Child Development 101 – History and Theory

Mid Twentieth Century Theories

In the mid twentieth century, the field of child development expanded into a legitimate discipline. Specialised research centers and professional societies devoted to the scientific study of children were founded. A leader among these is the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), which was established in 1933 with 425 members; today that number has risen to 5,500 researchers, applied professionals, and students from more than 50 countries. As child development attracted increasing interest, a variety of theories emerged, each of which continues to have followers today. In these theories, the European concern with the child’s inner thoughts and feelings contrasts sharply with the North American academic focus on scientific precision, and concrete, observable behaviour.

The Psychoanalytic Perspective

sigmund freud

According to the psychoanalytic perspective, children move through a series of stages in which they confront conflicts between biological drives and social expectations. How these conflicts are resolved determines the person’s ability to learn, get along with others, and to cope with anxiety. Among the many individuals who contributed to the psychoanalytic perspective, two were especially influential: Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic movement, and Erik Erikson.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, sought a cure for emotionally troubled adults by a method he had created called free association; this involved having his patients lie on a couch and talk freely about whatever came to mind, while Freud took notes and provided verbal cues to help direct the patient’s thoughts to memories of their early childhood. Freud was the first person in the history of psychology to use talk therapy, that is he was the first to see value in talking to a patient in order to bring about their recovery from neurosis. Freud was also the first psychologist to dive into patients dreams, and developed a method of dream interpretation, relying on common symbols found in dreams to dissect a patient’s unconscious; another concept he introduced to the West.
freud ego id

According to Freud our mind isn’t singular, but is actually comprised of three psychological components, which he called the id, ego, and superego; I guess you could also call them the personality trinity!

The id is the largest part of our personality, and is largely repressed in our unconscious, it is the aspect of our instinctual, animal nature and is fueled by instant gratification and basic biological needs and desires; when we are born, our personality is purely that of the id, only later as we grow older do we develop the other personalities. The id is often approached with analogies, such as that of a chained animal, which if released as an adult, has the potential to cause social chaos.

The ego is the conscious, rational part of our personality that emerges in early infancy, and is the personality that we most associate with. The ego is the personality structure that attempts to satisfy the id’s desires without disrupting social norms and taboos, therefore it plays an important role in repressing the id’s unrealistic demands, instead it redirects its impulses so they can be fulfilled in socially acceptable ways.

homer freudBetween the ages of 3 and 6, the superego, or conscience, develops through interactions with parents, who insist that children conform to the values of society. Now the ego faces the increasingly complex task of reconciling the demands of the id, the external world, and conscience. For example, when the ego is tempted to gratify an id impulse steal a toy in the store that the child wants, the superego may warn that such behaviour is wrong. The ego must decide which of the two forces (id or superego) will win this inner struggle, or work out a compromise, such as asking their mother to buy the toy. This interplay between the three personality types is often depicted in cartoons as a devil and angel appearing on either shoulder of a person faced with a tough, moral decision; this image is also sometimes interpreted at face value as following either the devil, or God – arguably both aspects of our own personality!

Through examining the unconscious motives of his patients, Freud constructed his most famous theory, and the one which caused the most heated debate. This was the theory of psychosexual development, which emphasised the importance of child rearing, and how parent’s managing of their children’s sexual and aggressive drives in the first few years are crucial for healthy personality development…

… no wait, there’s more – Freud suggested that human beings, from birth, possess an instinctual libido (sexual appetite) that develops in five stages. He proposed that adult neurosis (functional mental disorder) was often rooted in childhood sexuality, and that therefore neurotic adult behaviors were manifestations of childhood sexual fantasies and desire. Given the predictable timeline of childhood behavior, Freud proposed “libido development” as a model of normal childhood sexual development, wherein the child progresses through five psychosexual stages, the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages, in which the source of sexual energy originates from the erogenous zone attached to each stage. Freud proposed that if the child experienced anxiety, thwarting his or her sexual appetite during any psychosexual stage, said anxiety would persist into adulthood as a neurosis.


