Erikson's stages of life theory

Erikson's stages of life theory

Last update: 16 April, 2018

On occasions we have observed how development psychology has focused on the study of its very specific aspects , such as the appearance of symbolic capacity or parenting styles. However, studying development from a  global perspective provides us with very useful information. Knowing the stages of an individual, from birth until death, helps us understand their lives. This is where the theory of Erikson’s stages of life comes in.

E. Erikson, through his theory, became one of the precursors of life cycle studies. And although his work is extensive, Erikson’s stages of life theory is one of his most recognized models. He established 8 stages that presume a change or evolution in personal identity throughout the life cycle. In this article we will briefly explain each of the different stages of his theory.

Erikson’s stages of life theory establishes 8 stages that imply a change in personal identity throughout the life cycle.


Erikson’s 8 stages of life

The main quality of each of these different stages presented by Erikson is their bipolarity. Each are formed by two poles – one positive and one negative. A person has to face these socially generated poles to be able to adapt to their context and develop their identity in the expected way. Each stage is a crisis which each person must try to overcome in order to advance in the life cycle.


Trust vs. Mistrust

This is the first stage of the life cycle, from 0 to 1 years old. In this stage the baby must develop an attitude of trust towards their parents. Therefore, if there is stability in the care received, the child will believe that although things may go wrong for a while, then they will improve. Overcoming this stage means putting trust in others in the face of the “uncertainty” that the unknown can inspire.


Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

This is the second stage of the life cycle, which appears at around 2-3 years old. At this age, the child is forced to take steps towards their autonomy. They will learn to eat, dress, and begin to oppose their parents independently. They must, however, reconcile their desire for autonomy with the social norms that their parents represent and impose.

Starting to perform autonomous activities can cause questions regarding whether or not they have the ability to carry out tasks by themselves. But adaptive success consists in transforming this uncertainty into a challenge that feeds the child’s motivation to grow, within the limits imposed by society.


boy behind glass

Initiative vs. Guilt

This is the third of Erikson’s stages of life, occurring between 3-6 years old. The infant takes the initiative to try to achieve personal goals. But they will not always be able to do this, since on many occasions they will collide with the wishes of others. They must learn to pursue their goals and thus gain a sense of purpose.

Industry vs. Inferiority

This is the fourth stage in the life cycle, and this crisis appears around 7 to 12 years old. The child must learn to manage cultural tools while comparing themselves with their peers. It is essential to start working or playing with the rest of their classmates.

Society provides us with methods and a culture of cooperation that the individual must understand to achieve competence and good performance. If this does not develop it will lead to a feeling of inferiority with respect to others.

Identity vs. Role Confusion

This is the fifth life cycle stage, and it appears during adolescence. The adolescent faces a series of physical changes together with the appearance of new social demands. This will cause them to feel confused about their roles and self-concept.

Therefore, the individual must commit to ideological, professional and personal ideals, to achieve the development of identity. From Erikson’s work, James Marcia also developed his theory about adolescent identity.

mother discussing stages of life

Intimacy vs. Isolation

This is the sixth stage within  Erikson’s stages of life, which appears throughout early adulthood or youth. A person must root their identity to achieve a link with other people. They must find bonds “among the rest of individuals” in order to achieve a fusion of identities while maintaining their personal identity. Overcoming this stage means you have acquired the capacity to have different types of relationships, rather than social isolation.


Generativity vs. Stagnation

The seventh and penultimate stage in the life cycle covers a large part of average adulthood. Beyond identity and intimacy, the person must engage with others, with their work, with their children, thus achieving a productive life. The adult’s need to achieve a productive life protects them from stagnation and helps them move forward with their goals and intentions.

Integrity vs. Despair

The last stage of a human being’s global development occurs throughout late adulthood or old age. To achieve satisfaction with one’s life, the individual must look back on and agree with the life decisions they have made. Thus, a positive assessment of the objectives and decisions made form a self-integrity, which shapes a complete and meaningful self image. On the other hand, a negative view of one’s life can lead to feelings of despair and impotence.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Erikson, Erik. (1968, 1974). Identidad, Juventud y Crisis. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós.
  • Erikson, Erik. (2000). El ciclo vital completado. Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós Ibérica.
  • McLoad, S. (2013, 20 de septiembre). Erik Erikson | Etapas psicosociales | Simplemente psicología. Simplemente psicología .

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.