Erik Erikson is one name you might notice come up again and again in the parenting magazines you leaf through. Erikson was a developmental psychologist who specialized in child psychoanalysis and was best known for his theory of psychosocial development.
Psychosocial development is just a fancy phrase that refers to how a person’s individual needs (psycho) mesh with the needs or demands of society (social).
According to Erikson, a person passes through eight developmental stages that build on each other. At each stage we face a crisis. By resolving the crisis, we develop psychological strengths or character traits that help us become confident and healthy people.
Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development gives us a way to view the development of a person through an entire lifespan. But like all theories, it has its limitations: Erikson doesn’t describe the exact way that conflicts are resolved. Neither does he detail how you move from one stage to the next.
Regardless, as you read through the stages below, you may find yourself nodding in agreement when you recognize yourself — or your child.
Birth to 12–18 months old
The first stage of Erikson’s theory begins at birth and lasts until your baby approaches their first birthday and a little beyond.
You’ve probably noticed that your little one’s totally dependent on you for everything: food, warmth, comfort. Be there for your baby by giving them not only physical care, but also plenty of love — no need to hold back the cuddles.
By providing these basic needs, you teach them that they can depend on you. This builds within them the psychological strength of trust. Feeling secure and safe, your infant will be ready to experience the world.
What happens when you slip up? Maybe you yell once in a while. Or you don’t want to read another bedtime story. Don’t worry: Erikson acknowledges that we’re only human.
No infant grows up in a perfect world. Occasional turbulence gives your child a touch of wariness. With this, when they’re ready to experience the world, they’ll keep an eye out for obstacles.
But what happens when parents are consistently unpredictable and unreliable? Children whose needs aren’t met will look at the world with anxiety, fear, and mistrust.
18 months to 3 years old
You know that you’ve hit this milestone when your toddler starts to assert their independence. They realize that they can do some things by themselves — and they insist on those things.
Pro tip: Instead of worrying if day care will question your ability to parent because your toddler is wearing their shoes on the wrong feet — after putting them on themselves — be wise and let them go out like this.
By this stage, your toddler has food preferences. So let them choose their own snacks. Or let them choose which shirt they want to wear. (Survival tip: Give them two shirts to pick from.) Sure, there’ll be times when their clothes just don’t match. Grin and bear it because giving them the space to choose means helping them build their self-esteem.
Here’s another biggie: Your toddler is ready for toilet training. Learning to control their bodily functions gives them a feeling of independence or autonomy.
Children who come through this stage with flying colors will believe in themselves and feel secure in their abilities. Children who aren’t given the chance to assert themselves (within the limits you set) will battle with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, according to Erikson.
3 to 5 years old
These are the preschool years. As your child interacts socially and plays with others, they learn that they can take the initiative and control what happens.
You can encourage your child to plan, achieve goals, and take responsibility by making sure they have plenty of opportunities to interact with others. Let them explore the world within the limits you set up. Take them to visit older adults and give out chocolates. Set up playdates for them with their peers.
And don’t forget that you can be a playmate, too. Give your child a chance to direct the show by letting them be the teacher, doctor, or sales clerk while you act the student, patient, or customer.
Here’s when your child starts asking endless questions. Sometimes your miniature philosopher will wonder where dogs go after they die when you’ve just settled down to watch the show you missed because you took them to a second playdate. Breathe in. By addressing these questions with genuine interest, you’re investing in your child’s positive self-image.
This stage is about much more than just calling the shots. Through both interacting with others socially and through play, your child develops self-confidence and learns to enjoy having a sense of purpose.
However, if parents are controlling or don’t support their child when they make decisions, the child may not be equipped to take the initiative, may lack ambition, and could be filled with guilt. Overpowering feelings of guilt can prevent a child from interacting with others and deter their creativity.
5 to 12 years old
Your child has hit elementary school. Here’s where they learn new skills. It’s also where their circle of influence widens.
Your child has plenty of teachers and peers. They may start comparing themselves to others. If they decide that they’re doing well scholastically, on the sports field, at the arts, or socially, your child will develop feelings of pride and accomplishment. (Watch out: They’ll also be comparing their family to other families.)
If you notice that your child struggles in one area, look for another area in which they can shine. Help your kiddo develop their strengths in areas where they have a natural flair.
