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The stages of psychosocial development articulated by Erik Erikson describes eight developmental stages through which a healthily developing human should pass from infancy to late adulthood. In each stage the person confronts, and hopefully masters, new challenges. Each stage builds on the successful completion of earlier stages. The challenges of stages not successfully completed may be expected to reappear as problems in the future.


Erik Erikson developed the theory in the 1950s as an improvement on Sigmund Freud's psychosexual stages. Erikson accepted many of Freud's theories (including the id, ego, and superego, and Freud's infantile sexuality represented in psychosexual development), but rejected Freud's attempt to describe personality solely on the basis of sexuality. Also, Erikson criticized Freud for his concept of originology[1]. This states that all mental illness can be traced to early experiences in childhood. According to Erikson, experience in early childhood is important, but the individual also develops within a social context.[2] Erikson believed that childhood is very important in personality development and, unlike Freud, felt that personality continued to develop beyond five years of age. In his most influential work, Childhood and Society (1950), he divided the human life cycle into eight psychosocial stages of development. This was Erikson's number one theory.

Human personality, in principle, develops according to steps predetermined in the growing person's readiness to be driven toward, to be aware of, and to interact with a widening social radius.

—Erik Erikson

Erikson first identified seven stages of development during his lifetime. His wife, Joan, later added the last stage after his death.

The Stages[]

Infancy (Birth - 18 Months)[]

  • Psychosocial Crisis: Trust vs. Mistrust

Developing trust is the first task of the ego, and it is never complete. The child will not let its mother out of sight without anxiety and rage because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability. The balance of trust with mistrust depends largely on the quality of the maternal relationship.

  • Main question asked: Is my environment trustworthy or not?
  • Central Task: Receiving care
  • Positive Outcome: Trust in people and the environment
  • Ego Quality: Hope
  • Definition: Enduring belief that one can attain one’s deep and essential wishes
  • Developmental Task: Social attachment; Maturation of sensory, perceptual, and motor functions; Primitive causality.
  • Significant Relations: Maternal parent

Erikson proposed that the concept of trust versus mistrust is present throughout an individual’s entire life. Therefore if the concept is not addressed, taught and handled properly during infancy (when it is first introduced), the individual may be negatively affected and never fully immerse themselves in the world. For example, a person may hide themselves from the outside world and be unable to form healthy and long-lasting relationships with others, or even themselves. If an individual does not learn to trust themselves, others and the world around them then they may lose the virtue of hope, which is directly linked to this concept. If a person loses their belief in hope they will struggle with overcoming hard times and failures in their lives, and may never fully recover from them. This would prevent them from learning and maturing into a fully-developed person if the concept of trust versus mistrust was improperly learned, understood and used in all aspects of their lives.

Toddler (18 Months - 3 Years)[]

  • Psychosocial Crisis: Autonomy vs. Shame & doubt

If denied independence, the child will turn against his/her urges to manipulate and discriminate. Shame develops with the child's self-consciousness. Doubt has to do with having a front and back -- a "behind" subject to its own rules. Left over doubt may become paranoia. The sense of autonomy fostered in the child and modified as life progresses serves the preservation in economic and political life of a sense of justice.

  • Main question asked: Do I need help from others or not.?

When a child reaches the age of one to the age of three, Erikson explains, the child is developing a sense of autonomy . During this age, the toddler discovers he/she is no longer attached to the primary caregiver but is a separate individual (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2004). Autonomy is the independence a toddler strives for from caregivers. Toddlers’ autonomous behavior is a way of forming their own identity away from their caregivers (Bigner, 2006). This stage is a time where a toddler has the “will” to become independent. Shame and doubt is likely to occur when the toddler is not given any choices or boundaries because the toddler is determined to become independent. The strong will of a toddler may cause conflict between child and caregiver. Many parents are unaware of how to properly handle difficult situations in which they find themselves. Parents who are assertive and too demanding may find themselves in a power struggle with their toddler (Gonzalez-Mena & Eyer, 2006). In addition, parents may be too demanding for only “good” behavior from their toddler. Gonzalez-Mena and Eyer (2004) explain that demanding good behavior will only cause frustration for the toddler; instead, "it is far better for the child to see you as a support and an aid rather as an obstacle to his or her own developing capabilities and independence." Autonomy can be gained for the toddler when given reasonable choices and proper guidance from the caregiver. Parents can give healthy and wise choices to assist their child to succeed at this stage.

