Toward Healthier Children – Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psycho-Social Development

Erik Erikson was a psychologist who profoundly influenced my thinking since I first heard of his “stages of psycho-social development” in college.

People who are considered geniuses often do nothing more than chart the obvious. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” 

Because of this, most of us intuitively know what these stages are. After all, we lived them, or some of them. The sad part is, kids who don’t successfully navigate the early stages have a progressively harder time meeting the subsequent ones successfully. I know I did. This is why it’s important to go back and repair any damage. i.e., “do the work.” Even just identifying where we stumbled is useful. We can’t relive those days, of course, but we can have compassion for our former selves, understand why we felt the way we did, maybe even give ourselves what was denied us then, and in so doing, finally move on.

Having a charted course also helps us help our children navigate these stages. This philosophy has been put many ways by many people.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” (Benjamin Franklin)

“It’s better to prevent falling than to help up.” (Anonymous)

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” (Frederick Douglass) 

For most of us, falls are inevitable. No parent is perfect, and even if they were, there are 101 influences out in the world, not to mention random chaos (usually in the form of physical or psychological bullies) that also shape who we are. The crapshoot of getting good teachers or bad also molds children. 

If you’re over forty and your parents were members of the “greatest generation” who lived through World War II, they probably never read a book on parenting or child psychology in their lives and you were under-analyzed as a result, often when a bit of scrutiny might have been helpful.

If you’re under twenty, your parents probably read so many books on parenting and child psychology that you were over-analyzed as they (with the best intentions, God bless them) played armchair psychologist. So, when you got hurt as a child, instead of “walk it off” or “stop crying or I’ll really give you something to cry about”, you might have heard, “Okay, let’s think about what just happened. How did it make you feel when Timmy tripped you and made you split your lip on the sidewalk?” (When all you really wanted to do was walk it off and not make the event even bigger and more noticeable to everyone around you.) 

As a child, I once incubated a fertilized hen’s egg. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be. I thought all I would have to do was put the egg in the homemade incubator and then wait for it to hatch. But I had to come home from school every day for 23 days (the gestation period of a chicken) and flip the egg over, then again at midnight, to keep the bird embryo from adhering to the bottom side of the egg. The mother hen does this instinctively. Then I was awoken one night by a high-pitched chirp. I jumped up excitedly and turned on the light to see a tiny, yellow beak breaking through the shell. I was so excited. Again, I underestimated the length of time it would take for the baby chick to come out. I had only seen it happen in movies, and of course, they can’t show a two hour process in a movie that’s only two hours long, so movie chicks just pop right out. Not so in real life. It was a marathon. I wanted to crack the shell open and help the bird but I had read somewhere that if I did, the chicken would probably not survive. Not just be weak, mind you – it would not survive. That first challenge actually determines its ability to survive, it’s strength and courage, for the rest of its life.

For humans, the eggshell is the entire span of childhood. We parents even use shell analogies when talking about shy children:

“Wow! She has really come out of her shell since last time I saw her!”

“He’s very shy, but we’re hoping he’ll break out of his shell soon.” 

We can’t force that shell open, as surely as we can’t force open the petals of a flower. Anyone who thinks parenting is not an art, has never been a parent. As with all things, there’s a happy medium.

A time to ask our children to express anger and frustration and a time to distract them from it, thereby lessening its impact and making the event that inspired the anger more forgettable. 

A time to help and a time to stand back and watch. 

A time to prevent a fall and a time to let them take a risk and experience their own consequences without throwing pillows in front of them and making them afraid to take chances later. Knowing the difference is where the art comes in.

There is also value in looking at these stages and identifying the ones we didn’t make it through as well as we might have.

Did you feel trustful as an infant? Did you get fed when you were hungry and held when you cried? Or were you neglected and develop a feeling that you couldn’t trust this world?

Did you feel autonomous as a toddler, or did someone in your life make you feel shame and doubt? There are adults who will do that, even to a kid. Maybe especially to a kid, because they’re helpless and can’t knock their blocks off.

Did you feel resourceful from age 3 to 5? Did you build elaborate palaces with your blocks and Lego’s, or was there someone there who made you feel guilty for being alive? Again, there are adults who hate everything they either never had, or lost. Their seething bitterness compels them to stomp all the good right out of a child’s heart.

