Freud, Sigmund (1856–1939)

A century before Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, formulated his psychoanalytic developmental theory, the English poet William Wordsworth wrote about nature and nurture, "The Child is father of the Man." It is commonsense knowledge that from birth on the child undergoes physical maturation (e.g., sexual maturation) and the development of body, mind, and character (e.g., psychological growth, social interaction, and adaptation). Freud's developmental

Sigmund Freud's theories on childhood have not been without controversy, yet his work remains a strong influence on the field of child psychology. © .

psychology grew out of his method of psychoanalytic investigation of adult emotional disorders and his readings in the medical sexology that preceded him.

The Early Process of Discovery

Freud first discovered that adult neurotic disorders, specifically hysteria, were caused by psychic shock, or trauma, which he saw as a three-part process: one, a traumatizing event, an actual assault or injury, happened, which, two, the victim experienced and perceived as traumatic or stressful, and to which, three, the person reacted to with psychological defense, such as dynamic (active) forgetting or repression. The repressed memory and the accompanying emotions would then result in the various manifest symptoms of an emotional disorder. The traumas were of both a nonsexual and sexual kind and the emotional component was the paramount factor. As he delved into the history of sexual traumas, Freud became "drawn further and further back into the past; one hoped at last to be able to stop at puberty … but the tracks led still further back into childhood and into its earlier years" (Freud 1953 [1914], p. 17). As far as childhood goes, Freud's predominant interest was in sexual traumas and emotions; he postulated the sexual emotions as the primary ones. His next step was the discovery of the

posthumous operation of a sexual trauma in childhood. If the sexual experience occurs during the period of sexual immaturity and the memory of it is aroused during or after maturity, then the memory will have a far stronger excitatory effect than the experience did at the time it happened; and this is because in the meantime puberty has immensely increased the capacity of the sexual apparatus for reaction. The traumas of childhood operate in a deferred fashion as though they were fresh experiences; but they do so unconsciously. (Freud 1962 [1896], pp. 166–167; italics in original)

Freud's term for deferred action was Nachträglichkeit, literally, afterwardness. As the traumas were a result of sexual acts of seduction or overwhelming by family members, servants, or others, they came to be known as the seduction theory, though nowhere did Freud himself employ the term.

At a certain point Freud wavered regarding the validity of this theory when he realized that some "hysterical subjects [traced] back their symptoms to traumas that were fictitious; [but] the new fact [that emerged was] precisely that they create such scenes in phantasy, and this psychical reality requires to be taken into account alongside practical reality… . From behind the phantasies, the whole range of achild's sexual life came to light" (Freud 1957 [1914], pp. 17–18). He discovered INFANTILE SEXUALITY. Eventually Freud reaffirmed the importance of seduction (trauma) and widened the theoretical scope by underscoring the complementarity of reality and fantasy.

In addition to external trauma, Freud also recognized the importance of internal trauma, the stimulation from within, by such forces as hunger, sexual drives, and other drives or needs. It should be noted, however, that Freud did not generally view the parents as traumatizers, in sharp contrast to his prominent student Sandor Ferenczi, with whom Freud fought tooth and nail. In contrast to Freud, Ferenczi insisted that parents can actually abuse their children, and this insight has been borne out by recent discoveries about CHILD ABUSE.

Freud's canonical text on infantile sexuality is the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, where he formulated the developmental stages of childhood psychosexuality: At each stage, he wrote, humans engage in a fusion of bodily and mental pleasure-seeking and displeasure-avoidant behavior, and he named these stages the oral, anal, and phallic (or genital) phases, or stages, of early childhood; these are followed by the changes of PUBERTY and adulthood. The sensuous bodily experiences were correlated with interactions, conflicts, and fantasies related to parents and other significant persons in the child's environment.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud also advanced the psychoanalytic theory of the Oedipus complex, that is, the oedipal or phallic phase. He saw the oedipal phase as a developmental milestone, a time to face the traumas pertaining to the triangular situation between the child and the parents, when he or she is drawn to each of the parents as objects of desire, fantasy, and identification, while at the same time facing the threat of castration (or for girls, genital mutilation), and rivalry and competition in the wake of the birth of siblings. A good resolution of this constellation is a universal developmental task and is achieved by means of a consolidated sense of conscience (superego) and self-identity. These formulations would later be confirmed by anthropological and social sciences.

It needs to be emphasized that although the original, literal, nonmythological, name was the INCEST complex, Freud was not concerned with cases of actual incest but with incestuous fantasies. Again, more recent histories of child abuse have included the trauma of actual incest as well, including the problems of true versus false memories of past traumas.

This oedipal milestone led to a further differentiation between oedipal and preoedipal organization, in which the infant and young child of either gender relates primarily to the mother; however, here it was found that aggression, both in the parent and child, was a much more important issue than sexual attraction or fantasies. Another developmental line ran from autoerotism (deriving pleasure and satisfaction from one's own body), to narcissism (self-love), and to the full mature LOVE of others. Freud did not define a developmental line for aggression or a drive for power.

Integrated developmental psychology eventually led to a genetic psychological explanation of a wide spectrum of adult behavior: the psychology of love relations, mental disorders (neurosis and psychosis), criminal behavior, character formation, and the behavior of groups and masses.

Freudianism after Freud

When women joined the psychoanalytic movement, a fuller picture of developmental theory emerged, with an emphasis on the nonsexual aspects of development. Freud's followers elaborated seminal ideas that Freud had already discussed. ANNA FREUD elaborated the role of the defense mechanisms (dynamisms). MELANIE KLEIN, Anna Freud's great rival, emphasized the defenses called the paranoid and the depressive position in the first month of life. JOHN BOWLBY stressed attachment and loss. ERIK ERIKSON elaborated what he called the epigenetic stages in the development of identity.

While Freud focused on the organismic, or monadic (self-contained), aspects of development, later investigators were more receptive to the dyadic, or interpersonal, conception of development in health and disease first introduced by the great American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan. This approach was importantly confirmed by family studies. The interpersonal-dyadic approach is the way of the future. The guiding principle should thus be not an exclusionary either/ or but an inclusionary, this-as-well-as-that approach, integrating Freud's important monadic observations and insights with the interpersonal psychological reality as observed in everyday life and depicted in imaginative literature, film, and television. In literature, a well-known example of applying the Oedipus complex is the interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. In religion, psychoanalytic ideas can be applied to the biblical sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Freud's THEORIES OF CHILDHOOD were subjected to both criticism and elaboration. Critics claimed that Freud's childhood theories were too exclusively fixated on SEXUALITY and were merely far-fetched extrapolations from observations of analyzed adult neurotics, thus lacking the empirical warrant of direct infant and child observation. This gap was first closed by the work of early women psychoanalytic pioneers who practiced child analysis, Hermine von Hug-Hellmeth and Sabina Spielrein. Further evolution of adult and child analysis significantly extended ideas that were only insufficiently developed in Freud, such as nonerotic attachment love, dependence (Freud's anaclitic type), and the role of aggression and envy. Here belongs the work of Melanie Klein and John Bowlby. These elaborations did not, however, amount to a refutation but rather to a more balanced view of issues in development. Further important work in the field came from infant and child research and focused on the role of interpersonal factors in development, such as the work of Margaret Mahler on separation-individuation or of Daniel Stern and Berry Brazelton on early good and failed communications between mother and child, among others.

See also: Age and Development; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology.


Fenichel, O. 1945. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neuroses. New York: Norton.

Ferenczi, Sandor. 1955. "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child." In Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psychoanalysis, by Sandor Ferenczi. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund. 1953 [1905]. "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." In Standard Edition, vol. 7. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, Sigmund. 1957 [1914]. "On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement." In Standard Edition, vol. 14. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962 [1896]. "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defense." In Standard Edition, vol. 3. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Lothane, Zvi. 1987. "Love, Seduction, and Trauma." Psychoanalytic Review 74: 83–105.

Lothane, Zvi. 1997. "Freud and the Interpersonal." International Forum of Psychoanalysis 6: 175–184.

Lothane, Zvi. 2001. "Freud's Alleged Repudiation of the Seduction Theory Revisited: Facts and Fallacies." Psychoanalytic Review 88: 673–723.