The Oak Life Journal
Jul | Aug 2023
Stages of the Brain
(and how to guide them)
By Aarin Talbot
6 minute read
Oak Life is proud to introduce its newest regular contributor, Aarin Talbot, to its team of writers. Research writer for The Journal and a clinical research professional by trade, Aarin hopes to empower alternative care workers by introducing a literary perspective to major issues. When she is not working on research projects, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends in Indiana, United States.
The early period of life from infancy to young adulthood holds the greatest amount of transformation and growth in comparison with the rest of the human lifespan. That’s why, when learning about healthy child development, it is all too possible to become overwhelmed by the vast sea of information that’s available on the subject. It can lead to uncertainty about what information is directly relevant to the role of an alternative care worker, and how to implement that research in real life scenarios.
However, every person that is willing to enter such critical roles deserves to have access to research surrounding the issues they are involved in on a daily basis. Consequently, this article is written with the aim to break down the psychosocial development theory by psychologist Erik Erikson in a way that caregivers can readily apply them.
Summary of Erikson’s Theory
During the 1950s, Erik Erikson created a revolutionary new way of understanding the connection between social interactions and our wellbeing. His theory begins with infancy and ends with older adults. Across each of the eight stages, he declared that a positive or negative result is possible depending on whether or not the specific needs of that stage are met.
For example, an infant’s survival is reliant upon a caretaker that can fulfill their various physical and emotional needs. If those are met, then “virtues” are acquired that can positively impact the child’s ability to connect with themselves and others. If not, then healthy development becomes a greater challenge.
This pattern is true for each of Erikson’s stages. Learning how to affect the outcome for each one provides a unique ability to increase healthy child development.
Note: For the purpose of this article, only the first 5 stages are mentioned, which pertain to child development. If you would like to read more about Erikson’s theory into adulthood, click here.
1st Stage — Trust versus Mistrust (0-1 years of age)
When the primary caregiver(s) of an infant consistently respond to their needs, Erikson believes that a sense of trust is produced, which provides their initial security in an unfamiliar world. Not only can this influence their capacity to trust relationships down the line, but it also grants them a higher tolerance for momentary frustrations as an infant.
Success in this stage also leads to the virtue of “hope.” Because other people are responsive to their cries for help, they are instilled with the hope that similar support will be given in later stages of life.
On the other hand, if neglect occurs, they may develop mistrust and anxiety. This leads to the withdrawal from support rather than the hope that it will be given.
Caregivers that are working with infants directly, have a powerful opportunity to build trust in them, as well as influence their latter development by paying attention to their individual needs (i.e. food, affection, touch, soothing speech, diaper changes, cleaning, healthcare, consistency, safety, and predictability).
However, if you are working with toddlers or older children that have been neglected from infancy, there is still a way to provide positive care. According to Erikson, each of the life stages can be revisited to instill those desired virtues. This can be accomplished by looking at the same list of needs for an infant and establishing them in a more mature way. So, a caregiver would provide consistent meals when they are hungry, safe affection and touch, comforting words when they are emotional, etc.
2nd Stage — Autonomy versus Doubt and Shame (1-3 years of age)
Children in the second stage of life are beginning to find separation from their caregivers and early independence. Success leads to the virtue of “will,” while neglect to meet the demands of this stage can lead to self-doubt and a fear of asserting oneself.
Caregivers can help children accomplish this stage of life by increasing their confidence to handle things independently. Providing encouragement to explore, a safe environment, support when they make mistakes, and praise when they accomplish any skill or task (not just those that are assigned) is a great way to meet those needs.
For example, when toddlers are learning to feed themselves, it is important to find a balance between stepping in and being patient through their struggle to understand. Too much criticism or control can lead to doubt that they will accomplish harder tasks in life.
3rd Stage — Initiative versus Guilt (3-6 years of age)
Increased self-control is still the positive outcome for the third stage, but with an emphasis on learning to direct others during playtime, pleasing caregivers, and developing a conscience.
Success will lead to the virtue of “purpose.” A maladaptive response in this stage is a feeling of guiltiness for their needs or desires.
Once again, an overly critical or controlling caregiver will lead to decreased self confidence. However in this stage, children start to demonstrate more aggressive behavior, and it’s easy to unintentionally limit their initiative.
For example, if a child becomes bossy during playtime, it may be tempting to shut down that behavior rather than identify ways to teach leadership skills. But practicing redirection instead of just reproof increases the likelihood that they will develop into healthy decision-makers without excessive guilt.
4th Stage — Industry versus Inferiority (6-12 years of age)
Children in the 4th stage will be able to access the virtue of “competence.” During this period of their lives, achieving skills that are necessary to be favored in school and peer groups are their primary focus.
Should they fail to gain what they believe society requires of them, or if they are not encouraged in their endeavors, it may result in a feeling of inferiority compared to other children.
A particular shift for caregivers among this age group is the start of shared influence. Both teachers and peers take an important role in directing the child’s life and success. Therefore, while many of the previous needs are still relevant (i.e. encouraging them to explore, supporting them through mistakes, having reasonable expectations of them, and praising their accomplishments), caregivers should also be aware of how others affect their view of competency. If teachers are sowing seeds of self-doubt, or if peers are making them question their value, children can become passive in their pursuits.
5th Stage — Identity versus Role Confusion (12-19 years of age)
Transitioning from childhood into adolescence brings many complex changes— one of them being an emerging identity. Teenagers begin a quest of “trying on” different personalities, interests, and roles to discover their own unique person.
Successful completion of this stage leads to the virtue “Fidelity,” where they become considerate towards people that differ from them. The opposing outcome, role confusion, means that they remain unsure of themselves.
Compared to the other stages, role confusion is not the most concerning outcome. There are many years into adulthood that personality traits and career interests can develop.
Nonetheless, caregivers still play an important role in helping teenagers navigate that often tumultuous season of their life. Some examples include being an engaging resource to learn from, modeling what it means to be authentic, accepting them through their experimental phase of personality development, and encouraging them to think for themselves.
For instance, a teenager may ask you what career you think they should pursue. They may want you to provide a step-by-step guide to “right living.” And yet, teaching them how to brainstorm ideas, weigh the pros and cons, and follow their own passions is an empowering response from a trusted adult.
Ultimately, working with children of all ages poses its own privileges and challenges. Alternative care workers deserve to benefit from the distinct perspective that Erik Erikson’s theory can provide for the aid of healthy child development.
Mcleod, S. (2023) Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, p. 1 https://www.simplypsychology.org/erik-erikson.html
Orenstein, G. A., Lewis, L. (2022) Eriksons Stages of Psychosocial Development, p. 1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556096/
Ricci, S. S., Kyle, T., Carmen, S. (2017) Maternity and Pediatric Nursing, 3rd Edition, p. 967, 995, 1025, 1052, 1080, Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer