Childhood According to Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychological Development

Mind, Parenting

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Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychological Development

Approximate Age


Psycho Social Crisis

Significant Relationship

Existential Question


0–2 years Hopes Basic Trust vs. Mistrust Mother Can I Trust the World? Feeding, Abandonment
2–4 years Will Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Parents Is It Okay To Be Me? Toilet Training, Clothing Themselves
4–5 years Purpose Initiative vs. Guilt Family Is It Okay For Me To Do, Move and Act? Exploring, Using Tools or Making Art
5–12 years Competence Industry vs. Inferiority Neighbors, School Can I Make It In The World Of People And Things? School, Sports
13–19 years Fidelity Identity vs. Role Confusion Peers, Role Model Who Am I? What Can I Be? Social Relationships
20–39 years Love Intimacy vs. Isolation Friends, Partners Can I Love? Romantic Relationships
40–64 years Care Generativity vs. Stagnation Household, Workmates Can I Make My Life Count? Work, Parenthood
65-death Wisdom Ego Integrity vs. Despair Mankind, My Kind Is It Okay To Have Been Me? Reflection on Life

I find the mind to be such a fascinating thing.  Our bodies and beings in general are living, breathing, thinking, and feeling miracles.  All of life is a beautiful gift, and for a person, the way we perceive the world around us is everything.  This is why I find psychology amazing.  I believe in endless possibilities through the power of the mind and our inner thoughts. These are the things I love to ponder.  This is what I want to share; the little bits and pieces of ideas, possibilities, and theories.  So, here is just a little piece, a simple well-known theory in the vast ocean of thoughts and ideas on the subject.

I was looking through some of my old psychology notes the other day and came across Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.  Looking over this chart made so many thoughts occur to me, primarily when it comes to our children.

The first stage has to do with a baby having his or hers basic physical and emotional needs met.  Whether those needs are met or not will teach a child to either trust or mistrust their environment and the people around them.  If this is the case, it seems to me that this first lesson could affect a person throughout their whole life, for good or for bad.  This means much to me due to the fact that my own baby is at this developmental stage.  Meeting her physical and emotional needs may seem like the most obvious of important jobs there is for me to do for her. Still, knowing that how well I assure her that she can trust these needs to be met may effect how she trusts the world around her for the rest of her life really brings home the importance of what we do for her.

The second and third stages are also ones that are personal to me because this is about the area my son would currently be in, at four years old.  During the second stage, a child is learning the very beginning steps of being able to do things for themselves, such as feeding and dressing themselves and toileting on their own. Even these very simple milestones can provide a basis for a child becoming self sufficient.  Patience and encouragement from parents is very important for a child in this stage.  Encouraging a child to do for themselves will help promote a sense of autonomy, but expecting too much too soon, chastising a child’s failed attempts, or even being over protective and not allowing them to do for themselves can all instill a sense of self doubt and shame.  As a parent, I know that these are all fine lines that are easily crossed, even when a parent has the best of intentions.  Looking at this theory is a good reminder for me to encourage my son to do things for himself, while at the same time being patient and supportive as he learns how.

During Erikson’s third stage of his theory, a child builds on their feelings of autonomy and self sufficiency and develops a sense of initiative.  They start to do more tasks on their own, and their perceived success at these tasks may affect whether they continue to develop a healthy sense of initiative or feel guilt for not being able to complete the tasks.  Many times a task is within a child’s capabilities, such as putting their toys up, fastening their own seat belt, or effectively throwing a ball. Sometimes the task a child wants to complete is not within their capabilities.  I know we have all seen this.  My son, for example, is all the time wanting to do things that he can’t really do; like when he wants to help me carry in the groceries, but the bags are way too heavy for him, or when he wants to “help” fold the laundry.  Now, the latter is something that he will be able to do with practice, so I encourage him to help and praise him for what he does, even though in reality I’ll have to fold the laundry all over again.  There’s also the times he wants to do something way out of his capabilities, like the other night when he told me he wanted to build a spaceship so we could fly to the moon.  This brought a smile to my face because I love listening to his big dreams even if I know there is a pretty good chance he will never do this.  Still, I encouraged the idea because I don’t want to ever make him feel like he’s incapable of anything or not worthy of the effort.  He will know disappointment many times in his life and have plenty of opportunities to fail and feel inadequate.  I want him to believe in himself so that he is not afraid to try.

The fourth stage of development continues to build upon the child learning and developing their capabilities and to extend further into their ability to function in the society around them. Erikson viewed these elementary school years as critical in the development of a child’s self confidence.  They should be encouraged to discover and develop their own interests in order to find what they are good at and what they enjoy.  If their attempts are recognized and acknowledged, then they may develop increased self confidence. If they are not allowed to pursue interests, are ridiculed for their attempts or interests, or fail at attempts without further direction or encouragement it may cause them to develop feelings of inferiority.  I agree that this time in a child’s life is very important.  Adolescent years are very difficult. I remember feeling lost and insignificant at times around the ages of 10-13 years old… and beyond into my teenage years, for that matter.  I know that the things that made me feel good about myself and life were simple things like writing, reading, music, and nature.  They are all things that I still love.  I believe that encouraging children to find their own interests will help them to discover who they really are, which will help them to find and keep their own inner happiness.

Figuring out who they are is what his next stage is all about.  According to Erikson’s theory, during these teenage years of approximately 13-19 years old is when a person may be trying to find out who they are and how to fuse that with their role in society.  This may cause an “Identity Crisis” as they transition from childhood to adulthood.  Erikson believed that if a person were given the right amount of time and space to find their place, they may establish a strong sense of self identity and awareness of who they are.

While Erikson’s stages are meant to span the lifetime, some critiques say that it focuses more on childhood and early adulthood.  This may be so, but that is alright with me because these are the parts of his theory that I find the most interesting.  I believe that as people, we are amazingly capable of overcoming and even learning from our past, even if it may be filled with pain, tragedy, and/or mistakes.  But I also believe this takes work and is easiest accomplished with a good emotional support system.  I think that his theory gives credit to the fact that a person who has a difficult childhood may be more likely to have issues throughout the rest of their life.  I don’t think that should be used as an excuse to give up on oneself or someone else, but I do believe it should be remembered.  No matter where you are in life, it may not seem so bad if you look at where you started and what you have been through.  You may have climbed way more mountains than you give yourself credit for.  There is also debate over whether Erikson’s stages actually happen at these ages and if they actually are sequential.  According to Erikson, though, each of these processes occurs throughout the lifetime in one form or another.  He emphasizes these “phases” only because these are the times when the conflicts are likely to be the most prominent.  In my opinion, our world today is so different, way too complex and changing to simplify these major life stages into approximate ages. I’m pretty sure I was in my 30s before I really started to have a solid sense of who I am and what is most important to me, and I believe that these concepts are fluid and able to change, as everything does. However, I do believe that Erikson’s theory works well as a tool to give parents a better idea of what their child’s needs are, and it also reminds us to look back at where we have come from to help us see why we are where we are today.


(1) Chart also taken from this site.

(2)  Erikson, Erik (1956). “The problem of ego identity” (pdf). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association