Erikson’s psychosocial development theory

Categories: Erik Erikson

As a young child, he was learning everything an independent, curious, and analytical toddler would be learning. At one and a half years of age, in his second stage of child development, he was mastering his walking skills and beginning to work on control and management. By the time he turned four he was in his next stage of development, beginning to copy what he was learning from adults, and exploring new and interesting activities. He was given the opportunity of free play and improved his sense of self-esteem.

This sense of imagination and creativity would help him transition to the next stage. Finally, in the fourth stage of child development, around age seven, he was beginning to question who he really was and what his purpose and role was. He was put into social situations and was given the opportunity to interact with other children.

He was Erik Erikson, and little did he know may have once lived through his own stages of psychosocial development.

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In this paper, I will discuss Erikson’s psychosocial development theory. His credentials and research are important to support his theory, and it is interesting to know the facts about famous theorists. I will be concentrating on stages two, three, and four as they pertain to primarily early childhood students. I will also discuss what I observed in an actual classroom and compare and contrast what I found out related to the different stages. Finally, I will mention the controversy over Erik Erikson’s theory and the evidence to support and argue the facts.

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Erikson developed an important theory that has helped explain human development.

Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson was born in 1902 in Germany. He did not start his career as a psychologist; “…in fact, Erikson never graduated from high school” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 67). Erikson’s heavy interest and influences for identity were developed through his own experiences during school (Van Wagner, 2007). “Erikson spent his childhood in Germany, his adolescence wandering through Italy, and his young adulthood in Austria” (Berger, 2005, p. 35). A meeting with Sigmund Freud in Vienna led Erikson to an  interest for studying psychoanalysis (Woolfolk, 2007). According to Van Wagner (2007), Erikson earned a certificate from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Along with psychologists such as Freud, Erikson believed that crises of adult life reflect unresolved conflicts of childhood. However, his stages differed “significantly from Freud’s in that they emphasized people’s relationships to their family and culture, not only to their sexual urges” (Berger, 2005, p. 36). Through his stages, Woolfolk (2007) suggests that “Erikson offered a framework for understanding the needs of young people in relation to the society in which they grow, learn and later make their contributions” (p. 67).

Each of the developmental stages confronts a person with a new task or ability that must be mastered for the best possible and most successful development (Coon, 2006). Because of this mastery, Erikson firmly believed in a psychosocial dilemma that causes problems through each stage. “A psychosocial dilemma is a conflict between personal impulses and the social world” (Coon, 2006, p. 113). The process in which the individual resolves each developmental conflict will have an impact on their self-image and view of the world (Woolfolk, 2007). Erikson identified eight different stages in the life cycle for human development (Gerrig and Zimbardo, 2005). “Erikson’s psychosocial theory emphasized the emergence of self, the search for identity, the individual’s relationships with others, and the role of culture through life” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 67). Erikson furthered his career by moving to the United States in 1933 and accepting a teaching position at the Harvard Medical School. As well as his new teaching position, he also developed his own private practice in child psychoanalysis (Van Wagner, 2007).

After arriving in the United States, according to Berger (2005), Erikson “studied Harvard students, children at play, and Native American cultures” (p. 35). All of these different experiences helped Erikson to understand the importance of cultural diversity and significant changes that occur throughout the life cycle (Berger, 2005). According to the Erik Erikson Biography, “he utilized the knowledge he gained of cultural, environmental, and social influences to further develop his psychoanalytic theory.” Through his research, Erikson gathered  all of his information and results and published numerous books on his findings, including Childhood and Society and The Life Cycle Completed. Erikson’s book, Ghandi’s Truth, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and received a national Book Award. In addition to Erikson’s psychosocial development theory, he also added an understanding of the development of personality and how it changes throughout the life cycle (Van Wagner, 2007).

