The Oedipus Complex, a Stage of Development

The Oedipus complex is part of the theory of psychoanalysis, proposed by the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Oedipus Complex, a Stage of Development

Last update: 08 November, 2018

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.

The Oedipus Complex, a Stage of Development

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.
The Oedipus Complex, a Stage of Development

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.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Malinowski, B., & Germani, G. (1963). Estudios de psicología primitiva: el complejo de Edipo.
  • Moguillansky, R. (2003). Narcisismo, Complejo de Edipo y Complejo Fraterno *. Psicoanálisis APdeBA.
  • Susmanscky de Miguelez, N. B. (2010). El complejo de edipo. In Estados Generales del Psicoanálisis: Segundo Encontro Mundial, Rio de Janeiro 2003.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.