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Oedipus Сomplex in Children: What Parents Need to Know

Sigmund Freud got the name for the Oedipal complex from the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, a king of Athens cursed by the gods for killing his father and marrying his mother. Freud used the term “Oedipus complex” to describe a child’s desire for their opposite-sex parent and feelings of envy, jealousy, resentment, and competition with the same-sex parent. 

It’s important to note that there’s very little evidence that the Oedipus (or Electra) complex is real. It is not listed as a psychological condition in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by clinicians to diagnose psychological conditions and disorders. 

What is the Oedipus complex?

The term Oedipus complex was initially coined by neurologist Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. Freud developed theories about the progression of psychosexual development in children and how it affected their relationships in adult life. One of Freud’s theories was that there is a stage of development when children compete with the opposite-sex parent for the attention and affection of the same-sex parent.

Freud believed that an unhealthy relationship between a mother and her son, while rarely physically sexual, could lead to long-term dysfunction in the family and the boy’s future relationships. Freud’s theory posits that the rivalry between a young child and their adult parent can take on a vaguely sexual component, noting that there are aspects of a husband–wife relationship that aren’t part of the parent–child relationship.

Freud’s theory states that boys may feel strange feelings toward their mother that they don’t toward their father. Some therapists speculate that this may be due to breastfeeding, including prolonged breastfeeding into the toddler years. However, there isn’t scientific evidence to support that breastfeeding can lead to Oedipal desires. 

If you are concerned about any of your child’s behavior, including sexual behavior, you can raise your concerns with the child’s pediatrician or psychologist.

Causes of the Oedipus complex

Part of childhood development involves a healthy recognition of sexuality and the relationship between parent and child. Freud believed that an Oedipus complex can develop during what he called the “phallic stage of development.” In Freud’s theory, this stage of development typically occurs when children are between the ages of three and five and is the stage in which children develop their sexual identity. Freud believed that completing this stage of development ensures that children ultimately identify with their same-sex parent and develop a mature sexual identity.

Freud believed that this separation process can be difficult for some boys, and when they notice their father and mother having affectionate encounters with each other, resentment can build.

It’s important to note that Freud’s theory was almost entirely focused on male children and exclusively on heterosexual parents. His theory states that as children mature, they may begin to notice that one parent is different from the other (physically and emotionally) and that they resemble one parent more than the other. During this stage of development, Freud theorized that boys become more independent and start to separate themselves from their mother, realizing that their mother can care for others. Freud believed that this separation process can be difficult for some boys, and when they notice their father and mother having affectionate encounters with each other, resentment can build.

Freud noted that while young boys probably don’t have full knowledge of sex, they may, on a primal level, feel certain differences in their affection and feelings for their mother versus their father. Freud emphasized the importance of demonstrating a healthy relationship between mother and father for the child. If the boy senses that feelings are strained, Freud thought he may feel a greater desire to protect his mother against his father.

Oedipus vs. Electra complex

Although originally based on boys’ relationships with their mothers, Freud extended the definition of the Oedipal complex to apply to girls as well, believing that children demonstrated the complex differently depending on their gender. One of Freud’s contemporaries, psychoanalyst and psychologist Carl Jung, proposed a separate description specific to unhealthy relationships between young girls and their fathers, called the Electra complex. 

According to Jung and Freud, the unhealthy thought patterns of Oedipus and Electra complexes, left undiagnosed, lead to ongoing resentment of the opposite-sex parent and fellow members of their gender. According to Freudian psychosexual theory, in households without both a mother and a father figure, small children may have a harder time getting over an Oedipus complex because there might not be a same-sex parent to identify with, preventing them from successfully passing through the phallic stage.

What are the signs of an Oedipus complex?

Freud thought that an Oedipus complex may show itself in overly attached childhood behavior, such as a boy saying that he wants to marry his mommy when he grows up or feeling overly possessive of his mother’s attention, especially when the father is around. Freud believed that an unresolved Oedipus complex may involve the boy telling his father not to hug or kiss his mom. He may even physically put himself between his father and mother if they display romantic affection in front of him. 

