Initiative Vs. Guilt: A Stage Of Psychosocial Development

By Richard Miller

Updated December 09, 2019

Reviewer Heather Cashell

During the psychosocial developmental stage of initiative vs. guilt, children have specific needs that may not be obvious to their parents. Childhood isn't easy. We know this. Yet, as parents, we often fail to help our children in the ways that are most appropriate for their ages. By understanding this stage, you might find a way to deal with problems that started when you were a young child. Just as important, you can create better outcomes for your children as they seek to make sense of their world.

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What Are Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development?

Erik Homburger Erikson was a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, who devised a theory to explain how humans developed through life via social interactions. Erikson broke down a person's lifespan into eight stages of psychosocial development and covered key development from birth well into old age. Each stage has a psychosocial crisis that imparts a trait, which can become a virtue, a flaw, or something in between- depending on how it is handled. The 8 stages are:

  1. Trust Mistrust: Birth to 1 and 1/2 years old. Virtue: Hope.
  2. Autonomy Shame: 1 1/2 to 3 years old. Virtue: Will.
  3. Initiative Guilt: 3 to 5 years old. Virtue: Purpose.
  4. Industry Inferiority: 5 to 12 years old. Virtue: Competency.
  5. Ego Identity Role Confusion: 12 to 18 years old. Virtue: Fidelity.
  6. Intimacy Isolation: 18 to 40 years old. Virtue: Love.
  7. Generativity Stagnation: 40 to 65 years old. Virtue: Care.
  8. Ego Integrity Despair: 65 years old and beyond. Virtue: Wisdom.

Initiative vs. Guilt

Initiative versus guilt is a stage of Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development. It occurs between the ages of three to five years old, which are referred to by Erickson as the "play ages." At this stage, children spend a good amount of time at play with other kids and begin to develop their interpersonal skills.

While playing, children begin to take initiative and may attempt to feel out leadership roles and actions amongst peers; for example, a child may choose the roles for themselves or others within a game. This is the beginning of initiative. The guilt comes into play when children make mistakes while navigating these positions. Learning the subtleties of getting others to cooperate without being bossy is trial and error. Guilt or shame in this situation can lead to a child caring for others' feelings and choosing to do what others consider right, but it can also cause a child to avoid trying to initiate games or lead others.

Stage 3, with its psychosocial crisis of initiative vs. guilt, is a stage that can have a profound impact on the rest of your life. So, what is this stage? What does it look like, and what happens as it progresses?

Life in the Play Ages

Erikson called the ages of 3 to 5 the "Play Ages." It's the time in life when children first get a chance to take the initiative through play. Children of the play ages are usually in preschool for at least part of every weekday. If not, they can still move through this stage successfully if they have opportunities to play with other children often. They begin developing interpersonal skills because they're now old enough to play with other children.

How Children Take Initiative

Children of the play age are naturally drawn to experiences that allow them to make decisions and lead other children. As they play, they may choose a game to engage in with others. They may choose their roles and even the roles of other players when they're playing make-believe.

During this stage, you might notice your child planning activities with their playmates. You may see that they make up their games. They may be the ones to suggest that the group plays at all. They're not only practicing initiative, but they're developing their leadership skills, too.

How They Develop Guilt

Children in Erikson's Stage 3 can often seem aggressive. They simply haven't worked out the subtleties of getting others to cooperate without being bossy. They don't have the maturity always to choose appropriate games or roles for themselves and others. In short, they're going to make mistakes.

Interacting with the other children gives the child opportunities to develop a sense of initiative, but it also opens the door to feelings of guilt. Guilt can lead to healthy outcomes, like caring for others' feelings and choosing to do what they consider right. It can also cause the child to avoid trying to start new games or lead others.

Why Balance Is Essential

Initiative without guilt can be harmful to others. Guilt or shame without initiative can cause the child to withdraw from others. A parent must try to subtly help their child find the proper balance between the two. A parent must be mindful and delicate to avoid negative outcomes and taking over for the child. A child needs the space to make decisions and take the initiative, while also learning that they need to consider others' feelings.

Furthermore, a child must learn from their own mistakes at times; sometimes a parents' job is simply to point out the mistake and a solution for next time. Make sure mistakes are corrected but are not considered "bad." At this stage children often take on guilt and shame for things you never intended for them to carry. A child may feel guilty for bothering you if you dismiss their questions, yet, as any parent will know, the child does need to feel some form of guilt- when appropriate- to learn to control themselves. A child interrupting you to ask that question deserves a certain level of shame in order to realize their actions had a negative social effect.

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Negative Outcomes In Initiative Vs. Guilt

What can happen if initiative versus guilt goes wrong? The child will be out of balance in one way or another. They may become guilt-ridden, socially isolated, and emotionally fragile. Or, they may become pushy and even aggressive. They may doubt their ability to take actions and get positive outcomes. Or, they may selfishly disregard the feelings of other people. A too-guilt-ridden child may never develop their creativity fully. A child who has too little guilt may behave inappropriately.

