What Is Erikson's Human Development Theory?

Whether you are a parent, teacher, or interested student, Eric Erikson's Theory of Human Development offers some valuable insights into the way we mature and develop.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) is best known for his work in Human Development, in particular his Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development, influenced, in part, by Freud, and by Erikson's observations of the Ogala Sioux. For Erikson, psychosocial development involves certain crises which the individual must face at each stage.

The first stage of development, termed oral-sensory (birth-18 mos.), we, as infants, are totally dependent upon our caregiver. If our infant needs are met with love and reliability, we develop a sense of trust, or security in our caregivers and our environment. If, however, we are treated with indifference, unpredictability, or abuse, we become fearful and anxious, even withdrawn. We develop mistrust and insecurity, and a feeling of nascent hopelessness.

In the second stage, muscular-anal (18 mos.-3 yrs.), we, as toddlers, begin to have some control of our physical self and environment. We learn to walk, to hold and manipulate objects. This is the stage where we gain sphincter control and begin potty training. If our caregivers are overly critical or impatient, or if they demean our efforts, we develop feelings of shame and doubt. If, however, our caregivers are supportive and encouraging, we develop a sense of autonomy and self-esteem.

The third stage is the locomotor period (3 yrs. to 6 yrs.). Here the challenge is for us to learn some independence, to take initiative in play or discovery. During this stage, our caregivers must be encouraging, but also firm in directing us toward appropriate behavior. If, on the other hand, our caregivers are harsh and punishing, we develop guilt.

The latency or fourth stage occurs during pre-adolescence (7-12 yrs.). During these school years, we develop a sense of industry and purpose. We learn responsibility and the importance of completing tasks. If we are made to feel successful and competent, we feel self-worth. If, however, we are overly criticized or ridiculed by parents, teachers, or peers, we develop a sense of inferiority, worthlessness, and incompetence. This sometimes leads to a state of inertia, as we feel too insecure to act.

By stage five, we graduate to adolescence (12-18 yrs.) Provided that we are living in a society with an established functional culture, and that we have adequate role models and peer relationships within that culture, we will acquire ego identity. We will have a clear, strong, constructive perception of who we are, both as an individual and as a member of our society. Role confusion can result if we are unsure of our place within the social fabric and insecure about our self-identity. Adolescents who experience role confusion often align themselves with groups that can provide the traits and values they cannot find in the proper venue. Often these groups are fringe groups, highly dogmatic, and intolerant of individuality. Gangs are an example of such.

In early adulthood (ages 18-35), stage six, we face the conflict of intimacy, as opposed to isolation. Here we must forge close, intimate relationships while maintaining a clear, strong sense of self. The relationships created at this stage need to be the combination of two separate selves desiring completion not through each other, but with each other. Intimacy is the result, through marriage, family, or friends. Caring, trust, and mutual respect form the foundations of love. When intimacy is either not successively accomplished, whether by constant promiscuity or by self-exclusion, we become isolated and lonely.

The seventh stage, middle adulthood (35 to 65), involves work, the community, and family. If we have a sense of contributing meaningful work within the context of the community, and as a sustaining and centralizing force in the family, we discover generativity, a selfless investment in the future through contribution. If we are self-absorbed and not productively involved in meaningful work at home or in the community, we become stagnant; we are not adding to the welfare of future society.

The last and eight stage of development involves late adulthood, old age. As we mature and head into retirement, we face the fact that we are physically aging, that mortality is no longer an abstract thought at the back of our minds, but a prospect we all must accept. We retire from our work, our children leave, and we find ourselves confronting our past, our victories and our mistakes. If we can accept death without fear and look back upon our lives with shared wisdom, we achieve ego integrity. If we cannot, we experience despair, and we face death with bitterness and anger. We have nothing wise to impart to the younger generation, only resentment and fear.

Taken holistically, the manner in which we resolve these inherent conflicts affects how we experience life.

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