Lesson 6 of 7  - Learn what kids need and how to parent effectively

Perspective on Erik Erickson's
Eight Stages of
Human Development

How we mature - or don't

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/erikson.htm

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        This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 6 - learn what typical kids need as they grow, and how to fill their needs effectively over two decades without neglecting yourself. The range and scope of major social problems suggests that U.S. parents are failing at this.

        This page is adapted from a 1997 Web series on psychologist Erik Erickson's theory of psychoso-cial development, The original authors are Craig Cramer, Bernadette Flynn, and Ann La Fave of the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Cortland, NY. I have added comments after their summary.

        Erikson's ideas were presented in his classic 1963 book Childhood and Society. Main links in the table below connect with Web commentary on each stage by the authors. - PKG


        "Erikson's theory consists of eight stages of development. Each stage is characterized by a differ-ent conflict that must be resolved by the individual. When the environment makes new demands on peo-ple, the conflicts arise. 'The person is faced with a choice between two ways of coping with each crisis, an adaptive, or maladaptive way.

        Only when each crisis is resolved, which involves a change in the personality, does the person have sufficient strength to deal with the next stages of development' (Schultz and Schultz, 1987). If a person is unable to resolve a conflict at a particular stage, they will confront and struggle with it later in life."

Dr. Erik Erickson's 8 Stages of Human Development

Stage Ages Basic
1. Oral-Sensory Birth to 12 to 18 months Trust vs. Mistrust Feeding The infant must form a first loving, trusting relationship (bond) with the caregiver, or develop a sense of mistrust.
2. Muscular-Anal

18 months
to 3 years

Autonomy vs.
Toilet training The child's energies are directed toward the development of physical skills, including walking, grasping, and rectal sphincter control. The child learns control but may develop shame and doubt if not handled well.
3. Locomotor 3 to 6 years Initiative vs.
Independence The child continues to become more assertive and to take more initiative, but may be too forceful, leading to guilt feelings.
4. Latency 6 to 12 years Industry vs. Inferiority School The child must deal with demands to learn new skills or risk a sense of inferiority, failure, and incompetence.
5.  Adolescence 12 to 18 years Identity vs.
Role confusion
Peer relation-ships The teenager must achieve a sense of identity in occupation, sex roles, poli-tics, and religion.
6.  Young Adulthood 19 to 40 years Intimacy vs.
Love relation-ships The young adult must develop intim-ate relationships or suffer feelings of isolation.
7. Middle Adulthood 40 to 65 years Generativity vs. Stagnation Parenting Each adult must find some way to satisfy and support the next genera-tion.
8. Maturity 65 to death Ego Integrity vs. Despair Reflection on and acceptance of one's life The culmination is a sense of oneself as one is, and of feeling fulfilled.


        The reality that Erikson's ideas are still widely referred to and discussed (and disputed) 40 years later suggests the relevance of his theory to understanding and promoting human health and growth. In deciding if and how to validate and apply Erikson's theory, consider these points:

        Erikson (1902 - 1994) studied Sigmund Freud's ideas, and was a stepson and a psychologist. His childhood history suggests he was probably a Grown Wounded Child, long before the concept became debated. His premises were developed before the widespread acceptance of family-systems theories. Major implications of this include...

  • His ideas focus on the individual, and do acknowledge (elsewhere) the powerful effect of a young child's family nurturance level on his/her development - though Erikson was (presumably) unaware of the inherited effects of the lethal [wounds + unawareness) cycle.

  • I don't know whether Erikson proposed that a child's success or failure to master these stages is directly proportional to their caregivers' mastery of the same stages. My 30-year clinical experi-ence suggests it is proportional.

  • Since Erikson's ideas originated before the advent of the current U.S. divorce epidemic and the related surge in American stepfamily formation, I suspect his writings do not comment on minor kids' needs to master these family adjustment needs in order to master the eight stages of psy-chosocial growth. Family dis-integration (separation and divorce) probably makes adaptive respon-ses to the childhood crises significantly harder.

        Erikson's eight stages don't mention personal or family spirituality (vs. religion) as an integral part of healthy human development. This probably reflects his Era's psychiatric convention of excluding spiritual-ity from treating human (vs. family) dysfunction.

        Dr. Erikson's generation of clinicians were trained several decades before the inner-child and disso-ciative disorder (e.g. "multiple personality") concepts were accepted into clinical and lay awarenesses. Presumably, he felt the normal human personality was "monolithic,' which limited his ability to explain failure to master any of the developmental stages. Erikson's stages don't acknowledge or discuss..

