Eric Erikson, a German psychoanalyst and psychologist, spent most of his working life in the US. He expanded Freud’s childhood developmental theory, well beyond the first few years of life, into a lifelong development theory of identity, with an emphasis on the adolescent ‘identity crisis’ and the role of the ego.
In essence, Erikson’s advice is that internal conflicts occur at each of his eight stages in life. If one fails to resolve the crises that arise, they can adversely affect the later stages in one’s life.
Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust (Oral-sensory, Birth-0-2)
The Oral Sensory Stage, requires the development of trust through the maternal relationship and if this bond is not fulfilled may lead to a sense of rejection or worthlessness.
Stage 2: Autonomy v Shame & Doubt (Muscular-Anal, 2-4)
Autonomy develops as we go through the ‘terrible two’s and we affirm our ability to defy, walk and talk, with an emphasis on toilet training. Here we overcome shame.
Stage 3: Initiative v Guilt (Locomotor-Genital, Preschool, 4-5)
Pre-school involves initiative overcoming guilt through play, imagination and mimicking adults.
Stage 4: Industry v Inferiority (Latency, 5-12)
At school, the child must develop self-identity and self-worth within the context of a new environment, through industry, to overcome a sense of inferiority. Education kicks in here as the teacher must, like the parent, engender a sense of worth.
Stage 5: Identity v Role Confusion (Adolescence, 13-19)
The big one is where roles are confused until identity is established. The tables are turned as we have to rely on ourselves, rather than others for our identity. This can lead to idealism at the expense of realism.
Stage 6: Intimacy v Isolation (Young adulthood, 20-24, or 20-40)
We’re into adulthood where intimacy overcomes isolation through love, friendship and possibly marriage.
Stage 7: Generativity v Stagnation (Middle adulthood, 25-64, or 40-64)
One develops a career and purpose in life, as well as taking on the role of a parent and carer. One’s sense of purpose can stagnate into regret or be generative.
Stage 8: Ego Integrity v Despair (Late adulthood, 65-death)
One looks back with either a sense of disappointment, even despair, or a positive outlook with a sense of worth and wisdom, as one face s death.
He knew Freud’s daughter Anna and took Freud’s basic theory, modified it, with more emphasis on the ‘ego’ and less on sexuality. But Erikson’s schema suffers from being primarily descriptive, with little evidence to back up the underlying pairs of conflicting forces. His evidence is loose and anecdotal, relying too much looking at the lives of a few famous people from the past. His paired conflicts have been criticised as being oversimplifications, dualist in nature, if not moralistic in tone. There is also doubt about the age ranges and whether all of this occurs in such a rigid, sequential order.
Working with Benjamin Spock, he played a role in promoting the idea that children were subject to Freudian influences that mistrust, shame and guilt. This deficit model was to introduce therapeutic tendencies into education and training that last to this day. With the rise of therapeutic solutions, such as mindfulness and unconscious bias, we see a concern with mental deficits that see both children and adults as pathological – in a sense needing cured from their normal thinking and behavior. Judith Harris, in a piece of definitive research showed that this approach was seriously flawed. Identity is not defined by internal conflicts but by genetics, peer pressure and some parental influence. His ‘identity’ theory, in effect, had an identity crisis when it came up against the empirical evidence.
Erikson has been influential not only among early years’ practitioners but also among those who study adolescence. ‘Identity crisis’ has entered our language as a general term for confusion about the self. Nevertheless, in the end, it is a reframing of the Freudian concept of the ‘ego’, driven forward by dualist conflict. What Erikson does is draw attention to the different needs of people at roughly different stages of their lives. Education and learning are heavily influenced by internal conflicts and external, social pressures. Whether we need Erikson’s precise staged, theoretical framework is another question.
Erikson E. (1950) Childhood and Society
Erikson E. (1958) Young Man Luther. A Study in Psychoanalysis and History
Erikson E. (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis
Erikson E. Kivnick H. (1986) Vital Involvement in Old Age
Erikson E. Erikson J.M. (1987) The Life Cycle Completed
Coles, R. (1970) Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.