The Erikson Developmental Stages are part of a personality theory formulated by the German psychologist Erik Erikson. Its main premise is that the ego and personality develop over a series of psycho-social life stages. Each stage of development is marked by a crisis, which is stated in terms of a conflict between a person’s psychological state and his or her social environment. In psychological terms, a crisis is simply defined as “a turning point at which some important change takes place.” Psychological development is concerned with becoming competent in the human capacities associated with each stage. Erikson described the stages in terms of contrary dispositions – a positive, syntonic factor and a negative, dystonic factor. Positive and negative here are not to be viewed in terms of morality, but rather as psychological polarities. To develop either as an extreme results in ego instability. Too much development on the syntonic side results in maladaptation, and, too much in the dystonic results in malignancies.
A healthy traversal through each stage results in achieving a balance between syntonic and dystonic, which then leads to the attainment of the psychological virtue defined at each level. The first several stages rely on the art of good parenting.
Stage One Infancy: Trust versus Mistrust
To develop a sense of trust without eliminating the capacity for mistrust.
Erikson considered this stage one of the most important ones of life. An infant is entirely depended on his or her caregivers and the quality of that care plays an important role in the shaping and development of the child’s ego. To foster a child’s healthy sense of trust and mistrust, a parent or caretaker must establish a sense of consistency, familiarity, and continuity in the child’s life.
Malignancy in the Trust versus Mistrust Stage
If a child’s basic needs for care are not met at this stage, he or she can become withdrawn or suffer paranoia, depression, and anxiety. Imagine a child instinctively reaching out for or wanting food from mother and being pushed away. Rejection at that age is psychically internalized and then expressed pathologically as paranoia, depression, or anxiety.
Maladaptation in Trust versus Mistrust
If a child is overly-protected or constantly coddled, then he or she can become gullible or naïve. Such a person is later inclined to misuse healthy defenses to maintain the belief that no one would ever do them harm, and thus constantly in danger of being taken advantage of.
When the virtue of hope is attained, a child will lean toward a patient attitude and a basic trust in the world.
Stage Two: Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt
To develop autonomy while minimizing shame and doubt.
Healthy willpower and determination
At this stage of life a child’s motor skills are increasing and he or she is beginning to develop a sense of self-control and will power. As a child starts to walk, talk, and explore the immediate environment, parents and caregivers have to find the delicate balance between tolerance and firmness: too much restriction can result in shame or doubt in trying anything and too much freedom can result in a lack of self-restraint. At this stage children need to exercise their will by opening doors or choosing the toys they want to play with. Though some call it “the terrible twos”, the stage is really a time when a child is psychologically solidifying his or her ego.
Compulsiveness, which can be expressed as a child who feels the need to be perfect or throws tantrums at mistakes.
Impulsiveness would be the maladaptation at this stage, which manifests as a person who jumps into situations without proper consideration.
The virtue of a strong will results in a healthy attitude of “I can do it” and “I will give it a try”.
Stage Three: Initiative versus Guilt
To develop a strong sense of initiative balanced with enough guilt to maintain healthy social interactions.
A sense of purpose in life
Children here are beginning to develop a sense of being a good child or a bad child. The stage is marked by exploration and play rather than formal education. Children learn to assert power and control through play, imitation, and social interaction. They also learn how to plan and accomplish tasks and they become ready to face challenges. Children should be encouraged to explore options and make their own choices. Moving forward in this stage leads to a sense of self and purpose, whereas failure leads to feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
Inhibition and wariness. This is the “nothing ventured nothing lost type person”.
The maladaptive tendency in this stage is ruthlessness, meaning that a child has not developed enough of a sense of guilt to care about how their behavior affects others.
The right balance leads to sense of purpose.
Stage 4: Industry versus Inferiority
To develop the capacity for productivity while limiting the sense of inferiority.
During this stage a child is developing a sense of confidence and pride based on capability rather than imagination. At this stage, interactions at school play a very important role in children’s lives. This is also the time for parents to learn to foster optimism and resilience in a child.
Children here are becoming increasingly capable of performing more complex tasks, something which encourages them to strive to learn new skills. If children do not experience encouraging feedback from their peers, teachers, and parents, they will begin to experience feelings of inferiority and start to doubt their ability to successfully achieve anything.
Inertia arising from the sense of being a failure.
The maladaptive tendency here is narrowed virtuosity. This is manifested in the extraordinary child who is pushed too far in the direction of his or her gift and not allowed to be a child.
The virtue here is capability balanced with just enough of a sense of inferiority to keep a person humble.
Stage 5: Identity versus Role Confusion
To begin to develop an authentic sense of ego identity and to avoid assimilation and role confusion.
Teenagers now begin to develop a stronger sense of self and personal identity through an exploration of personal expression. At this stage, your daughter may come home with blue hair! Teenagers at this stage will also start to develop a sense of direction about their lives. How a person’s identity develops will determine what kinds of relationships the person has with others.
Repudiation of the adult world or rejection of the need for personal identity.
Fanaticism or the rigid belief that there is only one right way.
A healthy sense of identity and general purpose in life.
Stage 6: Intimacy versus Isolation
To develop the capacity for true intimacy.
The capacity to love
This is the stage where people should start to develop lasting friendships and loving relationships with others. If a person has successfully navigated through the other stages and developed a true sense of self, then he or she will be successful at forming healthy, loving relationships with other people.
Exclusion to the point of hatefulness.
Promiscuity, something which can manifest sexually or emotionally.
The competency developed at this stage is virtuous love, a love which can put aside differences in and antagonisms towards others.
Stage 7: Generativity versus Stagnation
To start to think about how one’s life can benefit the future.
Authentic caring for future generations.
Erikson calls this stage middle adulthood – a time during which adults strive to create, nurture, and maintain things that will outlast them. If a person does not have children, then he or she may contribute to changes that benefit others or the planet. This stage is often about making one’s mark through something like teaching, writing, service, invention, or activism.
Rejectivity or complete lack of participation in life.
Over-extension without taking time to rest.
Development of the capacity for caring for others and service toward the future.
Stage 8: Integrity versus Despair
Age: 65 – end of life
Virtue is Wisdom
To develop a sense of ego integrity – the feeling of having lived a life worth living – with a minimal amount of despair. This stage is marked by reflections on whether or not one has lived a meaningful life, something which leads either to a sense of fulfillment or regret.
The presumption from which one assumes wisdom without having actually faced the difficulties of old age.
Disdain or the contempt for life.
Attainment of wisdom in confronting death, a feeling of overall satisfaction with life, and a generosity of spirit.
The more you can learn about theories of human personality development, the better your capacity for accepting and understanding your fellow beings on this planet.