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Well-known psychologist Erik Erikson (1902-1994) established a theory of several developmental stages that people go through during their lifetime. Most of the stages happen during childhood. However, some important ones are part of adulthood. Erikson saw these stages as challenges that people must resolve to successfully advance to the next stage. Of course, people still get older regardless whether they have resolved the relevant challenges or not. However, fulfillment, happiness and life satisfaction would be according to the theory threatened if these challenges weren’t met.

As adults, we sometimes look back onto our childhood and think that we did not go through this important foundation of our personality and social development in the most optimal way. Whilst this may be true, it does not mean that we should throw our hands into the air and give up any self-improvement. On the contrary, as adults we can turn things around that went less than ideal during childhood. We are capable of great things and working on ourselves is one of them. We’ve got this.

Let’s check these challenges out:

  1. Basic trust versus mistrust – First year of life

From warm, responsive care, babies acquire a sense of trust that the world is a good place. However, when infants are left waiting too long to be nurtured and comforted or are handled harshly and without love, they can develop mistrust.

  • Autonomy versus shame and doubt – 1-3 years

With every new skill that the infant acquires comes the desire to decide and perform these skills for themselves. Parents and caregivers can support a child’s sense of autonomy by allowing reasonable exploration and choice. Children that are forced entirely into the caregivers’ agenda or shamed for their inability to do certain things are more likely to doubt or feel ashamed of themselves.

  • Initiative versus guilt – 3-6 years

In this stage, children start to play with other children. Often, play includes role play and make-belief games, which allows children to test out certain roles and identities and the person they can become. In addition, these types of games help children to interact with each other and learn important communication and leadership skills. Too much interference by adults, restriction of free play, and high demands of self-control can lead to guilt feelings.

  • Industry versus inferiority – 6-11 years

Children at school learn to work and cooperate with other children. School is also a place where children realise differences in ability among their peers. Friends become more important and can give support and encouragement. Parents and teachers should also encourage rather than criticise or punish children. Too much punishment and discouragement can lead to feelings of inferiority and incompetence.

  • Identity versus role confusion – Adolescence

The adolescent years are characterised by questioning everything and, asking: Who am I and how do I fit into society? By exploring values and vocational goals young people form their personal identity. Again, when young people are restricted too much by anxious or controlling parents, this important life stage can have negative outcomes, where young people are confused about their place in the world instead of gaining clarity.

  • Intimacy versus isolation – Early adulthood

This early stage of adulthood is usually characterised by forming intimate relationships. If all goes well, young adults get married if they are so inclined and start a family. Friends are also still important during this time. However, some people are unable to form long lasting relationships and may feel alone, lonely, and isolated.

  • Care, Generativity versus stagnation – Middle adulthood

During this stage, people contribute to next generations by raising children, caring for other, and / or performing productive work. Some people are under the impression that they do not contribute in a meaningful way. They may feel that their life lacks direction and is stagnant.

  • Ego integrity versus despair – Late adulthood

Adults in this stage of life tend to reflect on their lives and its meaningfulness. They ask questions like: ‘Was my life worth living?’ ‘If I could go back, would I do everything the same again?’ If they can accept what happened, both the good and the bad, the victories, successes and the mistakes and defeats, they experience integrity and wisdom. People who cannot integrate the events during their lives in this manner, may feel dissatisfied with their lives and fear death.

As any theory, these stages are a framework that allows therapists to work with. It is not easy to run scientific experiments on complex developmental stages. However, from a therapeutic point of view, many practitioners can use this framework and compare it with the issues that their clients face. There would be many who would agree with this generalised view of development as is gives a lot of room to accommodate individuals and their life experiences. Please remember, it is a theory and can be criticised and adapted to individual experiences. It’s not set in stone. As always, please reach out, if you wish to discuss this material.

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