Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood. According to Erikson’s theory, every person must pass through a series of eight interrelated stages over the entire life cycle.
1. Infancy: Birth-18 Months Old
Basic Trust vs. Mistrust – Hope
During the first or second year of life, the major emphasis is on the mother and father’s nurturing ability and care for a child, especially in terms of visual contact and touch. The child will develop optimism, trust, confidence, and security if properly cared for and handled. If a child does not experience trust, he or she may develop insecurity, worthlessness, and general mistrust to the world.
2. Toddler / Early Childhood Years: 18 Months to 3 Years
Autonomy vs. Shame – Will
The second stage occurs between 18 months and 3 years. At this point, the child has an opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy as he or she learns new skills and right from wrong. The well-cared for child is sure of himself, carrying himself or herself with pride rather than shame. During this time of the “terrible twos”, defiance, temper tantrums, and stubbornness can also appear. Children tend to be vulnerable during this stage, sometimes feeling shame and and low self-esteem during an inability to learn certain skills.
3. Preschooler: 3 to 5 Years
Initiative vs. Guilt – Purpose
During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations. We make up stories with Barbie’s and Ken’s, toy phones and miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an adult. We also begin to use that wonderful word for exploring the world—”WHY?”
While Erikson was influenced by Freud, he downplays biological sexuality in favor of the psychosocial features of conflict between child and parents. Nevertheless, he said that at this stage we usually become involved in the classic “Oedipal struggle” and resolve this struggle through “social role identification.” If we’re frustrated over natural desires and goals, we may easily experience guilt.
The most significant relationship is with the basic family.
4. School Age Child: 6 to 12 Years
Industry vs. Inferiority – Competence
During this stage, often called the Latency, we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem.
As the world expands a bit, our most significant relationship is with the school and neighborhood. Parents are no longer the complete authorities they once were, although they are still important.
5. Adolescent: 12 to 18 Years
Identity vs. Role Confusion – Fidelity
Up until this fifth stage, development depends on what is done to a person. At this point, development now depends primarily upon what a person does. An adolescent must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, while negotiating and struggling with social interactions and “fitting in”, and developing a sense of morality and right from wrong.
Some attempt to delay entrance to adulthood and withdraw from responsibilities (moratorium). Those unsuccessful with this stage tend to experience role confusion and upheaval. Adolescents begin to develop a strong affiliation and devotion to ideals, causes, and friends.
6. Young adult: 18 to 35
Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation – Love
At the young adult stage, people tend to seek companionship and love. Some also begin to “settle down” and start families, although seems to have been pushed back farther in recent years.
Young adults seek deep intimacy and satisfying relationships, but if unsuccessful, isolation may occur. Significant relationships at this stage are with marital partners and friends.
7. Middle-aged Adult: 35 to 55 or 65
Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation – Care
Career and work are the most important things at this stage, along with family. Middle adulthood is also the time when people can take on greater responsibilities and control.
For this stage, working to establish stability and Erikson’s idea of generativity – attempting to produce something that makes a difference to society. Inactivity and meaninglessness are common fears during this stage.
Major life shifts can occur during this stage. For example, children leave the household, careers can change, and so on. Some may struggle with finding purpose. Significant relationships are those within the family, workplace, local church and other communities.
8. Late Adult: 55 or 65 to Death
Integrity vs. Despair – Wisdom
Erikson believed that much of life is preparing for the middle adulthood stage and the last stage involves much reflection. As older adults, some can look back with a feeling of integrity — that is, contentment and fulfillment, having led a meaningful life and valuable contribution to society. Others may have a sense of despair during this stage, reflecting upon their experiences and failures. They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their lives, wondering “What was the point of life? Was it worth it?”
Additional Resources and References
- The Life Cycle Completed (Extended Version): Erikson’s own well-written book that explains the stages and identity crisis directly from the firsthand source.
- Handbook of Identity Theory and Research [2 Volume Set]: This impressive handbook brings “unity and clarity to a diverse and fragmented literature.” presenting perspectives from many different theoretical schools and empirical approaches: psychology (e.g., narrative, social identity theory, neo-Eriksonian) and from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, political science, ethnic studies).
- Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity: Youth and crisis (No. 7). WW Norton & Company.
- Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and society. WW Norton & Company.
Child development theories focus on explaining how children change and grow over the course of childhood. Such theories center on various aspects of development including social, emotional, and cognitive growth.
