Psychosexual influences on personality

When we come to consider the influences on personality during childhood we are on more delicate ground. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who placed much emphasis on psychosexual development, divided childhood into five stages depending on the focus of the child’s sensual attention. First came the oral stage, roughly corresponding to breast feeding, when the child is heavily dependent on the mother. Second came the anal stage, corresponding to the toilet-training period, when the child is becoming more able to control behaviour. Third is the phallic stage, when the child shows intense interest in his or her own genitals. After the phallic stage comes a quiet period called latency and then finally the adult personality matures at the fifth, genital, stage during puberty and adolescence. Because Freud thought that sexual instinct formed the basis of personality, this was advanced as a theory in personality development. If the conflict surrounding one of the stages was not resolved properly, the person was thought to get ‘stuck’ in that stage and unable to progress to true maturity. For instance ‘fixation’ in the anal stage was thought to lead to an obsessional person who was abnormally preoccupied with issues concerning control. Today Freud’s theory seems to most psychologists to be unnecessarily rigid as a description of the development of real people. Also other analysts such as Melanie Klein (1882-1960) have put forward similar, but contradictory, theories based on the same sort of observations of childhood development.

Modern ideas

The modern approach to a definition of personality tries to integrate the development of intellectual skills with the development of emotions and derives into a single theory of growing up. The idea is that a child cannot deal with an emotional problem successfully until he or she has the intellectual skills to analyse and resolve it. For instance, as a young child begins to develop control over its muscles and learns to crawl or walk, he or she is able to move away from the mother, even if only to the other side of the room. This growing independence associated with periods of absence from the mother induces a sense of anxiety in the child, called separation anxiety. This can be resolved in a number of ways, some satisfactory and others unsatisfactory; the way in which it is resolved may affect personality development and ultimately leave traces in the personality of the adult ranging from shyness at one end of the scale to a neurotic fear of strangers (xenophobia) at the other. Growing up in terms of mental and emotional maturity does not stop with adolescence. Personality development and change continue until death. There are fairly characteristic conflicts and problems at each stage of adult life, for example coping with marriage, coping with children, mid-life crises, old age and the death of the partner.

According to most theorists, the ability to trust other people is the basic skill on which development of personality is built. If a child cannot trust its mother to provide for its needs during early infancy, then the tasks it has to undertake later in development will be much more difficult, or even impossible. In one famous study in this area, children who were brought up in emotionally ‘cold’ nursing homes, in which nobody was personally responsible for the individual child, were shown to grow into ‘affectionless psychopaths’ more often than children brought up by one person (not necessarily the mother). Even so, most children can cope with several people taking care of them so long as the carers are few in number and provided each one can be trusted by the child.

One shortcoming of most theories of personality development, particularly during early childhood, is that they do not really take into account the contribution the child brings into the world. Such theories treat the baby as a blank slate, to be written on by the parents. In fact any child has a recognizable temperament from very early in life, although presumably inherited from its parents. In personality development this is then modified by the interaction of the child with the people around it, which usually produces a fully socialized individual by the time of late adolescence. For the majority of us, this aim is realized -more or less. 97

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