Chapter 8:  Erickson – Post-Freudian Theory

Part 3: Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development

Many people are familiar with Erikson’s eight stages of life, but what is less well known is that each stage is tied to specific, basic social institutions.  Additionally, they are also associated with a particular strength, which Erikson believed gave the individual a “semblance of instinctive certainty in his social ecology” (Erikson, 1968a; see also Erikson, 1950).  Each stage can also be viewed as awakening a specific sense of estrangement, which can become the basis for psychopathology. As we are about to see, the first stage is basic trust vs. basic mistrust. If a child develops basic trust, they will also develop the basic strength of hope.  Then, as they progress through life, they will likely encounter situations in which people cannot be trusted, but the person can remain hopeful. In contrast, hopelessness is a term closely identified with depression, and it is easy to see how a person who learns from the beginning of life that the people around them, indeed the whole world (as they perceive it), is a threatening and untrustworthy place.  As each of the eight stages is introduced, the title will begin with the general age at which the stage occurs, the psychosocial crisis experienced during that stage, and finally, the primary human strength that is associated with the successful resolution of the crisis.

Infancy – Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust – Hope:  The primary relationship (or social institution) of this first stage is the mother.  The infant needs to be fed (and traditionally this was only breast-feeding), comforted, and protected.  As we have seen in earlier chapters, the child does not necessarily recognize that the mother is a separate person, so the bond between them is extraordinarily intimate.  It is inevitable, however, that the child will experience discomfort and pain, and that the mother will not be able to immediately attend to every need. In such times of distress, the child who mostly trusts in the care of their mother will be able to hope that the care is coming.

Early Childhood – Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt – Will:  At this stage, both parents become the primary social institution.  As young children develop the ability to walk and talk, they begin to do many things for themselves.  However, their actions often lead to restrictions, as they experience the categorical rules of “yes and no,” “right and wrong,” or “good and bad.”  Shame is the consequence of being told that one is bad or wrong. Doubt arises when the child is unsure. As they develop their will power, i.e., their exercise of free will, they may not be sure what to do in a certain situation.  A child who has been supported in exercising their autonomy will develop the will power to restrain themselves without experiencing shame or doubt. For example, they will learn not to run out into the busy street, and even feel good about their ability to take care of and protect themselves.  It is often fascinating to watch a young child demonstrate this protectiveness when they interact with an even younger child. One can easily see the satisfaction in understanding rules and guidelines as, say, an eight-year old looks after a two-year old cousin.

Play Age – Initiative vs. Guilt – Purpose:  The entire family (e.g., siblings, grandparents, etc.) provides the social context for this developmental stage.  As the child of age three or four years old becomes able to do much more, and to do so more vigorously, they begin to realize something of what is expected of them as adults.  So, they begin to play with other children, older children, and to play games that mimic things done by adults. This helps them to develop a sense of purpose and to pursue valued goals and skills.  Excessive initiative, especially when combined with autonomy, can lead to problems such as rivalry and jealousy, especially with younger siblings. It can also lead to aggressive manipulation or coercion.  Consequently, the child can begin to feel guilty about their actions, especially if they are punished.

This is a color photo of two dolls in a dollhouse. One doll is standing beside a carriage, while the infant doll sits inside. There is dollhouse furniture pictured to the sides and rear of the dolls.
Pixel2013/2339. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

School Age – Industry vs. Inferiority – Competence:  The social institutions relevant to this stage now move outside the family, including the neighborhood, community, and schools.  It is one thing to play adult roles, such as in the previous stage, but in this stage the child actually begins the process of preparing to be a caretaker and provider for others, such as their own children.  In all cultures, according to Erikson, at this age (beginning at 5 to 6 years old) children receive some form of systematic training, and they also learn eagerly from older children. Unfortunately, some children are not as successful as others, particularly in the restrictive learning environment of schools.  Keep in mind that Erikson was trained in the Montessori style of education, which emphasizes free exploration and active learning, at each child’s own pace (Lillard & Jessen, 2003; Spietz, 1991). If children are indeed successful and if they are given the freedom to learn, they will develop a sense of competence, which will help them to persevere when faced with more challenging tasks.

Adolescence – Identity vs. Role Diffusion, Confusion – Fidelity:  During this stage, the family finally loses its place of primacy as a social institution, as peer groups and outgroups become the most significant social institutions.  According to Erikson, childhood comes to an end when a person has developed the skills and tools to proceed into adulthood. First, however, there is the period in which one’s body changes from a child to an adult:  puberty.  Known psychologically as adolescence, it is a period in which each person must determine how they will fit their particular skills into the adult world of their culture.  This requires forming one’s identity. The fidelity that Erikson speaks of refers to the ability to remain true to oneself and to one’s significant others. This period is easiest for children who are gifted and well trained in the pursuit of clear goals, and also for children who receive a good deal of affirmation.