Early Childhood (3 - 5 Years)[]

  • Psychosocial Crisis: Initiative vs. Guilt

Initiative adds to autonomy the quality of undertaking, planning, and attacking a task for the sake of being active and on the move. The child is learning to master the world around him or her, learning basic skills and principles of physics; things fall to the ground, not up; round things roll, how to zip and tie, count and speak with ease. At this stage the child wants to begin and complete his or her own actions for a purpose. Guilt is a new emotion and is confusing to the child; he or she may feel guilty over things which are not logically guilt producing, and he or she will feel guilt when his or her initiative does not produce the desired results.

  • Main question asked: How moral am I?

The development of courage and independence are what set preschoolers, ages three to six years of age, apart from other age groups when Erik Erikson discussed his third psychosocial stage. Young children in this category, ranging between three to six years of age, face the challenge of initiative versus guilt (Boer, 1997). As described in Bee and Boyd (2004), the child during this stage faces the complexities of planning and developing a sense of judgment. During this stage, the child learns to take initiative and prepare him or herself towards roles of leadership and goal achievement. Activities sought out by a child in this stage may include risk-taking behaviors, such as crossing a street on his or her own or riding a bike without a helmet; both examples involving self-limits. The child defines his or her own boundaries when taking initiative in crossing a street or riding a bike with no helmet, such as deciding to cross a street without looking both ways or choosing to ride a bike at his or her own pace with no helmet. Within instances requiring initiative, such as those previously mentioned, the child may also develop negative behaviors. These behaviors are a result of the child developing a sense of frustration for not being able to achieve his or her goal as planned and may engage in behaviors that seem aggressive, ruthless, and overly assertive to parents; aggressive behaviors, such as throwing objects, hitting, or yelling, are examples of observable behaviors during this stage. With aggressive behaviors as a result of frustration, the child may progress towards developing a sense of guilt for not establishing initiative in the decisions he or she makes and/or not being able to follow through with a set goal. When guilt develops, the child becomes more assertive, aggressive, inhibited, and overly dependent. These characteristics can be seen as far from the norm since the child engages in behaviors that do not show a challenge and/or are comfortable for the child; thus, the child does not take on new situations unless assisted by an adult. In concordance with guilt, parents often misjudge the situation and punish or restrict the child too much. However, Bee and Boyd further state that children in this stage require some sense of guilt in order to guide their self-control and a healthy conscience.

The relationship between parent and child must include a positive balance between helping the child develop guilt, of which will encourage self-control, and establishing independence for the goals the child chooses. Independence is significant to goal development and child development in that the child will learn to form a foundation for decision-making and in taking the steps required to set goals. As suggested by McDevitt and Ormrod (2002), children establish a positive ability to have self-initiative to set goals through the encouragement and support of their parents and/or teachers. Both parents and/or teachers are crucial aspects in helping a child develop self-initiative to set goals for two reasons: adults can model the self-control that is relevant to setting goals and assist the child with reasoning through making decisions. These components are necessary in that adults help the child establish the foundation of forming a self-initiative to set goals so that the child can progress forward on his or her own in future goal building. If a child decides to construct a large puzzle, the responsibility of reinforcing the child’s capabilities lays upon the supervising adult since the child must take another’s perspective regarding his or her own capabilities; self-perspective may be different in the eyes of others and can produce more honesty than the self can see, especially with children. The adult should not impede instruction, but rather reassure the child through reinforcement that creates intrinsic motivation, such as through positive discussion about the child’s capabilities and sense of worth. McDevitt and Ormrod claim that by observing his or her own accomplishments and/or through the development of self-efficacy, the child internalizes a sense of satisfaction that is necessary for maintaining initiative. However, the child will develop guilt regarding personal needs and desires when he or she, or a supervising adult discourages him or her from completing a goal independently. As a result, the child questions what he or she is actually capable of and may reshape future actions taking initiative and challenging goals, which in turn may not reflect the child’s natural abilities but a more limited repetition.