The study of human development is a rich and varied subject. We all have personal experience with development, but it is sometimes difficult to understand how and why people grow, learn, and act as they do.
Why do children behave in certain ways? Is their behavior related to their age, family relationships, or individual temperaments? Developmental psychologists strive to answer such questions as well as to understand, explain, and predict behaviors that occur throughout the lifespan.
In order to understand human development, a number of different theories of child development have arisen to explain various aspects of human growth.
Child Development Theories: A Background
Theories of development provide a framework for thinking about human growth and learning. But why do we study development? What can we learn from psychological theories of development? If you have ever wondered about what motivates human thought and behavior, understanding these theories can provide useful insight into individuals and society.
Our Understanding of Child Development Has Changed Over the Years
Child development that occurs from birth to adulthood was largely ignored throughout much of human history.
Children were often viewed simply as small versions of adults and little attention was paid to the many advances in cognitive abilities, language usage, and physical growth that occur during childhood and adolescence.
Interest in the field of child development finally began to emerge early in the 20th century, but it tended to focus on abnormal behavior.
Eventually, researchers became increasingly interested in other topics including typical child development as well as the influences on development.
Studying Child Development Allows Us to Understand the Many Changes That Take Place
Why is it important to study how children grow, learn and change? An understanding of child development is essential because it allows us to fully appreciate the cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and educational growth that children go through from birth and into early adulthood.
Some of the major theories of child development are known as grand theories; they attempt to describe every aspect of development, often using a stage approach. Others are known as mini-theories; they instead focus only on a fairly limited aspect of development such as cognitive or social growth.
The following are just a few of the many child development theories that have been proposed by theorists and researchers. More recent theories outline the developmental stages of children and identify the typical ages at which these growth milestones occur.
Freud's Psychosexual Developmental Theory
Psychoanalytic theory originated with the work of Sigmund Freud. Through his clinical work with patients suffering from mental illness, Freud came to believe that childhood experiences and unconscious desires influenced behavior.
According to Freud, conflicts that occur during each of these stages can have a lifelong influence on personality and behavior.
Freud proposed one of the best-known grand theories of child development. According to Freud’s psychosexual theory, child development occurs in a series of stages focused on different pleasure areas of the body. During each stage, the child encounters conflicts that play a significant role in the course of development.
His theory suggested that the energy of the libido was focused on different erogenous zones at specific stages. Failure to progress through a stage can result in a fixation at that point in development, which Freud believed could have an influence on adult behavior.
So what happens as children complete each stage? And what might result if a child does poorly during a particular point in development? Successfully completing each stage leads to the development of a healthy adult personality. Failing to resolve the conflicts of a particular stage can result in fixations that can then have an influence on adult behavior.
While some other child development theories suggest that personality continues to change and grow over the entire lifetime, Freud believed that it was early experiences that played the greatest role in shaping development. According to Freud, personality is largely set in stone by the age of five.
Erikson's Psychosocial Developmental Theory
Psychoanalytic theory was an enormously influential force during the first half of the twentieth century. Those inspired and influenced by Freud went on to expand upon Freud's ideas and develop theories of their own. Of these neo-Freudians, Erik Erikson's ideas have become perhaps the best known.
Erikson's eight-stage theory of psychosocial development describes growth and change throughout life, focusing on social interaction and conflicts that arise during different stages of development.
While Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development shared some similarities with Freud's, it is dramatically different in many ways. Rather than focusing on sexual interest as a driving force in development, Erikson believed that social interaction and experience played decisive roles.
His eight-stage theory of human development described this process from infancy through death. During each stage, people are faced with a developmental conflict that impacts later functioning and further growth.
Unlike many other developmental theories, Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory focuses on development across the entire lifespan. At each stage, children and adults face a developmental crisis that serves as a major turning point. Successfully managing the challenges of each stage leads to the emergence of a lifelong psychological virtue.
Behavioral Child Development Theories
During the first half of the twentieth century, a new school of thought known as behaviorism rose to become a dominant force within psychology. Behaviorists believed that psychology needed to focus only on observable and quantifiable behaviors in order to become a more scientific discipline.
According to the behavioral perspective, all human behavior can be described in terms of environmental influences. Some behaviorists, such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, insisted that learning occurs purely through processes of association and reinforcement.
