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Erik Erikson: The Eight Stages of Development
Although not as famous as Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson was no less influential in the development of 20th century psychology. Like Freud, Erikson viewed human beings as developing through a series of 'stages,' but he broke with Freud in terms of his emphasis on social development, versus sexual development. Erikson was the first major theorist to question Freud's emphasis on the Oedipus Complex and the Electra Complex in respectively influencing a boy's or a girl's development, Erikson conceived of what he called eight 'psychosocial stages,' or conflicts based not solely upon the relationship between parent and child but upon the child and the larger community. The conflicts inherent to the stages were based upon social dynamics of which sexuality was but one factor.
The reason for this different orientation may lie in the fact that Erikson's background was also different from Freud's: he was not trained as a doctor and studied art and languages. He took only two classes in chemistry before dropping out of medical school, and was far more enamored with the humanities' potential to reveal aspects of the human psyche. At first, he said "I could not see a place for my artistic inclinations in highly intellectual endeavors" although when he came in contact with Anna Freud she offered to take him on and train him as a child analyst, evidently seeing some potential in Erikson and thus beginning what would constitute his life's work (Friedman 1999: 69). Erikson would eventually break with the Freudian tradition and had an important role in the development of humanistic (versus psychodynamic) psychology in America. After moving to America in the 1960s and 1970s, Erikson became an important figure in pop culture, including a stint advising John Lindsay as well as professor (Freidman 1999: 27)
General orientation of the theory
"Children in Society by Erikson (1963) was one of the first Western theories of development to give due recognition to the impact of social interaction on human development. Ego strengths develop from trusting relationships, according to Erikson" (Coughlan, F., & Welsh-Breetzke 2012:222). Much like Freud, and later like Piaget, Erikson conceptualized human development as existing in a series of phases, rather than as a continuous, linear path. Unlike Freud's concept of development in terms of oral, anal and genital stages of development, Erikson stressed that other considerations besides purely sexual factors were significant in shaping the development of the human psyche. Erikson gave greater priority to factors such as the influence of peers upon the child's development of an autonomous identity.
The reason why Erikson's stages are called 'psycho-social' in nature is because they allow for the influence of peers and other relatives to change the developmental trajectory of the child with environmental influences outside the home. Like Freud, however, Erikson did believe that development proceeded in a series of 'conflicts' between opposing influences, and if those conflicts were not resolved, than the individual would continue to struggle with specific issues pertinent to the stages. Without such a resolution, the child will remain forever in a state of 'arrested development,' just as Freud believed that certain persons were condemned to have 'oral' or 'anal' personalities and not proceed to the genital stage, unless they resolved their issues. "For Erikson, identity is best characterized on a continuum, with healthy outcomes being represented on one end of the scale by identity achievement (commitment to a self-determined set of identified ideals, goals, and values), and dysfunctional outcomes represented on the opposite end by identity diffusion (the inability to develop and commit to a set of self-identified ideals" (Cullitan 2011: 433-444).
Description of the stages
Erikson's analysis of the human experience begins in infancy. "Erikson's first stage of human development, trust vs. mistrust, addresses the individual's infantile experiences with the world other than himself. Is the world reliable and are object relations consistent and available?" (Vogel-Scibilia et al. 2009: 407). A child which receives adequate emotional support from his or her parents when he or she is picked up when crying, a child who is attended to when he or she is hurt, and is given approval for positive behavior will learn that the world is a place that can be trusted, and people are reliable, generous and giving. A neglected child will learn the opposite and will perhaps grow into an adult who is incapable of trusting other people. If the conflict is never resolved, the individual cannot learn to trust others later in life. However, it should be added that Erikson saw some forms of mistrust as vitally necessary. A child that is too trusting and does not learn that some aspects of the world may be hurtful may also have been said to not have completely 'resolved' the stage.
The second stage of development encompasses "autonomy vs. shame and self-doubt" and "involves the struggle for personal control and separation from others" (Vogel-Scibilia et al. 2009: 408). This occurs during toddlerhood, or the ages of one to three when the child asserts his willpower. Any parent of a toddler is familiar with this stage, given a toddler's fondness for saying 'no!' During this stage, the child must establish a positive sense of self and identity, separate from other objects in the world. He no longer sees himself as wholly integrated with his environment like an infant. The child must also begin to feel a sense of competency, as he or she gains the ability to complete life tasks by him or herself (such as feeding, going to the toilet alone, etcetera). If the child does not successfully attain a state of autonomy during this period, he or she will feel shame and alienation and be insecure in his or her ability to behave autonomously. The child also must learn when it is acceptable to ask for help and gain a sense of his or her own strengths and limitations.
From ages four to five children experience a crisis consisting "of initiative vs. guilt, which is characterized by imitation of parents. Erikson (1959) suggested that the imitation results from children's high admiration for their parents. However, they also experience guilt due to their occasional immoral thoughts or behaviors" (Garrett 1995: 210). During this stage, "individuals take their new-found skills and autonomy concept to pursue new tasks" although these tasks may also create sensations of guilt if the child feels he or she is abandoning his or her parents (Vogel-Scibilia et al. 2009: 408).
Then, "from the age of six to puberty, children encounter the industry vs. inferiority crisis. Industry is displayed by the children's need to obtain knowledge via books, films…Inferiority comes into existence when children undergo a sense of inadequacy due to certain failures," such as the failure to make friends and feel competent in school (Garrett 1995: 210). During this phase, the child's social circle begins to widen, encompassing not simply parents and siblings, but also peers. Peers play an extremely important role in this stage, determining how the child feels he or she 'measures up' to others. Once again, note the significance of social relationships, a critical difference once again that is manifested between Freud and Erikson -- Freud attributes far less significance to what he calls the latency period, but for Erikson this stage is critical in setting the tone for future relationships in adolescence.
According to Erikson, the adolescent stage of this phase of life encompasses "the crisis of identity vs. identity diffusion…the main theme in life is for the establishment of an identity. People in general, particularly adolescents, have the need to seek internal and external understanding and acceptance" (Garrett 1995: 210). Some have seen this phase as the most critical one, coalescing all of the other stages in a manner so that "that trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry all contribute to the adolescent's identity" (Garrett 1995: 211). An adolescent during this stage may 'try on' many different personas that seem radically different in the eyes of his or her friends and family, but ultimately some stable sense of self must be established for this stage to be resolved successfully, otherwise the adolescent will be forever emotionally adrift.
Although young adulthood is not always conceptualized as a crisis in the same manner as adolescence, Erikson views it as such: "The intimacy and solidarity vs. isolation crisis occurs during young adulthood wherein efforts are made to establish a nurturing relationship with members of the opposite sex as well as those of the same sex. When the attempts are unsuccessful, there may be episodes of isolation which can lead to loneliness" (Garrett 1995: 210). During this phase, finding a life partner is very important for the adolescent, and a failure to establish a healthy sexual identity will lead to sensations of inadequacy.
"In middle adulthood the generativity vs. stagnation crisis is encountered... generativity refers to the need to provide guidance for future generations, an example of which would be the adult working to make society safer for the younger generation" (Garrett 1995:…[continue]
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Franz and White (1985) argue that while Erikson's stages are generally sound, they could be made stronger by a discussion of the underlying process of interpersonal attachment. They argue that the tension of intimacy vs. isolation do not adequately account for how males and females form interpersonal attachments. The writers are clear, however, that these shortcomings do not invalidate Erikson's theory. Instead, they are looking for ways in which his theory could
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