Also called the oedipal complex, the Oedipus complex is a term used in the psychosexual stages of development theory by Sigmund Freud. The concept, first proposed by Freud in 1899 and not formally used until 1910, refers to a male child’s attraction to their parent of the opposite sex (mother) and jealousy of their parent of the same sex (father).

According to the controversial concept, children view the same-sex parent as a rival. Specifically, a boy feels the need to compete with his father for the attention of his mother, or a girl will compete with her mother for the attention of her father. The latter concept was termed the “Electra complex,” by a former student and collaborator of Freud, Carl Jung.

The controversy centers on the theory that a child has sexual feelings towards a parent. Freud believed that though these feelings or desires are repressed or unconscious, they still have a significant influence on a child’s development.

The complex is named after Oedipus Rex — a character in Sophocles’ tragic play. In the story, Oedipus Rex unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.

According to Freud’s theory, the psychosexual development in childhood happens in stages. Each stage represents the fixation of libido on a different part of the body. Freud believed that as you grow physically, certain parts of your body become sources of pleasure, frustration, or both. Today, these body parts are commonly referred to as erogenous zones when talking about sexual pleasure.

According to Freud, the stages of psychosexual development include:

  • Oral. This stage happens between infancy and 18 months. It involves fixation on the mouth, and the pleasure of sucking, licking, chewing, and biting.
  • Anal. This stage occurs between 18 months and 3 years of age. It focuses on the pleasure of bowel elimination and developing healthy toilet training habits.
  • Phallic. This stage runs from age 3 to 5. It’s believed to be the most important stage in psychosexual development in which boys and girls develop healthy substitutes for their attraction to the opposite-sex parent.
  • Latency. This stage occurs between 5 and 12 years of age or puberty, during which a child develops healthy dormant feelings for the opposite sex.
  • Genital. This stage occurs from age 12, or puberty, to adulthood. The maturation of healthy sexual interests happens during this time as all of the other stages are integrated into the mind. This allows for healthy sexual feelings and behavior.

According to Freud, the first five years of life are important in the formation and development of our adult personalities. During this time, he believed we develop our ability to control and direct our sexual desires into socially acceptable behaviors.

Based on his theory, the Oedipus complex plays a significant role in the phallic stage, which happens between approximately 3 and 6 years of age. In this stage, the child’s libido is focused on the genitalia.

The symptoms and signs of the Oedipus complex aren’t as overtly sexual — if at all — as one might imagine based on this controversial theory. The signs of Oedipus complex can be very subtle and include behavior that wouldn’t make a parent think twice.

The following are some examples that could be a sign of the complex:

  • a boy who acts possessive of his mother and tells the father not to touch her
  • a child who insists on sleeping between parents
  • a girl who declares she wants to marry her father when she grows up
  • a child who hopes the parent of the opposite sex goes out of town so that they can take their place

The Electra complex is referred to as the female counterpart of the Oedipus complex. Unlike the Oedipus complex, which refers to both males and females, this psychoanalytic term refers only to females. It involves a daughter’s adoration for her father and her jealously toward her mother. There’s also a “penis envy” element to the complex, in which the daughter blames the mother for depriving her of a penis.

The Electra complex was defined by Carl Jung, one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis and former collaborator of Freud’s. It was named after the Greek myth of Electra. In the myth, Electra persuades her brother to avenge her father’s murder by helping her kill her mother and her lover.

According to Freud, a child must overcome conflicts at each of the sexual stages to be able to develop healthy sexual desires and behaviors. When the Oedipus complex is not successfully resolved during the phallic stage, an unhealthy fixation can develop and remain. This leads to boys becoming fixated on their mothers and girls becoming fixated on their fathers, causing them to choose romantic partners that resemble their opposite-sex parent as adults.

The Oedipus complex is one of the most discussed and criticized issues in psychology. Experts have, and will likely continue to have, differing views and opinions on the complex and whether or not it exists and to what degree.

If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, speak to your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.