Erik Erikson : Understanding stages of development

Written by Maria Isabella Valaskatzis

Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

“Children accruing ego identity gain real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishments, that is, an achievement that has meaning in their culture.” Erikson (1959, p. 95)

Erik Erikson was a pioneer when it came to understanding personality theory that encompassed the entire lifespan. Swartz et al., (2016)

As a child, Erikson experienced many childhood struggles due to the relationship between his Jewish mother and an unknown Danish father. When anti sematic beliefs were rife in Germany, Erikson found himself an outcast. Because of his appearance, he did not fit in. This could have led to a degree of an identity issue that would explain his lifestyle. Fleming (2004)

Although Freud influenced Erikson, they differed in that Erikson saw a need to expand further.

Erikson’s theory is based on eight stages of development instead of Freud’s five stages. The difference between the two is that Erikson saw development as something that occurs through the life span of an individual, whereas Freud stopped at adolescence. Erikson saw personality development as a consequence of social interactions, in contrast to Freud, who based development on the psychosexual process.

According to Erikson, the individual will encounter inevitable crises at each stage of development. The individual can resolve these conflicts and progress to the next stage. If the conflict goes unresolved, this could lead to personality problems in the child and later in adulthood. Fleming (2004).


How does Psychology help to understand people’s behavior

The task of life is to find personal identity, or as Erikson (1958) states, a quest for identity. A person will have a positive identity if that person has moved through each stage, ensuring the resolution of the crises. However, failure can lead to interpersonal conflict. Erikson (1968).

Social identity theory proposes that individuals define themselves according to their group. If the group provides stability, recognition, and growth, this leads to positive psychological effects; however, the opposite will result if the group does not provide for the needs of the individual. Haslam et al., (2009)

Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development

Erikson viewed development as occurring through eight stages that span an individual’s life. During each phase, the individual will experience a series of crises. If the individual overcomes these challenges, a strong foundation will be established to move on to the next milestone. However, if the needs are not met or progression is hindered, the individual will experience conflict that will manifest in childhood and adulthood. It is also important to note that reparative steps could be taken to address these issues resulting in personality changes. Fleming (2018).

Although there are eight stages for this essay and in line with the course, I will discuss the first three stages.

First Stage: Trust versus Mistrust

The first stage is Trust versus Mistrust. This occurs from birth to a year old. During this phase, the infant requires consistent love and attention from the caregiver. The infant learns to trust that the basic needs will be met through this. If the caregiver is neglectful, mistrust is instilled. The infant will either gain hope or weaken through withdrawal due to mistrust. Fleming (2018).

As stated by Jean Piaget, if a parent fails to provide the infant with primary care during the “sensory-motor” stage, the foundation of trust will not be present. As a result, this child may display signs of internal hopelessness as an adult. Erskine (2019).

Later in adult life, the individual might have difficulties trusting people, looking for the slightest inconsistency to prove their mistrust. On the other hand, if the infant’s needs are met at this developmental stage, that individual may see such inconsistencies as normal. Erskine (2015b).

Bowlby stressed the importance of early relationships with attachment figures. Infants use this as a gauge that provides them with an understanding of how acceptable or unacceptable they are to these figures. When an adult displays signs of insecure attachments, this could result from interference in bonding. Bowlby (1973).

Fraiberg’s research also showed that when infants experience disturbance in this stage, they create survival techniques such as freezing the body or turning their face away. To a mild extent, we may see this in adults, resulting from the relationship bond being broken. Fraiberg (1983).


Second Stage: Autonomy versus Shame

The second stage is Autonomy Versus Shame and occurs from one to three years of age. The toddler begins learning how to walk, talk, and control bowel movements at this juncture. A sense of autonomy begins because the toddler can now do things for herself/himself. However, parents may be impatient with the toddler. This leads to shame. If the toddler is met with patience and understanding, he/she will develop will; the antitheses is a compulsion. Fleming (2018).

In adulthood, the results could manifest as self-doubt. Erikson (1959).


Third Stage: Initiative versus Guilt

The third stage is Initiative Versus Guilt and occurs from three to six years. Erikson accepts Freud’s Oedipal factors; however, he expands by recognizing social factors. The child imitates the same-sex parent but then sees the parent as competition. The initiative is defined through imitation and exploring different capabilities. Fleming (2018).

According to Erskine (2019), this phase is characterized by the child engaging in imaginary play, and there is a sense of increased autonomy as the child self directs.

If the parents dampen the child’s process, guilt settles in. If the child is encouraged and the parent entertains the process, the child will find purpose. The opposite outcome will be inhibition.

As you can see, absence in development in each stage leads to disrupted personality behaviors that manifest in childhood and adulthood.


Psychology in the South African Context

It is important to note that unlike the western individualistic approach to understanding development, the Social ontogenetic approach purports that the self is realized in relation to the community. Nsamenang (2006).

According to Nsamanang (1992), the life cycle of African people can be seen in three phases, spiritual selfhood, social selfhood, and death. Development through each stage is defined according to a cultural perspective.

Social identity can either have a positive or negative effect on the individual and can explain behavior towards the social constructs. As Haslam et al., (2009) state, a group identifies themselves in relation to another group. They can be seen as either “superior” or “inferior.” If the group is seen as “inferior” or of low status, the individual may want to permeate to the “superior” group to avoid stigmatizing. If this move cannot be achieved, social creativity is adopted. This can be achieved through refusal to accept the inferiority of the group or to produce a social change that will improve the ingroup. Branscombe et al., (1999).

During Apartheid, black and white people were exposed to radically different living experiences. The black people were marginalized, they suffered poverty, the children were given poor education, and there was forced removal from their living spaces. Many family units were broken due to needing to find work outside of their designated living areas. This resulted in the socio-economic degradation of the black communities. Richter (1994).

Because the black people of South Africa had the struggle in common, they identified strongly with their social groups, strengthening their cultural identity. Stevens and Lockhat (1997).


In my opinion, psychology played an important role in South African history. Social change came in the form of political action which improved black people’s social status.


In my view, understanding personality and behavior requires a holistic view that includes all aspects that influence the individual. A one-sided bias would have an adverse result on the treatment plan.

I enjoyed studying Erik Erickson’s perspective on development because I believe that we evolve in our lives, circumstances may change, and reparations of past trauma occur. All of these changes affect our behavior and personality. To believe that we stop developing means that we stop growing, and that, in my view, is naïve.




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