When a child is in love with their parent

When a child is in love with their parent
Your daughter wants to marry her daddy. Your son is trying to seduce his mommy. How should you react when your child is exhibiting an Oedipus complex?

Though the Oedipus complex has never been unanimously embraced by psychologists, many in the profession still find the theory relevant today, considering it to be an important stage in the development of a child’s sexual identity.

What is the Oedipus complex?

According to this theory, the Oedipus complex occurs when a child develops feelings of desire for their opposite-sex parent. It usually manifests between the ages of 3 and 6.

The Oedipal phase can be more or less intense depending on the temperament of the child or according to various circumstances that might cause the opposite-sex parent to be either absent from or constantly present in their life. It may therefore go unnoticed in one child while being more apparent in another.

A child in a single-parent, same-sex parent, or even traditional heterosexual family may develop an Oedipus complex toward another significant person. This could be a stepfather or stepmother, an aunt, a godfather, a daycare educator, etc.

Development of the Oedipus complex

The Oedipus complex generally emerges around the age of 3. It is at this age that children begin to enjoy pointing out the differences between themselves and others, such as in hair, eye, and skin colour.

They become particularly curious about nudity. They notice the genitals of other children and of their parents, and they aren’t shy about revealing their own. For instance, they delight in parading about naked at bath time. Additionally, they begin to ask where babies come from and, eventually, how they’re made.

It’s also between the ages of 3 and 6 that children seek to assert power over others, starting with their parents. They express their desire to please, possess, oppose, or reject other people (e.g., “You’re not my friend anymore.”). During this phase, their preference for their opposite-sex parent leads them to exclude the parent of the same sex. They become overly affectionate toward the parent who is the object of their love while acting hostile toward the parent they view as a rival.

Around the age of 4, when a child’s language skills have sufficiently evolved, girls may stubbornly declare: “No, not you, Mommy! I want Daddy!” while boys assert: “You’re beautiful, Mommy. I’m your sweetheart!” Some young children will go so far as to say they want to marry their parent and even have babies with them.

Conversely, a child at this age will have mixed feelings towards their same-sex parent: they see this parent as a rival they want to get rid of and replace, but also, deep down, as someone they love very much.

Inverted Oedipus complex
Some children experience their first feelings of desire for their same-sex parent, while the opposite-sex parent becomes a rival. This is the what’s called the inverted Oedipus complex.

Resolution of the Oedipus complex

The Oedipus complex naturally resolves around the age of 6. At this stage, children begin to internalize social norms and recognize the importance of rules and prohibitions. They quite simply come to realize that marrying Mommy or Daddy is not allowed and naturally abandon that desire.

It is also at this age that children demonstrate more openness toward others and place more importance on friendships. Little by little, they begin to form their identity as a boy or girl and adopt behaviours associated with that gender.

Their hostility towards the rival parent evolves into admiration. The child feels attraction for that parent and begins to identify with them. For example girls will style their hair or put on makeup like their mothers, boys will begin dressing like their fathers.

Origin of the Oedipus complex
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, introduced the theory of the Oedipus complex in 1899. The name comes from the Greek myth of Oedipus, king of Thebes, who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, with whom he has several children.

How should you to respond to the Oedipus complex?

Here’s how you can help your child resolve the conflicts associated with the Oedipus complex.

  • Be understanding and supportive of your child’s attraction toward or rejection of you, but don’t give in to their desires.
  • Gently set the record straight: “Daddy/Mommy is my sweetheart.” Then, tell your child, “When you’re bigger, you’ll have a sweetheart too. You can kiss each other on the mouth, just like Mommy/Daddy and I do.” It’s important for your child to hear this from both parents.
  • If your child tries to pull you away from your partner when you embrace, tell them that it’s normal for sweethearts to hug and kiss.
  • Make sure that you and your partner take turns participating in everyday activities, especially during the Oedipal phase. Avoid giving one parent exclusive responsibility over bedtime. Most importantly, don’t fall into the trap of letting your child decide which parent is in charge. For instance, try saying: “Mommy is giving you your bath tonight, and tomorrow it will be Daddy.” Give your little one the chance to enjoy these moments in the company of either parent.
  • Don’t get angry when your child tries to seduce you or push you away. Even if they refuse to follow your instructions and only listen to your partner, there’s no use second-guessing yourself. These are simply childish desires.
  • Don’t laugh at your child’s attempts at seduction, but don’t let them think they’ll get their way. This would only muddy the roles within the family and encourage your child to continue their behaviour. Moreover, if a child believes they might actually be able to marry their parent, they may worry about losing the love of the parent they’re pushing away.
  • Avoid letting your child develop an exclusive relationship with you or your partner, whether by excluding your partner or by pulling away from you. This could prevent the Oedipus complex from being resolved. Indeed, if a child remains in an exclusive relationship with one of their parents, they’ll have difficulty establishing their individual identity and developing healthy romantic relationships once they reach adolescence and adulthood.
  • Encourage father-son and mother-daughter activities, as it’s good for your child to develop positive and meaningful relationships with both parents. This will make for a smoother resolution of their Oedipus complex when they begin to identify with the same-sex parent.
  • Help them set boundaries within your family so they understand that they are still a child. For example, you can say: “Parents and children can’t be sweethearts. You can’t ever be my sweetheart,” or, “You’re not allowed to kiss me on the mouth. Only Daddy is allowed.”
  • Be encouraging when your child seeks to assert their identity. Don’t hesitate to compliment them. Demonstrating a supportive attitude will help them develop a sense of pride in their sexual identity.
  • Reassure your child by telling them how much you love them and how much you love to watch them grow. Let them know that one day, they’ll get to choose their own life partner.
  • Even if you’re hurt by your child’s attitude, try not to let it get to you. Of course, it’s important not to let them think they can get away with saying unkind things to you. Make the effort to strengthen your relationship by spending meaningful time with them.


Things to keep in mind

  • It’s normal for your child to feel a stronger attachment toward their opposite-sex parent between the ages of 3 and 6.
  • Reassure your child by telling them that while a parent’s love for their child is very strong, it’s also very different from the love they have for their partner.
  • Many psychologists believe that the Oedipus complex stage helps young children construct their male or female identity.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Julie Raymond, M.Ps., clinical psychologist, child development
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2018


Photo: iStock.com/ideabug



Please note that hyperlinks to other websites are not updated regularly, and some may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, use search engines to find the relevant information.

For parents:

  • Letellier, Stephanie. “Comment se passe le complexe d’Oedipe dans une famille monoparentale ou homoparentale?” December 17, 2013. www.vosquestionsdeparents.fr
  • Letellier, Stephanie. “Comment se résout ce complexe?” December 17, 2013. www.vosquestionsdeparents.fr
  • Schotte, Jean-Claude. “Pour une critique de l’Oedipe de Freud.” Tétralogiques, no. 20, 2015, pp. 77–96. www.tetralogiques.fr

For kids:

  • Sakai, Komako. Moi, ma Maman… Genève, La Joie de lire, 2010, 36 pp.