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Erik Erikson and Child Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW Updated: Apr 12th 2016

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) used Freud's work as a starting place to develop a theory about human stage development from birth to death. In contrast to Freud's focus on sexuality, Erikson focused on how peoples' sense of identity develops; how people develop or fail to develop abilities and beliefs about themselves which allow them to become productive, satisfied members of society. Because Erikson's theory combines how people develop beliefs psychologically and mentally with how they learn to exist within a larger community of people, it’s called a 'psychosocial' theory.

father and son talkingErikson’s stages are, in chronological order in which they unfold: trust versus mistrust; autonomy versus shame and doubt; initiative versus guilt; industry versus inferiority; identity versus identity confusion; intimacy versus isolation; generativity versus stagnation; and integrity versus despair. Each stage is associated with a time of life and a general age span. For each stage, Erikson's theory explains what types of stimulation children need to master that stage and become productive and well-adjusted members of society and explains the types of problems and developmental delays that can result when this stimulation does not occur.

For example, the first psychosocial stage is trust versus mistrust, and it spans from birth to about age one year. During this phase, if children are consistently provided all their basic needs such as food, clean diapers, warmth, and loving affection and soothing from caregivers, they will learn that they can trust other people in their environment to love them and to take care of them, and they will believe the world is good. If infants are neglected and not given these things consistently or if they are taken care of roughly and unpredictably, they will learn to question their caretakers and to believe that others will not always be there to support them when it’s needed. Learning to trust others is the first necessary step to learning how to have loving, supportive relationships with others and to have a positive self-image.

The second stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, spans ages one to three years. When children are autonomous, they feel confident that they can make their own choices and decisions and that they will be positive experiences. Young children become autonomous when caregivers are supportive and give children the safe space to make their own decisions and to experiment with their bodies and problem-solving skills without shaming or ridiculing the child. When children feel shame and doubt, they believe that they are not capable of making valid decisions and not capable of doing everyday tasks. This will begin stunting a positive self-esteem as these small children start seeing themselves as “stupid.”

The third stage, initiative versus guilt, spans ages three to six years. When children develop initiative, they continue to develop their self-concept and gain a desire to try new things and to learn new things while being responsible for their actions to some extent. If caregivers continue to give children a safe space to experiment and appropriate stimuli to learn, the children will continue to find their purpose. However, if caregivers try to create too many strict boundaries around what children can do and to force too much responsibility on kids, children will feel extreme guilt for their inability to complete tasks perfectly.

This is just a taste of Erickson’s ideas. Hopefully, these paragraphs will help explain his way of thinking and organizing development. The rest of Erikson's stages will be outlined in detail in future documents in this series as they become age-related.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

asking - agv - Jan 12th 2015

 i found it very interesting..... just asking...what is Erikson  clear theory in children's development and how we link it with our children everyday?

wow!! - della - Apr 22nd 2010

As I read this, I found it very interesting and very important for students to get a hold of this because it is really helpful. I would reccommend and suggest that they used this information as a guide because it's really understandable and very opened minded. Great job people!! Well done, it's a good way for me to get started on my research.

Experimental Proof - ucsb student - Feb 20th 2010

I was wondering whether there are any studies confirming or disconfirming these stages and their affect on behavior. From my understanding these insights came from observations and conclusions of psychotherapy.

PATH - wINNIE B - Dec 14th 2009


A useful website - Alicia - May 25th 2009

What students ask vs what they really mean: "where are the rest of the stages?" translation: "can you do my homework for me" :)

For those still interested in Erikson's psychological developmental theory, here is a useful and easy to understand website 

In support of the editor, the first 3 stages relate to childhood development (4th stage is adolescence), hence why they were included on this webpage. If you care to research the other stages, which go right through till death, you would need to source another webpage like the one I have posted.

Editor's Note: Well put, Alicia.  Thanks! 

Erikson - Mirjam - Jan 8th 2009

You can find more about the stages of Erikson on Wikipedia.

- Ronette - Jan 7th 2009
You kinda a left me hanging here with the development of the child .I could really do with some more information.

seearch - haydee - Jul 31st 2008

guys there are many many other websites that fully describe all eight stages of eriksons social-emotional development, all u gotta do is search

where are the rest? - awesomeness - Jul 20th 2008

ok i trully love the way the first three stages were described but where are the rest?????

Editor's Note: They aren't here becuase this is an article on child development.  The other stages cover later periods in a person's life.   

hu - - Jun 17th 2008

I dont get it.

- Lauren - Oct 3rd 2007
 Was wondering about Erikson's theory of stranger anxiety/seperation anxiety and how it develops?

Need more!!! - N.J - Apr 27th 2007
What about the rest of the stages? Maybe you could include a bit of background information on Freud's theory too, since you mention it as Erikson's starting point.

thank-you - MARIEL SLOVAK - Feb 7th 2007




- alice - Dec 18th 2006
YES i agree with the other kid! you need to have the rest of the stages to go along with the first 3 otherwise it does not make sence.

- C. Watt - Nov 9th 2006
I need the rest of the stages. You seem to have left them out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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