  • the normal evolution of an "inner-family" system of personality subselves in response to childhood family and social environments, or...

  • the widespread mid-life adult need to harmonize these personality ''parts'' under the wise leader-ship of the resident true Self and other Manager subselves.

        The inner-family system of subselves proposed in Lesson 1 here suggests that the overarching developmental crisis of a child's pre-adult years is to develop a personality consistently led by the resident true Self and other Manager subselves. Failure to master this "crisis" implies (a) low-nurtur-ance environment and (b) dominance of a protective false self. Until corrected, that will inhibit mastery of all other developmental stages

        It is misleading to assume the conflicts in each psychosocial stage are linear, discrete events, rather than evolving and overlapping in the flow of personal development, It would be useful to know if Erikson proposed specific criteria for assessing a person's mastery of each developmental "crisis." For examples of such criteria, see the descriptions of each psychological wound.  

        Note that the table of stages above suggests that mastering each developmental "crisis" is either successful or not, rather than proposing degrees of success that change over the years.

        The SUNY authors reprinted above  quote a source (Schultz and Schultz) which suggests Erikson thought that human development is a series of "adaptive or maladaptive" ways of coping with each de-velopmental conflict or "crisis." One way of interpreting this using the inner-family concept is that "mala-daptive" ways are caused by well-meaning personality subselves (a "false self") who distrust and disable the true Self and other Manager subselves.

        Erikson's stages correlate with some of the six psychological wounds proposed in this Web site - e.g. excessive distrust and inability to bond (stage 1), shame (stage 2) and guilt (stage 3). His stages don't propose mastering a conflict over distorting reality vs.perceiving it clearly. This mastery occurs when the resident true Self consistently leads the other subselves. 

        The stages also don't include learning to grieve well as a childhood crisis. My clinical experience with hundreds of clients is that many (most?) U.S. kids and adults are unaware of bonding, loss, and grief basics, and of how to mourn inevitable life-losses effectively. Lesson 3 in this Web site focuses on hea-lthy grieving.

        A fundamental question posed by Erikson's scheme is whether an adult who has not "successfully resolved" one or more early developmental conflicts can proactively "redo" the conflict-resolution process and create a more "adaptive" outcome.

        My and my colleagues' consistent clinical experience is that such "redoing" (recovery) is feasible using inner-family therapy ("parts work") to empower the resident true Self to guide and harmonize other subselves. Requisites for this seem to be...

  • accumulating ~35-45 years' life experience and...

  • hitting some form of true "bottom," which causes...

  • high-priority commitment to improve personal wholistic health.

        The alternative "maladaptive" (false-self) choice is overfocusing on immediate comforts, and self- neglect. This promotes illness, social stress, premature death, and unconsciously passing the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle on to descendents.

        Erikson's proposed growth stages imply that (healthy) human development...

  • requires mastering a series of interactive "conflicts" over time, and...

  • continues across each person's whole life span, not just childhood.

This parallels the premise that relationships and family systems pass through a series of developmental stages or phases across time as members age and negotiate their dynamic mosaics of individual growth stages.

Status Check: Review the eight stages in the table above, and then pause, breathe, and reflect. On a scale of 1 (I totally agree) to 10 (I totally disagree), how do you rank your acceptance of Erikson's growth "crises" applied to yourself and other important adults and kids? If you disagree, how would you describe your theory of human development?

        If you feel Erikson's scheme is credible, thoughtfully decide whether you feel you made an "adap-tive" choice with the conflict in each stage (so far). Then reflect on what you and any family adults need to do to help any dependent kids master each stage successfully, over time.


        This article summarizes psychologist Erik Erikson's widely accepted premise that human growth occurs across eight discrete stages that each person must negotiate across their life. Based on these premises, this article offers perspective on these stages, in the context of childhood nurturance levels, personality subselves, and false-self wound recovery. Erikson's theory was formed well before...

  • the present widespread clinical acceptance of family-systems theory as an effective way to understand human development and behavior, and before...

  • current ideas about human dissociation became known and validated. 

For perspective, note these normal developmental and typical family-adjustment needs that typical kids of divorce and parental re/marriage need to fill with empathic, knowledgeable adult help.

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or 'someone else.'?

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Updated April 30, 2013