Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development

The American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson states that people must go through 8 stages for healthy development. What do they consist of?
Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development
Elena Sanz

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 22 February, 2023

Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development encompass a series of concepts that allow us to understand how human beings evolve from infancy to adulthood. This is considered the basis of developmental theory and consists of 8 stages, each marked by a conflict.

The resolution of each conflict in its proper stage is what allows the person to find his or her growth potential. If this does not occur, it’s to be expected that problems will arise when facing new challenges in the following stages. So, are you interested in knowing more about this fascinating subject?

Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development

Erikson, like Sigmund Freud, referred that personality develops through a series of stages. However, whereas Freud based his theory on psychosexual stages, Erikson focused on psychosocial development. That is, how social interaction and relationships influenced human development and growth.

The first time Erikson spoke of these 8 stages of human development was in 1950, in the book Childhood and Society. In this book, he included a chapter called The 8 Ages of Man. Years later, the author expanded his theory in works such as Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Insight and Responsibility (1964), and The Complete Life Cycle: A Review (1982).

Erikson’s epigenetic principle and the stages of psychosocial development

Erikson postulated that development works on the basis of an epigenetic principle. In this sense, he argued that each person goes through 8 developmental stages that are inherent from birth, but that unfold both with an innate system and with the influences of the environment through experiences, culture, and values.

In turn, each stage builds on the previous ones and paves the way to a new one. Therefore, progress in each stage is determined by previous successes or failures. However, for this to be the case, each stage encompasses a series of functions that are psychosocial in nature.

Erikson calls them “crises” and states that these must be resolved by the ego of each stage for development to proceed correctly. If something interferes with that natural order, it’ll also affect the person’s development.

In other words, if the person doesn’t optimally overcome the conflicts of each stage, he or she may not develop the skills required to meet the challenges in a subsequent stage. In particular, the first 4 stages focus on childhood, while the other 4 stages span from adolescence to old age. Let’s take a detailed look at all of these stages.

Crecimiento y desarrollo según Erikson.
Development is understood as overcoming progressive stages with challenges and challenges in each one.

Stage 1: Trust vs. mistrust

This stage takes place after birth and up to 18 months. In this stage, the ego’s first task is the development of trust. That is, children learn to trust or not to trust others. The quality of the maternal relationship plays a major role in this.

If parents or caregivers expose the infant to a loving and trusting relationship, the child will later develop the feeling that the world – and especially in the social sphere – is safe.

Conversely, if parents do not create this safe environment, if they reject the infant, or if their basic needs are not met, the infant will develop mistrust. This will manifest itself in feelings of frustration, insecurity, and insensitivity or extreme sensitivity to what is happening in their environment.

However, it’s important to be clear that this does not mean that parents have to be perfect. In fact, falling into the error of overprotection can be just as detrimental as the child developing distrust.

According to Erikson, this causes a “sensory mismatch” that manifests itself in an overly gullible personality, or depressive, paranoid, or psychotic tendencies.

Stage 2: Psychosocial development: Autonomy vs. shame and doubt

This develops between 18 months and 3 years of age. This is a stage that’s related to the growth of autonomy, as the child begins his or her cognitive and muscular development, especially when he or she starts to control and exercise his or her sphincters. However, this is a process that’s also linked to shame and doubt, since it’s progressive.

Once again, parents or guardians become determining figures for its successful completion. It’s not advisable for them to discourage or push the child too much, since he/she needs to explore and manipulate his/her environment to develop his/her autonomy.

If parents intervene or provide solutions, the child will think he/she is incapable and will eventually give up. It’s also not advisable to mock or scold, as this will increase the child’s embarrassment and make him/her doubt his/her abilities.

Successfully overcoming this phase will allow children to develop strong and healthy self-esteem. On the other hand, if there’s interference, the child will have mismatches in solving small problems and will not develop enough self-confidence to make decisions.

Stage 3: Initiative vs. guilt

This stage ranges from 3 to 5 years of age. The child’s intellectual and physical development advances rapidly. Their interest in interacting with other children to test their skills and abilities grows. In this period, curiosity is greater, so it’s advisable to stimulate them to develop their creativity.

