Freud’s Psychosexual Theory and 5 Stages of Human Development

Psychosexual Theory

Sigmund Freud proposed that personality development in childhood takes place during five psychosexual stages, which are the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages.

During each stage, sexual energy (libido) is expressed in different ways and through different body parts.

These are called psychosexual stages because each stage represents the fixation of libido (roughly translated as sexual drives or instincts) on a different area of the body.

As a person grows physically certain areas of their body become important as sources of potential frustration (erogenous zones), pleasure or both.

freud psychosexual

Freud (1905) believed that life was built around tension and pleasure. Freud also believed that all tension was due to the build-up of libido (sexual energy) and that all pleasure came from its discharge.

In describing human personality development as psychosexual, Freud meant to convey that what develops is the way in which sexual energy of the id accumulates and is discharged as we mature biologically.

Note, Freud used the term “sexual” in a very general way to mean all pleasurable actions and thoughts.

Freud stressed that the first five years of life are crucial to the formation of adult personality. The id must be controlled to satisfy social demands; this sets up a conflict between frustrated wishes and social norms.

The ego and superego develop in order to exercise this control and direct the need for gratification into socially acceptable channels.

Gratification centers in different areas of the body at different stages of growth, making the conflict at each stage psychosexual.

The Role of Conflict

Each psychosexual stage is associated with a particular conflict that must be resolved before the individual can successfully advance to the next stage.

The resolution of each of these conflicts requires the expenditure of sexual energy, and the more energy that is expended at a particular stage, the more important characteristics of that stage remain with the individual as he/she matures psychologically.

To explain this, Freud suggested the analogy of military troops on the march.  As the troops advance, they are met by opposition or conflict. 

If they are highly successful in winning the battle (resolving the conflict), then most of the troops (libido) will be able to move on to the next battle (stage).

But the greater the difficulty encountered at any particular point, the greater the need for troops to remain behind to fight and, thus, the fewer that will be able to go on to the next confrontation.

Fixation Psychology

Some people cannot leave one stage and proceed to the next.  One reason for this may be that the needs of the developing individual at any particular stage may not have been adequately met, in which case there is frustration.

Or, possibly, the person’s needs may have been so well satisfied that he/she is reluctant to leave the psychological benefits of a particular stage in which there is overindulgence.

For example, during the first two years of life, the infant who is neglected (insufficiently fed) or who is over-protected (over-fed) might become an orally fixated person (Freud, 1905).

freud personality
Mental abnormality can occur if a stage is not completed successfully and the person becomes ‘fixated’ in a particular stage. This particular theory shows how childhood experiences determine adult personality.

Both frustration and overindulgence (or any combination of the two) may lead to what psychoanalysts call fixation at a particular psychosexual stage.

Fixation refers to the theoretical notion that a portion of the individual’s libido has been permanently “invested” in a particular stage of his development.

You can remember the order of these stages by using the mnemonic : “old (oral) age (anal) pensioners (phallic) love (latent) grapes (genital).

Oral Stage (Birth to 1 year)

The Oral Stage is the first stage of Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, occurring from birth until approximately 18 months.

During the oral stage, a baby’s libido, or innate pleasure-seeking energy, is focused on the mouth.


The baby derives immense satisfaction from engaging in oral activities such as sucking, biting, breastfeeding, and chewing various objects, satisfying their inherent desires.

During the oral stages, the baby gets much satisfaction from putting all sorts of things in its mouth to satisfy the libido.

An example of this stage is an infant who gains pleasure from sucking on a pacifier or bottle. This gives them satisfaction and helps them learn about their environment.

Oral Fixation

Freud theorized that experiences during the oral stage significantly influence personality development.

For instance, he suggested that a child underfed or frustrated during feedings might become a pessimistic, envious, and suspicious adult.

On the other hand, a child who is overfed or overly gratified could become optimistic, gullible, and full of admiration.

Freud also linked oral behaviors to specific personality types in adulthood. For example, a person fixated on the oral stage may engage in excessive eating, smoking, nail-biting, or becoming overly talkative, symbolizing the continued fulfillment of oral needs.

We see oral personalities around us, such as smokers, nail-biters, over-eaters, and thumb-suckers.  Oral personalities engage in such oral behaviors, particularly when under stress.

Anal Stage (1 to 3 years)

The anal stage is the second stage of psychosexual development happens between the ages of 18 months and three years.

During the anal stage, the libido becomes focused on the anus, and the child derives great pleasure from defecating. 

An example of this stage would be a child who takes pleasure in controlling and releasing their bowels.

Freud believed this type of conflict tends to come to a head in potty training, in which adults impose restrictions on when and where the child can defecate. 

