3 years to 6 years) in which the pleasure is focused on the child’s genitalia and they start to discover and manipulate one’s sex organs. During this stage, the child develops the Oedipus complex (boys) and Electra complex (girls) in which they identify with and are attracted to the same-sex parents. The successful resolution of this stage helps the child in developing a mature role and identity related to sex, sexuality. 

This stage is followed by the latency stage by the onset of the 7th year when the child’s sexual urges are repression and they start forming friendships, focusing on academia, social and emotional development.

By the time the child steps into puberty, the dormant sexual urges are reactivated and the person steps into the genital stage (puberty to lifetime) of development. This stage is marked with a strong interest in the opposite sex, it helps the individual form adult intimate relationships, attaining sexual maturity through successful resolution.

Freud conclusively ascertained that if a particular erogenous zone is over or under gratification during the developmental period it leads to a regressive fixation on the particular stage of sexual development and some of the other forms of mental disturbances might steam from it in adulthood. Through this, he elucidated the importance of resolution of each stage and how they properly lead to an individual who is able to successfully form adult and intimate relationships, hence, healthily developing through all stages of psychosexual development.

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