However, if the child can already take control through play, he/she must also be responsible… and occasionally feel guilty. In a certain way, experiencing guilt will make him/her recognize when things that are wrong. However, this feeling should not be overly expressed, as it makes them feel that they are incapable of facing new challenges. In other words, guilt feeds fear.

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Stage 4: Laboriousness vs. inferiority

From the age of 5 until the age of 13, one of the most determining stages of psychosocial development occurs. According to Erikson, children gradually begin to replace their desire to play in order to be more productive and accomplish more complicated tasks.

In fact, their interest in completing activities that demand self-effort, knowledge, and skills is much greater. They also expect recognition for these. In any case, the family, the school, and social agents are key to their positive stimulation.

If difficulties are encountered in completing the challenges of this phase, the child may experience a certain sense of inferiority. That’s why it’s essential to provide them with help to manage their failures; otherwise, they will choose to avoid any challenge they consider difficult just for fear of feeling this sensation again. This may even be reflected in the way they behave with other peers.

Stage 5: Identity vs. identity diffusion

At this point in Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, children become adolescents. Specifically, this stage takes place between the ages of 13 and 21. This is a period in which the question “who am I?” appears constantly. This is precisely the time when they begin to shape their personality.

Adolescents choose who they want to be like and what role they want to play in society. As a result, they act more independently and give more importance to their social lives. In addition, thoughts about the future appear, such as what to study or where to live. As a result of their experiences, they strengthen their identity.

It’s important that during this stage there’s a discernment between activities that are appropriate for their age and those that tend to be “childish”. Erikson points out that to overcome this stage successfully is to finish building a solid foundation for adulthood.

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. isolation

In this stage, adolescents move into young adulthood. This stage occurs between the ages of 21 and 39. Although the need to respond to the desires of the environment in order to “fit in” is still present, boundaries begin to be drawn about what the person will not sacrifice to please others.

The main task at this point is to achieve a certain degree of intimacy, which turns out to be the opposite of isolation. In other words, it changes the way of relating, as intimate relationships are sought in which there is a greater mutual commitment. This, in turn, will generate a sense of security and trust.

When this does not happen and the person does not find a partner or loved ones to share intimacy with, promiscuity and loneliness can appear. There is a tendency to choose superficial relationships and to engage in self-destructive behaviors. Isolation may thus create insecurity and a feeling of inferiority that leads to character problems and insecurity.

Stage 7: Generativity vs. stagnation

During middle adulthood, between the ages of 40 and 65, the person begins to devote more time to family and work-related issues. The main characteristic of this stage is the search for a balance between productivity and stagnation. Productivity has to do with concern for the next generations – not only for loved ones, but encompassing society in general.

At this point, the person understands that life is not only about oneself. Therefore, they seek to contribute to society and leave a legacy. As examples, Erikson highlights teaching, writing, social activism, and the arts. Achieving this goal leads to a sense of accomplishment.

When the person feels that he or she has not contributed to society, he or she comes to think that he or she is unqualified and loses a sense of accomplishment. He or she may even get into a dynamic of not stopping to do things to feel useful, which leads to negative consequences in other areas.

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A woman working on psychosocial development with a child.
At this stage, there is a feeling of a desire to leave a legacy or of having to pass on something to future generations.

Stage 8: Psychosocial development: Ego integrity vs. despair

The last stage occurs after the age of 65 or in the so-called “old age.” This is the time when the person is no longer as productive, has reduced abilities, and it usually leads to bereavement situations such as the deaths of friends and loved ones. Erikson suggests that the person has two options: to choose between integrity or despair.

Integrity is to be able to look back with a sense of having left a mark, of having achieved accomplishments, and that life has been worth living. Reaching this state allows, among other things, to resolve unfinished business. For example, it may involve reconciling with a person who in the past was not up to the task.

On the contrary, despair evokes nostalgia and makes the fear of death predominate. There is a constant hopelessness and fear of the loss of self-sufficiency and loved ones.

Why is psychosocial development theory important?

Although questions have been raised about Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, this theory has played a relevant role in the development of social and scientific studies. Its contributions make it possible to understand to a great extent how a person acquires and shapes their personality and social identity.

From this, there are strategies to face those critical situations that the person is unable to resolve. At the same time, it has been useful for the management and prevention of disorders such as anxiety and depression.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.