Stages of Separation

So what are these famous stages of separation? Here is a quick list.

Stage 1: by the age of about 18 months, a child should become comfortable with the idea that Mommy leaves sometimes and then comes back. If every time Mommy leaves the room, the child collapses in hysterics, this isn’t a sign that he really loves Mommy. All kids love their Mommies. It’s a sign that something is not going right.

In adulthood, failure successfully to go through this stage translates into clinginess in relationships. abandonment issues, anxiety, depression, and when it’s coupled with feeding issues into eating disorders, smoking, alcoholism.

Stage 2: by the age of 3, a child arrives at a complete realization that Mommy is a separate person. This is a moment when he begins to experiment with asserting his will. He says no to everything, rejects food, insists on his own clothing choices, throws tantrums. 

If this stage is thwarted, in adulthood this is somebody who is uncomfortable with leadership roles, has trouble speaking in public, feels judged, finds it hard to carry things through.

Stage 3: by the age of 5, a child begins to confront the role of “the excluded third.” She figures out that Mommy and Daddy are a couple and learns to deal with the trauma of that realization. She begins to say things like, “Mommy, when will you finally die so that I can marry Daddy?” She begins to cling to Daddy and tries to disrupt the activities that the parents do as a couple.

If this stage is thwarted, in adulthood this is somebody who recreates triangular situations and feels rejected.

Stage 4: at around 6-7, the peer group displaces parents from the center of the child’s life. Simply put, friends become more important than parents. A child becomes defiant, loves to contradict, criticizes the parents, rolls her eyes. When this begins to happen, many parents feel sad and think they are doing something wrong. But it’s the exact opposite! They are doing everything right and should feel very proud. (If this happens a bit later, at 8-9, that’s fine, too.)

Stage 5: there is a wider range here because different kids approach puberty at different speeds, so this is a stage that is around ages 9-13. This is when the most important thing becomes being a boy or a girl and developing an interest in boys or girls. 

Stage 6: this is a loooong one. It’s the transition to adulthood and it will take as long as the enormous hormonal transformations are occurring. This shit is very individual and it takes place between 13 and 18 years of age, approximately. This is the final stage of separation where a child needs to come into his own as a fully separate human being. He does this by rejecting everything about the parents. Even the sound of their voices becomes grating. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his parents. Of course, he does. But he needs to position himself as a separate human being, and the only way is to declare his difference from his parents.

I have a colleague who says, “My teenage son is so rebellious. He locks himself in his room and doesn’t even want to talk to us. He is always angry at me. He is secretive, and I don’t even know who his friends are. What have I done wrong?”

And I’m like, “Lady, you’ve done everything right, and this is your evidence. Go buy yourself a gift and throw a party. You did good with this boy.” She doesn’t believe me and thinks I’m trying to be nice. Which is patently silly because when did I ever try to be nice?

The really sad thing about this is that it’s precisely the good parents who do everything right and let their children separate that feel guilty because their children don’t conform to the stereotype of a “good”, permanently polite, obedient, and convenient child. As if a thriving individuality could ever arise from obedience, politeness and convenience.

And to conclude the endless post, I want to remind you that a famous psychoanalyst once said, “The most important role a parent can play is preparing a child to the parent’s eventual death.”


14 thoughts on “Stages of Separation”

  1. I have a 5 year old, and so far he’s followed this pattern. But where are you getting this from? I’ve never seen child development spelled out quite in this way.


    1. Good for you! And especially for him.

      I’ve read a lot on the subject over the years. Like in A LOT. This is the psychoanalytic model that I’m summarizing.


      1. Actually, my son doesn’t quite follow these stages. At Stage 3 he’s alternated between rejecting me for his father, and then more recently he’s started to show a preference for me again (which he hadn’t since his baby years when I was breastfeeding). We never make him feel bad for rejecting one of us over the other, but we let him know we still love him regardless.


  2. If you were still into quizzes, “What Oedipal Stage Are You Stuck At?” would be clickbait.

    I wonder how many of these stages only make sense with western liberal norms. I’ve seen so many instances of very different communities that don’t look at stages 4-6 as being good and normal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are absolutely right. The more patriarchal a society is, the less capable it is of allowing this kind of individuation. In patriarchal societies, an individual is first an foremost part of the clan. The whole point is not to allow you to separate. This is why Freudianism could have only arisen in a society that was opulent enough to sacrifice patriarchal norms. Like feminism, Freudianism is a consequence of developing capitalism. Capitalism needs us to unleash our desires instead of subjugating them to the clan.


  3. OK, then. My problems are at the phallic stage, when you adopt the characteristics of the same-sex parent. I remember this clearly, and knew it was what I should do. I decided to identify with my father instead because he was so much more functional than my mother, could get up in the morning, make phone calls, cook things, go places. I thought that if I adopted my mother’s characteristics I might not learn to take care of myself, and that this would be dangerous, so I imitated my father.

    This is of course the stage at which the superego develops and mine is too large, and oppresses my ego. I wonder if that is related to the above. Also, my ego, the oral stage, is unevenly developed. Was bedeutet es, Doktor Freud?


  4. I have no idea if I went through stage 3, but I know my sister did! She cried and cried when she found out she couldn’t marry her dad or her brother.


    1. I highly recommend Erickson and his followers to people who feel like they can’t progress to the next stage of life, who feel stuck in their current situation. Very, very useful.


      1. Well, now I am reviewing Lacan. But Erickson is quite interesting, it must be said, and I think the people who get stuck in these stages become envious of those who are not.


  5. \ Stage 3: by the age of 5, a child begins to confront the role of “the excluded third.”

    How can it happen in one parent families? For instance, with mother and her parents only. This model works best for a “standard” family, but I think it can be further developed to include one-parent families too. Btw, despite not having a father, I do not think I recreate triangular situations. For instance, I wouldn’t date somebody in a relationship.

    Regarding symptoms of not passing a stage, I have understood that not passing Stage 1 means one will have all symptoms of not passing stages 1-6. Also, what happens if one doesn’t pass Stage 4?

    One Russian blogger about relationships thinks one should leave the past and concentrate on solving present problems w/o justifying anything by the past. (I understand you don’t justify anything.) I do see problems in her approach, but haven’t understood how identifying “I haven’t passed this stage” will solve anything resulting from it magically since the problems still remain, even if it may be interesting to know how they were createed.

    If a person wants to solve something, may be it will help a little. However, there are probably quite a few people who actively want to be stuck at one stage or another deep inside, even if it may make them unhappy from time to time.


    1. My friend, you are right, it is like magic. I have no idea why the magic happens but it does.

      Imagine a person who has an addiction. It’s a serious addiction, it’s been going on for years, and it’s getting worse. And then the person goes into psychoanalysis, talks, figures it out and. . . She’s cured. Addiction is gone.

      Imagine a person with 3 addictions, 5 self-destructive behaviors, and all central bodily functions compromised (eating disorders, sleep disorders.) And then all of a sudden, it all begins to fall away and she can lead a normal life. No addictions, no self-destructive behaviors.

      That’s how it works. And I wouldn’t have believed it had I not experienced it myself. I have no idea why understanding the problem has such potency but it does.

      Of course, it all begins with a person wanting to get better. And as you say, if they don’t, that’s all there is to it.


      1. As for leaving the past, it’s like telling an alcoholic to leave the bottle. It sounds great in theory but it’s not something that can one can do.


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