The nature of this first conflict with authority can determine the child’s future relationship with all forms of authority.

Anal Fixation

Unresolved conflicts or issues during this stage can lead to problems later on, such as excessive cleanliness, stubbornness, or a need for control.

The way parents approach toilet training can lead to two outcomes:

  1. Early or harsh potty training can lead to the child becoming an anal-retentive personality who hates mess, is obsessively tidy, punctual, and respectful of authority.  They can be stubborn and tight-fisted with their cash and possessions. This is all related to the pleasure of holding on to their feces when toddlers and their mum insist they get rid of it by placing them on the potty until they perform!
  2. The anal-expulsive personality underwent a liberal toilet-training regime during the anal stage. In adulthood, the anal expulsive is the person who wants to share things with you.  They like giving things away. In essence, they are “sharing their s**t”!”  An anal-expulsive personality is also messy, disorganized, and rebellious.

Phallic Stage (3 to 6 years)

The phallic stage, which spans ages three to six, is the third phase of psychosexual development, identified by Sigmund Freud.

This period is marked by the child’s libido (or desire) focusing on their genitals as the primary source of pleasure.

In this stage, children become increasingly aware of their bodies, exhibiting a heightened interest in their own genitals and those of the opposite sex.

Additionally, their understanding of anatomical sex differences begins to form, sparking a complex mixture of emotions – erotic attraction, rivalry, jealousy, resentment, and fear – collectively termed the Oedipus complex in boys and the Electra complex in girls.

This period of conflict is resolved through identification, where children start adopting the characteristics of their same-sex parent.

Phallic Stage Fixation

Freud theorized that unresolved conflicts during this stage could potentially lead to future issues such as sexual dysfunction, problems with gender identity, or difficulties in forming relationships.

If fixation occurs during this stage, Freud suggested it may lead to various issues in adulthood.

Freud suggested that fixations at this point could lead to adult personalities that are overly vain, exhibitionistic, and sexually aggressive. 

In men, phallic fixation might result in anxiety about sexual performance, the need for reassurance and validation, or a tendency to be overly assertive or aggressive.

In women, fixation at the phallic stage could lead to a desire to dominate men, a rivalry with other women, or the need for male attention or approval.

Oedipus Complex

The most important aspect of the phallic stage is the Oedipus complex.  This is one of Freud’s most controversial ideas that many reject outright.

The name of the Oedipus complex derives from the Greek myth where Oedipus, a young man, kills his father and marries his mother. Upon discovering this, he pokes his eyes out and becomes blind.  This Oedipal is the generic (i.e., general) term for both Oedipus and Electra complexes.

In the young boy, the Oedipus complex or conflict arises because the boy develops sexual (pleasurable) desires for his mother.  He wants to possess his mother exclusively and get rid of his father to enable him to do so.

Irrationally, the boy thinks that if his father were to find out about all this, his father would take away what he loves the most.  During the phallic stage, what the boy loves most is his penis.  Hence the boy develops castration anxiety.

According to Freud, the fear of retaliation from the father (castration anxiety) eventually leads the boy to repress these incestuous desires and identify with the father, adopting his characteristics and values.

The little boy then begins to resolve this problem by imitating, copying, and joining in masculine dad-type behaviors.  This is called identification and is how the three-to-five-year-old boy resolves his Oedipus complex.

Identification means internally adopting another person’s values, attitudes, and behaviors.  The consequence is that the boy takes on the male gender role, and adopts an ego ideal and values that become the superego.

Freud (1909) offered the Little Hans case study as evidence of the Oedipus complex.

Electra Complex

The Electra Complex, a component of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, posits that during the phallic stage of psychosexual development (roughly between ages 3-6), a girl unconsciously cultivates a sexual attraction towards her father, viewing her mother as a competitor.

In essence, the girl covets her father, yet recognizes that she lacks a penis, leading to the phenomenon Freud labeled as ‘penis envy‘ and a subsequent wish to be male.

This girl then ostensibly resolves her dilemma by repressing her desire for her father and replacing her yearning for a penis with a longing for a baby.

During this process, the girl purportedly blames her mother for her ‘castrated state,’ generating significant tension.

In order to alleviate this tension, she then represses her feelings and begins to identify with her mother, thereby adopting a traditional female gender role.

However, it’s important to note that these theories have been widely contested and aren’t broadly accepted in contemporary psychology.

Latency Stage (6 years to puberty)

The latency stage is the fourth stage of psychosexual development, spanning six years to puberty. The libido is dormant during this stage, and no further psychosexual development occurs (latent means hidden).

In this stage, Freud believed sexual impulses are repressed, leading to a period of relative calm.