Erikson's critics point out that he never clearly described what happens years after the individual fails to pass through a stage successfully. The generally-accepted answer is that a failed stage leads to related problems throughout life.

What Happens When Children Succeed In Stage 3?

When a child moves successfully through the stage of initiative vs. guilt, they develop a strong sense of purpose. The exact purpose usually changes as they get older. Yet, the core feeling that they can take meaningful actions and get positive results can last throughout the rest of their lives.

How Can Parents Help Their Children In Stage 3?

A well-informed parent can help their child through Erikson's Stage 3 in many ways. If you are or will be a parent or grandparent of a stage-3 child, you can help them in the following ways:

  • Give them opportunities for free play with other children.
  • Give them emotional space to take the initiative.
  • Avoid shaming them for mistakes they make when they initiate play. Listen to their reasons, correct them gently but firmly if you need to do so, and then let the moment pass.
  • Show them that what they say and do is important to you.
  • Avoid criticizing or trying to control them.
  • Accept them unconditionally for who they are even when you can't accept a decision they've made.
  • Don't let your child's questions upset or annoy you. Instead, let them know you're happy they're interested in learning.
  • Be a role model for a healthy balance between guilt and initiative.
  • Also, remember that grandparents and other relatives can also play an important role in helping a child develop balance in the initiative vs. guilt stage.

Confused About The Initiative Vs. Guilt Stage Of Psychosocial Development?
Ask An Expert. Chat With A Licensed Psychologist Online Today.

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What If You Didn't Pass Successfully Through Initiative Vs. Guilt?

Whether you're a parent or never intend to be one, you need to have that positive balance of initiative and guilt. If you didn't learn how to do that balancing act like a child, you might have to work harder to achieve it now. Yet, it's far from impossible. As Erikson indicated in his theory, we continue to change throughout our lives. There's always a reason to hope and to work towards personal development.

As an adult, you may still be remembering the ways you were thwarted as a child. You may tell yourself you can't succeed in influencing others. You might tell yourself your opinions and questions don't matter. You might feel such guilt at the thought of hurting someone inadvertently that you don't even try to initiate social interactions anymore.

What you need to realize is that you can change all this negative self-talk. You can write a new script for yourself that's at once healthier and more pleasant. You can still find purpose and meaning in your existence.

Getting Help

There are many sources of help for people who are struggling with their past difficulties or their child's current struggles in the stage of initiative vs. guilt. You need to find sources that are reliable and supportive. Any of the following sources might be helpful to you:

  • Friends
  • Parent support groups
  • Books by Erikson and other developmental psychologists
  • Your child's preschool teachers
  • A mental health counselor

Although many of these sources might be helpful, you do need to assess whether you've found the right help or not. Consider their knowledge of the stage of initiative versus guilt as well as their ability to apply that knowledge to your specific situation.

If you need to talk to a mental health counselor about you or your child's psychosocial development, you can speak with a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com. There, you'll be matched with an online therapist who can assist you with this and other mental health issues on your schedule and from wherever you have an internet connection.

Every stage of life is important. If you are struggling with children at this stage or with your own issues stemming from your developmental years, getting help can be extremely beneficial. You may feel alone in your lack of understanding, but with the right help, you can forge a better future for yourself and those that depend on you. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from parents experiencing different issues.

Counselor Reviews

""I am THRILLED with Rachel and with BetterHelp! It is affordable, I am a single mom with 4 kids on a tight budget and a LOT of stress and this format makes it easy to get help. I LOVE that I can write my feelings to her whenever I am having them, not have to wait a week for the next session. She is very insightful and I am thankful!"

"I am a 42 year old female, successful entrepreneur in a loving marriage and have a bright and healthy 4 year old boy. I shouldn't have anything to complain about. I am generally happy, motivated and have ample self confidence. So why in the world would I need therapy? Because I need help with constructive ideas to control my negative attitude. I'm generally not a negative person but I'm very self aware that I have vast mood swings of anger and pessimism and I get that from my dad. I chose Douglas because he counsels using cognitive behavioral therapy and anger management - which is the kind of therapy I need. Douglas comes up with clear solutions and I appreciate that. I didn't want a therapist to tell me to talk about my day and how does that make me feel and that it's normal to have these feelings. I know it is normal to feel angry sometimes, but I wanted to understand how to recognize it and address it. So if you need constructive conversation with fast results for everyday annoyances and (especially effective child rearing advice!) I think Douglas is your therapist."

Great Development Requires Work

Luckily you are already tackling the hard part. Understanding the issues you may or may not have faced and how to approach them in the most healthy manner is an immensely important factor in lifelong mental health. By trying to learn more and understanding these issues you are on track to both improve your life and the lives of those who depend on you the most.


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