Initiative Vs. Guilt: A Stage Of Psychosocial Development

By Julia Thomas

Updated December 28, 2018

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.

What Are Erikson's Stages Of Psychosocial Development?

Erik Erikson devised a theory to explain how children developed through adulthood via social experiences. Erikson's theory is an explanation of personality development that covers the individual from the cradle to the grave. Erikson described eight stages of psychosocial development. For each stage, there's a psychosocial crisis, a virtue that comes with the successful completion of the stage, and a range of ages for the stage. The eight stages are:

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

Stage 3 - Initiative Vs. Guilt

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 without initiative can cause the child to withdraw from others. So, what's the answer? Children need to find a balance between the two. The parent has to be very mindful of what's going on with their children. They may need to step in at times to avoid negative outcomes.

Yet, the parents don't need to take over for their child. The child needs the space to make decisions and take the initiative. They also need to learn that it isn't a crime to make a mistake, but they do need to consider others' feelings.

During this stage, children often take on guilt for things you never intended for them to carry. For example, they may feel guilty for bothering you if you dismiss their questions as unimportant or irritating to you. Yet, the child does need to feel guilt when appropriate to develop their conscience and learn to control themselves.


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.


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'd need to talk to a mental health counselor about your or your child's psychosocial development, you can speak with a licensed counselor at There, you'll be matched with an online therapist who can assist you with this and other mental health issues on your schedule and at your location.


Every stage of life is important, and the stage of initiative vs. guilt is as important as the rest. If you feel you're struggling with this stage, getting help can be extremely beneficial. You may feel alone in your lack of understanding, but with the right help, you can not only learn to understand better. You can also get the help you need to find that initiative-guilt balance that's right for you!

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