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Erik Erikson

by Saul McLeod, updated 2017

Erik Erikson (1950, 1963) proposed a psychoanalytic theory of psychosocial development comprising eight stages from infancy to adulthood. During each stage, the person experiences a psychosocial crisis which could have a positive or negative outcome for personality development.

Erikson's ideas were greatly influenced by Freud, going along with Freud’s (1923) theory regarding the structure and topography of personality. However, whereas Freud was an id psychologist, Erikson was an ego psychologist. He emphasized the role of culture and society and the conflicts that can take place within the ego itself, whereas Freud emphasized the conflict between the id and the superego.

According to Erikson, the ego develops as it successfully resolves crises that are distinctly social in nature. These involve establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future.

Erikson extends on Freudian thoughts by focusing on the adaptive and creative characteristic of the ego and expanding the notion of the stages of personality development to include the entire lifespan.

Like Freud and many others, Erik Erikson maintained that personality develops in a predetermined order, and builds upon each previous stage. This is called the epigenetic principle.

The outcome of this 'maturation timetable' is a wide and integrated set of life skills and abilities that function together within the autonomous individual. However, instead of focusing on sexual development (like Freud), he was interested in how children socialize and how this affects their sense of self.

Psychosocial Stages

Erikson’s (1959) theory of psychosocial development has eight distinct stages, taking in five stages up to the age of 18 years and three further stages beyond, well into adulthood. Erikson suggests that there is still plenty of room for continued growth and development throughout one’s life. Erikson puts a great deal of emphasis on the adolescent period, feeling it was a crucial stage for developing a person’s identity.

Like Freud, Erikson assumes that a crisis occurs at each stage of development. For Erikson (1963), these crises are of a psychosocial nature because they involve psychological needs of the individual (i.e. psycho) conflicting with the needs of society (i.e. social).

According to the theory, successful completion of each stage results in a healthy personality and the acquisition of basic virtues. Basic virtues are characteristic strengths which the ego can use to resolve subsequent crises.

Failure to successfully complete a stage can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore a more unhealthy personality and sense of self.  These stages, however, can be resolved successfully at a later time.

StagePsychosocial CrisisBasic VirtueAge
1.Trust vs. MistrustHope0 - 1½
2.Autonomy vs. ShameWill1½ - 3
3.Initiative vs. GuiltPurpose3 - 5
4.Industry vs. InferiorityCompetency5 - 12
5.Identity vs. Role ConfusionFidelity12 - 18
6.Intimacy vs. IsolationLove18 - 40
7.Generativity vs. StagnationCare40 - 65
8.Ego Integrity vs. DespairWisdom65+

1. Trust vs. Mistrust

Is the world a safe place or is it full of unpredictable events and accidents waiting to happen? Erikson's first psychosocial crisis occurs during the first year or so of life (like Freud's oral stage of psychosexual development). The crisis is one of trust vs. mistrust.

During this stage, the infant is uncertain about the world in which they live. To resolve these feelings of uncertainty, the infant looks towards their primary caregiver for stability and consistency of care.

If the care the infant receives is consistent, predictable and reliable, they will develop a sense of trust which will carry with them to other relationships, and they will be able to feel secure even when threatened.

Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of hope. By developing a sense of trust, the infant can have hope that as new crises arise, there is a real possibility that other people will be there as a source of support. Failing to acquire the virtue of hope will lead to the development of fear.

For example, if the care has been harsh or inconsistent, unpredictable and unreliable, then the infant will develop a sense of mistrust and will not have confidence in the world around them or in their abilities to influence events.

This infant will carry the basic sense of mistrust with them to other relationships. It may result in anxiety, heightened insecurities, and an over feeling of mistrust in the world around them.

Consistent with Erikson's views on the importance of trust, research by Bowlby and Ainsworth has outlined how the quality of the early experience of attachment can affect relationships with others in later life.

2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The child is developing physically and becoming more mobile. Between the ages of 18 months and three, children begin to assert their independence, by walking away from their mother, picking which toy to play with, and making choices about what they like to wear, to eat, etc.

The child is discovering that he or she has many skills and abilities, such as putting on clothes and shoes, playing with toys, etc. Such skills illustrate the child's growing sense of independence and autonomy. Erikson states it is critical that parents allow their children to explore the limits of their abilities within an encouraging environment which is tolerant of failure.

