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Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development Explained

You usually see the name Erik Erikson when you read anything related to parenting or psychosocial development. A 20th century psychologist who developed the concept of identity crisis, Erik Erikson made an impact on psychological theories by expanding Sigmund Freud’s original five stages of development. His now well-known stages of psychosocial development consists of eight, which he theorized a person should pass through from infancy to late adulthood. Whether you’re a soon-to-be parent or someone who wants to understand psychosocial development, this article is for you. Read on to learn more about these Erikson stages.

Definition

Psychosocial development, in simple words, refers to how social and cultural factors influence personality development. According to Erikson, a person goes through eight developmental stages. You face a crisis at each stage which you need to overcome in order to develop traits and strengths. The Erikson stages show us how we progress as individuals throughout an entire life span. Compared to other popular theories of development, Erikson’s theory proposes that a person doesn’t have to successfully complete one stage to move on to the next.    

Erikson’s Developmental Stages

The eight Erikson stages remain relevant up to this day. Psychosocial development theory emphasizes humans’ social nature and social relationships’ influence on development. Successfully making it through a stage means you carry the obtained goal into later stages. These are the eight Erikson stages:

AgeConflictVirtueExistential Question
1 0-1 y/o (Infancy)Trust vs. MistrustHope
Can I trust the world?
22-4 y/o (Toddlerhood)Autonomy vs. Shame/DoubtWill Is it okay to be me?
35-8 y/o (Early Childhood)Initiative vs. GuiltPurposeIs it okay for me to do, move, and act?
49-12 y/o (Middle Childhood)Industry vs. InferiorityCompetenceCan I make it in the world of people and things?
513-19 y/o (Adolescence)Identity vs. Role Confusion
FidelityWho am I? Who can I be?
620-39 (Early Adulthood)Intimacy vs. IsolationLoveCan I love?
740-59 y/o (Middle Adulthood)Generativity vs. StagnationCareCan I make my life count?
860 and above (Late Adulthood)Ego Integrity vs. DespairWisdomIs it okay to have been me?
The Erikson Stages

1st Stage

Children develop a sense of trust when parents or guardians give affection and care and show how reliable they are. They also start to develop their own sense of trustworthiness at this stage. In old age, this develops into appreciation for interdependence and relatedness in social connections or relationships. 

2nd Stage

Children begin to explore the world around them. They continue learning about everything they encounter. They need to develop personal control over physical skills and independence. Success leads to self-empowerment, while failure results in feelings of shame and doubt. It translates to acceptance of the life cycle (from integration to disintegration) in old age.

3rd Stage

Children need to begin asserting control and power over their environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Failure happens when excessive control meets disapproval, which then creates a sense of guilt. In later years, overcoming this conflict leads to resilience, humor, and empathy.

4th Stage

Children need to cope with new social demands (e.g. academics). Success leads to a sense of competence while failure results in feelings of inferiority. When they get to old age, this stage determines their humility and acceptance of their life’s course and unfulfilled hopes.

5th Stage

Teenagers need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. If they succeed, they gain the ability to stay true to themselves. If they fail, they experience role confusion and a weak sense of self. In old age, overcoming this stage leads to understanding the complexity of life.

6th Stage

Young adults need to form intimate and loving relationships with other people. Failure to do so results in loneliness and isolation, while success leads to strong relationships. In later stages, they value tenderness and freedom in loving someone.

7th Stage

Often by having children or getting involved in something that benefits others, adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them. Success gives feelings of accomplishment and usefulness, while failure comes with not participating enough.

8th Stage

Finally, older adults need to have a sense of fulfillment as they look back on their life. Success at this stage leads to wisdom while failure leads to bitterness, regret, and despair. Moreover, this is when a person develops an existential identity and a strong sense of integrity withstand physical disintegration.    

Joan M. Erikson (married and collaborated with Erik Erikson) added a ninth stage in The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version. She wrote, “old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, reevaluations, and daily difficulties”. She also showed that all eight Erikson stages “are relevant and recurring in the ninth stage.”

Limitations

Despite the recognition and important contributions of Erikson’s theory, it still has a number of criticisms. The Erikson stages were said to primarily describe American or European males’ development; use the male experience as the default template for human development; not explain enough how or why human social and emotional development occurs; seemingly highlight adolescence as the stage in which people search for their identity; focus too much on speculation (biographical case studies) rather than data; and fails to detail exactly which type of experiences are necessary in each stage to move to the next. 

You can see either the strengths or the weak points of Erikson stages depending on your reason, purpose, and factors you consider. Erikson’s theory is both supported and criticized just like other popular theories. 

The Erikson stages are found relatable by many people because of how it outlines a more realistic perspective of personality development. They can relate to them through their own experiences. Based on Erik’s theory, psychology has transformed the way later periods of life are viewed. Middle and late adulthood are now active and significant times of personal growth, not irrelevant as they used to be. The eight Erikson stages can serve as a basic guide, but not a requirement. You can, for instance, apply what you learn from them without worrying about following every single thing. As Erikson himself said, his theory of psychosocial development is “a tool to think with rather than a factual analysis.” 

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Written by Hannah Grace

A B.S. Psychology graduate who fights both real and imaginary shadows every day with music and words.

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