In order to promote a safe balance between initiative and guilt, parents must provide the child with achievable responsibility. Cramer, Flynn, and LaFave (1997) describe two different outcomes, both positive and negative, that may occur if a child is not given responsibilities, such as cleaning a room or walking a dog; all of which can create independence and dependability. For a healthy balance of initiative and guilt, the child should be able to accept feelings of guilt while understanding that certain activities and situations he or she chooses may or may not be permitted by others. Children should also be encouraged to use their imaginations when taking initiatives that are related to adult roles, ultimately not feeling guilty for “thinking outside of the box” and being different from the norm as a result. The child should not feel guilty in using imagination during play since it provides him or her with learning how to be creative and to reflecting upon personal capabilities. For example, the child may be imagining he is a police officer and will form his play around this role; this concept could later develop into a future profession, of which the child is willing to take initiative in facing the challenging steps in becoming an actual police officer. Therefore, parents need to provide students with chores and small jobs because it will strengthen skills that reflect responsibility and future adult roles, such as tending to a younger sibling or helping wash dishes. In contrast, children who are not allowed to complete tasks independently may learn that the activities and situations are beyond their ability and they are incapable of setting their own goals. The Child Development Institute LLC (1998) suggests that a child with no responsibility, whether given by an adult or produced by the child, grows fearful in most situations involving change, excessively depends on adults, and is restricted from imagination and active play; these characteristics are a result of the child being immobilized by guilt (i.e. low feelings of self-efficacy, confidence, and frustration in abilities when a personal goal has not been accomplished).

In view of the fact that preschool children require skills necessary to become independent and responsible, parents and/or teachers should learn how to assist in the child’s social development; this may include teaching the child how to be courageous, empathetic, self-disciplined, and loyal. Fittro (2003) suggests several ideas on how to create these types of values during a child’s moral development. First, parents should respect the child in all aspects of his or her personality if they seek respect in return. For example, parents need to consider the child’s opinions and perspectives before setting discipline and behavioral standards. Parents should stay firm on their expectations, yet remind themselves that the child is a human being and deserves to be treated with fairness in order to develop a positive self-concept. Parents also have the advantage of teaching good morality through discussion and example. By illustrating and discussing how to tolerate guilt, such as feelings of low self-efficacy, self-esteem, or self-confidence after taking initiative in accomplishing a goal, the child will learn that this type of behavior is acceptable. If the child is not given the opportunity to discuss how to accept these feelings that accompany guilt or if the child is simply dealing with guilt reactions, then several questions may arise, such as “Can I do this?,” “How moral am I?,” and posing the “why” question to understand how the world works. In asking numerous “Why” questions, the child learns about life by making up his or her own explanations for why things are the way they are, experimenting with adult roles through fantasy play, and seeking explanations for his or her surroundings from adults. Consistent with these ideas, the Mohonasen Central School District Board of Education (2005) suggests letting children take on small tasks that gradually increase in difficulty as they grow older. This may include helping prepare small meals, setting a table, or letting them choose their own clothing for the day; all of which builds confidence and assists in developing simple math skills (e.g. counting and sorting). Finally, allow children with “downtime” as their responsibilities expand. Parents and/or teachers should remember that children in this stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development need and deserve a time to be free.

Middle & Late Childhood (6 - Puberty Years)[]

  • Psychosocial Crisis: Industry vs. Inferiority

To bring a productive situation to completion is an aim which gradually supersedes the whims and wishes of play. The fundamentals of technology are developed. To lose the hope of such "industrious" association may pull the child back to the more isolated, less conscious familial rivalry of the oedipal time.

  • Main question asked: Am I good at what I do?