For example, rather than put on a child's clothes a supportive parent should have the patience to allow the child to try until they succeed or ask for assistance. So, the parents need to encourage the child to become more independent while at the same time protecting the child so that constant failure is avoided.

A delicate balance is required from the parent. They must try not to do everything for the child, but if the child fails at a particular task they must not criticize the child for failures and accidents (particularly when toilet training). The aim has to be “self control without a loss of self-esteem” (Gross, 1992). Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of will.

If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world.

If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.

3. Initiative vs. Guilt

Around age three and continuing to age five, children assert themselves more frequently. These are particularly lively, rapid-developing years in a child’s life. According to Bee (1992), it is a “time of vigor of action and of behaviors that the parents may see as aggressive."

During this period the primary feature involves the child regularly interacting with other children at school. Central to this stage is play, as it provides children with the opportunity to explore their interpersonal skills through initiating activities.

Children begin to plan activities, make up games, and initiate activities with others. If given this opportunity, children develop a sense of initiative and feel secure in their ability to lead others and make decisions.

Conversely, if this tendency is squelched, either through criticism or control, children develop a sense of guilt. They may feel like a nuisance to others and will, therefore, remain followers, lacking in self-initiative.

The child takes initiatives which the parents will often try to stop in order to protect the child. The child will often overstep the mark in his forcefulness, and the danger is that the parents will tend to punish the child and restrict his initiatives too much.

It is at this stage that the child will begin to ask many questions as his thirst for knowledge grows. If the parents treat the child’s questions as trivial, a nuisance or embarrassing or other aspects of their behavior as threatening then the child may have feelings of guilt for “being a nuisance”.

Too much guilt can make the child slow to interact with others and may inhibit their creativity. Some guilt is, of course, necessary; otherwise the child would not know how to exercise self-control or have a conscience.

A healthy balance between initiative and guilt is important. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of purpose.

4. Industry (competence) vs. Inferiority

Industry versus inferiority is the fourth stage of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. The stage occurs during childhood between the ages of five and twelve.

Children are at the stage where they will be learning to read and write, to do sums, to do things on their own. Teachers begin to take an important role in the child’s life as they teach the child specific skills.

It is at this stage that the child’s peer group will gain greater significance and will become a major source of the child’s self-esteem. The child now feels the need to win approval by demonstrating specific competencies that are valued by society and begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments.

If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they begin to feel industrious and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not encouraged, if it is restricted by parents or teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his own abilities and therefore may not reach his or her potential.

If the child cannot develop the specific skill they feel society is demanding (e.g., being athletic) then they may develop a sense of inferiority. Some failure may be necessary so that the child can develop some modesty. Again, a balance between competence and modesty is necessary. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of competence.

5. Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage is identity vs. role confusion, and it occurs during adolescence, from about 12-18 years. During this stage, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals.

The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult (Erikson, 1963, p. 245)

During adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood is most important. Children are becoming more independent, and begin to look at the future in terms of career, relationships, families, housing, etc. The individual wants to belong to a society and fit in.

This is a major stage of development where the child has to learn the roles he will occupy as an adult. It is during this stage that the adolescent will re-examine his identity and try to find out exactly who he or she is. Erikson suggests that two identities are involved: the sexual and the occupational.

According to Bee (1992), what should happen at the end of this stage is “a reintegrated sense of self, of what one wants to do or be, and of one’s appropriate sex role”. During this stage the body image of the adolescent changes.

Erikson claims that the adolescent may feel uncomfortable about their body for a while until they can adapt and “grow into” the changes. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of fidelity.

Fidelity involves being able to commit one's self to others on the basis of accepting others, even when there may be ideological differences.

During this period, they explore possibilities and begin to form their own identity based upon the outcome of their explorations. Failure to establish a sense of identity within society ("I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up") can lead to role confusion. Role confusion involves the individual not being sure about themselves or their place in society.

In response to role confusion or identity crisis, an adolescent may begin to experiment with different lifestyles (e.g., work, education or political activities). Also pressuring someone into an identity can result in rebellion in the form of establishing a negative identity, and in addition to this feeling of unhappiness.

