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Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

Psychosocial Development in Infancy and Early Childhood

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Erik Erikson proposed a theory of psychosocial development.

Erik Erikson proposed a theory of psychosocial development that looked at development through the whole lifespan.

What is Psychosocial Development?

Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development is one of the best-known theories of personality in psychology. Much like Sigmund Freud, Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of stages. Unlike Freud's theory of psychosexual stages, Erikson's theory describes the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan.

One of the main elements of Erikson's psychosocial stage theory is the development of ego identity. Ego identity is the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction. According to Erikson, our ego identity is constantly changing due to new experiences and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others.

When psychologists talk about identity, they are referring to all of the beliefs, ideals, and values that help shape and guide a person's behavior. The formation of identity is something that begins in childhood and becomes particularly important during adolescence, but it is a process that continues throughout life. Our personal identity gives each of us an integrated and cohesive sense of self that endures and continues to grow as we age.

In addition to ego identity, Erikson also believed that a sense of competence motivates behaviors and actions. Each stage in Erikson's theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life. If the stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of mastery, which is sometimes referred to as ego strength or ego quality. If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy.

In each stage, Erikson believed people experience a conflict that serves as a turning point in development. In Erikson's view, these conflicts are centered on either developing a psychological quality or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure.

Psychosocial Stage 1 - Trust vs. Mistrust

  • The first stage of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development occurs between birth and one year of age and is the most fundamental stage in life.

  • Because an infant is utterly dependent, the development of trust is based on the dependability and quality of the child's caregivers.

  • If a child successfully develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable, or rejecting contribute to feelings of mistrust in the children they care for. Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.

  • Of course, no child is going to develop a sense of 100 percent trust or 100 percent doubt. Erikson believed that successful development was all about striking a balance between the two opposing sides. When this happens, children acquire hope, which Erikson described as an openness to experience tempered by some wariness that danger may be present.

Psychosocial Stage 2 - Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

  • The second stage of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development takes place during early childhood and is focused on children developing a greater sense of personal control.2

  • Like Freud, Erikson believed that toilet training was a vital part of this process. However, Erikson's reasoning was quite different then that of Freud's. Erikson believe that learning to control one's bodily functions leads to a feeling of control and a sense of independence.

  • Other important events include gaining more control over food choices, toy preferences, and clothing selection.

  • Children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.

  • Erikson believed that achieving a balance between autonomy and shame and doubt would lead to will, which is the belief that children can act with intention, within reason and limits.
Next: Preschool, Middle Childhood, and Adolescence - Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development

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