This is a color photograph of four adolescents standing in a row outside as they watch the sunset. They have their backs towards the camera, and they have their arms wrapped around one another's shoulders and waists.
“Four person hands wrap around shoulders while looking at sunset”. By Helena Lopes. Retrieved from Licensed Under: Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

The pursuit of one’s identity can be quite challenging, and we will examine identity in more detail in the next section.  But first, one way to cope with the challenge of forming one’s identity is to stop doing it for a while, something Erikson called a psychosocial moratorium (Erikson, 1959).  A moratorium is a break that one takes in life before committing oneself to a career.  Some people serve in the military or the Peace Corps before coming home and taking their place in the community.  Some travel and try to “see the world” before starting college. Erikson considered the moratorium to be a natural and, in many cases, quite productive activity.  To cite one of Erikson’s examples, a young Charles Darwin, who had been training for the ministry, left England on a 5-year voyage on a ship called the Beagle in order to participate in geological studies (he was also studying geology).  It was during that trip that he made the initial observations of animals and fossils that ultimately led to his theory of evolution.

Young Adulthood – Intimacy vs. Isolation – Love:  With the onset of adulthood, the most significant social factors become partners in friendship, sex, competition, and cooperation.  Once an individual has consolidated their own identity, they are capable of the self-abandonment necessary for intimate affiliations, passionate sexual unions, or inspiring encounters.  According to Erikson, sexual encounters prior to fulfilling this stage are of the identity-confirming kind, rather than the truly intimate sexual relationships based on love. Love is the mutual devotion of two people.  Individuals who are unsuccessful in making intimate contacts are at risk for exaggerating their isolation, which brings with it the danger of not making any new contacts that might lead to the very intimate relationship they are lacking.

Adulthood – Generativity vs. Stagnation, Self-Absorption – Care:  The family household, including divided labor and shared household duties, becomes the primary social institution of adulthood.  Erikson also referred to adulthood as maturity, and he considered this stage to be reciprocal.  A mature person needs to be needed, and it is their very maturity that guides them to care for the needs of others.  So, generativity is the concern with helping to establish and guide the next generation.  It is psychosocial because it includes productivity and creativity, not just procreation.  When the potential enrichment to be found in generativity fails, the consequences are often seen in the estrangements of the next generation.  In other words, the children of stagnant, self-absorbed parents may have great difficulty forming their own identities and achieving intimacy in their relationships.

Old Age – Integrity vs. Despair – Wisdom:  The social concerns for those approaching the end of life include “Humanity” and “Family.”  Wisdom allows one to maintain and convey the integrity of one’s lifetime of experience, despite the gradual physical decline of the body.  Wise people are able to pass on an integrated heritage to the next generation. For those who have failed to integrate their life’s experiences, despair arises as the fear of death.  In this context, death is the time limit on their opportunity to achieve integrity. Erikson described wisdom as “a detached and yet active concern with life in the face of death” (Erikson, 1968a).

Is there a ninth stage?  After Erikson died, Joan Erikson wrote a few short chapters that were added to The Life Cycle Completed (Erikson & Erikson, 1997).  Erikson had suggested that his wife was an important contributor to all of his theories throughout his career, so it was not surprising that she offered these additions after his death.  Indeed, they are most likely the result of her observations regarding his death, which is something he could then no longer write about.

Very Old Age – Despair vs. Gerotranscendence:  Unlike the earlier stages, Joan Erikson felt that the negative aspect of this stage should be placed first.  People who make it to 90 years old and beyond are close to death. Their bodies are steadily deteriorating, and most, if not all of their friends have died, some of their children may have died, their spouse has likely died, and the despair they face is quite real.  Whereas the despair experienced in the eighth stage involves looking back at one’s life, in the ninth stage it involves looking squarely at one’s present reality and passing once again through life’s stages. People who are very old can no longer trust their own capabilities, and they may need to be cared for, thus losing some of their autonomy.  Their sense of purpose is dulled, and they lose the urgency and energy necessary to be industrious. Likewise, their identity may become unclear once again, and they can become isolated and self-absorbed. However, some very old people hold a special place in their families and/or communities, and they may withdraw only by choice, in order to contemplate and be at peace with their life.  Joan Erikson refers to this choice as a dance with life.

To reach for gerotranscendance is to rise above, exceed, outdo, go beyond, independent of the universe and time.  It involves surpassing all human knowledge and experience. How, for heaven’s sake, is this to be accomplished?  I am persuaded that only by doing and making do we become. (pg. 127; Erikson & Erikson, 1997)

Joan Erikson proposed a ninth stage, when death is imminent.  Do you agree with this stage; do you hope it is possible to achieve gerotranscendence?  Have you known anyone who was very old and facing death, and what was it like for them?

Supplemental Material:

8 Stages of Development by Erik Erikson

This video [5:19] describes each of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Sprouts.  (2017, April 23).  8 stages of development by Erik Erikson.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.