Psychosexual Stage Average Age Description
ORAL Birth – 1 year The new ego directs the baby’s sucking activities towards the breast or bottle. If oral needs are not met appropriately, the child may develop such habits as thumb sucking, fingernail biting, and pencil chewing in childhood, and overeating and smoking later in life. The id dominates in this stage, as the ego and superego haven’t developed, and therefore the infant has so personality – every action is based upon the pleasure principle.Nonetheless, the infantile ego is forming during the oral stage; two factors contribute to its formation: (1) in developing a body image, he or she is discrete from the external world, e.g. the child understands pain when it is applied to his or her body, thus identifying the physical boundaries between body and environment; (2) experiencing delayed gratification leads to understanding that specific behaviors satisfy some needs, e.g. crying gratifies certain needs.Weaning is the key experience in the infant’s oral stage of psychosexual development, his or her first feeling of loss consequent to losing the physical intimacy of feeding at mother’s breast. Yet, weaning increases the infant’s self-awareness that he or she does not control the environment, and thus learns of delayed gratification, which leads to the formation of the capacities for independence (awareness of the limits of the self) and trust (behaviors leading to gratification). Yet, thwarting of the oral-stage — too much or too little gratification of desire — might lead to an oral-stage fixation, characterised by passivity, gullibility, immaturity, unrealistic optimism, which is manifested in a manipulative personality consequent to ego malformation. In the case of too much gratification, the child does not learn that he or she does not control the environment, and that gratification is not always immediate, thereby forming an immature personality. In the case of too little gratification, the infant might become passive upon learning that gratification is not forthcoming, despite having produced the gratifying behavior.
ANAL 1-3 years Toddlers and preschoolers enjoy holding and releasing urine and feces. Toilet training becomes a major issue between parent and child. If parents insist that children be trained before they are ready, or if they make too few demands, conflicts about anal control may appear in the form of extreme orderliness and cleanliness (this is where the phrase ‘being anal’ originates), or messiness and disorder.
PHALLIC 3-6 years As preschoolers take pleasure in genital stimulation, Freud’s Oediupus complex for boys, and Electra complex for girls arises. In a ‘nut’ shell this means children feel an unconscious sexual desire for the other-sex parent and hostility toward the same-sex parent. To avoid punishment and loss of parental love, they suppress these impulses and instead adopt the same-sex parent’s characteristics and values, in the hope of one day attracting an opposite-sex partner with similar attributes as the parent of their desire. As a result, the superego is formed, and children feel guilty whenever they violate its standards.
LATENCY 6-11 years Sexual instincts die down, and the superego develops further. The child acquires new social values from adults and same-sex peers outside the family.
GENITAL Adolescence With puberty, the sexual impulses of the phallic stage reappear. If development has been successful during earlier stages, it leads to marriage, a mature sexuality, and the birth and rearing of children. This stage extends through adulthood.

According to Freud, the relations established between id, ego, and superego during the preschool years determine the individual’s basic personality. During each stage of psychosexual development, parents walk a fine line between permitting too much or too little gratification of their child’s basic needs (no, not sexual needs you pervert!) If parents strike an appropriate balance, then children grow into well-adjusted adults with the capacity for mature sexual behaviour and investment in family life. Freud’s theory was the first to stress the influence of the early parent-child relationship on development, but his perspective was eventually shot down and criticised by some.

The reasons being: it overemphasised the influence of sexual feelings in development; it was based on the problems of sexually repressed adults of the nineteenth century Victorian society, and was less applicable in modern society; finally, Freud had not studied children directly. However, despite these criticisms, psychologists to this day still consider Freud’s psychosexual theories in their practice with patients, and few challenge his concept of the id, ego and superego, lastly, none can deny his influence on the development of psychology and psychotherapy as we know it today. Seeing as I could rattle on about Freud forever, I’ll end this post here. Till next time!

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