Erik Erikson was a German psychoanalyst who was influenced by Sigmund Freud. He explored three parts of identity—the ego (self), personal (the personal idiosyncrasies that differentiate one individual from another) and social/cultural (the different social roles of a person).

Erikson is known for his psychosocial theory of development, which recognizes the effect of external factors, parents and society on personality development spanning from childhood to adulthood. His theory is that people must go through eight integral stages over the course of their lives. He is the person who came up with the famous phrase that has become mainstream in society: “identity crisis.”

There are eight stages in Erikson’s stages of development, including:

  • Trust versus Mistrust
  • Autonomy versus Shame
  • Initiative versus Guilt
  • Industry versus Inferiority
  • Identity versus Role Confusion
  • Intimacy versus Isolation
  • Generativity versus Stagnation
  • Ego Integrity versus Despair

Erickson’s Stages of Development

1)Infancy: Birth to 18 Months

During the first year or so of life, a child learns about trust versus mistrust– if the world is a safe place or if it is filled with uncertain events and potential accidents. The parents’ nurturing and care for a child is most prominent. This is the stage where the infant is uncertain about his surroundings, and the feelings are resolved through his primary caregiver, who provides that stability and continual care. This is the stage when a child will develop trust, security, optimism and confidence if he is consistently and reliably taken care of. If the infant receives this type of care, he’ll develop a sense of trust that he’ll carry to other future relationships. As he gets older, the child will feel a sense of security even when faced with a threat. In addition, after he has a sense of trust, the infant will have hope when there is a crisis.

However, if a child doesn’t feel a sense of trust, he’ll develop insecurity, worthlessness and mistrust in the world in general. Without trust, the infant will fail to have hope, which leads to the development of fear. For instance, if an infant’s care is bleak and inconsistent, he’ll develop mistrust and not have confidence in the world around him. This mistrust will be carried to other relationships later on, as well as possibly resulting in anxiety and heightened insecurities.

2) 18 Months to Three Years

This stage is where the child has had the chance to build self-esteem and autonomy, learning new things and the difference between right and wrong. The child will assert his independence by walking away from parents, choosing what he wants to play with and making choices about what to wear and eat. It’s a time of discovery, where the child finds out how many skills and abilities he has.

In this stage, Erikson stresses that it’s vital for parents to let children try for the limits of their abilities in an encouraging way that forgives failure. The supportive parent won’t dress the child, but will let the child try to dress himself until he is able to do it or asks for help. The parents need to be encouraging for the child to become independent, but they must also ensure that the child doesn’t constantly fail. In short, the parents shouldn’t do everything for the child, and if he should fail at something, they shouldn’t criticize.

A child that has been taken care of well will be sure of himself and feel pride instead of shame. Once he is successful in this stage, it will lead to “will.” Children who are encouraged and supported as they become more and more independent become confident and secure in themselves and their abilities.

However, when children are criticized, overly controlled and not able to assert themselves, they have a sense of inadequacy in the capacity to survive. This leads to a lack of self-esteem, over-dependence on others and the feelings of shame or doubt in what they’re able to do.

3) Three to Five Years

This time frame is when children want to mimic the adults around them. They invent situations for play, such as making up stories for their dolls, talking on play phones and creating games. They are “trying out” what they think it means to be an adult. This is also the period when they venture out in the world and ask “why” about everything.

This is the stage where children will interact with other children, and they will have the chance to explore their interpersonal skills during activities. If they’re allowed to indulge in these activities, children have a sense of initiative and feel secure in making decisions and their capacity to lead others.

If children are criticized or controlled during this stage, they’ll develop guilt. They might feel like they are an annoyance to others, becoming followers. They may be deficient in self-initiative. In addition, this is the stage of development where children ask lots of questions in a quest for information. If the parents act like these questions are trivial, annoying or even embarrassing, the child may have feelings of guilt for being a pain or a bother.

Once a child has too much guilt, he can be tentative about interacting with others, and it may prevent him from being creative. (However, a certain amount of guilt is necessary for the child to have self-control and a conscience.)

A healthy amount of initiative and guilt will lead to a sense of purpose.

4) Six to 12 Years

This stage is where children learn to read and write, do arithmetic problems and are able to accomplish things independently. They are able to learn and create, as well as achieve many new skills and gain knowledge. Children are now at the social stage. If the child has unresolved inadequacy and inferiority among his friends and classmates, he may have severe problems with his self-esteem and competence. His world is bigger now, and his essential relationships are with school and community. The child’s parents are still integral, but they aren’t the only authorities like they used to be—the teacher plays a significant role at this point.

If children are supported for their initiative, they feel they’re able to accomplish goals—confidence builds. But, if the initiative is not encouraged by the teacher or his parents, the child begins to feel inferior and has questions about his abilities. He might not reach his full capacity for achievement. (For example, if the child is unable to achieve in sports or other activities, he may feel inferior.) In addition, he’ll have to undergo failure at times to become modest, so the balance between confidence and modesty is important.

Once successful at this stage, it will lead to competence.

5) 18 to 35 Years

This is the stage where people find love and companionship. Some people begin to start their families. However, when young adults look for intimacy and relationships that are fulfilling and they turn out to be unsuccessful, it may result in isolation. The relationships at this stage are primarily with friends and marital partners.

6) 35 to 65 Years

At this point in life, the career is one of the most important areas and family is significant, as well as relationships at the job and in the community. This is the stage when people shoulder more responsibilities and control.

There are considerable things happening, such as children growing up and leaving the home, a job change and more.

This stage involves working to create stability. Erikson’s description of generativity is to attempt to yield something that will make a difference in society. The fears that are frequently experienced at this stage are inactivity and “having no meaning”—people may have a hard time identifying their purpose in life.

7) 55 to 65 Years to Death

According to Erikson, most of life is spent getting ready for middle adulthood and the final stage, and it comes with thinking about the events of their life. Some older adults may reflect on the past with feelings of integrity, including having a sense of contentment or fulfillment. They feel they have had a life that was meaningful and made important contributions to society.

However, other people may feel a sense of anguish when they think about their experiences and failures. In addition, they may be afraid of dying and have strife about the purpose in their lives. They question if their life was of value.