What Freud’s Psychosexual Development Theory Did and Didn’t Explain

<p> Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images </p>

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Medically reviewed by Michael MacIntyre, MD

Sigmund Freud's early 20th-century psychosexual theory proposed that an individual's personality develops through a series of five childhood stages.

Each stage correlates with a pleasure zone (also called an erogenous zone) of the body. Though the theory was considered groundbreaking at the time, it was not without its biases and flaws, and it faced criticism from other world-renowned psychology figures such as Carl Jung and Erik Erikson.

This article will dive deeper into Freud's psychosexual theory of development and identify its areas of modern-day concern.

<p> Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images</p>

Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

Historical Significance of Sigmund Freud

Though psychoanalysis is a mainstay of mental health treatment today, this wasn't always the case. It wasn't until an Austrian neurologist by the name of Sigmund Freud started listening to his patients as a means of better understanding their minds in the early 20th century.

One of the defining characteristics of psychoanalysis is the understanding and distinction of conscious and unconscious thoughts and the focus on bringing unconscious elements to the forefront of one's mind for proper management.

In addition to the introduction of psychoanalysis, Freud also proposed several other theories, including his psychosexual development theory, which the following will explore further. Freud's many contributions to the world of medicine and psychology world earned him the nickname "the father of modern psychology."

What Is Psychosexual Theory?

Sigmund Freud's psychosexual theory suggests that an individual's personality and sexuality evolve through five different stages of life. During each stage, different pleasure-seeking or sexual energies become focused on specific erogenous regions of the body.

Freud believed these erogenous zones then led to either sources of pleasure or frustration, which would ultimately make an impact on the development of the personality of an individual.

Each Stage Explains Child Development

Freud deeply believed that an individual's childhood experiences directly and greatly influenced who they would become in adulthood. His particular psychosexual theory suggests that in addition to adequate socialization, progressing through each psychosexual stage properly without getting "stuck" in a given stage was critical in developing into a "healthy" adult.

Each different stage proposed in the theory related to a specific period of childhood development. Conflicts arise in each stage, and the key to proper development lies in how the conflict is addressed or handled. For example, during infancy, or the oral stage, the sucking and rooting reflexes of the mouth are prominent because they are the means to gaining sustenance and thus the baby's contentment.

Great trust develops at this critical time between the infant and the caregiver, particularly if the baby is breastfeeding. Conflict arises when the time comes to wean the baby off of breastfeeding. If this is not handled properly, can lead to oral fixations later in life, which can manifest as problems with eating, drinking, smoking, nail biting, or other habits.

Fixations May Affect Progression

Freud believed that if issues arose and were not expressed or dealt with properly during the affected stage, "fixations" would develop. In psychology, sexual fixations are the notion that a person's libido or sexual energy is "stuck" at a particular psychosexual stage and will remain as such without intervention.

According to the theory, unless the underlying reason for the fixation is addressed, it will persist.

Link to Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud's psychoanalytic theory hypothesized that an individual's personality is determined in early life, around the age of 5. In addition to his psychosexual theory, Freud also had a personality theory in which he believed a person's inner psyche consisted of three separate entities: the id, the ego, and the superego.

The id is essentially the part of the personality that urges one to satisfy their primal or basic needs. Think of the id as the unconscious part of the mind. Gratification is granted when the needs of the id are satisfied. The ego is the part of the personality that's based in reality, or rather, the conscious state of the mind.

The ego helps to mediate the id and the superego. The superego is the part of the personality that develops later in life through social interactions and influences.

Freud believed that if an issue arose during a particular developmental stage and was not addressed accordingly, a fixation would develop that could ultimately negatively affect an individual's personality.

However, if a person is able to successfully mature through each stage without any unresolved issues, then a "healthy" personality would result.

Freud’s 5 Stages

The five stages Freud identified in his psychosexual theory are:

  1. The Oral Stage (birth to 1 year old): In this stage, the erogenous zone is the mouth because most of an infant's initial interactions occur through that zone.

