Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was a pupil of Sigmund Freud and the first child psychoanalyst in Boston. After extensive study of children from various cultural backgrounds and areas he began to compile this information to form his theories on development, personality, and what forms our identity.
Erikson’s theory breaks down psychosocial development into eight (and eventually a final ninth) stages. These stages are delineated by age and characterized by a struggle or crisis that must be overcome in order to adapt and continue to develop. Here is a breakdown of the stages:
Infancy (Birth-18 months) – At this stage, we as human beings are completely dependant, helpless. We rely on an external source for everything, from food to affection. The conflict of this stage is Trust vs. Mistrust. Obviously, if we as infants are not getting our needs met, we will become unsure of our environment and fearful of our caregivers. For healthy development and movement into the next stage, we require our physical and emotional needs to be consistently met.
Early Childhood (18 months-3 years) – When we have overcome our Infancy crisis, we begin to move into Early Childhood. In this stage of development, we begin to do things for ourselves, such as communicate with others verbally, walk without assistance, and become pottytrained. Our crisis shifts to Autonomy vs. Shame. This can be a fragile stage, particularly due to our attempt to master skills (such as feeding oneself, using a toilet instead of a diaper, etc). If we are shamed or embarassed at our inability to master more adult tasks, it may affect our self-esteem. To move into the next stage, we need encouragement and support.
Play Age (3-6 years) – When we have resolved our Early Childhood crisis, we begin to move into Play Age. In this stage of development, we begin to mirror or mimic behavior around us. This is demonstrated in our playtime activity. We become fascinated with adult behaviors like driving, talking on the phone, performing household chores like cleaning and cooking, etc. It is through our play that we explore and learn more skills. Our crisis therefore shifts to Initiative vs. Guilt. While we develop creatively, we also develop cognitively and begin to develop reasoning and morality. When we misbehave, we can anticipate punishment and therefore begin to feel guilt. Our struggle then becomes balancing our curiousity and initiative without feeling too much guilt to progress.
School Age (6-12 years)
This stage of life is all about expansion of one’s social circle and beginning school. Students are influenced by their new surroundings as well as their peers. Teachers begin to take on an important role as well, considering a student’s teacher spends more time with them than their parents at this stage of life. Cognitively, we are growing and learning new skills and we are making things which is why this stage’s crisis is considered Industry vs. Inferiority. If we are rejected socially or feel inadequate, we may struggle to move past this phase of development and have self-esteem issues through other stages.
Adolescence (12-18 years)
According to Erikson, this is the first stage in our development that is determined directly by what we do as opposed to what we have had done to us. It is a phase of exploration in which we endeavor to determine our identity (ego identity) and what we want our lives to look like (career, education, etc). We are increasingly more independent, withdrawing from our peers and parents. Erikson made the point that ego identity is not simply the sum of prior identification, but instead is a reassembly of the basic ego with knowledge gained through previous crises (Slavin 56). The arrival of puberty brings about a sexual awareness and desire to experiment. The crisis in this phase is Identity vs. Role Confusion. If we cannot successfully resolve our identity question, we are likely to experience role confusion and experience identity crisis, which can lead to negative behaviors. It is important to note this as a middle or high school instructor because students will experience a period of withdrawal from their responsibilities and have a lack of motivation. It is necessary to help adolescents through this phase of their development in order to help them achieve in the classroom.
Young Adulthood (18-35 years)
At this stage of psychosocial development, a person begins to search for a partner. It becomes the main focus or new struggle once a person has resolved their adolescent identity crisis. The most important event in this stage is a romantic attachment or relationship. This is also the stage in which most start a family, though this has been pushed back somewhat in societal norms today. The struggle of this stage is Intimacy vs. Isolation. If we are successful at this stage we find intimacy on a profound level. If we do not resolve this struggle, we may experience isolation from others. Our most significant relationships are with partners and friends in this stage.
Middle Adulthood (35-55 years)
Erikson believed that much of our lives are spent preparing for this stage. Once we have successfully resolved the conflict of young adulthood, we approach a new conflict in middle adulthood. At this stage, work is most crucial to our lives and we tend to be concerned with productivity as well as personal growth. The biggest fear of this stage is feeling meaningless or inactive. Also the stage of the “mid-life crisis,” we tend to struggle to find our purpose or greater meaning in life. This struggle is known as Generativity vs. Self-absorption. If we become stagnant and fail to grow or resolve our mid-life crisis, it generally leads to self-absorption or self-indulgence.
Late Adulthood (55-Death)
Once we have resolved our mid-life crisis or the crises of middle adulthood, we enter late adulthood. This stage is one that Erikson believed was a recovery from middle adulthood. In this final stage, people tend to reflect on their lives and accomplishments or lack thereof, regrets, and reflect on their demise. The inevitability of death is something that we have to face and accept in this stage. The most significant relationship of this stage is with all mankind. The struggle of this final stage is Integrity vs. Despair. Generally, a person who can reflect on their life with satisfaction and contentedness will feel integrity, where a person who does not feel accomplished or feel that they have not contributed will feel despair at their own failure.