What is Pyschosocial Development Theory?

Erik Erikson’s “theory is a psychosocial interactionist theory that acknowledges the complementary role of the various elements of human development and the contradictory role of the elements” (Steele, 1995, p. 95). Erikson’s stages of psychosocial human development occur at various crisis moments where a human will engage in success or in failure, and either success or failure will be inherent and existent in the framework for the next series of stages.

Erikson’s Eight Stages of Life:

Trust vs. Mistrust


The first stage of Erikson’s theory is trust vs. mistrust where an infant either learns to trust or mistrust his/her environment. If a child trusts then hope and self-awareness is learned. This sense of hope and trust will serve as an undergirding framework for succeeding stages. On the negative side, a sense of mistrust will also carry forward into succeeding stage as well.

Autonomy vs. Doubt


The second stage is autonomy vs. shame and doubt. “During this stage, toddlers learn to think, will, and act based on self-directed ideas and opinions, [thus learning] self-reliance and independence” (Kim, 2010, p. 103). In other words, can a toddler learn to take care of things on their own or will feelings of inadequacy develop and shame and doubt negatively carry them forward?

Initiative vs. Guilt

(Early Childhood)

Erikson’s third stage, initiative vs. guilt, happens in early childhood. Children in this stage experiment with initiating actions on their own and “extend[ing] their borders to include friends and preschool teachers” (Steele, 1995, p. 97). The crisis the child in stage three is whether “this world has the capacity to grant a sense of purpose and significance or to thrust them into a state of confusion and inferiority” (Kim, 2010, p. 104).

Industry vs. Inferiority


Industry vs. inferiority is the fourth stage in Erikson’s stage of life theory. This is the period of a child’s elementary years where children “eagerly apply themselves to learning the useful skills and tools of the wider culture” (Crain, 2000, p. 280) most specifically in formal education. Will a child succeed and carry forth a sense of “self-confidence” (Kim, 2010, p. 104) as he/she engages in education or will he/she carry forth a sense of worthlessness and inferiority?

Identity vs. Role Confusion


The fifth stage is identity vs. role confusion. Adolescence brings about enormous physical changes as the body undergoes the maturation process as well as a psychosocial element to “discover their sense of self or identity” (Steele, 1995, p. 97). In this crisis of identity, will a teenager succeed in finding “self-definition and philosophy of life” (Kim, 2010, p. 104) or will confusion ensue with a resultant limiting of commitments moving forward?

Intimacy vs. Isolation

(Young Adulthood)

Erikson’s sixth stage is intimacy vs. isolation. This event occurs post-adolescent and continues through the young adult years. Can one give him/herself away “in loving, caring, and intimate relationships” (Steele, 1995, p. 98)? Or will one isolate him/herself from being able to connect deeply with others and remain superficial in relationships?

Generativity vs. Stagnation

(Middle Adulthood)

The seventh stage is generativity vs. stagnation where, in mid-life, the adult is asking the relevant question of purpose: Am I “nurturing and caring for the next generation” (Kim, 2010, pp. 105-106)? Am I willing to give myself away to others? If the answer is yes, then a life of fulfillment and generativity ensues. However, if the answer is no, then Crain (2000) shares that a life of self-absorption ensues (p. 284).

Ego Integrity vs. Despair

(Older Adulthood)

Finally, the eighth stage presents itself in the form of ego-integrity vs. despair. Was the life I lived worth living and full of purpose? Or was my life stagnate and meaningless and as a result, full of despair?

As one can see, the answer to each psychosocial stage’s inherent crisis will propel a person in a particular direction and will cause either a positive or negative outlook on life.

Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the strengths of Erikson’s stage of life theory is the identification of various, predictable crisis moments in our human development. An infant either learns to trust or mistrust their world. The crisis in infancy is trust. Is a child going to positively trust his/her environment? Or is s/he going to not trust his/her environment? The extreme value and strength of Erikson’s theory is the crises that occur predictably as a human developments over time.