6. Intimacy vs. Isolation

Occurring in young adulthood (ages 18 to 40 yrs), we begin to share ourselves more intimately with others. We explore relationships leading toward longer-term commitments with someone other than a family member.

Successful completion of this stage can result in happy relationships and a sense of commitment, safety, and care within a relationship. Avoiding intimacy, fearing commitment and relationships can lead to isolation, loneliness, and sometimes depression. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of love.

7. Generativity vs. Stagnation

During middle adulthood (ages 40 to 65 yrs), we establish our careers, settle down within a relationship, begin our own families and develop a sense of being a part of the bigger picture.

We give back to society through raising our children, being productive at work, and becoming involved in community activities and organizations.

By failing to achieve these objectives, we become stagnant and feel unproductive. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of care.

8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair

As we grow older (65+ yrs) and become senior citizens, we tend to slow down our productivity and explore life as a retired person. It is during this time that we contemplate our accomplishments and can develop integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life.

Erik Erikson believed if we see our lives as unproductive, feel guilt about our past, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness.

Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom enables a person to look back on their life with a sense of closure and completeness, and also accept death without fear.

Critical Evaluation

Erikson’s theory has good face validity. Many people find that they can relate to his theories about various stages of the life cycle through their own experiences.

However, Erikson is rather vague about the causes of development. What kinds of experiences must people have to successfully resolve various psychosocial conflicts and move from one stage to another? The theory does not have a universal mechanism for crisis resolution.

Indeed, Erikson (1964) acknowledges his theory is more a descriptive overview of human social and emotional development that does not adequately explain how or why this development occurs. For example, Erikson does not explicitly explain how the outcome of one psychosocial stage influences personality at a later stage.

However, Erikson stressed his work was a ‘tool to think with rather than a factual analysis.’ Its purpose then is to provide a framework within which development can be considered rather than testable theory.

One of the strengths of Erikson's theory is its ability to tie together important psychosocial development across the entire lifespan.

Although support for Erikson's stages of personality development exists (McAdams, 1999), critics of his theory provide evidence suggesting a lack of discrete stages of personality development (McCrae & Costa, 1997).

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References and Further Reading

Bee, H. L. (1992). The developing child. London: HarperCollins.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Erickson, E. (1958). Young man Luther: A study in psychoanalysis and history. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (Ed.). (1963). Youth: Change and challenge. Basic books.

Erikson, E. H. (1964). Insight and responsibility. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H., Paul, I. H., Heider, F., & Gardner, R. W. (1959). Psychological issues (Vol. 1). International Universities Press.

Gross, R. D., & Humphreys, P. (1992). Psychology: The science of mind and behavior. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100.

McCrae, R. R., & Costa Jr, P. T. (1997). Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52(5), 509.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Erik Erikson. Retrieved from

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Maslow Erikson
Proposed a series of motivational stages, each building on the previous one (i.e., cannot progress without satisfying the previous stage). Proposed a series of predetermined stages related to personality development. The stages are time related.
Progression through the stages is based on life circumstances and achievement (i.e., it is flexible). Progression through the stages is based a person’s age (i.e., rigid). During each stage an individual attains personality traits, either beneficial or pathological.
There is only one goal of achievement, although not everyone achieves it. The goal of achievement vary from stage to stage and involve overcoming a psychosocial crisis.
Individuals move up the motivational stages / pyramid in order to reach self-actualisation. The first four stages are like stepping stones. Successful completion of each stage results in a healthy personality and the acquisition of basic virtues. Basic virtues are characteristic strengths used to resolve subsequent crises.

Psychosocial Stages Summary

Trust vs. Mistrust

This stage begins at birth and lasts through one year of age.

The infant develops a sense of trust when interactions provide reliability, care, and affection.

A lack of this will lead to mistrust.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

This stage occurs between the ages of 18 months to approximately age two to three years.

The infant develops a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence.

Erikson states it is critical that parents allow their children to explore the limits of their abilities within an encouraging environment which is tolerant of failure.

Success leads to feelings of autonomy, failure results in feelings of shame and doubt.

Initiative vs. Guilt

This stage occurs during the preschool years, between the ages of three and five.

The child begins to assert control and power over their environment by planning activities, accomplishing tasks and facing challenges. Success at this stage leads to a sense of purpose.

If initiative is dismissed or discourages, either through criticism or control, children develop a sense of guilt.