According to Allen and Marotz (2003), "children at this age are becoming more aware of themselves as individuals." They work hard at "being responsible, being good and doing it right." They are now more reasonable to share and cooperate. Allen and Marotz (2003) also list some perceptual cognitive developmental traits specific for this age group: Children understand the concepts of space and time, in more logical, practical ways, beginning to grasp Piaget's concepts of conservation, gain better understanding of cause and effect and understand calendar time. At this stage, children are eager to learn and accomplish more complex skills: reading, writing, telling time. They also get to form moral values, recognize cultural and individual differences and are able to manage most of their personal need and grooming with minimal assistance (Allen and Marotz, 2003). At this stage, children might express their independence by being disobedient, using back talk and being rebellious. Children in this stage have to learn the feeling of success. If the child is allowed too little success, he or she will develop a sense of inferiority or incompetence. Too much industry leads to narrow virtuosity (children who are not allowed to be children). A balance between industry and inferiority leads to competency. According to Robert Brooks (2001) parents can nurture self esteem and resilience in different ways: a. Understand and accept children's learning problems (highlight strengths) b. Teach children how to solve problems and make decisions. Reinforce responsibility by having children contributed. Learn from, rather than feeling defeated by mistakes. Make the child feel special (create special times alone with them each week)

Adolescence (Puberty - 20 Years)[]

  • Psychosocial Crisis: Identity vs. Role Confusion

The adolescent is newly concerned with how they appear to others. Superego identity is the accrued confidence that the outer sameness and continuity prepared in the future are matched by the sameness and continuity of one's meaning for oneself, as evidenced in the promise of a career. The ability to settle on a school or occupational identity is pleasant.

Early Adulthood (20's and 30's)[]

  • Psychosocial Crisis: Intimacy vs. Isolation

Body and ego must be masters of organ modes and of the other nuclear conflicts in order to face the fear of ego loss in situations which call for self-abandon. The avoidance of these experiences leads to openness and self-absorption.

According to Erik Erikson the young adult stage, Intimacy vs. Isolation, is emphasized around the ages of 19 to 34. At the start of the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage, identity vs. role confusion is coming to an end and it still lingers at the foundation of the stage (Erikson 1950). Young adults are still eager to blend their identities with friends. They want to fit in. When we arrive at stage six we should be prepared for intimacy, a close personal relationship, and isolation, the fact of being alone and separated from others. A balance between intimacy and isolation makes love possible as we must know how to be alone in order to learn to truly love. Having a balanced stage 6 will help tremendously later in the coming stages when unwelcome or unexpected isolation surfaces, for example, the death of a spouse or a loved one (Erikson, Erikson, Kivnick 1986). In stage six, one is ready for commitments, is able to handle real relationships to a certain extent (Erikson 1950), after all, establishing a real relationship takes practice and many of us do not marry our first love. Our ego should also be prepared for rejection, the challenge of break-ups, and isolation, being alone. Erikson believes we are sometimes isolated due to the above. We are afraid of rejection; being turned down, our partners breaking up with us. We are familiar with pain and to some of us rejection is painful, our egos cannot bear the pain. Erikson also argues that “Intimacy has a counterpart: Distantiation: the readiness to isolate and if necessary, to destroy those forces and people whose essence seems dangerous to our own, and whose territory seems to encroach on the extent of one’s intimate relations” (1950)

Middle Adulthood (40's and 50's)[]

Generativity is the concern of establishing and guiding the next generation. Socially-valued work and disciplines are expressions of generativity. Simply having or wanting children does not in and of itself achieve generativity. The great conflict at this stage is for an individual come up with something that society would remember them for. For some individuals, it goes to funding or finding NGOs(or different organizations), schools, families and maintain them. This is then generativity for them.

Late Adulthood (60 Years - Death)[]

Psychosocial crisis: Integrity vs Despair

One strength of Erikson's theory is that it acknowledges that development continues throughout the life cycle. According to Erikson, even older people are not finished developing. Older people who are coming to terms with their own mortality have a deep need to look over their whole lives. in a life review a person who can look back over their life history, on the good times with gladness and satisfaction, on hard times with self-respect, and on mistakes and regrets with forgiveness, and can find a new sense of integrity and a readiness for whatever life or death may bring. A person caught up in old sadness, unable to forgive themselves or others for perceived wrongs, and dissatisfied with the life they've led, will easily drift into depression and despair.

