“Mom, I love you. I want to marry you,” your three-year-old son says, planting a kiss on your cheek. Your heart melts. Then your husband comes home and that same endearing little boy launches an angry campaign against him, all the while sweetly holding your hand. Has your son suddenly become a tyrant with a split-personality disorder?
Relax. He’s simply displaying an Oedipus complex –– an essential developmental phase every child goes through. The Oedipus complex is a normal childhood stage of psychological development that occurs between the ages of 3 to 5. This phase comes after your child has partially detached themselves from you, setting out to find his own identity. He tends to develop a deep affection — and even physical attraction — towards the parent of the opposite sex and a rivalry towards the same-sex parent.
The Origin of the Term “Oedipus Complex”
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the term “Oedipus complex” after the play Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles in 429 B.C. In this Greek tragedy, the king of Thebes is told by an oracle that his son Oedipus will kill him. As a result, his wife deserts baby Oedipus on a mountain to die. Unbeknownst to them, the baby is rescued and raised by the King of Corinth.
When Oedipus becomes a man, he is told by an oracle that he will kill his father and sire kids with his mother. To avoid this horror, he leaves Corinth and the people he believes to be his parents, and heads to Thebes where he meets the Thebian king (his biological dad) and kills him in a fight. He goes to the palace and wins the hand of the widowed queen (his biological mom) and marries her.
It’s totally accidental. Oedipus is not a bad guy. He ran from the “kill Dad and marry Mom” idea. When they learn that Oedipus is actually the queen’s son, she hangs herself. Oedipus finds her and with shame and guilt, he blinds himself and wanders thereafter as a tormented soul.
Recognizing the Signs of Oedipus Complex Phase in Your Child
Freud asserts that the Oedipus complex stage is a natural phase and avoidance of this crucial stage could prove detrimental to a child’s psychological development.
How do you know if your child has entered this stage? There are signs you can spot.
- Deep affection for opposite sex parent: Your child may become overly loving and even try to kiss you “like daddy does.” He may demand constant attention — only Mom’s.
- Indifference or harsh attitude to same-sex parent: He may become mean towards his dad and act out when he’s around. He may resort to the silent treatment around his father. It may seem like he doesn’t love his dad at all.
- Jealousy of a possessive nature: Your child will exhibit a possessive nature towards Mom. He may get angry when Dad tries to show affection to Mom and when Mom shows affection for Dad! During this phase the child wants Mom for himself.
The Psychology That Causes Oedipus Complex
The boy focuses his affections on his mother because she is his caregiver. When his feelings become powerful and overwhelming — an infantile sexual awakening — he becomes aware of the difference between male and female. He takes note of the relationship between his father and mother and views his dad as his rival. He becomes possessive of his mother and jealous of his father.
The Appropriate Attitude of Parents
This is a natural process. Richard Boyd of the Energetics Institute says that it’s the parents’ responsibility to be aware that this is a normal stage of development. During that time, it is essential that “a child should not be rejected, used, punished, or shamed for having natural impulses of the heart and sexuality.”
While it would be good if you could sit down and have a heart-to-heart with your child about this topic, at ages three to five it is doubtful he would listen or comprehend the subject, let alone sit still that long. Instead, try these tactics:
- Love your child unconditionally, even if you are the dad and suffering the brunt of your child’s jealousies.
- Don’t criticize, tease or shame your child for exhibiting these behaviors.
- If your child crosses a boundary that you feel uncomfortable with (such as trying to kiss like Daddy), divert and redirect his attention elsewhere.
- Remember that you are dealing with a young child.
- Know that this is only a phase and it will pass. Be stoic and hang in there!
Exiting the Oedipus Complex Phase
Your child is traveling through this stage of development in order to learn his own sexual identity. When your child reaches the end of this phase, he abandons his sexual attraction towards his mother and begins to identify more with his father, stepping down to let his father win their rivalry. At this time, the father begins to bond more with the child, aiding the development of his masculinity.
Oedipus Complex Is a Natural Stage of Growth for Both Boys and Girls
Young girls do not by-pass this phase. They go through a similar stage in development called the “Elektra complex”, based on another tragic Greek tale.
It is imperative that all children successfully pass through this stage of development in childhood. Repercussions from punishments and criticisms during the phase can lead to psychological problems in adulthood. It’s far easier to face the overt affections of a 3-year-old than surmount the troubles of a 35-year-old!
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