They may not be math whizzes, but perhaps they can draw or sing. Are they naturally patient with younger kids? Let them help out with taking care of their siblings.
When your child succeeds, they’ll feel industrious and believe they can set goals — and reach them. However, if children have repeated negative experiences at home or feel that society is too demanding, they may develop feelings of inferiority.
12 to 18 years old
Adolescence. Here’s your chance to revamp the deep breathing skills you developed when your child was a toddler.
At this psychosocial development stage, your child faces the challenge of developing a sense of self. They form their identity by examining their beliefs, goals, and values.
The questions they face aren’t easy to answer: “Who am I?”, “What do I want to work as?”, “How do I fit into society?” Throw into all this confusion the question of “What’s happening to my body?” and you’ll probably remember the turmoil that you felt during adolescence. On their journey to self, most adolescents will explore different roles and ideas.
How can you help your adolescent successfully resolve this psychosocial conflict?
While Erikson isn’t clear, know that the encouragement and reinforcement you give your child are vital to shaping their personal identity. In addition, your child’s experiences and social interactions mold their behavior and ideals.
Adolescents who successfully weather this crisis will come away with a strong sense of identity. They’ll be able to uphold these values despite the challenges that they’ll face in the future.
But when adolescents don’t search for their identity, they may not develop a strong sense of self and won’t have a clear picture of their future. The same confusion may reign supreme if you, as their parent, try to pressure them to conform to your own values and beliefs.
18 to 40 years old
This is where you probably start nodding as you recognize yourself. Remember we said that each stage builds on the next? People with a strong sense of identity are now ready to share their lives with others.
This is the time to invest in commitment to others. The psychosocial challenge now — according to Erikson — is to build long-term loving relationships that feel safe.
When people complete this stage successfully, they come away with safe relationships filled with commitment and love.
People who didn’t manage to complete the previous stage successfully and don’t have a strong sense of identity are generally unable to build committed relationships, according to this theory.
Lacking the security and warmth of a loving relationship, they’re more likely to experience loneliness and depression.
40 to 65 years old
This seventh stage is characterized by a need to give to others. On the home front, this means raising your children. It can also mean contributing to community charities and events that better society.
On the work front, people strive to do well and to be productive. Don’t stress if you can’t find the time to fit it all in — you may just have to wait awhile till the little people in your house are no longer quite so demanding.
People who complete this stage successfully have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re needed. They feel that they’re contributing to their families and community and work place.
Without the positive feedback in these areas, though, people may experience stagnation. Frustrated that they’re unable to raise a family, succeed at work, or contribute to society, they may feel disconnected. They may not feel motivated to invest in personal growth or in productivity.
Over 65 years old
This is the stage of reflection. During late adulthood, when the pace of life slows down, people look back on their lives to assess what they’ve achieved. People who are proud of what they’ve done experience genuine satisfaction.
However, people who didn’t complete the previous stages may have feelings of loss and regret. If they see their lives as unproductive, they become dissatisfied and depressed.
Interestingly, this last stage, according to Erikson, is one of flux. People often alternate between feelings of satisfaction and regret. Looking back on life to get a sense of closure can help to face death without fear.
|1||Trust vs. mistrust||Birth to 12–18 months||A sense of trust and security|
|2||Autonomy vs. shame & doubt||18 months to 3 years||Feelings of independence lead to belief in yourself and your abilities|
|3||Initiative vs. guilt||3 to 5 years||Self-confidence; the ability to take the initiative and make decisions|
|4||Industry vs. inferiority||5 to 12 years||Feelings of pride and accomplishment|
|5||Identity vs. confusion||12 to 18 years||A strong sense of identity; a clear picture of your future|
|6||Intimacy vs. isolation||18 to 40 years||Safe relationships filled with commitment and love|
|7||Generativity vs. stagnation||40 to 65 years||The desire to give to family and community, and to succeed at work|
|8||Integrity vs. despair||Over 65 years||Pride in what you’ve achieved leads to feelings of satisfaction|
Erikson believed that his theory was a “tool to think with rather than a factual analysis.” So take these eight stages as the starting point you use to help your child develop the psychosocial skills they need to become a successful person, but don’t take them as law.