The Psychology of Trauma

The Psychological Impact of Trauma

How did Freud’s seduction theory account for the childhood trauma?

Sigmund Freud’s early work on the seduction theory set the stage for many of the later developments in trauma psychology. Freud was initially interested in the problem of hysteria, which was a fairly common disorder in Victorian Europe. People would complain of various bodily problems that had no basis in actual physiology. We would now diagnose such complaints as conversion disorders. After interviewing numerous patients, Freud came up with the seduction theory, which stated that hysteria was caused by seduction in early life. In other words, hysteria stemmed from early experiences of childhood sexual abuse.

Within a few years, Freud abandoned this theory, believing that hysteria was too common to have been solely caused by sexual abuse. This would have meant that far more children were sexually abused than he believed was likely. He replaced his focus on actual experience with an emphasis on fantasy. The child may not have actually been seduced, but instead had repressed fantasies of seduction by the mother or father. With this turn from actual traumatic events to traumatic fantasies, the study of childhood trauma went underground for more than half a century, not to re-emerge until the 1970s and 1980s.


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