There are many challenges in the journey of life.  Developmental psychologists believe that the challenges we face follow predictable stages.  At each stage, our focus shifts from one challenge to the next.  Erik Erikson was a psychologist who studied directly under Sigmund Freud.  He took Freud’s ideas of stages of development and advanced and refined it.  Erikson believed there are eight (8) stages of life development, and the success or failure of each stage has a lasting impact upon each subsequent stage of life.  This article will focus on the first four (4) stages of life.  These first four stages occur more rapidly in succession than the second four.  They are more fundamental stages to our basic outlook as humans in life.

In many ways each stage is dependent on previous stages of life with the first 18 months of life making a deep impact on one’s entire life.

Stage One: Infancy – 18 months: Trust vs. Mistrust

In the first stage of life, newborn children are faced with a fundamental question about the life: can I trust?  Can they trust that their basic and emotional needs will be met adequately?  Can they trust that people will provide, care, and respond so they will be able to survive?  Because infants are utterly dependent on caregivers, they answer this question based on how well their caregivers provide for them.

Successful completion of this stage leads to a fundamental sense that they will be ok, that things will generally work out in the end and that people by and large look out for the well-being of others.  Because an infant is non-verbal, people generally have few words to adequately describe the sense of trust.  They simply have a more comfortable feeling about the security of life.

Failure to complete this stage adequately leads to a fundamental sense that the world is unsafe and that people generally will not look out for others’ needs.  As adults, these folks have more trouble forming relationships where they rely on others because of an underlying sense that they will be let down during a time of need.

Stage Two: 18 months – 3 years: Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt

During the second stage of life younglings question their basic sense of ability to navigate their world using their own will.  The question they ask themselves is do I have a say in life or is my life dictated by others/the world?  This again is largely managed by caregiver oversight, but the temperament of a child also plays a somewhat larger role.

Successful completion of this stage leads to a sense of control in one’s life.  As adults they feel better able to reach desired outcomes so are more likely to think of ideas and manage their environments.

Failure to achieve this stage leads to a fundamental doubt in one’s own abilities.  They have a more external locus of control, feeling that what happens in their life is generally beyond their control.  Therefore they tend to be more passive and dependent in nature.

Stage Three: 3 years – 5 years: Initiative vs. Guilt

In this stage, children begin to explore increasingly beyond themselves and interact with others.  During this stage they develop a sense of their ability to grasp new concepts and develop new relationships with others.

Successful completion of this stage results in a sense of ability to acquire skills and adapt to new situations.  As adults they are less afraid to face unknown situations and are more likely to take initiative.

Failure to complete this stage results in a sense of being unable to adapt to new situation.  This leads to a sense of inadequacy and an inability to fit into the world.  As adults they may be less likely to try new things and feel a fundamental sense of guilt over this inability.

Stage Four: 5 years – 13 years: Industry vs. Inferiority

During this stage of life, children develop a greater self-awareness.  At the same time, they begin to learn skills and acquire a greater base of knowledge.  It is during this stage that children develop their sense of ability to understand their world enough to perform and contribute in a meaningful way.

Successful completion of this stage results in a sense of ability to perform in a real and meaningful way.  As adults, they feel they have the ability to learn the skills needed to accomplish tasks.  Most prominently, they are more likely to learn a skilled trade.  They may also learn hobbies and are more likely to try new activities.

Failure to achieve this stage results in a sense of inferiority and an inability to contribute to the world or community.  They tend to feel like failures and resist learning new skills.  This is due to their fundamental sense of inability to successfully learn and complete the skill or trade.

To read about the next four stages of life, click here.)

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