The fundamental question is "what kind of life have I lived?"

Stages Approximate Age Important Event Description
Trust vs. Mistrust Birth - 18 Months Feeding The infant must form a first loving, trusting relationship with the caregiver or develop a sense of mistrust.

Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt

18 Months - 3 Years Toilet Training The child's energies are directed toward the development of physical skills, including walking, grasping, controlling the sphincter. The child learns control but may develop shame and doubt if not handled well.
Initiative vs. Guilt 3 - 5 Years Independence The child continues to become more assertive and to make more initiative but may be too forceful, which can lead to guilt feelings.
Industry vs. Inferiority 6 Years - Puberty School The child must deal with demands to learn new skills or risk a sense of inferiority, failure, and incompetence.
Indentity vs. Role Confusion Adolescence Peer Relationships The teenager must achieve identity in occupation, gender roles, politics, and religion.
Intimacy vs. Isolation Early Adulthood

Love Relationships

The young adult must develop intimate relationships or suffer the feeling of isolation.
Generativity vs. Stagnation Middle Adulthood



Each adult must find some way to satisfy and support the next generation.
Ego Integrity vs. Despair Late Adulthood Reflecting On & The Acceptance of One's Life The culmination is a sense of acceptance of oneself and a sense of fulfillment.

Value of the theory[]

One value of this theory is that it illuminated why individuals who had been thwarted in the healthy resolution of early phases (such as in learning healthy levels of trust and autonomy in toddlerhood) had such difficulty with the crises that came in adulthood. More importantly, it did so in a way that provided answers for practical application. It raised new potential for therapists and their patients to identify key issues and skills that required addressing. But at the same time, it yielded a guide or yardstick that could be used to assess teaching and child rearing practices in terms of their ability to nurture and facilitate healthy emotional and cognitive development.

"Every adult, whether he is a follower or a leader, a member of a mass or of an elite, was once a child. He was once small. A sense of smallness forms a substratum in his mind, ineradicably. His triumphs will be measured against this smallness, his defeats will substantiate it. The questions as to who is bigger and who can do or not do this or that, and to whom—these questions fill the adult’s inner life far beyond the necessities and the desirability's which he understands and for which he plans." - Erik H. Erikson (1904–1994), U.S. psychoanalyst. Childhood and Society, Ch. 11 (1950).wisdom - Ego Integrity vs. Despair - old age. Some handle death well. Some can be bitter, unhappy, dissatisfied with what they accomplished or failed to accomplish within their life time. They reflect on the past, and either conclude at satisfaction or despair.


Most empirical research into Erikson has stemmed around his views on adolescence and attempts to establish identity. His theoretical approach was studied and supported, particularly regarding adolescence, by James E. Marcia.[3] Marcia's work has distinguished different forms of identity, and there is some empirical evidence that those people who form the most coherent self-concept in adolescence are those who are most able to make intimate attachments in early adulthood. This supports Eriksonian theory, in that it suggests that those best equipped to resolve the crisis of early adulthood are those who have most successfully resolved the crisis of adolescence.

On the other hand, Erikson's theory may be questioned as to whether his stages must be regarded as sequential, and only occurring within the age ranges he suggests. For example, does one only search for identity during the adolescent years, or are there times later in life (or earlier) when one is searching for identity. Moreover, does one stage really need to happen before other stages can be completed? Does one need to first achieve industry before achieving identity or intimacy?

See also[]


  1. Hoare, C.H. (2005). Erikson’s general and adult developmental revisions of Freudian thought: “Outward, forward, upward”. Journal of Adult Development, 12, 19-31.
  2. Erikson, E.H. (1982). The Life Cycle Completed: A Review. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  3. Marcia, J. E., (1966), Development and validation of ego identity status, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3, pp. 551-58



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