The Stages of Psychosocial Development According to Erik H. Erikson

Scientific Essay, 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Stages of Psychosocial Development
2.1 Basic trust vs. basic mistrust
2.2 Autonomy vs. shame and doubt
2.3 Initiative vs. guilt
2.4 Industry vs. inferiority
2.5 Identity vs. role confusion
2.6 Intimacy and dissociation from self-centeredness
2.7 Generativity vs. Stagnation
2.8 Integrity vs. Despair and Disgust

3. Epigenetic Diagram of a System of Stages
3.1 Commentary

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

Erik H. Erikson (1902 – 1994) is without a doubt one of the most outstanding psychoanalysts of the last century. The native Dane and later US-American further developed the psychosocial aspects and the developmental phases of adulthood in Sigmund Freud’s stage theory.

It is Erikson’s basic assumption that in the course of a lifetime, the human being goes through eight developmental phases, which are laid out in an internal development plan.

On each level, it is required to solve the relevant crisis, embodied by the integration of opposite poles presenting the development tasks, the successful handling of which is in turn of importance for the following phases.

The term crisis does not have a negative connotation for Erikson, but rather is seen as a state, which through constructive resolution leads to further development, which is being integrated and internalized into the own self-image.

"Each (component) comes to its ascendance, meets its crisis, and finds its lasting solution (...) toward the end of the stages mentioned. All of them exist in the beginning in some form."[1]

Hence, the human development is a process alternating between levels, crises, and the new balance in order to reach increasingly mature stages.

In detail, Erikson studied the possibilities of an individual’s advancement and the affective powers that allow it to act. This becomes particularly obvious in the eight psychosocial phases, which now should be the focus of this paper. This demonstrates that Erikson did see development as above all: a lifelong process.

2. Stages of Psychosocial Development

2.1 Basic trust vs. basic mistrust

In this phase of life, the state of the child is characterized by the trauma of birth. All of a sudden, the child is ripped out of the familiar environment and the bond with the mother is redefined.

The sense of basic trust, defined as "an essential trustfulness"[2], develops during this first phase of life, the first year of life, during the so-called oral stage[3] (Freud), and is, so Erikson, "the cornerstone of a vital personality"[4].

The child learns the simplest and the earliest modality: to "get", not in its negative sense of unsolicited or forcible taking, but in that of accepting what is given[5].

The social reference person is the mother, who through offering the breast not only meets the child’s elementary basic needs, like eating, but hereby also provides oral satisfaction. She takes on the role of provider the child can rely on.

The trust is not just depleted in the person of the mother, but according to Erikson it also refers to the infant himself. "By ″trust″ I mean an essential trustfulness of others as well as a fundamental sense of one’s own trustworthiness"[6].

"This forms the very basis in the child for a component of the sense of identity which will later combine a sense of being “alright”, of being oneself …"[7]

This basic trust in oneself and others forms the basis for any later development and consequently is not a stage that has to be overcome, but is something that will always remain and resonate subliminally.

In the second half of the first year of life, according to Erikson, a first crisis does occur.

This crisis appears to consist of the coincidence in time of three developments:

On one part of the physiological, namely that the infant experiences the growing need to absorb, appropriate, and observe things, on the other part of a psychological development, namely the growing realization of being an individual. The third development is dependent on the environment, as evidently the mother seems to turn away from the child and to focus on other activities.

The child can possibly interpret this turning away as a withdrawal of motherly love.

If a child does not overcome this conflict, and the negative experiences dominate, so according to Erikson, this leads to "(…) acute infantile depression (Spitz, 1945) or to a mild but chronic state of mourning which may give a depressive undertone to the remainder of one’s life."[8]

Instead of basic trust, the infant develops basic mistrust.

For this reason, it is important to uphold and strengthen a child’s basic trust during this stage, which is connected with increasingly frequent impressions of deceit, separation, and of being abandoned.

The basic attitude that is generated during this first stage of life has an impact on a person’s entire life.

