The "Family Drama"

According to Freud, a little boy in the phallic stage begins to feel vague erotic feelings for his mother. Father is seen as a competitor for mother's affections. The boy begins to fear and hate his father as a rival. He is sure his father knows about this hate. Meanwhile (Freud asserted) the father has probably caught the boy masturbating and threatens to cut off his penis as punishment. (Freud must have experienced something like this, because he claimed it was nearly a universal event.) Therefore the boy centers his emerging fear of the father on his penis. The result is castration anxiety (fear that his penis will be cut off).

What was the sequence of events in Freud's family drama?

This state of affairs is so uncomfortable that the boy deals with it using two defense mechanisms: reaction formation and identification. The boy decides he loves his father (reaction formation) and that he wants to be like him (identification). Freud thought this was where a young boy's sexual identification came from: sexual jealousy followed by the defense mechanisms of reaction formation and identification.

Similarly, a little girl was said to develop love for her father during the phallic stage. In her case, noticing she had no penis, she would develop penis envy, concluding that the dreaded castration had already taken place. She would notice her mother had suffered the same fate, so she would dislike her mother. These feelings were said to be resolved by reaction formation and identification, so the young girl ultimately loved and identified with her mother.

What caused penis envy, in Freud's view?

Freud put great emphasis on the family drama, using it to explain early roots of adult psychopathology (mental disturbance). He conveniently dismissed the lack of memory for these traumatic events of childhood by saying that when the Oedipal and Electra conflicts are resolved, the memories of these events are successfully repressed. For example, few if any males remember being threatened with castration as a young child, yet Freud thought this was a universal occurrence...it was simply repressed.

If you find the "family drama" bizarre, you are in good company. Few present-day psychologists take it seriously—at least, not in the United States. Psychologists in other countries, such as Mexico and Belgium, were more accepting of Freudian theory in the late decades of the 20th Century, after it was already considered a historical curiosity in the United States.

One can also draw a clear distinction between Freud's theory about the psychodynamics underlying the family drama, on the one hand, and Freud's observations of common patterns in childhood, on the other. The family drama theory, with its tableaux of sexual jealousies and fears, receives little support from research in developmental psychology. However, there are many little girls who love their Daddies and little boys who love their Mommies, and each can feel jealous of the opposite-sexed parent.

One mother writes:

For the last two years I have had an opportunity to observe a child in the Oedipal stage of development. My son who is eight years old and the "baby" of the family is a perfect example.

Some observations I have made that bring this to light are:

1. He tells me several times each day, "I love you Mommy" or "Mom, I really care about you."

2. I can do no wrong in his eyes. He accepts whatever I do without too much question even if he is disappointed.

3. He will not let anyone but me help him dress or do his homework. He relates to me better on a teaching basis than anyone in the family.

4. He doesn't dislike his father but doesn't have a whole lot to do with him and follows me instead.

5. He picks wild flowers in the yard or field and brings them to me.

6. If an argument comes up he will take my side.

7. He goes out of his way to please me whether at school or play.

This is a delightful stage of development to participate in from my angle (his mother) and it is very rewarding to teach him at this time. He is open to most suggestions and eager to please. [Author's files]

Freud might shake his head and say this mother is doing her son harm by failing to encourage resolution of the Oedipal conflict. A Freudian psychologist might predict that this boy will someday expect his girlfriend or spouse to "be" his mother, and this will lead to misunderstandings. Other psychologists might see nothing here but a son who loves and delights his mother.

Another student writes of the Electra conflict:

When we were discussing the Electra conflict in class it made me remember how I was when I was a child. I was always my "daddy's little girl." Wherever my dad went I went too. When we went shopping as a family, my older sister went off with my mother to look at the "girlie" stuff, and I always went off with my father. My mother and I didn't get along during this time. I never wanted to do what she told me to do. I guess that was a form of resentment I felt toward my mother because of the attention she got from my father. As I have grown older I have become closer to my mother even though I still care a lot for my dad. [Author's files]

What evil consequences might result from an unresolved Electra complex? Freud said such a woman might become a castrating female, like Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, teasing men without ever being serious, because her heart still belonged to Daddy.

How do modern researchers disagree with Freud about the "latency stage"? What were characteristics of the "genital" stage?

Freud said the latency stage (or "latent stage") occurred after the phallic stage, around 8 or 9 years of age. From this age until puberty, he said, children concentrated on growing up and playing with same-sex friends. Sexual urges went underground and seemed to disappear. Again, modern researchers do not agree with Freud. Some say the latency period simply does not exist. Sexual concerns are no more or less dominant in children of this age than at other pre-adolescent stages.

With adolescence comes sexual maturity and the genital stage. Freud said this stage is marked by a growing concern for the psychological and erotic satisfaction of one's partner, rather than self-centered gratification typical of earlier stages.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey