Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development


Erik Erikson was a German-American psychoanalyst. His writings on social psychology, individual identity, and the intersection of psychology and history, politics, and culture have been extremely influential in the field of psychology. He trained in psychoanalysis under Anna Freud, daughter of the well-known psychologist and pioneer of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, Sigmund Freud. He was interested in the idea of ego and how it operates in people, especially children. During the 1940s, he wrote a collection of essays in a book titled ‘Childhood and Society’. These essays expounded the theory that Erikson is known the best for, his theory of Psychosocial development.

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What is the theory of Psychosocial Development?

Erikson’s theory of Psychosocial Development consists of eight stages of development. It begins at the time a person is born and continues into old age. It explores how the demands of society (the social part of the theory) interact with an individual’s needs (the psychological part of the theory).

According to Erikson, each stage of development has a central crisis (or a basic conflict) that needs to be resolved and overcome to be able to move to the next stage of development. This resolution comes through an important event that must occur properly. If a person is unable to resolve the crisis of a particular stage, they might become fixated on that stage, which creates problems for their future self. Let’s take a closer look at the Psychosocial stages of development as described by Erikson.

1. Infancy/The Oral-Sensory Stage (Birth – 12 to 18 Months):

The first stage in Erikson’s theory begins in infancy. The central conflict of this stage is trust vs. mistrust. Infants need protection and caregiving by their parents (or primary caregivers). The resolution of this conflict depends on how well the caregivers attend to the needs of the child. If the child is fed adequately and provided warmth and comfort, they will feel a sense of security. If the child is neglected, or even overindulged, they may develop mistrust towards the caregiver. Depending upon the care provided, if the child develops a trusting relationship, they will view the world as a benevolent place in adulthood, but if the child develops mistrust, they will think of the world as a hostile place and develop a sense of hopelessness in the face of crisis.

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2. Toddlerhood/Anal Stage (18 months – 3 years):

The central conflict of Erikson’s second developmental stage is Autonomy vs. Shame or doubt. At this stage, a toddler begins to see if they can do things by themselves. At this stage, the key event that takes place is toilet training and learning of other such activities which instil personal responsibility in the child. If the caregiver adequately trains the child in these activities, and lets the child take control over their habits, the conflict is resolved and the child grows up to gain a sense of independence. But, if a child is shamed while toilet training, or not allowed to make decisions regarding the same, they may develop severe self-doubt and face problems with decision-making in their adulthood and lack confidence.

3. Preschool/Locomotor Stage (3 to 6 years):

The main crisis of this stage is Initiative vs. Guilt. At this age, children are usually enrolled in preschools. It is the first time that a child leaves the home environment and enters into the external world. The child is very curious and asks endless questions. If the child feels encouraged to do so by the adults and peers around them, they develop initiative and venture into new explorations. The crisis is overcome, and they develop a sense of purpose in their life. However, if the child is repeatedly criticised or discouraged by caregivers, they may develop intense feelings of guilt and lack ambition in their adulthood.

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4. Early School Years/Latency Stage (6 – 12 years):

The central crisis of this developmental stage is Industry vs. Inferiority. The child becomes aware of their identity. The most important sphere of activity during these years is the school environment. The child starts becoming concerned with personal achievement in studies, sports, and creative exploits. If a child feel praised and appreciated for their accomplishments by their parents, teachers, and peers, the conflict is resolved and they feel competent and productive as adults. But if they do not receive positive reinforcement for their achievements and are neglected, they may feel inferior and incompetent later in life, and develop a fear of failure.

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5. Adolescence (12 – 18 years):

This stage centres around Identity vs. Role Confusion. The commonly known phrase “Identity Crisis” comes from this developmental phase. At this stage, peer relationships are the most important aspect of an adolescent. Teenagers go through the challenge of shaping a sense of self concerning their sexual and gender identity, occupation, religion, politics, etc. If they can develop a concrete identity, the crisis is resolved. However, if they are unable to shape an identity due to external and parental impositions and restrictions, they may lack a clear picture of their future and have difficulties in determining or sticking to their career.

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6. Young Adulthood (19 – 40 years):

In Young Adulthood, the primary conflict relates to interpersonal relationships. The main conflict is Intimacy vs. Isolation. Success in this stage leads to strong relationship-building skills, whereas if the conflict is not resolved, it leads to feelings of loneliness and isolation. They will face difficulties forming long-term and meaningful relationships with others.

7. Middle Adulthood (40 – 65 years):

In this stage of development, the central conflict is Generativity vs. Stagnation/Self-Absorption. This stage revolves around the need to provide for others, and thus, the event that characterises middle adulthood is parenting. When a person feels a sense of care and responsibility, it is termed generativity. Generativity can also be achieved at the work front by being productive and mentoring people. People who resolve the conflict at this stage gain the satisfaction of knowing they are needed. On the other hand, those who cannot figure out a way to give back may become stagnated.

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8. Maturity (65 years – Death):

The main conflict at the last developmental stage is Ego Integrity vs. Despair. In old age, people tend to look back at their lives and reflect on if they had a meaningful, happy life. If they are proud of how they led their lives, they experience genuine satisfaction. However, if they regret the way they lived their lives, they may succumb to feelings of dissatisfaction and despair.

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Summing Up

Erik Erikson’s theory remains one of the most influential theories of development in the world today. However, there are certain caveats to be kept in mind while assessing one’s life through the lens of this theory. It is entirely based on case studies, thus it cannot account for all nuances of human experiences. It also centred around the experiences of Western people, predominantly American white males, and is not generalisable to the population of other countries. Erikson’s theory is just one framework among many to view human experience. Other renowned theories of development include – Sigmund Freud’s Five Psychosexual Stages, Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory based on Moral Development.

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