Influenced heavily by Freud’s work, Erik Erikson conceptualized 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development where each stage of life has its own developmental tasks that have to be accomplished for the individual to be able to move into the next, more mature level of thinking and functioning.
From birth to 1 yr, the primary developmental task is to learn to trust. A baby can only develop trust through his or her core needs being consistently met. If the home environment is chaotic or unpredictable and the baby’s core needs are not consistently met, the baby develops anxiety, which interferes with the baby’s sense of safety and trust. This early experience can, and often does, carry well into adulthood and will influence the individual’s ability to trust anyone. On the other hand, if these most basic needs of food, warmth, affection, physical comfort, and safety are met, then the baby can experience the world as being generally safe and secure. This will allow the baby to move into the next developmental stage.
From 1 year to 3 yrs the toddler is working through the issues of autonomy vs shame and doubt. These terms never gave me much insight, frankly, so here’s how I think about this stage. A toddler is exploring and learning every day. The feedback toddlers get about what they are doing begins to shape how they feel about themselves. For instance, a toddler places a wooden block into his mouth to explore how it tastes. If an adult seeing this says to the toddler, “Sam, we don’t put blocks into our mouths. They really icky and dirty. We play with them on the floor like this, see?” then there’s no shame in having done this very innocent act of putting the block into his mouth. If on the other hand an adult seeing this shouts at the toddler, “Get that thing out of your mouth!” and then yanks the toy out with force, frightening the toddler (who has absolutely no understanding as to why this innocent act would evoke such a violent response), the toddler will now be filled with anxiety, doubt, and maybe even shame.
From the ages of 3 to 5, children struggle with the challenge of what Erikson called initiative vs guilt. At this age, the child is becoming more interested in reaching out to the world around her, doing things and being part of the group. They start to think things up and try them out; they are discovering the effect their actions have on other people; they begin to formulate ideas of how their culture assigns sex roles; they enjoy imaginative play; they become avid seekers of information about the world around them; and they are beginning to assert control over their environment. Children who try to exert control over their environment (including things like what they will or won’t wear, will or won’t eat, and so on) and are met with strong disapproval may start to experience guilt about their wants and behaviors.
Erikson saw the primary developmental task of the 5-12 year old as “Industry” (or as I’d rather call it, competence) vs Inferiority. This is when we begin to build our skill sets in a wide range of social circumstances. We’re learning to problem-solve, which gives us an increasing sense of accomplishment. If the child has difficulty attaining these skills, a sense of inferiority is likely to emerge and influence the child’s thoughts, feelings and actions.
According to Erikson, young adults from age 12 to about 20 are working through the stage of Identity vs role confusion. Deemed the most important stage by Erikson, this is the time when our sexual and social identities are forming and when we establish our own interests, beliefs, and philosophies. Young adults in this age group are striving to develop increasing amounts of independence and often rebel against one’s parents or family in order to achieve it.
Early adulthood (approximately 20-35 yrs) is a time to work through the issues of Intimacy vs. isolation. If previous developmental tasks have been fairly successfully achieved, we are now able to experience genuine intimacy –that is to say, we now have a willingness to make a commitment to another person, an ability to share at a deep personal level, and a capacity to communicate inner thoughts and feelings with others. In most cases, this will lead to a mature love relationship, as well as sound working relationships and lasting friendships. Not being able to achieve these things may lead to social and psychological isolation.
Erikson’s mid-life stage (35-65 yrs) is a time to distinguish between what he calls Generativity vs self-absorption. Again I have to be honest here—when I first started studying this way back when, the word “generativity” did not help me understand this stage. But when I looked it up, its definition immediately clarified what he meant: generativity is the ability to have concern for others outside of one’s family circle–a need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation. Once you know that definition, the opposite—self-absorption or stagnation—also makes more sense.
What he was trying to convey is that this is when we have the chance to commit to a greater good, of being altruistic and thinking about ways of contributing to the world as a whole. Without achieving this generativity, we may feel useless or that our lives are pointless, and because of this sense of emptiness, be unable to nurture others.
According to Erikson, those reaching retirement age (65+ yrs) face either ego integrity or despair. Integrity in this sense means achieving acceptance about oneself and one’s life and having a positive self-concept and outlook. In many cultures, this is when we move into the role of elder, role model, or consultant.