Influential theory of lifelong psychological development by child psychologist Erik Erikson.
The German-born child development expert Erik Erikson (1902-1994), who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s, published his theory of developmental stages in the 1950 volume Childhood and Society. Erikson broke with traditional Freudian psychologists in attributing major developmental significance to stages of life beyond early childhood and also in his emphasis on the role of the ego. In addition, Erikson, like other psychodynamic theorists after Freud, did not give sexuality the preeminent place it occupied in the work of his famous predecessor. In contrast to Freud's psychosexual stages, the stages of development outlined by Erikson are called psychosocial stages. Erikson is also known for for mulating the concept of the adolescent identity crisis.
Erikson's developmental framework consists of eight stages that cover the entire life span. At each stage, the individual is faced with a central conflict and the task of overcoming it.
Trust vs. mistrust. In infancy, the quality of basic trust—the sense that one's needs will be met, especially by the mother—must be established or the individual will learn to mistrust the world. The sense of trust is rooted in the quality of an infant's care and the relationship with the primary caregivers.
Autonomy vs. shame and doubt. The central task of toddlers is the acquisition of autonomy, manifested by making choices and learning self-control. Confidence in being able to do things for oneself must surmount feelings of shame and doubt brought on by the difficulty of adapting to society's rules and restrictions, including requirements for self-control such as toilet training.
Initiative vs. guilt. Between the third and fifth year, the child actively begins to explore her environment and initiate activities on her own. This is the stage at which a sense of purpose is developed, along with the ability to pursue goals in spite of the guilt that may come with asserting oneself and also despite the knowledge that one may fail.
Industry vs. inferiority. During the school years, the child's ability to master new tasks and skills successfully depends on overcoming feelings of inadequacy. The overall goal at this stage is the development of competence. Progress though the first four stages of Erikson's framework is cumulative. Together, these stages create a foundation for negotiating the following ones. Difficulty with any of the stages will hinder future development.
Identity vs. role confusion. The central task of adolescence is carving out a new identity amidst the physical and emotional upheavals of this period. Erikson was the first to use the term "identity crisis" in connection with this stage of life, referring to the confusion and anxiety engendered by the need to choose from among a variety of alternatives and to make commitments to a specific set of goals and values. Confronted with physical growth and sexual maturation as well as imminent choices about education and careers, teenagers must meet the challenge of integrating their past experiences and characteristics into a stable sense of self. Some common ways young people deal with the insecurity of adolescence include forming cliques, becoming preoccupied with older role models and mentors, and falling in love. Young people who lack the stability or self-awareness to solve their identity conflicts risk identity diffusion, an inability to make defining choices about themselves, which can later block their development as adults.
Early adulthood (intimacy vs. isolation). The central task at this stage is the ability to commit oneself to another person in an intimate relationship. The alternative is a sense of isolation and abandonment.
Middle age (generativity vs. stagnation). In middle age, the ability to devote oneself to the creation of something that will last—either through parenting, work, or other activities—becomes paramount. The alternative is to become self-centered and apathetic.
Maturity (integrity vs. despair). A person who has mastered the psychological tasks and resolved the conflicts of previous stages can approach old age with the strength and wisdom to face physical frailty and approaching death without despair.
Erikson's theory of psychosocial stages has been profoundly influential. In the 1970s, journalist Gail Sheehy popularized and extended Erikson's concept of
ERIKSON'S IDENTITY CRISIS
Erikson's theory about identity crisis and identity confusion is based, in part, on his own life experience. He was born to Danish parents and was told that his parents separated before he was born. When he was three-years-old his mother married his pediatrician, Dr. Theodore Homburger, who adopted him and gave him his name. When he was a teenager his mother confessed that he was, in fact, the child of an extramarital affair. He never knew his birth father or his mother's first husband. This confusion was complicated by the fact that his adoptive father was Jewish and his Danish heritage clearly showed in his features. He was ostracized by his Jewish friends and mistreated by anti-Semitic schoolmates. According to some sources, he became introverted and often withdrew into a fantasy world. After graduating from high school, he decided to travel rather than go to college.
In the late 1920s, Erikson underwent psychoanalysis with Anna Freud, whom he met when he was employed as a tutor to the children of an American woman studying with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Erikson described the analysis as liberating, although painful at times. Around this time he changed his name to Erik Homburger Erikson, which perhaps reflects his attempt to resolve his childhood identity crisis. In 1933 he completed his own formal training in psychoanalysis and left Vienna with his wife to avoid the Nazis and to make a physical and philosophical break with the Freuds.
Erikson's many accomplishments included an appointment at the Harvard Medical School, a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Gandhi, a professorship at Yale's medical school, and the founding of a center, named after him, at Harvard Medical School's Cambridge Hospital. Erikson's accomplishments give credence to his theory that the ills of childhood can be healed in adulthood- that an identity crisis is a normal and healthy part of becoming an adult. After a turbulent childhood and adolescence, Erikson went on to become one of the most innovative and creative thinkers of the 20th century.
Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950.
——. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, 1959.
Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.
Stevens, Richard. Erik Erikson: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.