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Understanding Erik Erickson's Psychosocial Development

Updated on November 23, 2013

I love kids, though I do not have kids on my own. I am very passionate about them, on how effortlessly cute they appear even if they simply grit their budding teeth, or how their face crumple when they are about to cry, how you cannot resist when they raise their hands as if begging you to carry them, and don’t start about giggling. Then we would always wonder how these kids would grow. Who would he or she be someday.

This is maybe the reason why I have keen interest in pediatrics during my college days. Stages of development were discussed to our class before by our professor who I would not share the name here because I don’t have her consent, and I don’t know if she prefer a low profile. Let me write here my fair share of information in the simplest way I could.

Growth and Development

There are many theories about Growth and Development.

  • The Psychosocial Development Theory by Erik Erickson
  • Cognitive Development Theory by Jean Piaget
  • Psychosexual Development Theory by Sigmund Freud
  • The Moral Development Theory by Lawrence Kohlberg

I am sure that there are more theories out there, some already existed and being studied for long now, some are still to be known, because though human development follows a certain pattern, it is still unpredictable, for it changes in time, new studies and theories will try to explain how amazingly human develop and adapt.

So who is Erik Erickson? Ok let’s see what Wikipedia tells about him.

Erik Homburger Erikson (15 June 1902 – 12 May 1994) was a German-born American, developmental and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings. He may be most famous for coining the phrase identity crisis.

He was trained in psychoanalysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute and also studied the Montessori method of education, which focused on child development and sexual stages. Erikson is also credited with being one of the originators of Ego psychology, which stressed the role of the ego as being more than a servant of the id. According to Erikson, the environment in which a child lived was crucial to providing growth, adjustment, a source of self-awareness and identity. (

Well he seems to be a very intelligent man as per Wikipedia. I am just hopeful that he has nothing against me writing about his theory :)

Erik’s theory is very interesting ( I hope it is also ok for me to address him in first name basis, were not that close ), I say interesting, because it suggest that if we are able to resolve each conflict in every stage, it will have a good effect on a person’s identity or their sense of self.

There are eight stages in Erik’s Theory. First is Trust vs. Mistrust.

This occurs during infancy. In this stage a child would decide whether to trust or not the people and the world they live in. To resolve this uncertainty the guidance would come from the caregivers. To help them, be consistent in providing the basic needs. Give them comfort, from simple things like tucking them in their crib, singing to them, providing blanket, feeding them, cuddling them for feeling of security.

To be able to do this, allow them to signal their needs. Observe on how they signal if they are hungry, sleepy or in pain, and make sure that you’re always there to provide. With all this support the child would develop trust. When they get older they don’t have fear whenever a crisis occur, because they trust that people around, or the world would offer support.

Otherwise they will develop mistrust. This happens when you disregard their cries, or you feed them and the next time you didn’t, they would somehow expect and be disappointed and be confused. If your treatment is harsh instead of securing, they will develop fear, anxiety and insecurity. They would not think that people will be supportive or that world would favor them in times of crisis.

Second stage is Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.

This happens during toddler years (1-2 years old), autonomy means independence. Children on this age group usually wander around, away from their mothers. You go after them and surely they would run farther away (It is a good exercise for moms though). They would like to pick whatever dress they want to wear (to the frustration of their mother who already prepared and iron the clothes she would want them to wear in school). They pick what they want to eat, toy to play. They also tend to say ‘No’ because they feel that they have the right to make decision and could go against what you ask them to. It is their way to say they have self-governance. Let them be independent and explore on where their abilities can bring them, be supportive and of course protective though in the process. If they ask help that is the time you can come into the picture. If they fail, do not criticize, instead teach them how to do it right.

This stage is the best stage for toilet training. Be patient and do not be mad if they made a mess.

If they develop negativism and always say No, minimize this by giving them options. Instead of ‘you want to eat?’ try ‘would you like an apple or a banana?’ All of this would help them be confident, and they would know that they can be independent and they can handle themselves.

Shame and Doubt is developed if they are criticized for their failure. If they are held back and overly controlled, If they weren’t given the chance to know what they can do, they would be shy, there would be low self-esteem, they would always be doubtful on what they can do, and they tend to be dependent.

The third stage is Initiative vs. Guilt.

This is during the preschool period, (3-6 years old). Children in this age are exploring things trough playing. They play with other children, make up games, they direct, they plan on the activities. This is how initiative is developed, a step to learn about leadership and decision making. Try not to restrict or discouraged them.

They would also be talkative and ask too many question, patiently feed them with answers, so they would not feel that what they are doing is disturbance to you or an irritation to other, otherwise, that is when they would feel guilt, however be cautious also between encouragement and tolerating their desire to initiate, if what they want to do is against their safety or would harm other, then of course parents should interfere with all the needed explanation, in this way guilt would reflect as discipline, self-control, or what we call conscience.