Psychosocial Development Stages
“Erikson proposed eight developmental stages covering the entire life span, each characterized by a particular challenge, or developmental crisis” (Berger, 2005, p. 36). Throughout stage one, trust versus mistrust, the main challenge of a child is the significant dependence on other people, mainly the parents. Erikson suggested that this stage was known as trust or mistrust because certain attitudes are developed at this time (Coon, 2006). After attaining the goal of stage one, the ability to trust, the child is ready to move onto stage two of development.

Stage Two- Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt
“Erikson’s second stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, marks the beginning of self-control and self-confidence” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 68). This stage occurs between the ages of eighteen months and three years. Children are either sufficient in activities including toilet training, or begin to doubt their own abilities if they are unsuccessful (Berger, 2005). The children that can complete this stage with success develop a sense of confidence and security, but those who do not succeed are left with a feeling of self-doubt (Van Wagner, 2007). “If parents do not maintain a reassuring, confident attitude and do not reinforce the child’s efforts to master basic motor and cognitive skills, children may begin to feel shame; they may learn to doubt their abilities to manage the world on their own terms” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 68). Toddlers want to develop autonomy (also known as self-rule) over themselves and be able to control their actions. According to Erikson, the most efficient way of getting past this crisis and developing autonomy is a sense of guidance and security from parents (Berger, 2005). Overall, in stage  two, Erikson believes that if children experience too much doubt they will lack self-esteem in their abilities throughout their life. As long as the child can maintain their self-esteem and develop their sense of autonomy, they can move on to the third stage (Woolfolk, 2007). Stage Three- Initiative versus Guilt

“During the third developmental stage described by Erikson, called initiative versus guilt, selfesteem emerges from the skills and competencies that demonstrate independence and initiative” (Berger, 2005, p. 237). This stage generally happens between the ages of three and six. During this stage, children move from simple activities to more complex such as developing self-control and beginning to take initiative (Coon, 2006). Woolfolk states “the challenge of this period is to maintain a zest for activity and at the same time understand that not every impulse can be acted on” (2007, p. 68). During the first years of school, children take the initiative and control their world through organizing social interactions (Van Wagner, 2007). Children want to participate in adult like activities, but are afraid of the guilt they may experience (Berger, 2005). “If children are not allowed to do things on their own, a sense of guilt may develop; they may come to believe that what they want to do is always wrong” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 68). When children play, they learn how to make plans and follow through with them. Parents should give children the freedom and opportunity to do things on their own, such as ask questions, play, and choose their own activities (Coon, 2006).

Toward the end of the preschool years, children who develop that sense of trust can initiate activities both intellectual and motor, to help them learn that they can do things on their own (Gerrig and Zimbardo, 2005). According to the article entitled, Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development, “Children who are successful at this stage feel capable and able to lead others. Those who fail to acquire these skills are left with a sense of guilt, self-doubt, and lack of initiative” (Van Wagner, 2007). Many psychologists, such as Erikson, believe that guilt is a more mature and natural emotion than shame, but both shame and guilt derive from social standards. On the other hand, guilt indicates that the child has  become self-motivated (Berger, 2005). The ways that parents react to their child’s activities either encourages their sense of freedom and confidence or produces the feelings of guilt, which makes the child feel that they are doing wrong and cannot overcome this challenge to move to the next stage (Gerrig and Zimbardo, 2005). After overcoming and mastering the skill to take initiative, the child is ready to move to the fourth stage of development.

Stage Four- Industry versus Inferiority
The challenge for the child during their school years is what Erikson named industry versus inferiority (Woolfolk, 2007). This is the fourth stage of psychosocial development, and occurs during the early school years from approximately age five to eleven. “During the elementary school years, the child who has successfully resolved the crises of the earlier stages is ready to go beyond random exploring and testing to the systematic development of competencies” (Gerrig and Zimbardo, 2005, p. 338). During these years, children learn and develop skills that are valued by society, and their success or failure affects their feeling of competence (Coon, 2006). During this psychosocial crisis of industry versus inferiority, children work on mastering the abilities that are valued by their culture (Berger, 2005). The children can see the relationship between determination and the pleasure that comes when a job is completed (Woolfolk, 2007). Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development suggests that social interactions allow children to develop pride in their accomplishments and abilities (Van Wagner, 2007). Children learn the sense of industry if they win praise for their productive activities, and the sense of inferiority if their efforts are inadequate or unsuccessful (Coon, 2006). “Children must master new skills and work toward new goals, at the same time they are being compared to others and risking failure” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 69). Each child judges themselves in their own way as either industrious or inferior; they look at it as either being a winner or a loser (Berger, 2005).

