Identity Crisis Theory and the Works of Erikson

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Erik Homberger Erikson (1902-1994) hypothesized that one’s personality develops in over time in a series of stages.  According to Erikson, during each stage of development a person experiences a conflict or crisis which serves as a turning point in his or her development. Erikson's stages of personality development include the following:

1.  Trust vs. Mistrust.  This stage begins at birth and lasts until a child is approximately eighteen months old.  In infancy a child is completely dependent upon caregivers to meet all of his or her needs.  If caregivers are unresponsive to the child’s needs, are emotionally unavailable, are inconsistent or reject the child, this creates feelings of mistrust within the child, who will, in turn, believe that the world is unpredictable and inconsistent.  If caregivers are reliable, emotionally close to the child and meet the child’s needs the child will develop the perspective that the world is consistent and can be trusted.

2.  Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.  During early childhood (approximate ages 2-3) children must develop a greater sense of personal control; mastering control of certain bodily functions (toilet training), making food choices and selecting clothing leads to a sense of independence within the child.  Successful passage through this stage leads to a sense of security and confidence.  If caregivers support self-sufficiency in the child, the stage will generally be completed with success.  If caregivers require a child to become too independent too soon or hamper a child’s efforts to complete age-appropriate tasks for themselves or otherwise disparage a child’s efforts to manage such tasks, children can develop shame and doubt regarding their abilities to handle problems as they arise.

3.  Initiative vs. Guilt.  During ages 3-5, children learn to develop initiative to engage in activities and pursue their own interests.  If children are taught by caregivers that following their own initiative is somehow wrong they develop a lack of initiative and develop a sense of guilt instead. 

4.  Industry vs. Inferiority.  Children strive to meet social and academic expectations during ages 6-12.  If children meet demands in these areas they achieve a sense that they are competent to live up to other’s expectations; if not, they may develop a sense of inferiority to others in terms of academic performance and social skills.

5.  Identity vs. Role Confusion.  During adolescence, roughly ages 12-18, youths must attempt to learn how to form healthy relationships with others and are challenged to develop a sense identity apart from their family members.  Relationships with peers rise in significance during this phase.  Moral issues also are a focus in this stage of development as youths are challenged to discover who they are and understand their roles in society.

6.  Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation.  Young adulthood (approximate ages 18-35) is a period of seeking affection, love, and companionship with the goal of achieving deep intimacy.  Failure to succeed in this goal will lead to isolation.  The most significant relationships during this phase are with marital/life partners and friends.

7.  Generativity vs. Self-Absorption or Stagnation.  Middle adulthood (ages 35-between 55 and 65) is a time of attempting to achieve productivity through the activities of work and/or raising children.  Adults in this age range are driven to pass on family values to children, provide for the family and achieve a respectable role in society.  The most important relationships during this phase are within the family, the community and the workplace.

8.  Integrity vs. Despair.  In late adulthood (ages 55/65-death), individuals want to achieve a sense that their lives have been meaningful and that they have contributed to society.  It becomes important to be able to review one’s life and achievements with satisfaction.  If an individual does not achieve this sense of integrity they may feel despair instead based upon what they perceive as a life of failures.

More about this author: Kathie Danner

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