2.2 Social Development: Erikson’s Eight Psychosocial Crises

Social development refers to the long-term changes in relationships and interactions involving self, peers, and family. It includes both positive changes, such as how friendships develop, and negative changes, such as aggression or bullying. One of the best-known theories of social development is the Eight Psychosocial Crises of Erik Erikson. Like Piaget, Erikson developed a theory of social development that relies on stages, except that Erikson thought of stages as a series of psychological or social (or psychosocial) crises —turning points in a person’s relationships and feelings about themselves. Each crisis consists of a dilemma or choice that carries both advantages and risks, but in which one choice or alternative is normally considered more desirable or “healthy.”

How one crisis is resolved affects how later crises are resolved. The resolution to each crisis also helps to create an individual’s developing personality. Erikson proposed eight crises that extend from birth through old age. Four of the stages occur during the school years, and are given special attention here, but it is also helpful to know which crises are thought to come both before and after those in the school years.

Eight Psychosocial Crises According to Erikson

Psychosocial crisis Approximate age Description
Trust and mistrust Birth to one year Development of trust between caregiver and child
Autonomy and shame Age 1-3 Development of control over bodily functions and activities
Initiative and guilt Age 3-6 Testing limits of self-assertion and purposefulness
Industry and inferiority Age 6-12 Development of sense of mastery and competence
Identity and role confusion Age 12-19 Development of identity and acknowledge of identity by others
Intimacy and isolation Age 19-25+ Formation of intimate relationships and commitments
Generativity and

stagnation

Age 25-50+ Development of creative or productive activities that contribute to future generations
Integrity and despair Age 50+ Acceptance of personal life history and forgiveness of self and others

Crises of Infants and Preschoolers: Trust, Autonomy, and Initiative

Almost from the day they are born, infants face a crisis (in Erikson’s sense) about trust and mistrust. They are happiest if they can eat, sleep, and excrete according to their own physiological schedules, regardless of whether their schedules are convenient for the caregiver. Unfortunately, though, a young infant is in no position to control or influence a caregivers scheduling needs, so the baby faces a dilemma about how much to trust or mistrust the caregiver’s helpfulness. It is as if the baby asks, “If I demand food (or sleep, or a clean diaper, etc.) now, will my mother actually be able to help me meet this need?” Hopefully, between the two of them, caregiver and child resolve this choice in favor of the baby’s trust: the caregiver proves to be at least “good enough” in attentiveness, and the baby risks trusting the caregiver’s motivation and skill.

Almost as soon as this crisis is resolved, however, a new one develops over the issue of autonomy and shame. The child (who is now a toddler) may now trust his or her caregiver, but the very trust contributes to a desire to assert autonomy by taking care of basic personal needs, such as feeding, toileting, or dressing. Given the child’s lack of experience in these activities, however, self-care is risky at first—the toddler may feed (or use the toilet, or dress themselves, etc.) clumsily and ineffectively. The child’s caregiver, then, risks overprotecting the child and criticizing their early efforts unnecessarily, thus causing the child to feel shame for even trying. Hopefully, as with the earlier crisis of trust, the new crisis gets resolved in favor of autonomy through the combined efforts of the child to assert independence and of the caregiver to support the child’s efforts.

Eventually, about the time a child is of preschool age, the autonomy exercised during the previous period becomes more elaborate, extended, and focused on objects and people other than the child and their basic physical needs. The child at a daycare center, for example, may now undertake to build the “biggest city in the world” out of all available unit blocks—even if other children want some of the blocks for themselves. The child’s projects and desires create a new crisis of initiative and guilt, because the child soon realizes that acting on impulses or desires can sometimes have negative effects on others—more blocks for one child may mean fewer for someone else. As with the crisis over autonomy, caregivers have to support the child’s initiatives whenever possible, but they must also take heed not to make the child feel guilty for desiring to have or to do something that affects others’ welfare. By limiting behavior where necessary—but not limiting internal feelings—caregivers will be supporting the development of a lasting ability to take initiative. Expressed in Erikson’s terms, the crisis is then resolved in favor of initiative.