The fourth stage of development according to Erik is Industry vs. Inferiority.

This happens during school age (6-12 years old). A child would learn to develop sense of competence.

In school, aside from the parent, teachers and peer group would have a great distribution in this stage. In the process of learning to read, write, and others activities on their own, they want to get approval from teachers, parents, and friends, if they were able to get positive feedback, they are encouraged to work more and strive for achievements, this is how industry is being develop.

But if they usually get negative feedback, they would be afraid to try anymore because they are doubtful if they can do it anyway, they would have inferiority.

However, guardians should be careful in giving positive feedback, sometimes a child will do something not quite acceptable just to win, or for his desire to gain approval and praise, a positive feedback should be in a form of advisement, let them know what is healthy competition, and how to succeed without them breaking rules and compromising theirselves and others.

The fifth stage is Identity vs. Role Confusion.

This occurs during adolescence period which is a very critical stage. In these times a child would start to believe that he/she is entering adulthood and not a child anymore. He or She starts to think about future, careers, and family.

Teenagers would now determine which role they would take as an adult, finding out who he or she is, if they prefer to be a plain homebody, a professional, and even if they wanted to be a man or a woman. Support them during this stage, when they feel worried about the changes that happen to them physically, advise them that these changes are normal, and help them accept their new body image. Let them understand ‘this is normal, it happens to every girl/boy, it is you, and you are wonderful’.

For their future occupational role, be observant on what they really like, on what they are fond of doing. If it’s writing, painting, doing numbers, medicine, then give them support and encouragement. If you believe that they have the same interest on what you do, then show them how you do it. How you are satisfied and successful with your work. It will give them a boost to work hard and to pursue what they really like to do. They would know their real identity.

Role confusion on the other hand is what they usually call identity crisis in which they are not sure on how they fit in the society. They are torn between what they want and what they think the society wants or expect from them. They feel pressured to be someone or do something, which results to negativism, and feeling of unhappiness. This will reflect to their work, unfinished, unsatisfactory, they tend to transfer from one work or course to another, and have little or no achievement in what they do. This most of the times leads to rebellion.

The sixth stage is Intimacy vs. Isolation,

This stage happens in young adulthood. On this stage a man or a woman look forward to long term commitment. They socialize to people other than their family and connect with them intimately. They try to look for someone they are comfortable with, to whom they would be able to share similarities, feel security, and if they found this certain individual, they would consider him or her as partner. If all of this would be positive, then a relationship with sense of commitment would develop.

However, if socializing with other is not successful, if they did not experience the intimacy and comfort from their partner, instead of being able to express oneself they are held back, a man or a woman would rather isolate themselves. This is the time they would feel loneliness and depression, and sometimes they end up living alone, believing that they are better off with themselves than to commit, (so this is why there are old maids). Sometimes even if an individual already has a partner but failed to connect intimately with each other, divorce and annulment came into the picture.

The seventh stage is Generativity vs., Stagnation.

This is during middle adulthood, this is the time that we are seeking professional stability, having our own family, and working for our dreams. On this stage we work to create or generate the outcome based on the bigger picture that we have in our mind, on what we like our life to be.

Parents struggle to work for their children, to send them to school, raise them well, so someday they would say they had produce successful offspring. They try to be productive at work and be an active part of the society to be able to say that they had done something important in their lives.

If one fails to do this, if they weren’t able to achieve their goals, they tend to stop on working, they do not pursue anymore, they are stuck on the status that they currently have, and it is stagnation.

The last stage of this well developed theory by Erik is Ego Integrity vs. Despair.

This happens when we grow older, we stop working partly because of physical changes, and also because we would like to enjoy our retirement period. To enjoy the fruits of all the years working, go back to all our accomplishment in life, enjoy seeing our children being successful. After all your efforts sending them to school, (that includes all the sleepless nights, the yelling, the strains, sprains and headaches). This is also the time you share your own stories to your children and grandchildren, how you get successful. This is when people would say you have wisdom. The time you can accept death without fear.

However if we see our lives the other way around, if we are guilty of the things we have done in the past, if there is regret, your goals and dream are not met, you would feel despair and loneliness. You would feel either fear of death because of unsettled thoughts, or the feeling that you want it all to end fast because you don’t feel that the remaining time matters anyway.

So there you are, though I would like to specify that this is not a concrete basis in crisis intervention or in identifying ones personality outcome. Like I said human development is a unique phenomena that even if it follows a certain pattern, is still different on how it is implied and on what period in occurs. Environment and people around are some of the factors that could affect it.

An also personality and behavioral examples that I have stated here are base on how I believe (and read about) this theory would apply and not really directly explained by Erik.

So what do you want to become? Well as for me, I don’t want to grow old feeling that my life do not matter. J


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