Erik Erikson: Psychology And The Stages Of Psychosocial Development

By: Toni Hoy

Updated May 14, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Erik Erikson was born in 1902 and became a psychologist in Frankfurt, Germany. He was raised by his mom and stepdad and never felt like his stepfather accepted him as his son. While working in Vienna, he met Anna Freud, and she inspired him to pursue a research career in psychoanalysis. He studied child development at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute where he received a diploma, but not a degree. In 1930, he married a dancer and artist. After having a young son, they fled from Nazi Germany and settled in Boston, MA, where they raised three children together.

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Erikson served at Harvard Medical School, Harvard's Psychological Clinic, Judge Baker Guidance Center, Yale's Institute of Human Relations, and as a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. While he was at Yale, he conducted a year-long study of Sioux children at a South Dakota Indian reservation.

Erickson continued his study of Native American children from the Yurok tribe at the University of California. In 1951, the university required him to sign a loyalty oath that affirmed he wasn't a Communist. He refused on the grounds of the First Amendment, even though he wasn't a Communist. His stance forced him out of the university.

Erikson returned to Massachusetts where he continued to work, conduct behavioral research, and publish essays. He passed away in 1994.

Erikson is best known for developing the theory of psychosocial development and identity crisis. He attributed his work on identity crisis to his poor relationship with his stepfather.

The Eight Stages Of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson approach to psychology is based on the philosophy that our personalities develop in a specific order through eight stages of psychosocial development from the time we're born through adulthood. He believed that we all experience a psychosocial crisis in each stage which could have a positive or negative outcome for developing our personalities. These crises involve our psychological needs and conflict with the needs of society. His theory suggests that when we complete each stage successfully, we make a move towards a healthy personality and acquire basic virtues and strengths along the way, which help us resolve crises in the next stage. If we fail to complete a stage successfully, it will be more difficult to complete subsequent stages, and we'll have reduced capacity for a healthy personality and self-esteem. He also believed that we could resolve some or all stages at a later time in our lives.

Here is a list of the developmental stages Erikson outlined and descriptions of the eight stages of psychosocial development.

  1. Trust Vs. Mistrust

We experience this stage from the moment we're born until we're about 18 months of age. The basic virtue that we should achieve by the successful completion of this stage is hope.

Parents or caregivers who are consistent and reliable in their caregiving of infants help them to develop a sense of trust that they can transfer to future relationships. The sense of trust helps them feel secure even if they feel threatened. Infants who are neglected develop mistrust and suspicion and anxiety may develop. Failure to feel secure at this stage means that the child will mistrust future relationships and the surrounding world.

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Success in this stage means that as each new crisis surfaces, the infant will have hope that he or she will have support in getting through it. Lack of hope leads to fear.

Research conducted by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth demonstrated that secure attachments in infancy lead to healthy relationships and attachments later in life, underscoring Erikson's views for this stage of development.

  1. Autonomy Vs. Shame and Doubt

Stage two in the psychosocial development theory lasts from age 18 months to age three. The psychosocial crisis is autonomy vs. shame and doubt. Completion of this stage results in having a will of their own.

The goal in this stage is to help the child learn self-control without loss of self-esteem.

During this stage, children are becoming more independent. Parents and caregivers who allow children the space to do some things for themselves while praising their efforts and allowing them some room to fail will help their children become more confident on their ability to survive in the world.

If children are criticized and constantly told what they can and can't do, they become less dependent on themselves and overly dependent on others.

  1. Initiative Vs. Guilt

In the third stage, which lasts from age three to age five, children should learn to assert themselves more often. This is the initiative vs. guilt stage, and the expected virtue is a purpose.

This is a busy stage where children are active and playing with other children. Children need the freedom to plan activities, initiate games and fun with other children because it helps improve their ability to take the initiative, develop a sense of leadership, and be responsible for decisions.

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If children aren't allowed to start taking some control and they're criticized or marginalized, they'll feel guilty. They may become even more forceful which may lead to even more restriction. Too much guilt will inhibit a child's creativity and slow their ability to interact with others. It's important to note that some sense of guilt is viewed as helpful because it gives children some sense of self-control and conscience.

  1. Industry Vs. Inferiority

Erikson psychology labels the fourth psychosocial stage as industry vs. inferiority, which transcends ages five to twelve. The basic virtue that results from the successful completion of this stage is competency.

At this stage, children are learning at a rapid rate. They'll develop respect for their teachers, and their peers will have a greater influence on their behavior and their self-esteem. During this stage, children seek approval by demonstrating their worth and begin to develop a sense of pride.

When children feel reinforced and encouraged, they gain confidence and feel competent. Children who lack encouragement during this stage feel inferior to others and find it difficult to work towards things that are important to them.

Failure plays a role during this stage in helping children be humble. It's important for children to have a balance of competence and modesty.

  1. Identity Vs. Role Confusion

The teen years from ages twelve to eighteen comprise the fifth stage of Erikson psychology, which is identity vs. role confusion. During this stage, children explore their values, beliefs, and goals to understand better who they are. The basic virtue that children should attain as they complete this stage is fidelity.

This is the stage where they're preparing for adult life including career, relationships, housing, and where they fit into society as an independent person. As children work to find their independent place in the world while still being accepted and "fitting in", they must determine how they want to be perceived by others. Emerging from this successfully means that they have established a clear understanding of their self-identity and can easily share this self with others. They become confident in associating with others without losing themselves and thus develop fidelity. Difficulty in navigating this stage may result in difficult social interactions, withdrawal, or even an inflated sense of self-importance.

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  1. Intimacy Vs. Isolation

The next stage in the theory of psychosocial development occurs from ages 18-40 years old. This stage is called intimacy vs. isolation, and the basic virtue that develops is love.

During this stage, adults seek intimate, loving relationships with others. Finding successful love means being able to develop longer-term commitments with others who are not part of the immediate family.

Those who work through this stage successfully will find happiness in their relationships and be committed to them. Those who avoid being intimate with others or who fear commitment may experience isolation or depression. Successful completion of this stage leads to the virtue of love.

  1. Generativity Vs. Stagnation

Middle adulthood spans from ages 40-65. This stage is called generativity vs. stagnation. Successful completion of this stage leads to the basic virtue of care.

During this stage, adults are starting to take stock of what they've accomplished in life. They're concerned about their legacy and what things they've contributed to the world that will outlast their lives. Adults who feel accomplished feel useful and productive. Those who feel like they've failed at life start to feel disconnected and uninvolved with their community and the rest of society.

Completing this stage gives adults a sense of caring for themselves and others.

  1. Ego Integrity Vs. Despair

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The final psychosocial stage lasts from age 65 until death. It's called ego integrity vs. despair, and the basic virtue is wisdom.

In the final stage of life, people tend to think about their accomplishments and develop integrity if they're satisfied with the result. As life slows down, most people are less productive. Those who feel dissatisfied with their life choices will feel a sense of despair and hopelessness.

Completing this stage should lead a person to feel the value of having wisdom and to accept the end of life.

Getting Help In Any Psychosocial Stage

An unexpected crisis can occur at any stage of our lives. Erikson's theory proposes that the experiences we have in prior stages give us the tools to navigate crises in future stages of life. When you face unexpected times of crisis or despair, you don't have to navigate them alone. The professionals at BetterHelp are standing by to help you understand why you act and think the way you do.


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