The Oedipus Complex in Children

Oedipal Complex

The Oedipus Complex in Children

By Saul McLeod, published 2018

The Oedipal complex is a term used by Sigmund Freud in his theory of psychosexual stages of development, and is the generic term for both Oedipus and Electra complexes.

The Oedipal complex occurs during the Phallic stage of development (ages 3-6) in which the source of libido (life force) is concentrated in the erogenous zones of the child's body (Freud, 1905).

During this stage, children experience an unconscious feeling of desire for their opposite-sex parent and jealousy and envy toward their same-sex parent.

The Oedipus complex is successfully resolved when the boy begins toidentify with his father as an indirect way to have the mother. Failure to resolve the Oedipus complex may

The Oedipus Complex

The Oedipus complex is a theory of Sigmund Freud, and occurs during the Phallic stage of psychosexual development.

It involves a boy, aged between 3 and 6, becoming unconsciously sexually attached to his mother, and hostile towards his father (who he views as a rival).

In the young boy, the Oedipus complex or more correctly, conflict, arises because the boy develops unconscious sexual (pleasurable) desires for his mother.

Envy and Jealous are aimed at the father, the object of the mother's affection and attention. These feelings for the mother and rivalry toward the father lead to fantasies of getting rid of his father and taking his place with the mother.

The hostile feelings towards the father lead to castration anxiety, an irrational fear that the father will castrate (remove his penis) him as punishment.

To cope with this anxiety, the son identifies with the father. This means the son adopts / internalizes the attitudes, characteristics and values that his father holds (e.g. personality, gender role, masculine dad-type behaviors etc.).

The father becomes a role model rather than a rival. Through this identification with the aggressor, boys acquire their superego and the male sex role.The boy substitutes his desire for his mother with the desire for other women.

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

The Electra Complex

The Electra complex is a term used to describe the female version of the Oedipus complex. It involves a girl, aged between 3 and 6, becoming unconsciously sexually attached to her father and increasingly hostile toward her mother.

The Electra complex,while often attributed to Freud, was actually proposed by Freud’s protégé, Carl Jung (Jung & Kerenyi,1963).

For girls, the Electra complex begins with the belief that she’s already been castrated. She blames her mother for this and experiences penis envy. For girls to develop their superego and female sex role, they need to identify with the mother.

But the girl’s motivation for giving up her father as a love-object in order to move back to her mother is much less obvious than the boy’s for identifying with his father.

As a consequence, girls’ identification with their mothers is less complete than boys’ with their fathers. In turn, this makes the female superego weaker and their identity as separate, independent persons is less well developed.

Critical Evaluation

Freud believed that the Oedipus complex was ‘the central phenomenon of the sexual period of early childhood’. But there’s little evidence to support his claim regarding sex differences in morality (as a result of the female’s weaker superego). For example, as measured by children’s ability to resist temptation, girls, if anything, are stronger than boys (Hoffman, 1975).

According to Horney (1924) and Thompson (1943), rather than girls wanting a penis, what they really envy is males’ superior social status.

Freud assumed that the Oedipus complex is a universal phenomenon, but Malinowski’s (1929) study of the Trobriand Islanders showed that where the father is the mother’s lover but not the son’s disciplinarian (i.

e. an avuncular society), the father–son relationship was very good.

It seems that Freud over-emphasized the role of sexual jealousy. But this is still only one study, and more societies, both Western and avuncular, need to be examined.

Also, other psychodynamic theorists, such as Erikson (1950) believed that Freud exaggerated the influence of instincts, particularly the sexual instinct, in his account of personality development. Erikson tried to correct this by describing stages of psychosocial development, reflecting the influence of social, cultural and historical factors, but without denying the role of biology.

Another major criticism of Freud’s Oedipal theory is that it was based almost entirely on the case of Little Hans (1909). In fact, Freud’s Oedipal theory had already been proposed in 1905, and Little Hans was simply presented as a ‘little Oedipus’.

Given that this wasthe only child patient that Freud reported on, and that any theory of development must involve the study of children, Little Hans is a crucially important case study. But it was extremely biased, with Hans’s father (a supporter of Freud’s theories) doing most of the psychoanalysis, and Freud simply seeing Hans as confirming his Oedipal theory.

