socioemotional developmentHuman beings develop in a variety of ways and at a variety of speeds as we age, becoming entirely different people from birth, to adolescence, to young adulthood, and onward into adulthood and the rest of our lives. We develop in terms of our intelligence, our relationships, our ability to communicate, our emotions, and nearly every aspect of our lives. This guide will introduce you to the idea of human development, in particular to the theories related to socio-emotional development, to expand your knowledge and understanding of developmental psychology.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychologists study the plethora of psychological changes that people undergo throughout their lives. The field of developmental psychology was originally focused on studying how children develop to grow into adolescents and then adults, but modern developmental psychology examines the entire lifespan of human beings, from birth to old age. Developmental psychologists study the development of a variety of skills and characteristics, including cognitive abilities, motor skills, language learning and communication, the nature of personality, and the way in which we develop our identities, relate to our emotions, and conceptualize ourselves. Due to the broad range of developmental psychology studies, there are a number of theories and stages that have been developed in this field. Psychologists have studied sexual development, moral development, memory development, cognitive development, and social and emotional development.

Defining Socio-Emotional Development

Psychologists who study socio-emotional development are studying the way our personalities, emotions, and relationships with other people develop and change over our lifetimes. This includes the way we form friendships, the way we express our emotions and interpret the emotions of others, and the way we identify and think about ourselves. A branch of socio-emotional study is referred to as emotional regulation, or the way we respond and control our own emotions. Socio-emotional development often includes the way we make the transition from having our emotions regulated by parents and other authority figures, to being able to confront and control our emotions on our own.

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson was the developmental psychologist responsible in part for the modern understanding of the socio-emotional development of human beings. He was born in Germany in 1902, and studied developmental psychology as well as Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, eventually developing his own theory of socio-emotional, or psychosocial, development. If you’ve ever heard or used the term “identity crisis,” you have Erikson to thank. Erikson lived both in Europe and America throughout his career, and died in 1994 in the town of Harwich, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His ideas about socio-emotional development, including specific stages in which human beings develop, are still studied and admired today.

Erikson’s Theory of Socio-Emotional Development

Erikson’s research concluded that there were eight stages through which people pass in terms of socio-emotional development. Each of the eight stages can be completed in a successful or an unsuccessful way, and certain psychological issues and tendencies can result from having trouble with any of these phases. Erikson categorized the phases as struggles between biological tendencies and sociocultural forces acting upon an individual. The stages span all the way from birth to death, and the way that they are completed dictates the way they process their own emotions, participate in relationships, and develop their identity.

The first stage lasts from the time someone is born until they are two years old, and is characterized by the crisis of Basic Trust vs. Mistrust. In this stage, the most important relationship the child has is with his or her parents, specifically his or her mother. The child’s understanding of the world is based entirely on this parent-child relationship, If the parenting provides a loving, comfortable environment, in which the child’s basic needs are met, then the child will move on from this stage having developed a relationship of trust with the outside world. Alternately, if the parenting is negligent, distant, or does not fulfill the child’s needs, the child will move on from this stage mistrustful of the world. The preferable resolution of this stage is that the child becomes convinced that his or her environment is reliable in terms of keeping him or her fed, safe, and happy.

The second developmental stage lasts from ages two to four years. It is characterized by a new crisis: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. The child’s primary relationship is with both of his or her parents. In this stage, the child begins to explore his or her surroundings, developing more advanced motor skills and a deeper sense of curiosity about the world. If this stage is completed successfully, the child is encouraged to explore his or her own autonomy, and begins to realize that he or she can be somewhat self-sufficient. If the child’s parents do not encourage autonomy, however, or expect too much self-sufficiency, or respond with harsh punishments to a lack of self-control, then the child will move on from this stage with a sense of shame and doubt about his or her own personal power.

The third stage, from ages four to five years, is characterized by the crisis between Initiative and Guilt. The primary relationship expands beyond the child’s relationship to his or her parents, to the relationship to his or her larger family unit. In this stage, the child’s motor skills become more advanced, he or she begins to understand the physics of the surrounding world, and he or she starts to undertake tasks for his or her own sake, and nothing more. This is the stage in which a child should develop independence and courage. Frustration at not being able to complete a task independently can lead to tantrums and other negative behavior. If these behaviors are disciplined properly, the child will maintain a sense of initiative, but if they are not, the child will move on from the stage with a sense of guilt about his or her behavior.

The fourth stage spans from ages five to twelve, and is characterized by Industry vs. Inferiority. The primary relationships a child has are now with those people he or she interacts with in school. This is where a child learns how to complete a task correctly, and in comparison to other children, or a specific learning standard. If this stage is successful, the child develops a sense of industry and accomplishment; if it is unsuccessful, the child feels inferior, which can impact his or her life indefinitely.

The fifth stage spans from ages thirteen to nineteen, and is characterized by Identity vs. Role Confusion. In this stage, teenagers develop an identity in terms of relationships outside of a family structure. There is an emphasis on internal desires and thinking, as well as belonging to a particular social group. If successful, a teenager develops a sense of identity in this phase. If unsuccessful, he or she develops a distinct confusion about who he or she is and where he or she belongs.

The sixth stage, from twenty to thirty-nine years, is characterized by Intimacy vs. Isolation. This is the stage in which an individual develops the ability to give and receive romantic love on a long-term basis. The primary relationships are with friends and romantic partners. This stage is successful if the individual can develop lasting and loving relationships; it is unsuccessful if a lasting feeling of isolation results from this stage.

The seventh stage, from ages forty to sixty-four, is characterized by Generativity vs. Stagnation. The primary relationship in this stage is to the household one lives in and the people one works with. This stage is successful if it produces a feeling of care for the next generation of people, a desire to create and maintain a comfortable life, and a sense of accomplishment about life thus far. This stage is unsuccessful if it produces a feeling of stagnation or depression.

The eighth and final stage, from age sixty-five until death, is characterized by Ego Integrity vs. Despair. In the final stage of life, the primary relationship is with mankind or human beings in general. The stage is characterized by reflection upon one’s life and choices, and the success of the stage is based upon how one reacts to the nearing end of life, either with integrity, or with despair.

Further Exploring Psychology

As you can see, these developmental phases can have a deep and lasting effect on an individual’s social and emotional life. The study of developmental psychology, and socio-emotional development in particular, can allow you to know yourself better, and thereby affect your relationships, your behavior, and your sense of self.

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