Pleasure Principle: Understanding Children's Behavior

Understanding how the pleasure principle operates in children's minds helps us understand their behavior and not take it personally.
Pleasure Principle: Understanding Children's Behavior

Last update: 17 April, 2021

The arrival of a child is an extremely gratifying experience. The little ones teach us the purest love and the innocence typical to their young age. However, they also present many challenges, especially when it comes to setting limits. If we don’t understand how their psyche works, we can misinterpret their behavior. That’s why we’re going to talk about the pleasure principle.

This concept, derived from psychoanalysis, governs children’s behavior during their early years. Therefore, knowing what it consists of can help us understand how children think and feel. Finally, in order to be able to guide them properly during their growth, we must be able to put ourselves in their shoes.

What is the pleasure principle?

The pleasure principle is defined in the psychoanalytic theory, and was coined by the famous Dr. Sigmund Freud. It’s one of the primary psychic processes that accompanies and drives us during our first years.

It consists, quite simply, of seeking pleasure and immediate satisfaction of desires. So, the child acts on impulse with the sole objective of obtaining what gives them pleasure, and avoiding what generates displeasure.

They’re incapable of postponing gratification and don’t contemplate the long-term consequences. And, likewise, they can’t tolerate any displeasure or discomfort. The child doesn’t understand or accept limitations, because they feel omnipotent and governed by their own impulse.

Pleasure Principle: Understanding Children's Behavior

A natural process

This is completely natural during the first years of life. Babies cry because they’re hungry, cold, afraid, in pain or uncomfortable, because they can’t do anything else. Those who claim that little ones try to manipulate adults with their cries are assigning them a complex thought process that they can’t yet perform.

If your little one cries when you’re not holding them, they’re not trying to emotionally blackmail you. They’re simply expressing their discomfort. It’s in their nature to avoid these unpleasant sensations. They’re not yet able to understand that you can’t hold them because you have something else to do.

Understanding the pleasure principle and how it operates in young children can help us not take their behaviors personally. This information can be especially helpful when children reach two years of age, and tantrums start to flare up.

Stay calm, breathe and try to put yourself at their level in order to understand. Your child isn’t trying to provoke you, play with you or annoy you. They simply don’t yet have the personal tools to tolerate frustration, take no for an answer and postpone their desires.

They’re beginning to discover the world’s limitations, which are completely at odds with their conception of omnipotence. Be patient while they get to understand that sometimes you have to wait, that not everything is possible. Help them learn to manage that discomfort.

A transition to reality

While the pleasure principle is dominant during the first stage of life, little ones must gradually change their perspective. And this comes hand in hand with the reality principle.

Pleasure Principle: Understanding Children's Behavior

In this regard, they must abandon the idea that they’re at the center of the world, and that their desires are commands. They must learn to play down their impulses, postpone and tolerate some discomfort at times. In other words, they must learn to adapt to the real world.

During this process, they begin to perceive themselves as individual beings, separate from their parents. They begin to explore the world and establish other relationships. And, to some extent, they begin to assume a small amount of responsibility for themselves that will increase as they approach adolescence.

As parents, it’s important to understand and accompany their process. Don’t try to demand from your little ones abilities that they don’t yet have. Also, don’t expect them to understand and willingly accept on the first day that you have to leave the park. They have to feel frustration in order to learn how to tolerate it.

Nevertheless, don’t deprive them of these experiences either. If you continue to give them everything, satisfying all their desires immediately as when they were babies, you don’t allow them to grow. The transition to reality is necessary. You must allow it to happen and be their guide.

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  • Bueno Espinosa, M. Á. (2015). El papel del principio del placer y del principio de la realidad en la formación de la subjetividad racional. Endoxa36, 195-212.
  • Castro, M. A. (2019, mayo 8). Principio de placer: ¿qué es? Recuperado abril de 2020, de https://lamenteesmaravillosa.com/principio-de-placer/