Quite apart from criticism of the reliability and objectivity of the case study method in general, other psychodynamic theorists have offered alternative interpretations of Hans’s horse phobia. These include Bowlby’s (1973) re-interpretation in terms of attachment theory.

However, Bee (2000) believes that attachment research provides considerable support for the basic psychoanalytic hypothesis that the quality of the child’s earliest relationships affects the whole course of later development. Both Bowlby (1973) and Erikson (1963) see early relationships as prototypes of later relationships. Belief in the impact of early experience is a lasting legacy of Freud’s developmental theory.

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APA Style References

Bjorklund, B. R., & Bee, H. L. (2000). The journey of adulthood (4th ed.). Florida: Pearson.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and loss: Separation: Anxiety and anger (Vol. 2). New York: Basic Books.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (Ed.). (1963). Youth: Change and challenge. New York: Basic books.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Se, 7.

Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Hoffman, M. L. (1975). Sex differences in moral internalization and values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(4), 720.

Horney, K., & Horney. (1924). On the genesis of the castration complex in women (pp. 37-54).

Jung, C., & Kerenyi, C. (1963). Science of mythology. In R. F. C. Hull (Ed. & Trans.), Essays on the myth ofthe divine child and the mysteries of Eleusis. New York: Harper & Row.

Malinowski, B. (1929). An ethnographic account of courtship, marriage, and family life among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Eugenics Pub. Co.. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia.

Thompson, C. (1943). “Penis envy” in women. Psychiatry, 6(2), 123-125.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, September 03). Oedipal complex. Simply Psychology.

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The Oedipus Complex, a Stage of Development

The Oedipus Complex in Children

The Oedipus complex refers to an emotional conflict, specifically between a child’s positive and negative feelings towards his or her parents.

Children’s displays of affection for their mothers are generally a constant in infancy. However there is a time in which this love becomes even deeper: this stage is the Oedipus complex.

Freud describes it as a conflict generated by a feeling of sexual attraction between an individual and the parent of the opposite sex. It’s accompanied by a simultaneous desire to get rid of the parent of the opposite sex. The latter is known as patricide.

It’s important to note that the Oedipus complex doesn’t imply the existence of an incestual relationship.

Why “Oedipus”?

Oedipus is the name of the protagonist of the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, which tells the story of the son of King Lauis and Queen Jocasta.

The oracle predicted that Laius was destined to be murdered by his own son. To prevent this fatal outcome, Laius gave his son to one of his footmen to take and abandon.

The footman disobeyed him and instead gave the baby to a farmer, who in turn gave him to Polybus, the king of Corinth. And so Oedipus grew up, and with the passage of time became a man.

He came to hear a rumor that the people who raised him weren’t his real parents. Then Oedipus consulted the oracle, who told him that he was destined to kill his father. To avoid this tragedy, he decided to leave Corinth forever.

On his journey, Oedipus crossed paths with King Laius. One of the king’s heralds ordered him to give way, and when he disobeyed, they killed one of Oedipus’ horses.

It was then that Oedipus rose up and murdered the king and his footmen. Later, he married Jocasta, unaware that she was his mother.

When he discovered the truth, Oedipus cut out his eyes and spent the rest of his life wandering through Greece with his daughter Antigone. Jocasta committed suicide.

How does the Oedipus complex manifest itself?

In children, the Oedipus complex shows itself in the following ways:

  • Excessive love for and idealization of the mother.
  • Competition with the father for the love of the mother, accompanied by feelings of anger and resentment.
  • Seeking acceptance and fulfillment from the mother through exemplary behavior.
  • Jealousy of the father when he receives attention from the mother.
  • Bad behavior, tantrums and outbursts toward the father, challenging his authority.

Although some psychologists say the Oedipus complex can be used to refer to infants of both sexes, others disagree.

These others contend that in girls, the equivalent of this process is the Electra complex. This is the inverse of the Oedipus complex, where girls compete with their mothers for the affections of their fathers.

“Unexpressed emotions never die. They’re buried alive and come out later in worse ways.”

–Sigmund Freud–

What’s the purpose of the Oedipus complex?

According to Freud, the Oedipus complex is a natural, transitory stage that serves the following functions:

  • Acceptance of the law against incest.
  • An introduction to sexuality.
  • Formation of the different agents of the psyche, especially the superego, as a result of assimilation of paternal authority.
  • Acceptance of the child’s own sex.

What should parents do?

As previously mentioned, the appearance of these behaviors is nothing to worry about: this is something normal that will pass with time.

For the mother, the change in behaviors won’t bring any problems; she’ll perceive them simply as normal displays of affection.

The one who will feel the difference will be the father. In cases where the behavior becomes overly aggressive or persists over a long time, it may be necessary to talk to a therapist to get a proper diagnosis.

In the same way, nightmares related to separation from or disappearance of the mother are another warning sign.

The Oedipus complex generally resolves itself at around age five. From this time, feelings towards the father begin to turn around: He stops being a threat and becomes a role model.

“A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.”

–Sigmund Freud–

Some advice for dealing with this stage

  • Don’t encourage children’s jealousy with displays of affection in their presence.
  • Both parents should dedicate quality time to their children, so that they feel equally appreciated by both.
  • Shared playtime with the father will help children forget their negative feelings towards him.
  • Don’t tease children about their behavior: remember that for them all of this is perfectly normal.
  • Don’t play up the competition the child initiates for the mother’s love.

While cases of excessive intensity or duration are cause for concern, the Oedipus complex is a normal phase that all children go through.

Parents need to handle the situation with calmness and understanding.


Oedipus Сomplex in Children: What Parents Need to Know

The Oedipus Complex in Children

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 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 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.

Updated on December 17, 2020


Oedipus Complex In Child Development: Is It Something To Worry About?

The Oedipus Complex in Children

We often hear parents say how their kids are more of a mommy’s boy or a daddy’s girl. At a certain age, they may get extra clingy and possessive. There is that natural bond that attaches them to their parent in a way that they will not allow anyone between them.

You will usually observe this in children around 3 to 6 years of age. In this stage, they may develop affection for their opposite-sex parent. And most of the time, they get extremely jealous of the other parent.

Is it normal? Will they outgrow it? Or is the behavior a psychological red flag that parents need to work out? Here is the deal.

Oedipus Complex is a controversial concept that was first introduced by Sigmund Freud. It coins that children exhibit a possessive and sexual desire for their opposite-sex parents. Conversely, they may view their same-sex parent as a rival.

Both the incestuous and competitive emotions that they feel will wither down and resolve as they begin to overcome their emotions. Typically, the Oedipus Complex pertains only to the male context while in female children, it is called Electra Complex.

These behaviors are not a disorder, rather a mental developmental stage that every child has to go through to set their identities.

Where did the term Oedipus Complex come from?

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is established the Greek play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is the noble and brave King of Thebes who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. It is a fulfillment of the prophecy where both mother and son are oblivious about the truth of their relationship.

According to the story, an oracle told the king that his son will kill him and marry his mother. Scared of the prophecy, his wife abandoned their baby to die in the mountains. But then, the baby Oedipus was rescued and raised by another king.

As Oedipus grew up, an oracle prophesied his fate. fear and horror, he left the kingdom where he grew up. As fate would have it, he ended up back in his biological parents’ kingdom to fulfill the dreaded prophesy.

The emotions in the play and the theory are dissimilar. But Freud designates the term Oedipus Complex to signify the son’s love for his mother. In the myth version of the story, both characters found it repulsive. The mother, Queen Jocasta even hanged herself to death eventually. As the story goes, Oedipus also gouged his own eyes in disgrace.

How Oedipus Complex develops

You probably come across some hilarious videos on the internet about little boys crying and wanting to marry their moms. We do not normally pay much attention to their tantrums and laugh them off. We would always dismiss little kids’ possessive affections because, well, they are their parents.

Oedipus and Electra complex are unconscious emotions occurring in children from 3 to 6 years of age. It happens during what we call the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Kids begin to develop their sexual impulses and an interest in their genitals. This is the part of their lives where they also start to distinguish the differences between males and females.