Freud thought that an Oedipus complex may show itself in overly attached childhood behavior, such as a boy saying that he wants to marry his mommy when he grows up or feeling overly possessive of his mother’s attention, especially when the father is around.

Freud believed that some boys repress their desires for their mother instead of transitioning into a healthier identification with their father and moving forward in their emotional and sexual development. Freud thought that when an Oedipus complex is suppressed, these unmet desires may develop into misogyny, contempt for women, and the inability to form mature romantic relationships. According to Freud, young men may not realize that they’re experiencing an Oedipal complex until a pattern of unhealthy relationships and an inability to separate from their mother emerges.

Consequences of the Oedipus complex

Freud’s theory of psychosexual development states that if an Oedipal complex isn’t successfully resolved, it can damage the young child’s ability to transition into the next phase of development. Furthermore, Freud thought that boys can develop an unhealthy fixation, becoming “mother fixated” or, for girls with an Electra complex, “father fixated.” According to Freudian theory, unresolved Oedipus complexes in childhood can make it hard for these children to have healthy romantic relationships as adults.

The theory suggests that the ability to make friends with members of the same sex may also be impacted, as these individuals may see other men or other women as competition for mates. Freud thought that men with an Oedipus complex would display hyper-aggressive behavior, especially if they perceive another man encroaching on their girlfriend or wife. For women with an Electra complex, he thought they may use sex as a substitute for a loving relationship, in an attempt to recapture the affection they subconsciously feel they didn’t receive from their father.

How the Oedipus complex is treated in children

Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping resolve conflicts from childhood. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development is a controversial topic, and researchers are not in agreement about the existence of an Oedipus complex. Psychoanalysts who do subscribe to Freudian theory may focus on therapy that helps the child identify with the same-sex parent more. Family therapy may be useful in many situations. The goal is for the child to develop a healthy sexual identity. 

Freud’s theory was that children with Oedipus complexes often have trouble developing the superego, the part of the psyche that serves as an inner moral authority and balances out the id (primal instinct).

According to Freudian theory, developing a healthy relationship with a father figure can help young boys suppress their ids’ urges to act on their desire for their mother and begin to identify with their father, thus resolving the Oedipal desires. Some families look for resolution of such issues through their religion, while others find that their cultural norms naturally help young men get over their desire for their mother.

According to Freudian theory, developing a healthy relationship with a father figure can help young boys suppress their ids’ urges to act on their desire for their mother and begin to identify with their father, thus resolving the Oedipal desires.

Therapy based on Freudian psychoanalysis for a boy experiencing an unhealthy attachment to his mother focuses on resolving the latent guilt that the child feels for the jealousy and fear of his father. According to Freud, boys are afraid of being castrated by their father as punishment for their unhealthy desires for their mother. These feelings are subconscious and rooted in Freud’s psychoanalytic theories about the important role of the phallus in emotional development.

Simply stated, Freud believed that once a boy develops a healthy relationship with his father, including feeling loved and accepted, his jealousy and rivalry will change to a feeling of identification. Freud thought that reducing the shame and guilt associated with an Oedipal complex is critical to the successful resolution of this complex and provides the foundation for the young man to build healthy relationships and boundaries, both with his mother and women in general.

The takeaway

Freudian theory states that forming healthy relationships as an adult can be difficult if a child hasn’t successfully passed through the phallic stage of psychosexual development and resolved an unhealthy attachment and desire for their parent of the opposite sex. Freudian psychoanalysts believe that therapy works better when children are younger but that intensive therapy can also help adults make peace with an Oedipus complex and experience healthy, mature relationships.

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-an-oedipal-complex-2795403

https://www.simplypsychology.org/oedipal-complex.html

http://changingminds.org/disciplines/psychoanalysis/concepts/oedipus_complex.htm

https://ppplusa.org/485/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330618/

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