If basic trust was built, there is a predominantly optimistic attitude towards other people. If this basic trust is lacking, there is the risk of developing a general basic mistrust, not just towards the world, but also towards oneself. A severely damaged basic trust, or one that is not formed in the first place, can lead to psychic disorders like depression.

The positive experiences, such as feelings of security, warmth, dependability, attentiveness, and devotion should outweigh negative experiences and frustration, such as having to wait for the satisfaction of needs, disappointment, solitude, disregard, or physical pain.

Naturally, frustration cannot be avoided completely in childhood.

According to Erikson it is important, however, that not only positive experiences predominate in order to develop a sense of trust, but that the sum of trust that a child takes away from these early experiences does not absolutely depend on the quantity, but rather the quality of the mother-child-relationship. "Mothers create a sense of trust in their children by that kind of administration which in its quality combines sensitive care of the baby’s individual needs and a firm sense of trustworthiness (…)."[9]

Hence, success is rather dependent on the fulfillment of motherly functions within the respective cultural environment and set of values, like knowledge, religion, etc., and not on the quantity of produced motherly love.

So this is the beginning – the coming together of an infant, a pair of parents, and a society, in an act of faith and trust.

2.2 Autonomy vs. shame and doubt

In this second stage, which is the second and third year of life, autonomy is developed with healthy personalities, due to the increasing physical abilities, especially the development of the muscle system. The child is offered two modalities: holding on and letting go.[10] "A general ability, indeed, a violent need, develops to alternate withholding and expelling at will and, in general, to keep tightly and to throw away willfully whatever is held."[11]

The newly acquired ability puts the child in the position to distance himself from the reference person, to set himself apart and to have his will in order to be in a certain way less dependent on the care environment. Moreover, he is able to control bowel and bladder movement on his own.

A particular, however not exclusive role is hereby given to the excretory organs; not without a reason, psychoanalysis has termed this stage the anal phase (Freud).

The ability to control the bodily excretory function means wellbeing for the child, so Erikson. Moreover, control means, at least in Western cultures, praise from the part of reference persons, which "at first must make up for quite frequent discomfort and tension suffered as the bowels learn to do their daily work."[12]

Again, the development of physiological functions goes hand in hand with with the maturation of personal abilities. For the child, controlling the bowel movement is a significant step towards autonomy. By not having to be changed anymore, the child gets more independent from the parents. This strengthens self-confidence, which is supported by acknowledgement given by the parents at the same time.

Erikson calls this entire life stage a "battle for autonomy"[13]. The child begins to compartmentalize his world in "I", "you" and "my"[14]. Erikson includes the seemingly contradictory tendencies, like snuggling and pushing away, picking up and dropping, being obedient and being rebellious under the formula of "retentive-eliminative modes"[15].

The special emphasis that in this phase is put on autonomy, however, also makes clear what the child is not able to do yet.

Shame and doubt come up, when aspired goals cannot reached yet and the child has the feeling of being made fun of; this can happen, when for example the process of toilet training is done too strictly or too early. This feeling is being reinforced, when parents prove to be unreliable. In this stage, a balance has to be found between autonomy and dependency.

"In this stage, be firm and yet tolerant towards the child, and he will become firm and tolerant towards himself. He will be proud to be an autonomous person; he will also grant others autonomy; and every now and then he will let something slip for himself."[16]

For the growth of the found autonomy, the child has to be protected from excessive failures that can cause him to feel shame over the own shortcomings, or even to doubt his own competency. Erikson describes shame as "(…) essentially rage turned against the self."[17] and doubt as "the brother of shame"[18].

Therefore it is particularly important, that parenting offers sufficient support for the child and his now awakening thirst for action. The child’s needs have to be recognized and taken seriously. Through the approval of his actions and the reaction of reference persons, the child experiences self-confidence and is being reassured and satisfied in his curiosity, his thirst for knowledge and investigation and is thus learning to know and to recognize what he wants. The child develops self-confidence.

