How to Use Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development


Erik Erikson was a a 20th century psychologist and humanitarian, best known for his theory of psychosocial development. He based this theory on his extensive field research. He studied combat crises in U.S. soldiers during World War II, child-rearing practices in Native American communities and social behavior in India. The theory of psychosocial development is relevant to modern life and explains how personality and behavior develop through a series of eight stages over the entire life cycle. Erikson's theory is useful for teachers, parents, counselors and coaches.

  • Nurture and care for your child during the infancy -- trust vs. mistrust -- stage. A child will develop optimism and trust if he receives consistent love and attention from both parents or guardians. According to Erikson, a child who does not receive adequate care during this stage may experience depression, withdrawal and possibly even paranoia later in life.

  • Guide the child gradually and firmly during the early childhood -- autonomy vs. shame -- stage. Help her build self-esteem and independence as she learns new skills and the difference between right and wrong. Erikson cautions against overly permissive and harsh parenting styles, which may lead the child to be overly impulsive or experience extreme shame and doubt.

  • Support the child's initiative and help him achieve his goals during the preschool -- initiative vs. guilt -- stage. During these years, a child also becomes curious about people and starts modeling adult behavior. Although Erikson downplays biological sexuality in his theory, he suggests that children may become involved in the classic "Oedipal struggle" (sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex) at this stage. A firm, but fair, parenting style will help the child resolve this struggle through proper social role identification.

  • Support the child during the school age -- industry vs. inferiority -- stage. Help her learn new skills and knowledge and develop a sense of competence. As her world expands to include the school and neighborhood, the child will start developing relationships outside the family unit. Erikson cautions against over-involved and under-involved parents. Both parenting styles can result in feelings of inferiority.

  • Allow the teenager to discover and find his own identity during the adolescent -- identity vs. role confusion -- stage. As he struggles with social interactions, he develops a sense of morality and discovers his purpose in life. If an adolescent fails to resolve his "identity crisis," another expression coined by Erikson, he may experience role confusion or join cults and other hate groups.

  • Connect with others, emotionally and physically, during the young adult -- intimacy vs. isolation -- stage. Most young adults will find satisfying relationships, but if unsuccessful, isolation or promiscuity may occur.

  • Contribute to your family, workplace and community during the middle-aged adult -- generativity vs. stagnation --stage. Adults who have a strong sense of success and creativity develop generativity. This term, "generativity," coined by Erikson, describes the ability to make a positive difference and build a legacy for the future. Major life shifts also may occur during this stage, and middle-aged adults often find themselves dealing with empty nests, aging parents, career changes and critical illnesses.

  • Reflect during the late adult -- integrity vs. despair -- stage. Adults who have led meaningful lives can look back and experience few if any, regrets. They can calmly accept successes and failures, aging and loss. Others may experience despair and fear death as they reflect upon their past experiences and failures.

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