While struggling with their own genders, they will grow some kind of erotic attachment towards their opposite-sex parents. Children do not understand the act of sex, only the feeling of physical attraction, jealousy, and anger. They will also compete for affection and considers their same-sex parent as the rival.

The Oedipus and Electra complexes are normal developmental stages of a child’s life. It is their learning process for identifying gender differences. And mostly, they learn it through identifying their parents’ own sexes.

Signs of Oedipus and Electra Complex

Although it may seem taboo, yet according to Freud, the phallic stage is an important stage in the child’s psychological development. Thus, avoiding, dismissing, or criticizing children on this topic can greatly affect the child’s life later on.

Once you spot these signs in your 3- to 6-year-old children, it pays to be extra considerate and understanding:

  • Possessiveness and deep affection towards the opposite-sex parent
  • Longing and practicing sexual behavior without social contact with the parent
  • Fixation on one parent and competing for attention with the other
  • The child wants to sleep between parents
  • Mean attitude towards the same-sex parent
  • Jealousy
  • Girls will have “penis envy” and resents her mother because she has none

How Oedipus Complex is resolved

At the end of the phallic phase, the child’s attraction resolves on its own. Kids will learn to repress the feeling of aggression. It means that their young minds will unconsciously block these emotions and impulses. Their conscience will grow and the child becomes more aware of right and wrong.

When the boy learns and becomes aware of his gender identity, the attraction towards his mother will go away. By this time, he will learn to associate his identity with his father and begins to bond more with him. Once his rival, he will now start seeing his father as the role model and wants to shadow his masculinity.

Little girls will also become aware of their mother’s personality and take after her. She will apply the same characteristic and accept her gender role. So at the end of the stage, they will also develop their sense of morality.

How parents should react to Oedipus Complex

According to Freud, little children will not bypass this stage. They will all experience this, but eventually, their mind’s repression will make them forget about it. During this crucial stage of the child’s life, criticism, rejection, or shaming them for it is detrimental.

So, how should parents respond to their children’s assertive and aggressive behavior during this phase? Here are some of the things that a parent can do to support them while reinforcing proper parenting influence.

  • Show him or her more love even if the child is getting extremely jealous of you.
  • Redirect the child’s attention to something else.
  • Try talking to the child about his behavior and explain his or her gender. This is tricky and may not at all work since you are dealing with just a child. But it is worth a try.
  • Do not tease or shame the child.

    He will get past the stage, and criticizing him will only affect his psychological development.

What happens if the Oedipus Complex is not resolved?

Children will abandon the phallic stage but in rare cases that they don’t, what will happen? According to experts, the unresolved Oedipus Complex will result in an unhealthy fixation towards their parents.

As a result, they will struggle with their romantic relationships later in life. Hence, these children may want a partner that resembles their opposite-sex parent. Some men may also get attracted to older women.

Aside from their mature adult relationships, they may also struggle with same-sex competitiveness. Unresolved Oedipus Complex in adults may merit a therapy session from the psychiatrist.

Why don’t we, adults, remember any of these feelings growing up?

The human mind has a beautiful way of coping up. These fantasies normally do not retain any memories so we have no recollection of it. It only happens to help strengthen the child’s psycho-sexual personalities and go. All these behaviors and desires will normally end.

When should I be concerned about my child’s sexualized behavior?

If you noticed your toddler displaying explicit sexual behavior, try to talk him it. It may include persistent touching of his or her genitals, stimulating sexual activities with other children, or playing with sexual themes and activities. And if your child’s behavior is getting hand, you may need to involve professional help.


Oedipus Complex and Electra Complex are normal developmental milestones in a child’s life. The love and obsession that they show towards their opposite-sex parents will eventually go away. This stage exists to help children learn about their gender and sexuality. This awareness will also awaken their sense of morality.

But it is important to note that modern psychology has varying opinions about the Oedipal and Electra complex. It is not widely accepted among mental health professionals. However, they do recognize the fact that parents play a role in the gender awareness of the children. Children learn their gender roles and sexuality mostly from them.


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