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5.11: Psychodynamic and Psychosocial Theories of Early Childhood

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    Learning Outcomes

    • Explain Freud’s psychodynamic theory as it applies to early childhood
    • Explain Erikson’s psychosocial theory as it applies to early childhood

    Freud’s Theory

    Children pass through two stages of Freud’s theory during early childhood: stage 2 (anal stage) and stage 3 (phallic stage).

    The anal stage begins around 18 months of age and lasts until the child is three years old. During the anal stage, Freud believed that the libido source shifted from the mouth (in stage 1) to the anus. The child, then, receives pleasure from defecating. The child, at this point, understands that they have some amount of control over their lives, including control of when and where they defecate. This can lead to difficulties during potty training. What matters, in terms of Freud’s theory, is how the parent reacts to inevitable difficulties in potty training. Parental reactions during potty training may set-up their child to react in one of two ways: (1) parents who are harsh or who ridicule the child for mistakes may have children who stubbornly hold on to their feces in an effort to not have an accident – these children may become anal retentive or (2) parents who are too easy going may have a child who reacts by purposefully making a mess – these children may become anal expulsive. Adults who are anal retentive tend to be stubborn, very neat, rigid, and stingy. Adults who are anal expulsive tend to be messy, wasteful, and harsh.

    Link to Learning: Toilet TRaining

    To the relief of most parents, there is very little evidence to suggest that Freud was right about fixations caused during the anal stage, mainly because the theory itself would be very difficult to test. Nevertheless, parents worry about toilet training, and whether they will be able to guide their children through the process unscathed. has a good web page on to potty training that may help parents worried about toilet training.

    The phallic stage of psychosexual development occurs from ages three to six. According to Freud, during the phallic stage, the child develops an attraction to the opposite sex parent, which is called the Oedipus Complex for boys and the Electra Complex for girls. When the child recognizes that the opposite sex parent is unavailable, the child learns to model their own behavior after the same-sex parent. The child develops their own sense of masculinity or femininity from this resolution. According to Freud, a person who does not exhibit gender appropriate behavior, such as a woman who competes with men for jobs or a man who lacks self-assurance and dominance, has not successfully completed this stage of development. Consequently, such a person continues to struggle with his or her own gender identity.

    Chodorow, a neo-Freudian, believed that mothering promotes gender stereotypic behavior. Mothers push their sons away too soon and direct their attention toward problem-solving and independence. As a result, sons grow up confident in their own abilities but uncomfortable with intimacy. Girls are kept dependent too long and are given unnecessary and even unwelcome assistance from their mothers. Girls learn to underestimate their abilities and lack assertiveness but feel comfortable with intimacy.

    Both of these models assume that early childhood experiences result in lifelong gender self-concepts. However, gender socialization is a process that continues throughout life. Children, teens, and adults refine and can modify their sense of self, based on gender.

    Another important part of Freud’s phallic stage is that during this time the child is learning right from wrong through the process of introjection. Remember that according to Kohlberg, the child during this time is developing a sense of morality. According to Freud, this is occurring through the process of introjection which occurs as children incorporate values from others into their value set. Freud theorized about parental introjection, where children learn that parents seem pleased by certain behaviors (and so want to do those behaviors more to get rewards and love) and displeased by other behaviors (and so want to do those behaviors less to avoid punishment and loss of love). Today, modern psychoanalytic theorists recognize the place of others and society in introjection. Societal introjection is becoming more and more important as more children go to daycare, as we are more surrounded by technology and advertising, and as we travel more.

    Social Development: The Importance of Play

    The development of play is an important milestone in early childhood. Play holds a crucial role in providing a safe, caring, protective, confidential, and containing space where children can recreate themselves and their experiences through an exploratory process (Winnicott, 1942; Erikson, 1963). During this stage, pretend play is a great way for children to express their thoughts, emotions, fears, and anxieties. Early childhood play can be understood by observing the elements of fantasy, organization, and comfort. Fantasy, the process of make-believe, is an essential behavior the child engages in during pretend play; organization helps the child to structure pretend play into a story and to utilize cause-and-effect thinking; and comfort is used to assess the ease and pleasure in the engagement in play.[1]

    As children progress through the stage of early childhood, they also progress through several stages of non-social and social play. Stages of play is a theory and classification of participation in play developed by Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. Parten observed American children at free play. She recognized six different types of play:

    • Unoccupied play – when the child is not playing, just observing. A child may be standing in one spot or performing random movements.
    • Solitary (independent) play – when the child is alone and maintains focus on their activity. Such a child is uninterested in or is unaware of what others are doing. More common in young children (age 2–3) as opposed to older ones.
    • Onlooker play – when the child watches others at play but does not engage in it. The child may engage in forms of social interaction, such as conversation about the play, without actually joining in the activity. This type of activity is also more common in younger children.
    • Parallel play (adjacent play) – when the child plays separately from others but close to them and mimicking their actions. This type of play is seen as a transitory stage from a socially immature solitary and onlooker type of play, to a more socially mature associative and cooperative type of play.
    • Associative play – when the child is interested in the people playing but not in coordinating their activities with those people, or when there is no organized activity at all. There is a substantial amount of interaction involved, but the activities are not in sync.
    • Cooperative play – when a child is interested both in the people playing and in the activity they are doing. In cooperative play, the activity is organized, and participants have assigned roles. There is also increased self-identification with a group, and a group identity may emerge. This is more common toward the end of the early childhood stage. Examples would be dramatic play activities with roles, like playing school, or a game with rules, such as freeze tag.

    Erikson: Initiative vs. Guilt

    While Erik Erikson was very influenced by Freud, he believed that the relationships that people have, not psychosexual stages, are what influence personality development. At the beginning of early childhood, the child is still in the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage (stage 2).

    By age three, the child begins stage 3: initiative versus guilt. The trust and autonomy of previous stages develop into a desire to take initiative or to think of ideas and initiate action. Children are curious at this age and start to ask questions so that they can learn about the world. Parents should try to answer those questions without making the child feel like a burden or implying that the child’s question is not worth asking.

    These children are also beginning to use their imagination (remember what we learned when we discussed Piaget!). Children may want to build a fort with the cushions from the living room couch, open a lemonade stand in the driveway, or make a zoo with their stuffed animals and issue tickets to those who want to come. Another way that children may express autonomy is in wanting to get themselves ready for bed without any assistance. To reinforce taking initiative, caregivers should offer praise for the child’s efforts and avoid being overly critical of messes or mistakes. Soggy washrags and toothpaste left in the sink pale in comparison to the smiling face of a five-year-old emerging from the bathroom with clean teeth and pajamas!

    That said, it is important that the parent does their best to kindly guide the child to the right actions. Remember that according to Freud and Kohlberg, children are developing a sense of morality during this time. Erikson agrees. If the child does leave those soggy washrags in the sink, have the child help clean them up. It is possible that the child will not be happy with helping to clean, and the child may even become aggressive or angry, but it is important to remember that the child is still learning how to navigate their world. They are trying to build a sense of autonomy, and they may not react well when they are asked to do something that they had not planned. Parents should be aware of this, and try to be understanding, but also firm. Guilt for a situation where a child did not do their best allows a child to understand their responsibilities and helps the child learn to exercise self-control (remember the marshmallow test). The goal is to find a balance between initiative and guilt, not a free-for-all where the parent allows the child to do anything they want to. The parent must guide the child if they are to have a successful resolution in this stage.

    watch it

    Movies, television, and media, in general, provide many examples of psychosocial development. The movie clips in this video demonstrate Erikson’s third stage of development, initiative versus guilt. What other examples can you think of to demonstrate young children developing a sense of autonomy?

    A link to an interactive elements can be found at the bottom of this page.

    You can view the transcript for “initiative vs guilt wlmp 2” here (opens in new window).


    [glossary-term]anal stage:[/glossary-term]
    [glossary-definition]the second stage in Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, lasting from age 18 months to three years, during which time the anus is the primary erogenous zone and pleasure is derived from controlling bladder and bowel movements[/glossary-definition]

    [glossary-definition]a process Freud described where children incorporate values from others into their value set[/glossary-definition]

    [glossary-term]phallic stage:[/glossary-term]
    [glossary-definition]the third stage in Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, lasting from age three to six years, during which the libido (desire) centers upon the genitalia and children become aware of bodies[/glossary-definition]

    1. Salcuni Silvia, Di Riso Daniela, Mabilia Diana, Lis Adriana (2017). "Psychotherapy with a 3-Year-Old Child: The Role of Play in the Unfolding Process". Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from

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