It’s important to note that “Erikson does not believe that the proper solution to a stage crisis is always completely positive in nature” (Santrock, 1998, p. 46). In other words, hopefully an infant learns a little bit of mistrust so when s/he is older they will not be completely trusting of all environments. A healthy amount of mistrust is helpful.

It seems Erikson has been criticized for his evaluative methods. “He uses observations of clients along with research to create his theory…does not find it necessary to be confined by the parameters of quantitative empirical research” (Steele, 2010, p. 94). This “disciplined subjectivity” (p. 94) allowed Erikson to come up with his stage theory. The potential weakness of his eight stages of life could be in its subjective nature because his conclusions cannot be separated from the observer and are unique to the observer. While some would consider this a weakness, this could also be a strength, in that understanding human development is, by nature, rather human (and thus, subjective).

Contribution to the Study of Human Development

ascending-towerErikson adeptly identifies the epigenetic principle (Steele, 1995, pp. 94-95) in the course of human development. Much like a tower built on a wide base and consisting of incrementally smaller blocks as the tower ascends, the epigenesis allows for ascending crises, each built on what the outcome of the preceding stage developed. Steele (1995) says that “each of the psychosocial crises the human encounters is not to be understood as an isolated event from the totality of the personality…each crisis becomes incorporated into the human personality…the earlier crises become foundational for the later crises” (p. 95).

If a child learns to mistrust his/her caregivers, he/she is going to have a difficult time developing intimacy successfully and will probably move to the isolation pole of Erikson’s fifth stage unless a return to deal with the underlying sense of mistrust is engaged.

On the positive side, if a child develops industry, or “self-confidence” (Kim, 2010, p. 104), then they are likely to be more productive in Erikson’s later stage of generativity. I appreciate Erikson’s emphasis on the dependency as well as the ascendency of both current and future human development.

Contribution to the Study of Spiritual Formation

Christian mentors get the privilege of seeing students up close and personal. In other words, Christian educators get to see the crisis moments that happen in the hearts and minds of children and teenagers. Anyone who works closely with students can see the immediate application of Erikson’s eight stages of life in the context of spiritual formation and the apparent crises that accompany it.

For example, Kim (2010) offers an incredibly applicable list in accordance with Erikson’s epigenetic principle in relation to spiritual formation (p. 116):

  • Infancy: faith as trust
  • Early childhood: faith as courage
  • Play age: faith as obedience
  • School age: faith as assent or industry
  • Adolescence: faith as identity
  • Young adult: faith as self-surrender and intimacy with God
  • Middle adulthood: faith as unconditional caring (generativity)
  • Mature adult: unconditional acceptance

Application to Children and Youth Ministry

Is the environment of the church nursery one in which an infant will come to trust the caregivers or to mistrust them? Furthermore, does our nursery allow toddlers a sense of growing autonomy as they play and function, or do we do too much for them instead of allowing them to grow on their own? Does our preschool ministry allow children to “embark on a series of initiatives to master the world…learn the basic principles and skills necessary to understand the relationship between intent and initiatives and between purpose and action” (Kim, 2010, p. 104)?

At the basic level, I can see the value of assessing ministry epigenesis and identifying crises moments and managing the environment. At the more advanced level, I can see how a mastery of Erikson’s eight stages of life could greatly equip the Christian mentor to both nurture the current stage as well as instigate toward a positive outcome rather than a negative one.

Resources for Psychosocial Development Theory

Crain, W. (2000). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kim, J. H. (2010). Personality development and christian formation. In J. R. Estep & J. H. Kim (Eds.), Christian formation: Integrating theology & human development (pp. 99-121). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.

Santrock, J. W. (1998). Adolescence (7th ed). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Steele, L. L. (1995). The power of erikson. In J. C. Wilhoit & J. M. Dettoni (Eds.), Nurture that is christian (pp. 91-103). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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