Skip to content

Child development: Erik Erikson

2015 July 21

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was a psychoanalyst who was particularly interested in the way that a child’s personality develops. He divided development into 8 ‘ages’ or stages that children need to progress through to become self-fulfilled adults. Like many other theorists Erikson defined each stage by a conflict that need to be resolved. Erikson’s theory focuses on conflict between a positive and a negative emotion and lasted from birth right through to the end of life. His theory also put society and a person’s relationships with others at the centre of their development.

Stage 1 – trust vs mistrust

In infancy a child needs to learn to trust which will allow them to become adults able to depend on others. An infant who learns mistrust because they are neglected or abused will not be able to trust as an adult. Helping an infant to learn that the world is a safe place and their needs will be met consistently teaches them ‘hope’ and to trust in themselves to deal with events.

Stage 2 – autonomy vs shame

In toddlerhood a child learns that they are their own independent person, and can make their own choices. Erikson emphasises the importance of tolerating failure in this stage but not allowing a child to always fail. This teaches a child ‘will’, and enables them to be resilient. A child who is controlled or constantly criticised learns to doubt their abilities and will end up dependent on others.

Stage 3 – initiative vs guilt

As a pre-schooler a child learns to assert himself, particularly when interacting with other children when starting school. A child this age learns to play pretend games, go towards others to initiate a game and plan their own activities. It is also an age where children ask questions. A child who is dismissed and made to feel guilty for being a nuisance will stifle their creativity and make the reluctant to interact with others, but at the same time a child needs to learn to have feelings of guilt or they will not develop self-control. Erikson thought that balancing initiative and guilt successfully would lead to a child with ‘purpose’.

Stage 4 industry vs inferiority

Between the ages of 5 and 12 children learn to apply themselves and measure themselves against their peer group in specific skills. A child who is praised and whose initiative is valued will learn to feel pride in their accomplishments and develop their skills. A child who does not develop the skills demanded begins to feel inferior. Failure, however, is necessary to balance the child but the goal is for a child to develop ‘competence’.

Stage 5 – identity vs role confusion

Throughout adolescence young people must sort out the roles they must or wish to take on as an adult and ‘find’ him or herself. Erikson felt that adolescents needed to explore different possibilities and create a unique identity. An adolescent who is successful in this acquires ‘fidelity’ and is able to identify what their place and role is in the wider world.

Stage 6 – intimacy vs isolation

In early adulthood Erikson felt that the biggest conflict was between intimacy with others and isolation. To be successful in this stage and reach ‘love’ people need to experiment with relationships rather than isolating themselves and commit themselves to someone.

Stage 7 Generativity vs stagnation

Middle adulthood is characterised by contributing to society and having a career and a family. People learn ‘care’ and when they are able to contribute they feel productive. If they are unable to have a career or children, or feel like a valuable part of society they may feel unproductive or stagnant.

Stage 8 Ego integrity vs despair

In old age people reflect on the life that they have led. If they feel that they have not been productive they may experience despair. If they are able to see what they have accomplish they can develop integrity and ‘wisdom’, and move towards the end of their life free from fear.

How can we apply Erikson’s theory today?

Erikson identifies the positive emotions and virtues that he believes are necessary for a well-developed person. His ideas of trust, autonomy and initiative, as well as his views on success and failure, help us to respond sensitively and appropriately to the needs of children at different stages.


This is part of a series of blog posts on child development. You can find other posts using the child development tag or here: Freud, Piaget, Gesell, Bowlby.

Leave a Reply

Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS