Erik Erikson’s Theory

Much of who we are or who we develop into can be summed up in only eight different stages. During these eight different stages we develop what is considered one of the two important traits of that time period. Of these sixteen possible traits that one can develop usually one is desired while the other is often times not. During each of Erik Erikson’s stages the traits are presented in opposites such as stage one is trust vs. mistrust, stage two is autonomy vs. shame, stage three is initiative vs. guilt, stage four is industry vs.

inferiority, stage five is identity vs. role confusion, stage six is intimacy and solidarity vs. isolation, stage seven is generativity vs. self absorption or stagnation and stage eight is integrity vs. despair. These stages are Erikson’s view of what each person encounters during a full life.

1. Infancy: Birth to 18 Months

Ego Development Outcome: Trust vs. Mistrust
Basic strength: Drive and Hope

Erikson also referred to infancy as the Oral Sensory Stage where the major emphasis is on the mother’s positive and loving care for the child, with a big emphasis on visual contact and touch (Harder). If we pass successfully through this stage of life, we will learn that life is okay and will build confidence later on. If we do not pass through this stage successfully then we are often skeptical of the world we live in. If we don’t trust the world we live in then sometimes it could result in detachment from people and could lead to depression and anxiety.

2. Early Childhood: 18 Months to 3 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Autonomy vs. Shame
Basic Strengths: Self-control, Courage, and Will

During this stage we learn to fine tune certain skills by ourselves. Not only do we learn to walk, talk and feed ourselves, we are learning finer motor development as well as the much appreciated toilet training (Harder). This is also the time when we can experiment with different ideas and learn to build our self-esteem. We can also take on new challenges and build new skills such as learning the difference between right and wrong. And one of our skills during the “Terrible Two’s” is our ability to use the powerful word “NO!” It may be pain for parents, but it develops important skills of the will (Harder). However, during this stage we can be vulnerable. If during the process of learning important skills we begin to feel shame than we could suffer lower self-esteem later on..

3. Play Age: 3 to 5 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Initiative vs. Guilt
Basic Strength: Purpose

During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations (Harder). We make up stories with our stuff animals, we love to talk on our toy phones or race our Hot wheel cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the idea of what we believe it means to be an adult. We also begin to say “Why”. While Erikson was influenced by Freud, he downplays biological sexuality in favor of the psychosocial features of conflict between child and parents (Harder). Nevertheless, he said that at this stage we usually become involved in the classic “Oedipal struggle” and resolve this struggle through “social role identification”(Harder). During this age kids are classified as beginning stage one of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. During this stage the child assumes that powerful authorities hand down a fixed set of rules which he or she must unquestioningly obey (Crain). Kohlberg calls stage 1 thinking “preconventional” because children do not yet speak as members of society. Instead, they see morality as something external to themselves, as that which the big people say they must do (Crain).

4. School Age: 6 to 12 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Industry vs. Inferiority
Basic Strengths: Method and Competence

During what is often called the Latency stage we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem (Harder). As our world begins to become just a little bit bigger we realize that our parents are no longer the complete authority, but also that our most significant relationships are with other kids either from school or the neighborhood. During this time children begin to enter Kohlberg’s second stage. At this stage children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities (Crain). I remember when I was in school I was always afraid to get into trouble, but I also understood that you could only get into trouble if you got caught.

5. Adolescence: 12 to 18 Years

Ego Development Outcome: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Basic Strengths: Devotion and Fidelity

According to Erikson our development was a result of what was done for us. From here on out, development depends primarily upon what we do. And while adolescence is a stage at which we are neither a child nor an adult, life is definitely getting more complex as we attempt to find our own identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues (Harder). Our main goal in this stage is to find out who we are in the world a side from our family. Unfortunately for those around us, in this process many of us go into a period of withdrawing from responsibilities, which Erikson called a “moratorium.” And if we are unsuccessful in navigating this stage, we will experience role confusion and upheaval (Harder).

