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Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychological Development

Erik Erikson (15 June 1902 – 12 May 1994) was a Danish-German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on social development of human beings. He used Freud’s work as a starting place to develop a theory about human stage development from birth to death. Unlike Freud’s theory of psychosexual development which places great emphasis on sex however, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development focuses more on the choices people make and the conflicts they face during different stages of their life.

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development has eight stages. Within each stage there are different types of conflicts an individual must resolve, and if they are unable to do so they will struggle with those conflicts later in life.

The eight stages of psychosocial development are:

• Trust Vs Mistrust
• Autonomy Vs Shame & Guilt
• Initiative Vs Guilt
• Industry Vs Inferiority
• Identity Vs Role Confusion
• Intimacy Vs Isolation
• Generativity Vs Self-Absorption
• Integrity Vs Despair

For each of these stages the first attribute is considered to be a positive or desirable personality trait while the second attribute is a negative or undesirable trait. For example, in trust vs mistrust, trust is a positive trait while mistrust is a negative trait.

Throughout a person’s life as they move from stage to stage, they must overcome the various challenges they face so that they can form the positive trait. If they are unable to do this, it will result to the negative trait, which will cause them problems later in life.

So basically Erikson’s theory is about the challenges we face in life, and whether or not we are able to overcome those challenges to form certain desirable (positive) traits.

Let’s explore each of these eight stages of psychosocial development in more detail.

Trust Vs Mistrust (birth – 2 years old)

Trust vs Mistrust

Trust vs Mistrust

Trust vs. mistrust is a stage associated with infancy, and lasts until we are two years of age.

If an infant develops a sense of trust as a result of being looked after, attended to and loved by its parents, the infant will be happy and in good health.

However if the infant develops a sense of mistrust as a result of being neglected or treated poorly by its parents, they will display a lack of interest in their surroundings and have poor health.

These are characteristics associated with infantile depression, which may then result in adult depression later in life.

So overall, this stage can be summarized by saying that if the infant is looked after well (develops trust) it will be happy and healthy.

But if the infant is looked after poorly (develops mistrust) it will be depressed and unhealthy.

Autonomy Vs Shame & Doubt (2-3 years old)

Autonomy vs shame

Autonomy vs Shame and doubt

The stage of autonomy vs. shame and doubt occurs during year’s two to three (toddlerhood).

A toddler with a sense of autonomy will be interested in exploring their surroundings, and will constantly be looking for new things to stimulate (mentally) themselves with. They will tend to perform this exploration by themselves, and as a result may appear to wander off randomly or try to escape from their parents somehow to explore new surroundings.

A toddler with a sense of shame and doubt will tend to do the opposite. They will be more withdrawn, appear to lack confidence and not venture too far into areas they have not been before.

So this stage can be summarized by saying that a child with autonomy likes to explore new things, whereas a child with shame and doubt does not. One is confident, the other isn’t.

Initiative Vs Guilt (3-6 years old)

Initiative vs guilt

Initiative vs Guilt

The initiative vs. guilt stage occurs during years three to six (preschool children).

A preschooler with a sense of initiative will tend to complete tasks that they start. For example, if they start to draw a picture they will keep drawing until they finish it.

A preschooler with a sense of guilt will tend not to seek challenges, and tends to hold back expressing who they are and what they would like to do.

This stage can be summarized by saying that a preschooler with initiative expresses who they are, whereas a preschooler with guilt does not.

Industry Vs Inferiority (6-12 years old)

industry vs inferiority

Industry vs Inferiority

Industry vs. inferiority is associated with children aged six to twelve years old.

Children with a sense of industry show an interest in school work, or tasks they are given at home and display a responsible attitude.

Children with a sense of inferiority will tend to display the opposite type of behavior, such as being uninterested in school work or tasks they are given because they feel they are not good enough to complete those tasks successfully.

This sense of inferiority can become further entrenched if that child is criticized by their parents or other people.

So we can summarize this stage by saying that a child with a sense of industry is one who is interested in challenges and enjoys responsibility, being somewhat confident in their abilities to complete the tasks they are given.

Children with a sense of inferiority however do not like responsibility or being given tasks to complete.

They feel that if they are given these tasks, or given responsibility, they won’t be able to complete them very well and so will be criticized as a result.

Identity Vs Role Confusion (12-18 years old)

Identity vs role confusion

Identity vs Role confusion

The identity vs. role confusion stage is associated with adolescence, which includes years twelve to eighteen.

An adolescent with a sense of identity will feel as though they know where they are going in life, or at least what they would like to be when they are older.

As a result they go throughout adolescence with that goal in mind, and tend to have a high level of self esteem because their life has direction and a sense of purpose.

Adolescents with a sense of role confusion feel as though they have no direction or purpose in life, and feel unsure as to what the future holds for them.

They are unlikely to have any long term goals, and their behavior could best be described as drifting aimlessly through life. They are also likely to have low self esteem.

So in summary, an adolescent with a sense of identity knows what they want to be when they are older. Whereas an adolescent with a sense of role confusion, is uncertain as to what they will be or do when they are older.

Intimacy Vs Isolation (18 onwards)

intimacy vs isolation

Intimacy Vs Isolation

The intimacy vs. isolation stage is associated with early adulthood, and tends to begin at age eighteen when adolescence ends.

However it is important to note that the stage of adulthood may be delayed somewhat, until the adolescent is able to form a sense of identity (i.e. they know what they want to do with their life).

As a result, an “adult” (someone aged over 18) may not technically enter adulthood even if they are in their twenties, thirties or older.

Unless they are able to form a sense of identity, they will feel as though they are somewhat trapped in adolescence (like they have never really matured fully from school).

An adult who is capable of intimacy will tend to form close bonds with people, such as by forming friends and having romantic relationships with members of the opposite sex, eventually leading to marriage.

An adult with a sense of isolation finds it difficult to form relationships with people, and is unable to understand what other people are thinking or feeling.

As a result they spend most of the time by themselves, with little or no friends.

This stage can be summarized by saying that an adult with intimacy can form close relationships with people, whereas an adult with isolation cannot.

Generativity Vs Self-Absorption (adult)

generativity vs self-absorption

Generativity vs Self-absorption

An adult with the trait of generativity is capable of productive work, which they usually undertake for several years.

This trait is also linked to helping others in some way, for example a mother who looks after her children.

An adult with a trait of self absorption is more concerned with themselves rather than other people.

This stage can be summarized by saying that a person with generativity likes to give something to others, whereas a person with the trait of self absorption likes to take things from others.

Integrity Vs Despair (old age)

integrity vs dispair

Integrity vs Despair

The stage of integrity vs. despair is associated with old age.

A person with a trait of integrity can face death with peace of mind, because they know their life has been lived to the fullest and they have achieved the things they wanted to do in life.

A person with a trait of despair feels a sense of desperation as their life draws to a close, because they feel they have wasted it and not been able to do the things they hoped to do.

In summary a person with integrity can accept death, but a person with despair wishes for a second chance and for more time before they die.


1. “Erik Erikson Wikipedia”

2. “Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychological Development, EruptingMinds”

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