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How We Grow and Develop: Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC

Growing up is a process, and it is a process to which we should give some thought if we want to understand ourselves and if we want to raise healthy children. There are many ways to represent development, many models that can shed light on it. A model is a system of organizing something so that we can say some general things about it. It is not ironclad or carved in stone; it is simply an aid to better understanding.

A model for human development that many people in Western societies find helpful was created by Erik Erikson who divides development into progressive, psychosocial stages describing the individual as he or she develops in society.

Here are Erikson’s Stages of Development. I have included his time frame for each, although I don’t take them to heart. I mean, some of my Clients don’t learn to trust until they are 50; and other stages occur… well… they occur whenever they occur.

Psychosocial Stage 1 – Trust vs. Mistrust
The first stage of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development occurs between birth and approximately 12 to 18 months. If an infant is treated kindly – if her caregivers are dependable, emotionally available, and accepting – she will learn to trust.

If her caregivers are inconsistent or rejecting, the infant will not thrive emotionally.

Trust vs. Mistrust is our first identity crisis. Erikson invented that term to describe the essential challenge we face in each stage. In the first stage, if children develop trust, they can feel at home in the world. If they don’t, they will have a difficult time; future stages may be impacted. We must trust in order to move forward with joy and confidence.

Psychosocial Stage 2 – Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
The second stage of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development takes place during early childhood (18 months to three years) and is focused on the development of a greater sense of personal control. Children learn to control bodily functions (walking, grasping, and going to the toilet) and begin to make choices in food and clothing. This gives them increasing confidence in themselves.

When the developing independence of children is not assisted and respected, they may feel incompetent and begin to doubt themselves. This is where a lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy might begin to manifest as shame and doubt.

Psychosocial Stage 3 – Initiative vs. Guilt
During the preschool years (three to six years), children begin to assert themselves and to order their world, taking control over it by directing play and other social interactions.

Children who succeed in doing this feel capable and able to lead others. If they are too forceful in asserting themselves, they may be left with a sense of guilt, doubting themselves and reluctant to take the initiative.

Psychosocial Stage 4 – Industry vs. Inferiority
This stage covers the ages from six to approximately age 12.

As they interact with adults and other children, children begin to develop a sense of pride in what they can do.

Children who are encouraged and affirmed by parents and teachers as they learn new skills develop a feeling of competence and self-confidence. They enjoy working toward goals because they feel they can succeed. Those who are not encouraged may doubt themselves and feel “less than” others.

Psychosocial Stage 5 – Identity vs. Confusion
During adolescence (12 to 18 years), children explore their developing independence and develop a sense of self, or identity. They may use their peer group to push back from parental constraints. They may look for cues from peers as to whom they should become in terms of occupation, sex roles, politics, and religion.

Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement about their personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Parents can help them explore who they are becoming.

Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future.

Psychosocial Stage 6 – Intimacy vs. Isolation
In early and middle adulthood (ages 19 to 40), people are often preoccupied with the creation of personal, or intimate relationships.

Erikson believed it was vital that people develop close, committed relationships with others. Those who do this successfully will be able to be in relationships that are committed and secure. Those who don’t may suffer feelings of isolation.

In the Eriksonian model, each stage builds on skills learned in previous stages. Erikson believed that a strong sense of personal identity was important for developing intimate relationships. Studies have demonstrated that those with a poor sense of self tend to have less committed relationships and are more likely to suffer emotional isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Psychosocial Stage 7 – Generativity vs. Stagnation
People who have mastered the six preceding stages can now focus on their livelihood and taking care of their family. This usually takes place between the ages of 40 and 65.

They will feel as though they are contributing to society by building a stable home and/or helping others (particularly the members of the next generation). Those who are challenged at this stage may feel useless and alienated.

Psychosocial Stage 8 – Integrity vs. Despair
This phase occurs during old age (ages 65 to death). It may last a long time and it may be the happiest or the unhappiest period of an individual’s life, depending on how (s)he has lived it.

Those who are unhappy during this stage may feel that their life was somehow wasted or even “unlived”. They may be angry, bitter, or sad.

Those who can look back at their lives with happiness at how they lived it, or at least a sense of “lessons learned” will feel satisfaction and peace. They may be a source of joy and inspiration to younger generations. They may continue to give to their fullest until they leave this life.

One of my earliest teachers said that many of the emotional difficulties that our Clients face may be caused by difficulties in a developmental stage. That does not mean that they can’t be healed. It only means that we have to work with our Clients to address any difficulties they had during development and to “unlearn” the sadness and anxiety that accompanied them.

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