Even though only the last of these three crises overlaps with the school years, all three relate to issues faced by students of any age, and even by their teachers. A child or youth who is fundamentally mistrustful, for example, has a serious problem in coping with school life. If you are a student, it is essential for your long-term survival to believe that teachers and school officials have your best interests at heart, and that they are not imposing assignments or making rules gratuitously. Even though students are not infants any more, teachers function like Erikson’s caregiving parents in that they need to prove worthy of students’ trust through their initial flexibility and attentiveness.

Parallels from the classroom also exist for the crises of autonomy and of initiative. To learn effectively, students need to make choices and undertake academic initiatives at least some of the time, even though not every choice or initiative may be practical or desirable. Teachers, for their part, need to make true choices and initiatives possible, and refrain from criticizing, even accidentally, a choice or intention behind an initiative even if the teacher privately believes that it is “bound to fail.” Support for choices and initiative should be focused on providing resources and on guiding the student’s efforts toward more likely success. In these ways, teachers function like parents of toddlers and preschoolers in Erikson’s theory of development, regardless of the age of their students.

The Crisis of Childhood: Industry and Inferiority

Once into elementary school, the child is faced for the first time with becoming competent and worthy in the eyes of the world at large, or more precisely in the eyes of classmates and teachers. To achieve their esteem, he or she must develop skills that require effort that is sustained and somewhat focused. The challenge creates the crisis of industry and inferiority. To be respected by teachers, for example, the child must learn to read and to behave like a “true student.” To be respected by peers, he or she must learn to cooperate and to be friendly, among other things. There are risks involved in working on these skills and qualities, because there can be no guarantee of success with them in advance. If the child does succeed, therefore, he or she experiences the satisfaction of a job well done and of skills well learned—a feeling that Erikson called industry. If not, however, the child risks feeling lasting inferiority compared to others. Teachers therefore have a direct, explicit role in helping students to resolve this crisis in favor of industry or success.

They can set realistic academic goals for students—ones that tend to lead to success—and then provide materials and assistance for students to reach their goals. Teachers can also express their confidence that students can in fact meet their goals if and when the students get discouraged, and avoid hinting (even accidentally) that a student is simply a “loser.” Paradoxically, these strategies will work best if the teacher is also tolerant of less-than-perfect performance by students. Too much emphasis on perfection can undermine some students’ confidence—fostering what Erikson called inferiority—by making academic goals seem beyond reach.

The Crisis of Adolescence: Identity and Role Confusion

As children develop lasting talents and attitudes as a result of the crisis of industry, they begin to face a new question: what do all the talents and attitudes add up to be? Who is the “me” embedded in this profile of qualities? These questions are the crisis of identity and role confusion. Defining identity is riskier than it may appear, because some talents and attitudes may be poorly developed, and some may even be undesirable in the eyes of others. To further complicate the issue, some valuable talents and attitudes may evade others’ notice. Conflicts in resolving the identify and role confusion crisis may yield a personal misunderstanding of one’s attitudes and talents, or confusion regarding who others expect that person to be. In Erikson’s terms, role confusion is the result.

Teachers can minimize role confusion in a number of ways. One is to offer students diverse role models by identifying models in students’ reading materials, for example, or by inviting diverse guests to school. The point of these strategies would be to express a key idea: that there are many different ways to be respected, successful, and satisfied with life. Another way to support students’ identity development is to be alert to students’ confusions about their futures, and refer them to counselors or other services outside school that can help sort these out. Still another strategy is to tolerate changes in students’ goals and priorities—e.g., sudden changes in extra-curricular activities or in personal plans after graduation. Since students are still “trying on” different roles, discouraging experimentation may not be in students’ best interests.

The Crises of Adulthood: Intimacy, Generativity, and Integrity

Beyond the school years, according to Erikson, individuals continue psychosocial development by facing additional crises. Young adults, for example, face a crisis of intimacy and isolation. This crisis is about the risk of establishing close relationships with a select number of others. Whether the relationships are heterosexual, homosexual, or not sexual at all, their defining qualities are depth and sustainability. Without them, an individual risks feeling isolated.

Assuming that a person resolves this crisis in favor of intimacy, however, he or she then faces a crisis about generativity and stagnation. This crisis is characteristic of most of adulthood, and not surprisingly therefore is about caring for or making a contribution to society, and especially to its younger generations. Generativity is about making life productive and creative so that it matters to others. One obvious way for some to achieve this feeling is by raising children, but there are also many other ways to contribute to the welfare of others.

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Foundations of Educational Technology by Penny Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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