Behavioral theories of child development focus on how environmental interaction influences behavior and are based on the theories of theorists such as John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and B. F. Skinner. These theories deal only with observable behaviors. Development is considered a reaction to rewards, punishments, stimuli and reinforcement.
This theory differs considerably from other child development theories because it gives no consideration to internal thoughts or feelings. Instead, it focuses purely on how experience shapes who we are.
Two important types of learning that emerged from this approach to development are that classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves learning by pairing a naturally occurring stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus. Operant conditioning utilizes reinforcement and punishment to modify behaviors.
Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory
Cognitive theory is concerned with the development of a person's thought processes. It also looks at how these thought processes influence how we understand and interact with the world. Piaget proposed an idea that seems obvious now, but helped revolutionize how we think about child development: Children think differently than adults.
Theorist Jean Piaget proposed one of the most influential theories of cognitive development. His cognitive theory seeks to describe and explain the development of thought processes and mental states. It also looks at how these thought processes influence the way we understand and interact with the world.
Piaget then proposed a theory of cognitive development to account for the steps and sequence of children's intellectual development.
- The Sensorimotor Stage: A period of time between birth and age two during which an infant's knowledge of the world is limited to his or her sensory perceptions and motor activities. Behaviors are limited to simple motor responses caused by sensory stimuli.
- The Preoperational Stage: A period between ages 2 and 6 during which a child learns to use language. During this stage, children do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information and are unable to take the point of view of other people.
- The Concrete Operational Stage: A period between ages 7 and 11 during which children gain a better understanding of mental operations. Children begin thinking logically about concrete events, but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts.
- The Formal Operational Stage: A period between age 12 to adulthood when people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.
Bowlby's Attachment Theory
There is a great deal of research on the social development of children. John Bowbly proposed one of the earliest theories of social development. Bowlby believed that early relationships with caregivers play a major role in child development and continue to influence social relationships throughout life.
Bowlby's attachment theory suggested that children are born with an innate need to form attachments. Such attachments aid in survival by ensuring that the child receives care and protection. Not only that, but these attachments are characterized by clear behavioral and motivational patterns. In other words, both children and caregivers engage in behaviors designed to ensure proximity. Children strive to stay close and connected to their caregivers who in turn provide safe haven and a secure base for exploration.
Researchers have also expanded upon Bowlby's original work and have suggested that a number of different attachment styles exist. Children who receive consistent support and care are more likely to develop a secure attachment style, while those who receive less reliable care may develop an ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized style.
Bandura's Social Learning Theory
Social learning theory is based on the work of psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura believed that the conditioning and reinforcement process could not sufficiently explain all of human learning. For example, how can the conditioning process account for learned behaviors that have not been reinforced through classical conditioning or operant conditioning?
According to social learning theory, behaviors can also be learned through observation and modeling. By observing the actions of others, including parents and peers, children develop new skills and acquire new information.
Bandura's child development theory suggests that observation plays a critical role in learning, but this observation does not necessarily need to take the form of watching a live model. Instead, people can also learn by listening to verbal instructions about how to perform a behavior as well as through observing either real or fictional characters display behaviors in books or films.
Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory
Another psychologist named Lev Vygotsky proposed a seminal learning theory that has gone on to become very influential, especially in the field of education. Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children learn actively and through hands-on experiences. His sociocultural theory also suggested that parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large were responsible for developing higher order functions.
In Vygotsky's view, learning is an inherently social process. Through interacting with others, learning becomes integrated into an individual's understanding of the world. This child development theory also introduced the concept of the zone of proximal development, which is the gap between what a person can do with help and what they can do on their own. It is with the help of more knowledgeable others that people are able to progressively learn and increase their skills and scope of understanding.
A Word From Verywell
As you can see, some of psychology's best-known thinkers have developed theories to help explore and explain different aspects of child development. While not all of these theories are fully accepted today, they all had an important influence on our understanding of child development. Today, contemporary psychologists often draw on a variety of theories and perspectives in order to understand how kids grow, behave, and think.
These theories represent just a few of the different ways of thinking about child development. In reality, fully understanding how children change and grow over the course of childhood requires looking at many different factors that influence physical and psychological growth. Genes, the environment, and the interactions between these two forces determine how kids grow physically as well as mentally.
Berk, LE. Child Development. 8th ed. USA: Pearson Education, Inc; 2009.
Shute, RH & Slee, PT. Child Development Theories and Critical Perspectives, Second Edition. New York: Routledge; 2015.