During this stage, children’s sexual impulses become suppressed (the libido is dormant), and no further psychosexual development occurs (latent means hidden).


The focus shifts to other pursuits such as education, social relationships, and other skills necessary for successful adult life. 

Children focus on developing social and intellectual skills, including school, friendships, and hobbies, instead of on sexual or romantic interests.

Freud thought most sexual impulses are repressed during the latent stage, and sexual energy can be sublimated towards school work, hobbies, and friendships.

Much of the child’s energy is channeled into developing new skills and acquiring new knowledge, and play becomes largely confined to other children of the same gender.

An example of this stage would be a child who engages in hobbies and interests rather than sexual activities.

Latency Stage Fixation

According to Freud, unresolved conflicts or issues during this stage can lead to problems later on, such as difficulty expressing emotions or forming healthy relationships.

For instance, if a child fails to make strong social connections or falls behind academically during this stage, they may struggle with feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and social isolation in adulthood.

If a child fails to make strong social connections – perhaps they struggle to make friends or fit in with their peers – this could impact their social skills and potentially lead to feelings of isolation or inadequacy.

Similarly, if a child falls behind academically during this stage – perhaps struggling with reading, writing, or math skills – they might feel less competent than their peers, leading to insecurity or inadequacy.

This stage ends with the onset of puberty, when sexual urges resurface, and the individual enters the final stage of Freud’s psychosexual development, the Genital Stage.

Genital Stage (Puberty to adult)

The Genital Stage is the fifth and final phase of Freud’s psychosexual development theory, beginning at puberty and lasting into adulthood.

During this stage, the libido re-emerges after its latent period and is directed towards peers of the other sex, marking the onset of mature adult sexuality.

During this stage, individuals start to become sexually mature and begin to explore their sexual feelings and desires more maturely and responsibly.

This period marks the onset of romantic and sexual emotions, leading to the formation of intimate relationships.

Sexual instinct is directed to heterosexual pleasure, rather than self-pleasure, like during the phallic stage.


An example of this stage would be a teenager who begins to experience sexual attraction and begins to explore their sexuality.

As they mature physically, they develop deeper romantic interests and sexual attractions toward others.

These feelings may lead to their first romantic relationship, or perhaps a crush on a peer. The teenager might also learn about sexual education and understand the importance of consent and safe sex.

They might experience emotional ups and downs as they navigate these new feelings and relationships. This stage isn’t just about sexual attraction, but also about forming meaningful emotional bonds with others.

Through their experiences, they better understand their own sexual identity and learn how to form mutually satisfying relationships.

It is a time of adolescent sexual experimentation, the successful resolution of which is settling down in a loving one-to-one relationship with another person in our 20s.

Genital Stage Fixation

For Freud, the proper outlet of the sexual instinct in adults was through heterosexual intercourse.  Fixation and conflict may prevent this with the consequence that sexual perversions may develop.

For example, fixation at the oral stage may result in a person gaining sexual pleasure primarily from kissing and oral sex, rather than sexual intercourse.

According to Freud, if individuals have unresolved conflicts or issues during this stage, it can lead to problems such as sexual dysfunction, difficulties forming healthy relationships, or other emotional problems.

Critical Evaluation


While Freud’s idea of stage-based child development is recognized, his emphasis on their sexual nature remains debated. His theories stemmed from psychoanalyzing patients and a single-child case study (Little Hans).

With its precision, modern biology sometimes aligns with Freud; for instance, infants’ predominant right hemisphere activity correlates with his notions of the id and the unconscious (Divino & Moore, 2010).

Does evidence support Freudian psychology? Freud’s theory is good at explaining but not predicting behavior (which is one of the goals of science).

For this reason, Freud’s theory is unfalsifiable – it can neither be proven true nor refuted. For example, the libido is difficult to test and measure objectively. Overall, Freud’s theory is highly unscientific.

Freud may also have shown research bias in his interpretations – he may have only paid attention to information that supported his theories and ignored information and other explanations that did not fit them.

However, Fisher & Greenberg (1996) argue that Freud’s theory should be evaluated in terms of specific hypotheses rather than a whole. They concluded that evidence supports Freud’s concepts of oral and anal personalities.


Critics argue that Freud’s methods weren’t scientific enough, as he relied heavily on subjective interpretations from psychoanalyzing patients, including himself.

While John Bowlby agreed with Freud’s emphasis on parent-child attachment, he believed attachment theory, observable even in animals, offered a clearer developmental perspective than the Oedipus Complex. Bowlby posited that children can experience lasting psychological impacts from maternal deprivation.

Based on Freud’s records, Jeffrey Masson controversially claimed that Freud’s patients experienced child sexual abuse, which Freud allegedly replaced with the less shocking Oedipus Complex theory. If true, this significantly undermines Freud’s credibility.

