Initiative Vs. Guilt: Erikson’s Third Stage Of Psychosocial Development

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to Erik Erikson's eight stages of development, the third stage, known as the initiative versus guilt stage, occurs during the preschool age. During this stage, children begin to develop leadership skills and initiate activities, while also having specific needs that may not always be obvious. By learning more about this third stage in Erikson's theory, you may be able to identify ways to better support your child's growth, encourage exploration, and even recognize concerns that may be present in your own life that could have started when you were in this stage.

Below, we’ll explore this theory, the stage of initiative vs. guilt, and suggestions for further supporting a child’s mental health through their development.

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Supporting a child’s development can be hard

What are Erikson's stages of psychosocial development?

Erik Erikson was a well-known psychologist and psychoanalyst. His theory of psychosocial development is a cornerstone of developmental psychology. It outlines the stages of human development through life via social interactions, breaking down a person's lifespan into eight stages of psychosocial development. Each stage occurs at a specific time in the life cycle and has psychosocial conflicts that, depending on how they are handled, either impart or fail to impart a character trait or strength.

The eight stages are as follows:

  1. Trust Versus Mistrust – Infancy (birth to 1 and 1/2 years old): In this stage, infants develop a sense of trust when caregivers provide reliability, care, and affection. A lack of this leads to mistrust.

  2. Autonomy Versus Shame And Doubt — Early Childhood (1 1/2 to 3 years old): As children begin to assert their independence, success in this stage leads to feelings of autonomy, while a lack of this results in shame and doubt.

  3. Initiative Versus Guilt — Preschool (3 to 5 years old): During this stage, children develop a strong sense of initiative and the ability to lead others. A lack of this results in a sense of guilt.

  4. Industry Versus Inferiority — School Age (5 to 12 years old): Children in this stage work to gain approval by demonstrating specific competencies, leading to feelings of pride. If they do not develop these skills, they may feel a sense of inferiority.

  5. Identity Versus Role Confusion — Adolescence (12 to 18 years old): Adolescents explore their independence and develop a sense of identity. Success leads to identity formation and an ability to stay true to oneself, while a lack of this may result in challenges like role confusion and an identity crisis.

  6. Intimacy Vs. Isolation — Young Adulthood (18 to 40 years old): During this stage of development, individuals form intimate relationships. Successful resolution leads to strong, intimate relationships, while a lack of this may result in loneliness and isolation.

  7. Generativity Versus Stagnation — Middle Adulthood (40 to 65 years old): In middle age, individuals develop a sense of purpose through work, family, and community involvement. Success leads to feelings of generativity, while a lack of this may result in stagnation and unproductiveness.

  8. Ego Integrity Versus Despair — Maturity (65 years old and beyond): In the final stage, individuals reflect on their lives. Success leads to feelings of wisdom and ego integrity, while a lack of this may result in regret and despair.

Erikson later introduced a ninth stage of development: “Late Adulthood.” This stage considers the challenges faced by individuals as they near the end of their lives. It revisits the previous conflicts with a focus on achieving a sense of completeness and facing death with dignity.

Each of Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development highlights the importance of resolving conflicts at each stage of life to foster healthy personality development and a strong sense of identity. This helps avoid concerns like loneliness, feelings of inferiority, guilt, shame, and doubt. Throughout each stage outlined in Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, the successful resolution of conflicts helps individuals develop intimate relationships, feel a sense of competence, and achieve ego integrity.

Exploring stage three: Initiative vs. guilt

With this theory in mind, let’s explore the specifics of the third stage: initiative vs. guilt. Read on to learn more about what happens in this stage, what negative outcomes might look like, what positive outcomes might look like, and ways parents might support their child in this stage.

What happens in this stage?

Initiative versus guilt occurs between the ages of three to five years old, which may be referred to as the preschool age or "play age" period. At this stage, children develop their interpersonal skills as they spend a good amount of time playing with other children. While playing, children may begin to take initiative, attempting to feel out leadership roles amongst peers and exploring their interests independently.

For example, a child may begin directing play, choosing roles for themselves or others within a game. When their efforts are met with encouragement, this is the beginning of initiative. The guilt stage may come into play when a child's efforts are discouraged or met with criticism, causing them to feel guilt or feel guilty. Guilt in this stage can also make a child avoid trying to take initiative or lead others, and they may develop a sense of doubt about their own abilities or become overly dependent on other adults.

Stage three, with its psychosocial conflict of initiative versus guilt, is a stage that can have a profound impact on the rest of a child's life. When a child can successfully complete this stage, it builds a foundation for the child to progress to the subsequent psychosocial stage.

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Negative outcomes in this stage

When this stage occurs and is not completed successfully, 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, experiencing too much guilt. They could begin to doubt their ability to take action and get positive outcomes, struggling with accomplishing tasks. Alternatively, they might become pushy and even aggressive, or they may selfishly disregard the feelings of other people.

As children progress from the first stage to the second stage, and then to this stage, successfully completing the previous stage is vital for a healthy life cycle. In the context of children playing, it's essential to encourage children to take initiative and learn from their experiences, even if a child fails at times. A balanced approach helps children navigate through each stage, ultimately leading to a life cycle completed in a healthy manner. 

Successful outcomes in this stage

When this stage begins and a child moves successfully through initiative versus guilt, they can 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.

Getty/AnnaStills
Supporting a child’s development can be hard

How can parents support their children in stage three?

A parent can help their child through this third stage in many ways. Included below are a few ideas to consider:

  • Give them opportunities for free play with other children.

  • Give them emotional space to take the initiative.

  • Encourage them when they pursue new interests.

  • 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.

Further help for this stage 

Navigating the stages of a child’s development and figuring out how to best support them throughout the process can be challenging at times. If you would like further support, you may consider talking to a therapist. A therapist can offer support as you implement changes to try to be a more effective parent to your child, or they can help with many other concerns, too. 

Many parents have very busy schedules and may find it hard to find the time to seek therapy. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can meet with a therapist wherever is most convenient for you—be that your home, or even your car—so long as you have an internet connection, and at a time that fits into your schedule. 

Whether you are looking to address concerns around parenting, your own experiences in childhood, or other challenges in your life that are making it difficult to parent in the way that you would like, online therapy may be able to help. 

A growing body of research has demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy for a variety of concerns. For instance, one such study conducted a literature review of 65 articles to examine the use of videoconferencing psychotherapy (VCP). It found that this type of virtual therapy has been used in a variety of therapeutic formats and with diverse populations, and “is found to have similar clinical outcomes to traditional face-to-face psychotherapy.”

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from individuals experiencing similar concerns.

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."

Takeaway

If you are parenting a child in their preschool years, it may be helpful to learn more about Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development and the third stage in it: initiative vs. guilt. By learning more about this stage starting with the information above, you may be able to identify ways to better support your child’s growth. If you would like further help as you navigate this stage as a parent or as you explore how your own experiences in childhood have affected your life, online therapy may be able to help.
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