Erik Erikson was a German psychologist who theorized that there's a specific psychological struggle that takes place through the eight stages of a person's life. These struggles, he believed, contribute to your personality throughout your development.
In what became known as the eight stages of development theory, Erikson provided insights into both social and psychological development. The framework of his thinking assesses the context of relationships in your life at these life stages.
Understanding Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development
Erikson’s theory suggests that your ego identity develops throughout your entire life during eight specific stages:
- Infancy – Basic trust versus mistrust
- Toddler – Autonomy versus shame and doubt
- Preschool-age – Initiative versus guilt
- School-age – Industry versus inferiority
- Adolescence – Identity versus identity confusion
- Young adulthood – Intimacy versus isolation
- Middle age – Generativity versus stagnation
- Older adulthood – Integrity versus despair
Each of these stages is a building block that's crucial to maturation across the span of your life. These stages don’t end with one and begin with another, though. Erikson suggested that these stages may overlap. A stage you don't master may extend into other stages later in life.
If a toddler, for example, doesn’t overcome shame and self-doubt, these feelings will continue to impact their development as they move through other stages of childhood. Meanwhile, they continue to progress through subsequent stages.
Stage 1 — Infancy. During this stage, development centers around trust and mistrust. This stage begins at birth and usually lasts until a baby is 18 months old. When your baby is born, they're learning about the world around them. They're completely dependent on you for care.
When your baby cries or fusses and you meet their needs by holding, feeding, and caring for them, you build trust. Over time, your baby learns that they can trust other caregivers, too.
When babies are neglected or their needs aren’t met, they develop mistrust. If trust isn’t established at this stage of development, it's more difficult to establish later in life. They may feel a sense of hopelessness when faced with crisis.
Stage 2 — Toddlerhood. During this stage, which begins at 18 months old and lasts until age two or three, your toddler's development focuses on autonomy versus shame or doubt.
Now, your toddler's learning how to do things for themselves. By giving praise, you help them establish a foundation for self-belief and autonomy. If you discourage your toddler or don’t allow them to work independently, they may feel discouraged, ashamed, and doubtful of their abilities.
Stage 3 — Preschool. Development at this stage centers around initiative and guilt. This stage begins at age three and lasts until age five. Here, your child focuses on doing things independently and begins to develop a sense of aims and goals.
When they feel encouraged, these children take the initiative to do things independently. They feel a sense of purpose in their life. If they are criticized or discouraged by caregivers, they may feel guilty instead.
Stage 4 — Early school years. Here, development centers around industry and inferiority. This stage begins at age six and lasts till age 11. During this stage, your child's becoming aware of their individuality. They see accomplishments in school and sports and seek praise and support from those around them.
If teachers, caregivers, and peers offer support and a sense of accomplishment, they feel competent and productive. If they don’t receive positive reinforcement for their accomplishments, they may feel inferior or incompetent.
Stage 5 — Adolescence. At this stage, development centers around identity and role confusion. This stage begins at around age 12 and lasts till age 18. When you hear the psychological term “identity crisis,” it comes from this stage of development.
During adolescence, you’re trying to figure out who you are and establish goals and priorities for your adult life. You’re establishing your place in the world. If young people are overwhelmed by expectations and responsibilities at this stage, they may not be able to establish their identity. This leads to confusion about what their needs and goals are.
Stage 6 — Young adulthood. At this stage, intimacy and isolation are the focus of development. This stage begins at age 19 and lasts until age 40. During this time in your life, you are establishing and building upon relationships.
If you have meaningful relationships with friends and family, you experience intimacy with others. If you struggle with relationships, you may feel isolated and lonely.
Stage 7 — Middle adulthood. The development in this stage is around generativity and stagnation or self-absorption. This stage begins at age 40 and lasts till age 65.
When you feel a sense of care and responsibility, it’s called generativity. You look out for those around you and feel the need to pass along what you’ve learned to younger generations. But if you don’t act as a mentor in some capacity, you may feel bitter and unhappy. This leads to restlessness and isolation from your friends, family, and society.
Stage 8 — Late adulthood. The final stage of the developmental process proposed by Erikson centers around ego integrity and despair. This stage begins at age 65 and lasts throughout the rest of your life. If you’re satisfied with your life, you age with grace. You often feel pride in what you’ve accomplished and want to demonstrate your wisdom to others.
If you don’t feel a sense of accomplishment when you look back on your life, you may fall into despair. When that happens, you tend to focus more on regrets.