A significant task for us is to establish a philosophy of life and in this process we tend to think in terms of ideals, which are conflict free, rather than reality, which is not (Harder). The problem is that often times we use ideals in place of experience because of our lack of. However, we can also develop strong devotion to friends and causes. As for moral development, at this stage children, who are by now usually entering their teens, see morality as more than simple deals. They believe that people behave in a “good“ way. Good behavior means having good motives and interpersonal feelings such as love, empathy, trust, and concern for others (Crain).

6. Young adulthood: 18 to 35

Ego Development Outcome: Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation
Basic Strengths: Affiliation and Love

It is in this stage where we go out and try to find love. As we try to find mutually satisfying relationships, primarily through marriage and friends, we generally also begin to start a family, though this age has been pushed back for many couples who today don’t start their families until their late thirties (Harder). If we are successful at this stage then we will experience love and intimacy at a deeper, more meaningful level. If we’re not successful then we may be more likely to become distant and isolate ourselves. When we can’t find satisfying relationships we find it hard to live a more satisfying life.

According to Kohlber’s theory At stage 4 the respondent becomes more broadly concerned with society as a whole. Now the emphasis is on obeying laws, respecting authority, and performing one’s duties so that the social order is maintained (Crain). This is where I think I am in as far as my life. I am married and have a lot of solid relationships with friends. Also as far as moral development my main focus is just working and obeying the laws and just doing what every citizen does to maintain an everyday life.

7. Middle Adulthood: 35 to 55 or 65

Ego Development Outcome: Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation
Basic Strengths: Production and Care

During this stage work seems to become a high priority. Erikson observed that middle-age is the time when most people like filling their days with more meaningful and creative work and family issues. Also, middle adulthood is when we can expect to “be in charge,” the role we’ve longer envied. The main goal of this stage is to take the values of your own family such as raising children and passing them onto the next generation to help guide them.

Strength comes through care of others and production of something that contributes to the betterment of society, which Erikson calls generativity, so when we’re in this stage we often fear inactivity and meaninglessness (Harder). As our lives move on and the children move away, our relationships change or our goals change often times we are faced with major life changes, or a mid-life crisis, and often struggle finding new purposes. If a person struggles getting through this stage then often times they can become self-absorbed and stagnate.

According to Kohlberg’s theory at stage 5, people begin to ask, “What makes for a good society?” They begin to think about society in a very theoretical way, stepping back from their own society and considering the rights and values that a society ought to uphold (Crain). It is during this time when people understand that people would all want certain basic rights, such as liberty and life, to be protected Second, they would want some democratic procedures for changing unfair law and for improving society.

8. Late Adulthood: 55 or 65 to Death

Ego Development Outcome: Integrity vs. Despair
Basic Strengths: Wisdom

It is in this stage that Erickson observed that people recover from the rest of middle adulthood. Perhaps that is because as older adults we can often look back on our lives with happiness and are content, feeling fulfilled with a deep sense that life has meaning and we’ve made a contribution to life, a feeling Erikson calls integrity (Harder). Our strength comes from a wisdom that the world is very large and we now have a detached concern for the whole of life, accepting death as the completion of life.

On the other hand, some adults may reach this stage and despair at their experiences and perceived failures (Vander). They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their lives, wondering “Was the trip worth it?” Alternatively, they may feel they have all the answers and end with a strong dogmatism that only their view has been correct.

Again with Kohlber’s theory in stage 6 a commitment to justice makes the rationale for civil disobedience stronger and broader (Crain). Martin Luther King, for example, argued that laws are only valid insofar as they are grounded in justice, and that a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws.

Only being twenty-three it was easy to be able to relate to the different stages of Erikson and Kohlber’s theories. Although it is hard to hear about what is going to come next. Both of theories have shaped my life thus far. I think that these theories are interchangeable in regard that they work the same with either gender. As far as different cultures then either theory may need some tweaking. An example is the Chinese have different moral standards then Americans and thus different moral development. Both Erikson and Kohlberg’s theories have affected my own personal development.


Harder, Arlene F.. “The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson.” Learning Place Online.Com. 2002. 18 Feb. 2008 .

Vander Zanden, James W., Crandall Thomas l., & Crandall, Corinne Haines. (2007) Human development (8th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136.