Initiative Vs. Guilt: A Stage Of Psychosocial Development

Updated November 15, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

During the psychosocial developmental stage of initiative versus guilt, children have specific needs that may not be obvious to their parents. By understanding this stage, you might find a way to deal with your own 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.

Growing up is hard.

What Are Erikson's Stages Of Psychosocial Development?

Erik Erikson was a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst. His theory of psychosocial development explains how humans develop through life via social interactions. Erikson broke down a person's lifespan into eight stages of psychosocial development. Each stage has a psychosocial crisis that imparts a trait. This trait can then become a virtue, a flaw, or something in between, depending on how it is handled. The eight stages are as follows:

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

Initiative Vs. Guilt

Initiative versus guilt 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 children and begin to develop their interpersonal skills.

While playing, children begin to take initiative and may attempt to feel out leadership roles amongst peers. For example, a child may choose roles for themselves or others within a game. This is the beginning of initiative. The guilt part of the equation may come 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 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 three, with its psychosocial crisis of initiative versus guilt, is a stage that can have a profound impact on the rest of a child’s life.

Why Balance Is Essential

Initiative without guilt can be harmful to others. Likewise, guilt without initiative can cause the child to withdraw. Ideally, a parent will  try to subtly help their child find the proper balance between the two. In doing so, it’s often beneficial for the  parent to  be mindful  to avoid negative outcomes and not take 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.

At this stage, children often take on guilt for things you never intended for them to carry. A child may feel guilty for bothering you if you dismiss their questions, for example. At the same time, the child can benefit from feeling some form of guilt in learning to control their behavior. For instance, a child interrupting you to ask questions may experience some guilt and then realize their actions had a negative social effect.

Negative Outcomes In Initiative Vs. Guilt

What can happen if initiative versus guilt goes wrong? You may notice that the child  becomes out of balance in one way or another. For example, they may become guilt-ridden, socially isolated, and emotionally fragile. Alternatively, they might become pushy and even aggressive. They could begin to doubt their ability to take action and get positive outcomes. Or, they may selfishly disregard the feelings of other people. An overly 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 long-term outcomes for individuals who fail to pass through a stage successfully. Still, the generally-accepted belief is that a failed stage leads to related problems throughout life.

What Happens When Children Succeed In Stage Three?

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

Growing up is hard.

How Can Parents Help Their Children In Stage Three?

A well-informed parent can help their child through Erikson's stage three in many 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.
  • 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.

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

Anyone can benefit from striking that positive balance between initiative and guilt. If you didn't learn how to perform that balancing act as a child, you might have to work harder to achieve it now.

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

Getting Help

There are many sources of help for people with past difficulties as well as those whose children are in the throes of initiative versus guilt. It’s important to find sources that are reliable and supportive such as:

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

Talking to an in-person or online therapist about your or your child's psychosocial development can help. A therapist can offer emotional support as you implement changes in your life to be a more effective parent to your child or simply to grow as a person.

People of all backgrounds experience similar developmental issues. If you’re considering online therapy but are unsure of its effectiveness, consider this: A literature review has shown that it’s just as effective as face-to-face therapy for diverse populations. The review consisted of sixty-five articles, which found that client satisfaction was positive and clinical outcomes were comparable to traditional therapy for individuals receiving different therapeutic treatments. Thus, online therapy is a viable solution for those who wish to address childhood developmental stages.


Every stage of life is important. If you are dealing with children at this stage or with your own issues stemming from your developmental years, getting help can be extremely beneficial. It can also be challenging, particularly if you’re a busy parent or experiencing your own emotional struggles. With the help of a licensed online therapist at BetterHelp, you can forge a better future for yourself and those who depend on you. You will be able to meet with your online therapist anywhere, from your home or even your car, and at a time that fits into your schedule.

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from parents experiencing similar 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."

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