Freud scarcely addressed fetal development, but his follower, Otto Rank (1924), posited that “birth trauma” profoundly shapes lifelong personality. However, modern studies, such as DiPietro et al. (1996), contradict this, demonstrating similar alertness, sensory capacities, and learning abilities in fetuses and newborns.

Freud believed psychological development culminated with the Genital Stage in adolescence, asserting that fundamental characteristics remained unchanged in adulthood.

Contrarily, Erik Erikson suggested development continued throughout life. Erikson concurred with Freud on the concept of stages defined by crises. For instance, adolescents grapple with identity versus role confusion, and young adults face a tension between intimacy and isolation.

Freud vs. Erikson

Sigmund FreudErik Erikson
Focused on psychosexual stagesFocused on psychosocial stages
Proposed five stages (emphasizes childhood)Proposed eight stages (throughout the lifespand)
Stages focused on physical needs and urgesStages focused on psychological needs and social interaction
Id, ego, and superego are the three levels of personalityIdentity, intimacy, and generativity are the three levels of personality
Identity, intimacy, and generativity are the three levels of personalityIdentity, intimacy, and generativity are the three levels of personality
Each stage must be resolved for a healthy personalityEach stage must be mastered for a healthy personality


The main application of Freud’s theories is the therapy called psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis, rooted in Freud’s theories, delves into the unconscious to understand developmental causes. Clients learn about their unresolved conflicts and fixations by exploring dreams and memories.

With this awareness, previously subconscious urges can be recognized and managed. Typically, clients have weekly hour-long sessions.

Contrary to stereotypes of clients on couches, both usually sit facing each other. Building trust can take months, making psychoanalysis a long and potentially costly process.

While individual sessions can be expensive, group therapy offers a more affordable alternative, where clients collaboratively address and understand their unconscious issues.


What is psychosexual theory in simple words?

Psychosexual theory is a theory developed by Sigmund Freud that explains how a child’s early experiences can shape their personality and behavior in adulthood.

According to this theory, children progress through a series of stages during which their focus of pleasure and satisfaction shifts from different body parts, known as erogenous zones.

Freud proposed that unresolved conflicts and traumas during these early stages can lead to psychological problems in adulthood. The stages include the oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latency stage, and genital stage.

Overall, psychosexual theory suggests that a child’s early experiences can significantly impact their adult personality and behavior and that understanding these experiences can help us understand and treat psychological problems in adulthood.

However, it is important to note that this theory is controversial and has been subject to criticism and revision over the years.

Is Freud’s psychosexual theory still relevant today?

Freud’s psychosexual theory remains an important and influential theory in psychology, but it is not without its limitations and criticisms. While some aspects of the theory may no longer be considered relevant or valid, its legacy and impact on psychology cannot be denied.

Psychosexual theory has provided important insights into how early experiences can shape personality and behavior. It has influenced many aspects of modern psychology, including psychodynamic therapy, attachment theory, and developmental psychology.

Psychosexual theory has been criticized for its limited empirical support, its lack of scientific rigor, and its focus on sexual and aggressive drives to the exclusion of other factors.

Critics have also pointed out that psychosexual theory is based on outdated and sexist views of gender and sexuality. It has been used to pathologize and stigmatize individuals with non-normative sexual or gender identities.

psychosexual stages


  • DiPietro, J. A., Hodgson, D. M., Costigan, K. A., & Johnson, T. R. (1996). Fetal antecedents of infant temperament. Child Development67(5), 2568-2583.
  • Divino, Cynthia L., and Mary Sue Moore. “Integrating neurobiological findings into psychodynamic psychotherapy training and practice.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 20.3 (2010): 337-355.
  • Downey, J. I., & Friedman, R. C. (1995). Biology and the oedipus complex. Psychoanal. Q64, 234-264.
  • Fisher, S. & Greenberg, R. P. (1996). Freud scientifically reappraised: Testing the theories and therapy. New York: Wiley.
  • Kohlberg, L., & Ullian, D. Z. (1974). Stages in the development of psychosexual concepts and attitudes.
  • Kupfersmid, J. (2019). Freud’s clinical theories then and now. Psychodynamic psychiatry47(1), 81-97.
  • Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Standard Edition 7: 123- 246.
  • Masson, J. M. (2012). The assault on truth. Untreed Reads.
  • Masson, J. M. (2013). Final analysis: The making and unmaking of a psychoanalyst. Untreed Reads.
  • Rank, O. (1924). The Trauma of Birth in Its Importance for Psychoanalytic Therapy. Psychoanalytic Review.
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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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