The Stages of Psychosocial Development

"Identity is this incredible invisible force that controls your whole life. It is invisible like gravity is invisible , but it controls your whole life."
Tony Robins


How do we develop an identity or a sense of self? Erik Erikson believed that we work on constructing psychosocial identities throughout our whole lives. By 'psychosocial,' he meant an interplay between our inner, emotional lives (psycho), and our outer, social circumstances (social).

Erikson believed that as we grow and age, we pass through eight stages of development. He thought that each stage was defined by a specific conflict between a pair of opposing impulses or behaviors. The resolution (or inability to resolve) these conflicts affects our personalities and identities.

Psychosocial refers to an interplay between our emotional lives and our social circumstances.

According to Erikson, the socialization process consists of eight phases – the "eight stages of man." Erikson defines four childhood stages and three adult stages bridged together by one stage of adolescence. His eight stages of man were formulated, not through experimental work, but wide-ranging experience in psychotherapy, including extensive experience with children and adolescents from low – as well as upper – and middle – social classes. Erikson regards each stage as a "psychosocial crisis," which arises and demands resolution before the next stage can be satisfactorily negotiated. These stages are conceived in an almost architectural sense: satisfactory learning and resolution of each crisis is necessary if the child is to manage the next and subsequent ones satisfactorily, just as the foundation of a house is essential to the first floor, which in turn must be structurally sound to support and the second story, and so on.

Erikson proposed that we are motivated by the need to achieve competence in certain areas of our lives. At each stage, there is a crisis or task that we need to resolve. Successful completion of each developmental task results in the sense of competence and a healthy personality. Failure to master these tasks leads to feelings of inadequacy.

We'll go through each stage and define it by its central conflict, as well we give some examples of behaviors and patterns of thinking characteristic of the stage.


Trust vs Mistrust
From birth to 12 months of age, infants must learn that adults can be trusted. This occurs when adults meet a child's basic needs for survival. Infants are dependent upon their caregivers, so caregivers who are responsive and sensitive to their infant's needs help their baby to develop a sense of trust; their baby will see the world as a safe, predictable place. Unresponsive caregivers who do not meet their baby's needs can engender feelings of anxiety, fear, and mistrust; their baby may see the world as unpredictable. If infants are treated cruelly, or their needs are not met appropriately, they will likely grow up with a sense of mistrust for people in the world.

Facing trust-based problems and unpleasant situations during this first stage between birth and 1.5 years can increase the chance of various issues in the future. Unsuccessful completion of this stage can result in an inability to trust, and therefore a sense of fear about the inconsistent world. It may result in anxiety, heightened insecurities, and an over feeling of mistrust in the world around them. This includes pessimism, introversion, and alcohol or drug addictions.

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt
As toddlers (ages 1–3 years) begin to explore their world, they learn that they can control their actions and act on their environment to get results. They begin to show clear preferences for some aspects of the environment, such as food, toys, and clothing. A toddler's main task is to resolve the issue of autonomy vs. shame and doubt by working to establish independence. This is the "me do it" stage. For example, we might observe a growing sense of autonomy in a 2-year-old child who wants to choose her clothes and dress herself. Although her outfits might not be appropriate for the situation, her input in such fundamental decisions affects her sense of independence. If denied the opportunity to act on her environment, she may begin to doubt her abilities, which could lead to low self-esteem and feelings of shame.

The child should also now have self-control. If you do not allow your child to make their own choices according to their experiences and use their free will, you will harm your child's personality development. If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not allowed to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become too dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.

So, what happens in the opposite case? If the child feels confident in making their own decisions, and they are encouraged and supported by their parents, they will become more self-assured, respectful, and honest individuals in the future.

Initiative vs. Guilt
Once children reach the preschool stage (ages 3–6 years), they are capable of initiating activities and asserting control over their world through social interactions and play. According to Erikson, preschool children must resolve the task of initiative vs. guilt. By learning to plan and achieve goals while interacting with others, preschool children can master this task. Initiative, a sense of ambition and responsibility, occurs when parents allow a child to explore within limits and then support the child's choice. These children will develop self-confidence and feel a sense of purpose. Those who are unsuccessful at this stage—with their initiative misfiring or stifled by over-controlling parents—may develop feelings of guilt.

Children who are humiliated, subject to violence, or punished because of their curiosity will be devastated. The consequences of this kind of behavior appear at later ages. Sexual problems and depression in adulthood are usually due to negative experiences between the ages of 3 to 5 years.
In this stage, children develop a sense of initiative and feel secure in their ability to lead others and make decisions. Conversely, if this tendency is squelched, either through criticism or control, children develop a sense of guilt. They may feel like a nuisance to others and will, therefore, remain followers, lacking in self-initiative.

Industry (Competency) vs. Inferiority
During the elementary school stage (ages 6–12), children face the task of industry vs. inferiority. Children begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they think that they don't measure up. If children do not learn to get along with others or have negative experiences at home or with peers, an inferiority complex might develop into adolescence and adulthood.

This is a stage when children enjoy having a sense of accomplishment. Children who complete this stage successfully are satisfied with themselves and feel competent, without developing an inferiority complex.

If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they begin to feel industrious and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not supported, if parents or teacher restricts it, then the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his abilities and therefore may not reach his potential.