  2. The Anal Stage (1–3 years old): This stage emphasizes bladder and bowel control and is the time when children are weaned out of diapers and become toilet trained.

  3. The Phallic Stage (3–6 years old): During this stage, the genitals are the erogenous zone, and the theory suggests that this is when boys and girls become aware of their differences. At this time, a young boy may see his father as a rival for his mother's attention (this is otherwise known as an Oedipus complex), or a young girl may begin to view her mother as a rival for her father's attention (or have an Electra complex).

  4. The Latent Stage (6 years old to puberty): During this stage, sexual feelings or desires stay dormant or repressed as the ego and superego develop. Children also begin socializing more and develop intellectual pursuits through school and other activities.

  5. The Genital Stage (puberty to death): In this final stage, a person's libido is once again activated, and at its outset, individuals begin to develop an interest in the opposite sex.

Criticisms of Psychosexual Development

Though Freud has certainly made several contributions to the world of modern psychology, he and his theories have not developed over time without facing some backlash and criticism from both within the world of psychological scientific study and outside of it.

Theory Isn’t Gender Inclusive

Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Freud's psychosexual theory is that it focuses almost exclusively on the male gender's development. There was little if no mention of females and their subsequent development.

Research Methods

Many of Sigmund Freud's theories, including the psychosexual theory, are difficult to validate because they are based on case studies. As a result, the scientific method cannot easily repeat their findings and observations.

There is simply no means for quantifying sexual energies or libidos, and discussing such complex emotions and feelings with young children would be considered morally and ethically wrong.

What About Homosexuality?

Freud's psychosexual theory is geared toward understanding the development of heterosexual males and fails to acknowledge homosexual development. This can be illustrated most clearly in his discussion of the genital stage of his psychosexual theory, in which he states that it is during this final stage that individuals become attracted to the opposite gender.

But what if they don't? What if they instead develop attractions to people of their own gender? Or to both genders? Freud did not take these notions into account, which has led to marked criticism in today's world.

Notable Alternative Theories

Erik Erikson was a German-born psychologist and psychoanalyst who most notably challenged Freud's theories on personality development. Though Erikson was influenced by Freud's theories, his psychosocial theory drew both similarities and differences. Like Freud, Erikson believed development occurred in stages, but he identified eight stages instead of five.

Erikson's theory placed more emphasis on the social experiences of an individual throughout their lifespan, with some stages focusing on trust versus mistrust, intimacy versus isolation, integrity versus despair, and so on.

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, also produced a differing view of personality development. Jung's theories of personality development involved a collective unconscious element by which everyone is connected.

These are just two alternatives to Freud's psychosexual theory, but others exist as well.


Sigmund Freud's theory of psychosexual development focuses on an individual's early childhood experience and how it relates to the development of their personality. Freud identified five stages in which he thought development occurred. Since its publication, the psychosexual theory has come under much scrutiny for its lack of research and its lack of inclusivity.

A Word From Verywell

If you're interested in delving deeper into the inner workings of your mind, it is always best to speak with a licensed mental health practitioner. Whether it's a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed mental health counselor, or social worker, there are several healthcare providers who are well versed in various psychological schools of thought and can determine the best plan and path for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s an example of psychosexual theory?

Freud believed that if a person went through a crisis during a particular stage, then they would manifest the fixations of that particular stage later in life. For example, if an infant experienced difficulty breastfeeding, later in life they may develop oral fixations such as poor oral habits like nail biting or smoking.

How do Freud’s stages explain personality?

Freud's theory proposed that if an individual progressed through each stage without incident, they would develop a "healthy" personality. If a person became fixated at any stage, they would inevitably manifest that fixation later in life.

Do therapists still use Freud’s psychosexual development theory?

Though there is no denying that Freud greatly contributed to modern-day psychology, his psychosexual development theory is no longer strongly supported. In fact, many modern psychologists admit that Freud's psychosexual theory has not evolved with our modern-day world as its views are heterosexual male-dominated views and do not account for homosexual, bisexual, or pansexual viewpoints.