The way that each individual child copes with their own crisis in this stage, affects the outcomes of the rest of their school years (Woolfolk, 2007). Once again parental guidance is important. The  children that are praised by their parents develop a feeling of confidence and belief in their own abilities, but those who receive little recognition from their parents revert back to the feeling of doubt from the previous stages (Van Wagner, 2007). As children move to the adolescence stage, their cognitive processes develop more effectively and they can think theoretically and can understand the ideas of others more clearly (Woolfolk, 2007). The severity and degree to the challenges varies widely from each child, and they must learn how to cope with their challenges individually to overcome them, and move onto the next stage of development. Most of the techniques to transition to the next stage come naturally, but each child may develop them at different rates. It is important to help the child successfully overcome their challenges to help them move onto the next stage (Berger, 2005). There are four more developmental stages that help in describing the development of the psychosocial theory, and Van Wagner (2007) states that during each stage people experience a conflict or crisis that helps as a transition in the developmental process. This challenge or crisis must be met and overcome before the child can move onto the next stage. While figuring out how to conquer their own personal challenge, the child will learn skills and abilities that will help them in their development throughout the life cycle (Woolfolk, 2007).

When children start school, around the age of five, their cognitive abilities are developing rapidly (Woolfolk, 2007). “The elementary-school years are a child’s ‘entrance into life’” (Coon, 2006, p. 114). Children begin to process more information faster; they are moving from preoperational to concrete operational thinking. “As these internal changes progress, the children are spending hours every weekday in the new physical and social world of school” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 69). On March 3, 2008, I visited Kasson-Mantorville Elementary School. I was in a second grade classroom and was able to observe and analyze the children. I wanted to look for the specific actions and transitions Erik Erikson discusses in his second, third, and fourth stages of psychosocial development.

Since I was in a second grade classroom I knew that I would probably see children transitioning from stage three to four, and also children already in stage four. I was first looking for the physical development of the children. By the age of six or seven most children should have the ability of grasping and controlling, which is one of the main abilities learned in stage two. I observed that most children had good control over their actions and knew what they were doing. Next, I wanted to look for the independence in each student. As Woolfolk (2007) states “the child continues to become more assertive and to take more initiative but may be too forceful, which can lead to guilty feelings” (p. 67). I looked for a student that seemed to be very talkative or participated often. I wanted to try and find patterns in their behavior. I watched one specific student for awhile, and noticed a few interesting things. First, he always wanted to participate, which signified that he wasn’t afraid to talk in front of the class. This shows that he is able to be independent and shows that he has successfully reached the goal of stage three, which is self-esteem and “self-concept, or understanding of the self” (Berger, 2005, p. 237).

Lastly, I wanted to see if any student was in stage four of industry versus inferiority. Erikson suggests that social relationships and interaction become very important in this stage. Students face the challenge of learning new tasks and when accomplishing each assignment they either feel a sense of success (industry) or failure (inferiority). I noticed that if a student received a wrong answer they would cover their head in their desk or look down. On the other hand, if a student was correct, they would hold their head high and were quite proud. These observations made it easier to picture what each child goes through during each stage. Observing students in the classroom gives sufficient first-hand experience in what children act like in each stage, and being able to analyze their actions made it easier to understand. I was able to directly apply the characteristics common to each stage to specific children, and see how each child was different from the others. It is important to remember that all children develop at different rates and some students may not be in the same stage as others. I looked for common characteristics and  behaviors to compare, and found it very helpful in my research to link the qualities with the specific stages.