The child needs to be encouraged in his actions und should constantly be aware, that the basic trust he gained in the first stage keeps existing.

"The infant must have come to feel that the basic faith in existence, which is the lasting treasure saved from the rages of the oral stage, will not be jeopardized by the violent wish to have his choice, to appropriate demandingly, and to eliminate stubbornly."[19]

This only will allow him to express his will without having to fear, that the parents would disapprove and shame him for his actions. A balance has to be found between autonomy and dependence.

However, is the child denied this autonomy by parental authorities, this can in turn lead to fundamental incursions in development and consequently to disorders like compulsive behavior and self-doubt. Individuals who do not develop a sense of autonomy, always harbor doubts and fear criticism.

"For if denied the gradual and well-guided experience of the autonomy of free choice (or if, indeed, weakened by an initial loss of trust) the child will turn against himself all his urge to discriminate and to manipulate. He will over-manipulate himself, he will develop a precocious conscience. Instead of taking possession of things in order to test them by purposeful repetition, he will become obsessed by his own repetitiveness; (…)"[20]

The internalized results of this phase are reflected in the relationship of the individual with the principles of law and order.

2.3 Initiative vs. guilt

The ability to show initiative is at the center of this stage, the fourth and fifth year of life, which corresponds to the oedipal or phallic stage (Freud). In the mastered second stage, the child did learn that he is an individual, convinced to be an independent person. According to Erikson, the child now has to "(…) find out, what kind of a person he may become."[21]

For the first time, he recognizes differences and similarities between himself and other people. Gender differenciation also happens for the first time. The child shifts his focus from himself to the environment and thus begins to explore reality. The child develops scientific curiosity and the motivation to do something, to act, and to approach something.

At this point it appears hardly surprising, that this stage, once more, is characterized by physical abilities. According to Erikson, in this stage the child is helped with three developmental spurts, that however, activate the next crisis: for the first part, the child learns to move around more freely and more violently and therefore establishes a new radius of goals, for the other part his sense of language becomes perfected to the point where he can understand more, can ask questions but also can misunderstand. Both language and locomotion permit him to expand his imagination.[22]

The child then dreams up worlds he cannot avoid frightening himself with.

"Nevertheless, out of all this he must emerge with a sense of initiative as a basis for a realistic sense of ambition and purpose."[23]

A resolution of the problem presents itself, when " (…) the child seems to ″grow together″ both in his person and in his body (…) he is in free possession of a surplus of energy which permits him to forget failures quickly and to approach what seems to be desirable (…) with undimimished and more accurate direction."[24]

The child begins to measure and compare himself with the grownups; he wants to intrude into the adult world, as in general he has an intrusive desire.

The "intrusive mode"[25] dominating much of the behavior of this stage, characterizes a variety of similar activities and fantasies, such as the intrusion into space by vigorous locomotion, the intrusion into other peoples’s ears and minds by the aggressive voice, or the intrusion into the unknown by consuming curiosity.

For the reason that the child is trying to understand himself and his world, the interest in his own, yet infantile sexuality is growing[26]. In this area, the child experiences obvious boundaries, due to the lacking physical development; in this context, Erikson mentions the Freudian "Oedipus complex"[27].

With boys, this stage is characterized as phallic and suggests pleasure in attack and conquest. In contrast, in girls this turns to modes of receiving. Their approach is either a more aggressive form of snatching by jealous conquest or the milder form of making oneself "attractive and endearing"[28].

The child basically tries to assume the role of the same-sex parent, while the opposite-sex parent is the target of the seductive behavior. Due to the focus on the environment, the child does not feel rivalry towards younger siblings, but instead towards those who were there first. The child enters the contest for favored position with one of the parents in order to feel resignation, guilt and anxiety with the inevitable failure.

Bound for failure, he is indulging in reenactments and fantasies, because he is not able to defeat the adult and not "mighty" enough to assume their functions.

