Early Childhood Education

Psychosocial Theory


Noted child psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson is often referred to as the father of psychosocial development. He was closely associated with psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna Freud, during his stay in Vienna from 1927 to 1933, a period described as one of Freud’s fame. Erikson, more than anyone else, made the most significant advances in the field of psychoanalytical theory. He viewed the psychoanalytic situation as a modern Western approach to humankind’s attempts at introspection, beginning at first as a psychotherapeutic method and leading later to a broader psychological theory. Erikson’s best-known work is Childhood and Society published in 1950.

Earlier, Freud had postulated that personality development was influenced by a sequence of stages in which the child’s libido, or sexual energy, was centered on particular body zones, starting from the oral and moving through the anal, phallic, and genital regions of the body. Freud’s approach to psychoanalysis was thus defined by a theory of psychosexual development. Erikson worked to broaden Freud’s perspective after his study of the Sioux Indian children showed him the deep influence that social and historical change had on the human mind. Erikson himself had been greatly impressed by the work of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.

In his book, Childhood and Society, he made note of the fact that even anthropologists living for years among aboriginal tribes had been inattentive to the quality of child care within the tribes, and had failed to see that these tribes trained their children in some systematic way. In the same book, Erikson also presented an in-depth discussion on the Freudian concepts of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. In doing so, Erikson made clear the continuity between the main ideas from his earlier training and his work later in life. These themes are integrated in the section in the book in which he formulated his discussion on the psychosocial nature of development, taking into account an understanding of general encounters between the child and the social world. Erikson, a Freudian ego-psychologist, basically widened the scope of psychoanalytic theory to give greater consideration to social, cultural, and environmental factors.

According to Erikson, human development takes place over eight psychosocial stages. At each stage, the individual faces a predominant “crisis,” a turning point of enhanced potential. The more successfully the individual resolves the “crisis” at each stage, the higher will be the success rate at which the conflict at the next stage would be resolved and, subsequently, the healthier would be the development of the individual’s overall personality. A successful resolution of a conflict results in the individual’s developing a specific psychosocial virtue at the respective stage. The next section presents the eight stages in more detail.


Stages in Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory of Development

Trust versus mistrust is the first conflict, or the first psychosocial stage, that an individual experiences in the first year of life. In this first year of life, infants depend on others for food, warmth, and affection and must trust their parents or caregivers for providing for their needs. If their needs are met in a responsive and consistent manner, infants will learn to trust their environment, and develop a secure attachment with their caregivers. If their needs are not responded to they will then develop mistrust toward people and things in their environment, and possibly even toward themselves. A positive resolution of the conflict of trust versus mistrust will result in the emergence of the psychosocial virtue of hope.

Autonomy versus shame and doubt is the second of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and occurs between the ages of one and three years. During this period, toddlers begin to learn how to walk, talk, use the toilet, and do things for themselves. They begin to discover that their behavior is their own, and that they are able to control it. They begin to assert their sense of independence and autonomy. If parents encourage this assertion for independence and are reassuring when their child makes mistakes, the child will develop confidence in making future choices and decisions. If parents are overprotective, or disapproving of this assertion for independence, their child may become ashamed of being independent, or doubtful of his or her abilities. A positive resolution of this conflict enables a child to realize his or her will.

Initiative versus guilt is the third stage to occur between the preschool years of three and six. Children begin to develop and master motor skills and become more engaged in social interactions with people in their widening social world. This leads to an eagerness for more adventure in order to test the limits for their newfound skills. However, they also need to learn how to achieve a balance between their eagerness and their impulsiveness in making grandiose plans. If their parents and teachers are encouraging and can work with the children on realistic goals that can be achieved, children learn to feel confident in using their imagination. If, however, they are unsupervised by the adults and they continue to engage in impulsive fantasies that are doomed to fail, children begin to feel guilty and ashamed of taking risks and engaging in make-believe play. Positive experiences during this stage result in the development of the psychosocial virtue of courage and a sense of purpose.

Industry versus inferiority is the fourth stage that occurs between the ages of six and eleven years. Children of this age are in elementary school, and are beginning to make the transition into a world of academics and competing peers. Even as they are industriously learning new reading, writing, math, and social skills, they are evaluating their own abilities in the learning of these skills. If children find pleasure in intellectual stimulation and are able to master skills easily and earn praise for their efforts, they feel successful and productive. On the other hand, negative outcomes in the struggle to learn these skills can result in the child’s feeling inferior to peers. A positive resolution of the conflict at this stage promotes the development of a sense of competence, yet another psychosocial virtue.

Identity versus role confusion occurs during adolescence and the individual now must integrate the healthy resolutions of all the previous stages in order to successfully answer the question “Who am I?” Individuals who have dealt with earlier conflicts successfully are ready for the “identity crisis” and emerge from this conflict with a strong sense of self, as well as the psychosocial virtue of fidelity and loyalty to one’s self. If not, the individual will sink into confusion, unable to make decisions about one’s own vocation, responsibilities, beliefs, and values.

Intimacy versus isolation is the sixth conflict and occurs during young adulthood. This stage is marked by intimate relationships. An individual who has not yet developed a sense of identity usually finds it difficult to enter into an intimate relationship or commitment and may retreat into isolation. Individuals who are able to form intimate and healthy relationships, and are able to share themselves with others, find the psychosocial virtue of love.

Generativity versus stagnation is the seventh stage and occurs during adulthood. By generativity, Erikson means the ability to look outside of one’s self to care for and assist those from a different generation. During this stage, individuals not only feel the desire to create a living legacy and help the next generation, but also find themselves in the position of having to care for their ailing parents. Individuals can solve this crisis by having their own children or nurturing others in various ways. A successful resolution of this crisis results in the emergence of the psychosocial virtue of care, whereas a negative outcome in terms of the inability to assist others results in a sense of self-centeredness and stagnation.

Integrity versus despair is the last of the eight stages in the individual’s development and occurs during old age. Old age is the time when individuals experience loss in various forms such as retirement, failing health, death of siblings and peers, and so forth. It is a time when the individual looks back and reflects upon his or her personal life and its role in the larger scheme of things. If the older person has experienced positive outcomes at the earlier stages of life, this retrospection will reveal a life well spent, and a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of integrity will prevail. If not, the individual will feel a sense of hopelessness and despair as the end of life approaches. This process of in-depth reflection and revelation leads to the development of the psychosocial virtue of wisdom.

Erikson did not believe that individuals must experience only the positive emotions. A positive outcome during each of the stages would result if the individual experienced more positive and fewer negative dimensions of the conflict. Some exposure to the negative emotions was also considered necessary. For instance, if a baby were to experience only trust and no mistrust, it would not prepare him or her to be able to discriminate whom to trust under different circumstances in order to survive in the world. Nevertheless, Erikson certainly believed that a positive resolution should dominate at each stage in order for the individual to develop a healthy personality.

Early childhood education in the United States became closely defined by Erik- son’s ideas. This theory of psychosocial development has had a profound impact on scholarly and lay interest in the social-emotional domain of children’s development, and on a corresponding social-emotional curriculum for early childhood classrooms. Because the emerging psychosocial virtues for each stage would ultimately define the individual’s identity, Erikson is often called the “architect of identity.” He was concerned with the effect of rapid social changes in the United States, is credited for widening the scope of psychoanalytical theory to a greater consideration of social, cultural, and environmental factors.

It is interesting to note that Erikson’s biographer, Robert Coles, noticed the effect of history, culture, and environment on Erikson’s own work. Erikson’s Danish parents were from Copenhagen, where the existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard had lived, and it is told that Erikson’s mother had read books by Kierkegaard and Emerson during her pregnancy and Erikson’s infancy. When Coles wrote that the roots of psychoanalysis were buried in nineteenth-century science and philosophy, he had traced a line of influence from Soren Kierkegaard, who examined the psychology of man from a theologian’s perspective and believed that each man’s mind had its own specific history and destiny; to the work of Viennese physician and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in his studies of the human mind; and, finally, to child psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who years later would insist that it was necessary to pay attention to both the individual and society because “every life, every ‘conflict,’ every nation has a background and a future” (Coles, 1970, p. 42). See also Sex and Sexuality in Young Children.

Further Readings: Coles, Robert (1970). Erik H. Erikson: The growth of his work. Boston: Little, Brown and Company; Crain, William (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall; Erikson, Erik Homburger (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton; Friedman, Lawrence Jacob (1999). Identity’s architect: A biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner’s Book.

Amita Gupta