Identity vs Role Confusion
In adolescence (ages 12–18), children face the task of identity vs. role confusion. According to Erikson, an adolescent's primary mission is developing a sense of self. Adolescents struggle with questions such as "Who am I?" and "What do I want to do with my life?" Along the way, most adolescents try on many different selves to see which ones fit; they explore various roles and ideas, set goals, and attempt to discover their "adult" selves. Adolescents who are successful at this stage have a strong sense of identity and can remain true to their beliefs and values in the face of problems and other people's perspectives. When adolescents are apathetic, do not make a conscious search for identity, or are pressured to conform to their parents' ideas for the future, they may develop a weak sense of self and experience role confusion. They will be unsure of their identity and confused about the future. Teenagers who struggle to adopt a positive role will likely struggle to "find" themselves as adults.

This is an essential period for an individual to know themselves and shape their future life. If any previous stages were experienced negatively, then the adolescent may fall victim to alcohol and nicotine addiction, petty crimes, and similar negative behaviors — and these behaviors may become permanent with time. If you look around, you might see than many smokers are those who began smoking at an early age and cannot quit even if they want to. Therefore, this is a crucial stage for parents to help their children learn to cope with life's problems.


Intimacy vs Isolation
People in early adulthood (the 20s through early 40s) are concerned with intimacy vs. isolation. After we have developed a sense of self in adolescence, we are ready to share our life with others. However, if other stages have not been successfully resolved, young adults may have trouble developing and maintaining successful relationships with others. Erikson said that we must have a strong sense of self before we can develop successful intimate relationships. Adults who do not form a positive self-concept in adolescence may experience feelings of loneliness and emotional isolation.

Learning to live together with others and have deep relationships are vital goals during this time, rather than learning about different ideas and meeting new people. People need to choose relationships carefully during this stage to reduce loneliness, anxiety, and negative influences.


Generativity vs Stagnation
When people reach their 40s, they enter the time known as middle adulthood, which extends to the mid-60s. The social task of middle adulthood is generativity vs. stagnation. Generativity involves finding your life's work and contributing to the development of others through activities such as volunteering, mentoring, and raising children. During this stage, middle-aged adults begin contributing to the next generation, often through childbirth and caring for others; they also engage in meaningful and productive work, which contributes positively to society. Those who do not master this task may experience stagnation and feel as though they are not leaving a mark on the world in a meaningful way; they may have little connection with others and little interest in productivity and self-improvement.

This is a transition period, where people continue to be productive but are also looking to pass on their knowledge and influence to the generation after them. People may also feel themselves becoming comfortable in their everyday routines, and therefore take steps to counter this stagnation. If sexuality, mental health, and socialization needs were not met during the sixth stage, then this will have an emotional impact on relationships in the seventh stage. This impact will decrease a person's productivity and creativity.


Integrity vs Despair
From the mid-60s to the end of life, we are in a period of development known as late adulthood. Erikson's task at this stage is called integrity vs. despair. He said that people in late adulthood reflect on their lives and feel either a sense of satisfaction or a sense of failure. People who feel proud of their accomplishments feel a sense of integrity, and they can look back on their lives with few regrets. However, people who are not successful at this stage may feel as if their life has been wasted. They focus on what "would have," "should have," and "could have" been. They face the end of their lives with feelings of bitterness, depression, and despair.

The eighth stage of psychosocial development creates conflict between peace and regret. Those who believe in self-fulfillment and have a sense of completeness will not regret their past and will have completed the previous stages healthily. If we see our lives as unproductive, feel guilt about our pasts, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness. Those who are restless are depressed people who will continue to regret what they have done in the past.

Human beings will always live with conflicts of emotional changes arising from their relationships with their surroundings throughout their lives. Those who have achieved positive results from these conflicts and who have completed the previous stage in a healthy manner, begin to the next stage healthier. It is just like building a structure with solid steps from the foundation to the roof. In the last stage, we either expect peace or regrets.


People go through many changes throughout their lives. Development describes the growth of humans throughout their lifespan, from conception to death. Psychologists strive to understand and explain how and why people change throughout life. While many of these changes are normal and expected, they can still pose challenges that people sometimes need extra assistance to manage.

By better understanding how and why people change and grow, developmental psychologists can help people live up to their full potential. Understanding the course of healthy human development and recognizing potential problems early on is essential because untreated developmental issues may lead to difficulties with depression, low self-esteem, frustration, and low achievement in school.

While development tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern, there are times when things might go off course. People may face particular challenges at each point, and developmental psychologists can often help people who might be struggling with problems to get back on track.

In Erikson's theory, a person does not have to complete one stage of development to move on to the next stage.

Each stage has a conflict between two opposing concepts. For instance, the infancy stage's central conflict is trust vs. mistrust. Although people of all ages may experience issues with trust, the infancy stage is where the challenge is most potent.

What if the person does not overcome the challenges of a particular stage? The person will still progress to the next challenge. Yet the themes from the previous challenge may affect later stages. For example, a child who never establishes trust in infancy may grow into an adult who struggles with trust in romantic relationships.

Erik Erikson suggested that for every person to develop themselves healthily, they must complete various goals at all eight developmental stages. People will face different conflicts over these eight stages of their lives, and they must overcome these conflicts. Personality development will depend on how each conflict is overcome.

If the conflict cannot be overcome, then a person will face more difficulties in the next stage of life. However, Erikson also says that these difficulties can be compensated for later in life if the person takes the initiative to correct their previous experiences healthily.