"This, then, is the stage of fear for life and limb, of the intensified fear of losing, or on the part oft he girl the conviction that she has lost, the male genital as punishment for secret fantasies and deeds."[29] It is necessary to overcome the castration complex of this stage to get to the realization that the child himself is part of the gender succession.

At the same time, so Erikson, conscience develops during this stage, which he calls "governor of initiative"[30]. Now the child knows already during the act, if he is acting right or wrong and measures himself and the parents by their deeds. The child begins now not only to be ashamed for what he has done, when it is discovered, but he begins to fear the discovery per se and to feel guilty for merely the thought and the actions. Erikson calls this the cornerstone of morality in the individual sense.

The successful handling of the crisis at this stage leads to the child arising from it with an unbroken initiative. If the conflict is not appropriately addressed, it leads to an overzealous conscience, which is also going to hamper and restrict initiative in later stages of life, or to overcompensate. At this stage, a balance has to be found between a healthy dose of initiative and a normal regulation authority.

"The indispensable contribution of the initiative stage to later identity development, then, obviously is that of freeing the child’s initiative and sense of purpose for adult tasks which promise (but cannot guarantee) a fulfillment of one’s range of capacities."[31]

The result consists of guilt and a feeling to be in charge of the own initiatives.

2.4 Industry vs. inferiority

In this stage, from the sixth year of life up to puberty, there is no new source of inner support and consequently it is also called latency period or stage (Freud)[32], because violent drives of sexual development are temporarily dormant.

Erikson describes this stage also as "(…) a lull before the storm of puberty (…)".[33]

If a conviction can summarize the first stage with "I am what hope I have and give", in the second stage with "I am what I can freely", in the third stage with "I am what I can imagine I will", so it is in the fourth stage, that "I am what I can learn to make work"[34] gains priority.

The child is more open to the world and has a growing need to be productive, to learn something new, to contribute to the world of adults, and tob e recognized by it. Erikson calls this desire a "sense of industry"[35].

Erikson does not deny the significance of the play during this stage; he talks about preparing for the future, or a method to vent past agitation, vindicate past failures in his fantasy[36], but also of "a safe place the child creates to return to, if need be to ″overhaul″ his ego."[37] But he emphasizes at the same time the tendencies of children in this age group, according to their growing abilities to watch, to join, to observe, and to participate. This can happen at school, in the street, at a friend’s house, or at home. In this respect, the play assumes a quite important function: Contrary to an adult’s play, which serves relaxation purposes, it allows the child a new level of coping with reality[38], "(…) an infantile way of mastering social experience by experimenting, planning, and sharing, alone and with playmates."[39]

Hence, for the child as opposed to the adult, play is not a means to flee reality, but rather a mechanism to cope with reality, which is increasingly important to the child. The play alone, however, is according to Erikson not enough for the development. The child wants to be useful and accomplish something, he develops pleasure in knowledge, determination, precision, perfection, and endurance, and he wants to create something.


[1] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.95

[2] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.96

[3] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.100

[4] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.97

[5] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.99

[6] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.96

[7] ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p. 249

[8] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.101

[9] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.103

[10] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.107

[11] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.107

[12] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.107

[13] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.108

[14] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.108

[15] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.109

[16] ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p.252

[17] ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p.252

[18] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.112

[19] ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p.252

[20] ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p.252

[21] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.115

[22] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.115

[23] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.115

[24] ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p.254

[25] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.116

[26] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.116

[27] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.117

[28] see ERIKSON, Childhood and Society, p.255

[29] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.119

[30] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.119

[31] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.122

[32] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.126

[33] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.127

[34] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.127

[35] see ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.125

[36] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.122

[37] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.122

[38] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.123

[39] ERIKSON, Identity. Youth and crisis, p.123

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The Stages of Psychosocial Development According to Erik H. Erikson
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Stephanie Scheck (Author), 2005, The Stages of Psychosocial Development According to Erik H. Erikson, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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