Industry vs. Inferiority

This stage occurs during childhood between the ages of five and twelve.

It is at this stage that the child’s peer group will gain greater significance and will become a major source of the child’s self-esteem. The child is coping with new learning and social demands.

Success leads to a sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.

Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage occurs during adolescence, from about 12-18 years.

Teenagers explore who they are as individuals, and seek to establish a sense of self, and may experiment with different roles, activities, and behaviors.

According to Erikson, this is important to the process of forming a strong identity and developing a sense of direction in life.

Intimacy vs. Isolation

This stage takes place during young adulthood between the ages of approximately 19 and 40.

During this period, the major conflict centers on forming intimate, loving relationships with other people. Success leads to strong relationships, while failure results in loneliness and isolation.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

This stage takes place during middle adulthood between the ages of approximately 40 and 65.

People experience a need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often having mentees or creating positive changes that will benefit other people.

Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world.

Ego Integrity vs. Despair

This stage takes place after age 65 and involves reflecting on one's life and either moving into feeling satisfied and happy with one's life or feeling a deep sense of regret.

Success at this stages leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair.

Erik Erikson was a psychologist who did most of his work in the post-Freudian era, in the 1930s to the 1950s. He was a student of Freud, and was greatly influenced by the latter's theories of personality development. However, unlike his predecessor, Erikson gave a great deal of importance to the social environment in a person's psychological development.

Thus his theory is generally called a psychosocial theory of personality development. Erikson's theory posits that every human being passes through several distinct and qualitatively different stages in life, frombirth to death. According to him, the stages are universal, and the ages at which one is said to have passed from one to another stage are also fairly universal. However, it must be kept in mind that Erikson did not have much knowledge of cultures and societies other than his own, and thus the universality of his theory can and must be questioned.

The key idea in Erikson's theory is that the individual faces a conflict at each stage, which may or may not be successfully resolved within that stage. For example, he called the first stage 'Trust vs Mistrust'. If the quality of care is good in infancy, the child learns to trust the world to meet her needs. If not, trust remains an unresolved issue throughout succeeding stages of development.

According to Erikson, although there is a predominant issue at each stage, the stages are not watertight. Issues of one stage overlap with issues of another; how one has dealt with earlier issues determines how one will resolve later issues. Most important, there is a connection between present patterns of thinking and feeling, and earlier unresolved or resolved developmental issues. But Erikson also said that developmental blocks at any stage can be resolved at any point.

I shall now present a brief sketch of those parts of Erikson's theory of developmental stages that are relevant to schooling, and what each of these means for me as a teacher.

Stage I: 0 - 2 years. Trust vs Mistrust

Trust comes from the consistent meeting of needs. An infant who can trust the mother or father to meet her needs, will take from this stage a basic sense of trust in the world (to meet her needs). A sense of trust helps the acceptance of limits and boundaries.

Stage II: 2 - 4 years. Autonomy vs Shame

A child of this age is beginning to explore the world at will. This is the age commonly known as the 'terrible twos'. The very young child learns by feeling with all the senses, and an expression of autonomy in this process seems very relevant to the child's growth. If this autonomy is thwarted, three consequences may ensue:

  1. A sense of shame develops.
  2. It prevents a healthy acceptance of limits.
  3. The child feels devastated by small crises.

I have personally never been able to understand why a child is restricted from touching various objects at home, and then sent to a Montessori school to play 'sensorial' games!

This is also the age when feelings are beginning to be expressed. It is important not to condemn feelings the child may hold, such as anger or jealousy, but to help the child be sensitive to his behavioural expressions in a particular situation.

Stage III: 4 - 6 years. Initiative vs Guilt

The child in this stage is beginning to make decisions, and carry them out, primarily through play activities. Imagination is the key mover. A sense of purpose develops when she is able to envision something in her imagination and pursue it. Such initiative must be encouraged.

Some features of a kindergarten programme suggest themselves fromthese perceptions.

