Erik Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

Personality development according to Erikson's psychosocial theory involves resolving vital conflicts between two forces in tension.
Erik Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

Last update: 03 December, 2021

The progressive development of people has always been a topic of interest for Psychology. The different currents emphasize one aspect or another and one of the most well-known proposals is that of Erik Erikson, with his Theory of Psychosocial Development.

One of the most interesting points that this postulate incorporates is the psychosocial vision and the extended approach to the development of personality throughout the life cycle. Let’s see what this is about.

What is Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development?

Erikson highlights the idea that development is a progressive phenomenon, from which people go through different stages to become what they are. From the 8 successive stages, they discover the identity of the self, reach the recognition of themselves, and establish an interrelation with others.

In turn, the author states that each of these stages proposes a series of conflicts or crises for the subjects. Successful resolution of these conflicts allows them to be endowed with certain competencies or strengths that will serve them throughout their lives. On the contrary, the non-resolution of these conflicts can give rise to certain difficulties when it comes to facing adversity in the future.

A person holding a lightbulb sorrounded by a digital illustration of the human head full of gears.

The stages of the theory of psychosocial development

The stages that Erikson proposes are characterized by maintaining a relationship of tension between two forces of development, which challenge the subjects to resolve them. The first 4 are focused on childhood and the remaining 4 focus on adolescence and adulthood.

Stage 1: Basic trust versus mistrust (0 to 18 months)

This stage is very important, as, based on the relationship with their parents and their figures of reference, the child begins to lay the foundations to understand relationships.

From the responses they receive, they’re confident that they’re important and that their needs will be addressed. In addition, they learn to know themselves and to recognize and to give importance to their feelings. At this age, the foundations of attachment also begin to be established.

Stage 2: Autonomy versus shame and doubt (between 18 months to 2 or 3 years)

Here, the child begins to rehearse making their own decisions. They exercise their autonomy from the exploration of the world, as well as from their first “no”.

It’s important that parents avoid overprotection, and instead, encourage that curiosity that allows their child to gain security.

Stage 3: Initiative versus guilt (3 to 6 years)

The child also puts into practice their own initiatives and it’s best to foster their curiosity.

Increasingly, the child begins to interact with their peers as they internalize certain norms of behavior. These let them know that they’re responsible for their behavior in front of others. That is, they can hurt others and, if they do, they should apologize.

Stage 4: Industriousness versus inferiority (5 to 13 years)

Tasks that require effort are highlighted here. Little by little, play begins to lose prominence and this role is transferred to those activities of greater commitment or that are “more productive”.

At this stage, it’s important to maintain a balance between what they do and what others expect them to do.

At the same time, during this stage, the consolidation of self-esteem in the face of the realization of the objectives and the feeling of inferiority when this doesn’t happen stands out. Therefore, it’s very important to accompany little ones from tolerance to frustration and the management of emotions.

Stage 5: Identity versus identity confusion (12-20 years)

In this stage, the personality is strengthened, which is why the crisis that the child’s going through is related to “who am I?”. Tensions with parents begin, as the adolescent tries to answer for themself and establish their own tastes and interests.

Stage 6: Intimacy versus isolation or love (between 20 and 30 years old)

Here, it’s about establishing relationships of proximity versus distance with other people. This implies the possibility of feeling comfortable with others and of experiencing trust with them. Those who fail to resolve this crisis may lean toward superficial relationships.

Stage 7: Generativity versus stagnation (30 to 50 years)

This is a time when people consider spending more time with the family, although they sometimes wonder if they did enough or if they fell behind with their personal goals.

Stage 8: Integrity of self and wisdom versus hopelessness (after age 50)

This refers to the possibility of the adult to look at their past and their present with pride, with the ability to recognize their achievements and failures with wisdom. Those who don’t manage to overcome this conflict remain mired in bitterness, nostalgia, and despair for what they haven’t achieved.

The way in which people can cope with the changes linked to aging will depend on how the path and the strength of the self have been.

A child placing his hands in those of his grandfather.

Some aspects to keep in mind

First of all, Erikson doesn’t think in terms of polar opposites and exclusions. Therefore, it’s important to learn to trust, but it’s equally important to be attentive to certain situations.

One of the most important differences between Erikson’s stages and Freud’s is that the former aren’t limited to adolescence, but continue into adulthood. This has a reason for being and that is that growth doesn’t stagnate or stop, as it continues until the end of our days.

In turn, Erikson not only focuses on psychosexual development like Freud, but also includes the psychosocial dimension.

Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development: A comprehensive approach

Beyond Erikson’s postulates and the way he organizes the stages, it’s worth noting the epigenetic approach proposed by the author. This approach emphasizes the role of the individual combined with the social realm for the integral development of people. That is, it invites us to understand the subjects within their context, with all the strengths and weaknesses that it can bring. Without a doubt, it’s a closer and more complete model of human reality.

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  • Bordignon, Nelso Antonio (2005). El desarrollo psicosocial de Eric Erikson. El diagrama epigenético del adulto. Revista Lasallista de Investigación, 2(2),50-63.[fecha de Consulta 10 de Noviembre de 2021]. ISSN: 1794-4449. Disponible en: https://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=69520210
  • Erikson, Erik. (1968, 1974). Identidad, Juventud y Crisis. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós.