Erik Erikson’s Lifespan Development Paradigm

Soul Stories HMCOne thing really stayed with me after studying psychology at university, and that was Erik Erikson’s Psychological Stages of Development – a lifespan development paradigm. This is mainly because I could relate to it and have seen the stages in action. While some things just left me dumbfounded, like Freud’s ‘penis envy’ or his advocacy for cocaine use, even though it was entertaining, I found no value in it.

Erikson’s stages, on the other hand, I think about approximately once a week, after learning about it nine years ago.

He suggested that during each stage of our lives we have an important ‘conflict’ to overcome. Either you do, or you don’t overcome this during each phase, and this will influence your psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Here they are, for interest’s sake. See if you find any value in them, too. Perhaps you can see yourself, your children, or people you know. Overall, it’s helped me to understand ME better.

Infancy: Birth to 2 years

Conflict: Trust versus Mistrust

Significant relationship: Mother

Can I trust the world? Feeding, survival and abandonment.

Here, the infant must depend entirely on their parents for survival, and this relationship and will teach the child whether the world is a trustworthy and safe place, or not. Mistrust at this stage leads to withdrawl and a lack of confidence.

Early Childhood: 2-4 years

Conflict: Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt

Significant relationship: Both parents

Is it okay to be me? Toilet training, making choices

Although the parents, if trusted, remain a safe base, children explore their autonomy. It is important to keep children safe at this age as they explore, however, highly restrictive parents can cause shame and self-doubt at this important developmental stage. Children can learn, ‘it’s not okay to be me, I have to act a certain way to get love, or to escape punishment.’

Preschool 4-5 years

Conflict: Initiative versus Guilt

Significant relationship: Close family

Is it okay for me to explore the world around me?

Independence is what sets this stage apart. This is all about the child making decisions about activities or tasks they wish to accomplish. They either succeed in these judgement calls, or they don’t. Here, children can get extremely frustrated when they cannot succeed at tasks set for them, or feel limited satisfaction from tasks that are too easy. YES, this is a time when we can start to feel ‘stupid’ or empowered.

Childhood 5-12 years

Conflict: Industry versus Inferiority

Significant relationship: School

Can I make it in this world?

Children start to see themselves more and more as individuals and the idea of getting it or doing it right become very important. Children work to gain recognition and this can be a major player in their self-confidence. Real feelings of inferiority can be developed here. Children who are more successful in their schooling are more able to resolve this conflict.

Adolescence 12-18 years

Conflict: Identity versus Role Confusion

Significant relationship: Friends, peers

Who am I?

Erikson coined the term ‘Identity Crisis’ by observing the adolescent in action. The adolescent needs to find out where they fit in within society and it can be a confusing, frustrating time. Teens need to experiment with different roles to ‘see what fits’ and feels right to them. Continued confusion can lead to a weaker sense of self, and it’s important for the adolescent to explore.

The Young Adult 19-40 years

Conflict: Intimacy versus Isolation

Significant Relationship: Partner/mate

Can I love?

This conflict is emphasized around the age of 30 where many GESTALT psychologists suggest the real ‘mid-life crisis’ occurs. We have a readiness to isolate ourselves if betrayed in a romantic relationship and can build walls that stay up for years after. Building long-term, solid relationships are important, romantically, and through having children. Young adults still want friends and must juggle these demands.

Middle Adulthood 40-65 years

Conflict: Generativity versus Stagnation

Significant Relationship: Family at home/collegues

Can I make my life count?

In my view, this conflict is the most interesting. It is, in a sense, a culmination of all other conflicts and the ‘climax’ of all that has come before, versus the disappointment of stagnation.

“Generativity, then is primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation …”

~ Erik Erikson

Generativity can be within the wider community or in the home, but no matter what, the middle adult must feel they make a difference in order to be psychologically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually healthy.

Maturity 65 and beyond

Conflict: Ego Integrity versus Despair

Significant Relationship: The Self and mankind

It is okay to have been me?

This is the time where we look back at our lives with either pride or regret. A sense of pride at our achievements, or who we have been, leads to Ego Integrity or a feeling of wisdom and knowing. Regrets and guilt lead to despair, and a loss of hope to make things right. This is where we find the time to repent, or to rejoice, with the choices we’ve made.

There are other philosophies on lifespan development. This one in particular rang true for me. Where are you at?



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One thought on “Erik Erikson’s Lifespan Development Paradigm

  1. I studied Erikson (that’s what you get with a psychology degree) and find value in his idea, though I don’t think it actually holds true across the board with all people. I think some of those stages only apply to people of particular personalities.
    However, Maslow’s Hierarchy seems to always be applicable. It is both more general and more specific than Erikson’s model.

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