  1. The child must be allowed room for the expression of imagination, such as playing with various natural, simple materials, and role-playing. Ready-made toys often inhibit this expression, as there is very little that can be done imaginatively with most of them. For example, a matchbox can become a car or an aircraft, but a ready-made car cannot become anything other than what it is. It can only be manipulated.
  2. Stories and songs that stimulate the imagination can be introduced.
  3. Real-life activities like serving food, chopping vegetables or making chappatis, prepare children for participation in the community around them. Children of this age are capable of contributing productively to the environment in which they live. I would go so far as to say that it is vital that they do so, and that they feel their contribution is 'real' and not just 'pretend'. This is commonly observed in poorer families, where children of this age take charge of the younger siblings and certain home responsibilities.
  4. Child-directed activities where the child chooses her activity and repeats it as often as she wants must be encouraged. This again is an opportunity for the child to show initiative and take responsibility. Ridiculing, making fun of the child's imagination, and subtle or overt expectation can inhibit the natural sense of initiative. One may also distort the child's initiative by linking it to reward and performance. Lying should be dealt with sensitively at this age, as spinning imaginative stories may not be the same as lying. Discouraging initiative by inducing guilt or shame may lead to a repressed child, or to one who does things on the sly.

Stage IV: 6 - 12 years. Industry vs Inferiority

These are the years when a child can begin to work hard academically and gain competence in various areas of activity.

This is also a time when the child is praised for the 'doing', for achievement. The question I would ask is, what do we communicate to the child about his 'being'? Adults affirm competence, and that becomes a strong motivation for the child to pursue an activity. While that may be a strong encouragement to a child, it also makes him value himself for his achievements alone, and may promote a sense of comparison and inferiority. What then happens to all those parts of him that are not visible to the world as 'achievement'? It seems to be a very sensitive balance. It also seems relevant not to affirm only certain kinds of aptitudes, as that may restrict the areas of exploration to those that are approved of.

At the same time, it is vitally important to help the child feel that he can pursue a task and do it well. Sometimes, in this age group, there is a tendency for teachers to excuse lack of skill, lack of completion or lack of accuracy in a child's work, the child being young and there being enough time to learn. This may be counterproductive to developing a sense of competence. Small learning targets may be set in a variety of areas. There seems to be a clear case for a firm and consistent demand for the child to actually reach the target, and show proof of learning, not just of engagement. This phase is directly linked to productivity in later life. Thus the junior and middle school is a time to validate the child in his or her own multiple talents and to build a work ethic.

The later part of this phase begins a redefining of the child's relationship with the world. So the curriculum must include a different kind of input to cater to this. Observational exercises, area studies, understanding the flow of resources and materials, examining lifestyle through resource audits, are some of the activities that have been tried out in our school, and have proved very helpful in this regard.

Stage V: 12 - 19 years. Identity vs Role Confusion

The questions arising at this stage are, 'Who am I?', 'What are my values?', 'What is my identity?' Identity is defined as the ability to exercise choice. This is the last stage relevant to school education.

Being able to take initiative and show proof of learning would be appropriate at this stage. There is a book called the Walkabout Papers by Dr Maurice James, which talks of this process of student initiative in great detail. In it is described how a student sets a challenge for himself in certain areas, and plans and executes a project in each of these. Teachers and resource persons in the community can act as facilitators in this process, but the student is working independently. At the end of this process, there can be a presentation to the community of the work done as tangible proof of effort and achievement.

For Erikson, this is also the stage where values have to be chosen, beliefs understood and the 'self' explored. If values are imposed rather than chosen by the child herself, they are not internalised and there is a lack of meaning in later life. How are these values chosen? Erikson says that adolescents are often influenced by role models and tend to imitate and hold their values. Individuating without rebellion is important for a healthy sense of self.

How do we respond to the characteristics of this developmental stage? Of supreme importance is the need for an open and warm relationship between the adult and the young adolescent, which will keep channels of communication open. For instance, since it is evident that the young adult is influenced by role models promoted by the media or society at large, it is important that we help her see that all imitation is limited and cripples creativity. This is also the stage when we can explore issues of responsibility to society and the world at large.

An awareness of such psychological findings does, no doubt, widen a teacher's horizons. It sets us thinking about what is appropriate at each stage, in our approaches to teaching and learning, and may thus help enrich the school's curricular objectives. All the same, the limitations of a theory, any theory, must be underscored. Any theory is just a framework and cannot substitute for but only aids the teacher's ability to observe and respond to students.

I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Ms. Anita of Parivarthan whose lecture on Erik Erikson provided me with many of the facts presented.


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