Erikson’s research and development of his psychosocial theory has sparked controversy over the years. There have been specific questions about his theory regarding the issues of the identity and intimacy, and how they intertwine in the development of a person. “Erikson’s work helped start the lifespan development approach, and his theories have been especially useful in understanding adolescence. But feminists have criticized this notion that identity precedes intimacy, because their research indicates that for women, identity achievement is fused with achieving intimacy” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 72). Erikson did not believe in the intimacy part of development in young children, unlike other psychologists such as Sigmund Freud. Erikson believed that the main part of each stage was a developmental crisis, while Freud on the other hand believed in the sexual impulses each person experienced. There are different opinions and perspectives on human development, and each theorist has a different approach in figuring out the best way to describe the human life cycle.

There are more positive observations on Erikson’s theory than there are negative. Most of the negative responses can be outweighed by positive remarks. One of the main concerns with people that disagree with Erikson is the developmental crisis aspect. According to the article entitled Erikson’s Psychosocial Development Theory (2007), the challenges and conflicts in each stage are not clearly defined. This article also suggests that the challenges in each stage may overlap and that could cause confusion in determining which stage a child may be in. On the other hand, Erikson suggests that these challenges must be achieved progressively and cannot be overcome in one day. There are disagreements with every theory and each theorist has their own way of proving its truth. Erikson believed that the crises were not determined by age, rather the achievement of the abilities that must be mastered in each stage (Chapman, 2007).

All in all, the psychosocial development theory created by psychologist Erik Erikson, has been helpful in trying to figure out the process of the human life cycle. Erikson’s background was important in that his own personal experiences influenced him, and sparked the interest of human development and identity. Being influenced by Freud, he was able to compare and contrast his own theory to Freud’s, and give reasons why he thought his stages of development were more accurate. In Erikson’s eight stages, primarily stages two, three, and four, concentrate on the years of early childhood. These stages are crucial for the development of a child while going through many changes, such as beginning school and becoming more independent. The second stage of autonomy versus shame/doubt, from the age of eighteen months to three years, is when the child develops self-esteem and confidence. After mastering these skills the child progresses to stage three, (age three to six years) initiative versus guilt, and begins to develop a sense of independence.

Finally between the age of five and eleven and in stage four, industry versus inferiority, the child is met with social interactions and learns the abilities valued by society. These three stages are important in a child during their early years of life. By observing an actual classroom setting, I was able to apply the abilities described in each stage and analyze how the children acted. I noticed common patterns and behaviors that were described in each of the three stages, and thought it was very helpful to see the children in an actual classroom setting at work. There were some differences from Erikson’s theory to the way the children acted. As with any theory, there are controversies that need to be researched. Erikson’s theory has been questioned on why there isn’t a place for intimacy in the stages, but his stages are set up to evolve the identity. There is also the question of the clearly defined transition from each crisis. Erikson concludes that one cannot transition from one crisis to the next in one day. The change of stages must be gradual with the mastering of specific abilities.

Erik Erikson believed that his stages of psychosocial development would help people understand the changes each child goes through. He labeled each phase according to the characteristics and behaviors the child exhibits around a certain age. With his theory, people can begin to understand what children go through during their first few years of development. I believe that Erikson created an efficient theory for people to analyze and observe in children to determine how they develop. I think that this theory, along with any other theory, gives an alternate view on the development of a human, and how they develop and master the abilities learned throughout life.

Berger, K. S., (2005). The developing person through the life span. New York, NY: Catherine Woods.
Chapman, A. (2006-7). Erikson's psychosocial development theory. Retrieved March 16, 2008, from's_psychose xual_stages.
Coon, D. (2006). Psychology: A journey. Mason, OH: Thomson Wadsworth. Gerrig, R. J., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2005). Psychology and life. Boston, MA: Pearson Education. Van Wagner, K. (2007). Erik Erikson biography. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from Van Wagner, K. (2007). Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from Woolfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Updated: Jul 06, 2022
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Erikson’s psychosocial development theory. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

Erikson’s psychosocial development theory essay
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