Did you feel industrious from age 5 to 13, or were you already developing an inferiority complex from all the garbage that unhealthy adults already piled on you?

Did you have a firm sense of who you were from 13 to 21? Failing early stages causes failure in subsequent stages. It’s the worst kind of domino principle.

Did you have a healthy love relationship(s) from 21 to 39 or did you spend too much time alone? 

Did you (or will you) have purpose and love your work from 40 to 65?

If you’re over 65, do you feel peaceful in the knowledge that you were a good person and you did your best (integrity), or are you kicking yourself for mistakes (despair)? It’s pretty easy to spot the elderly people who are in despair. They’re the ones who yell “Get off my lawn!” when a kid dares to set foot on it. Or just the ones who are sad, living in houses where sunlight struggles to enter through cracks in closed curtains.

I don’t mean to be bleak, but every stage has an opposite, and to begin to do the work, we need to identify the problem and admit there was one. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. We got what we needed but have a little work to do because of what we didn’t. Others struggled through childhood and have a lot of work to do. Others were abandoned almost completely, in every way, and grew to become very frustrated adults.

Identifying where we stumbled (or were tripped) is the beginning of knowing where to begin repairs. We can’t fix it until we know what’s broken. So in the interests of doing the best job possible with our little balls of clay (preventing damage) and the ball of clay of our own life, here are a few maps –

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As a parent, I have remembered what was missing from my childhood by watching them reach out to me for the same things. And giving them the love, praise or just time that I didn’t always receive, I not only prevent the need for future healing in them, I heal myself. It’s good to break chains. The next challenge is not condemning our own parents for what they did wrong. They could only work with the tools they had, tools that were given to them by their parents. The healthier activity is to increase the number of tools in our own toolboxes. 

Wishing you and your children trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generatively and integrity! 

More details on this theory – 

 Stage 1:

Trust vs. Mistrust
Birth – 1 Year of Age
– most fundamental stage of psychosocial development
– based on quality of caregivers
– success is based upon a feeling of safety and security
– failure is based upon inconsistent care and emotionally unavailable caregivers
– failure will result in fear/belief that the world is unpredictable and inconsistent

Stage 2:
Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt
Early Childhood
– develop a greater sense of personal control
– control gained through making preferences in food, clothing, and toys
– success results in confidence and being secure with oneself
– failure results in inadequacy and self-doubt

Stage 3:
Initiative vs. Guilt
Pre-School Years
– asserting power through directing play and other social interactions
– success results in a sense of capability and an ability to lead others
– failure results in a sense of guilt, self-doubt, and lack of initiative

Stage 4:
Industry vs. Inferiority
Ages 5-11
– children develop a sense of pride in accomplishments and abilities through social interactions
– encouragement from parents and teachers is necessary for success
– failure results in doubting one’s own abilities to be successful

Stage 5:
Identity vs. Confusion
Adolecense
– focus on exploring independence
– develop a sense of self
– personal exploration must be encouraged
– success will result in a strong sense of self and feeling of independence and control
– failure with result in unsure beliefs and desire and insecure/confused feelings in the future

Stage 6:
Intimacy vs. Isolation
Early adulthood
– develop close, committed relationships in order to develop secure and committed relationship in the future
– strong sense of personal identity is needed
– less committed relationships will result in emotional isolation, depression, and loneliness

Stage 7:
Generativity vs. Stagnation
Adulthood
– focuses on career and family
– asks questions about whether or not one will have a family and career
– success will result in a sense that you’ve contributed to the world
– failure will result in a feeling of being unproductive and uninvolved in the world

Stage 8:
Integrity vs. Despair
Old Age
– reflecting back on life
– success will result in a general sense of satisfaction and wisdom
– failure will result in regrets, bitterness, despair, and a feeling that your life has been wasted

The Healing Power of Children

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In his song The Things We’ve Handed Down, Marc Cohn sang to his unborn child, “Will you be a sad reminder of what’s been lost along the way? Maybe you can help me find her in the things you do and say.” The “her” he refers to in that line is his mother, whom he lost suddenly at an early age. He sang about her again in the song Saints Preserve Us, an intensely pain-filled song.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvd6kXIfAl0)

Grief is perhaps the oddest and most complex emotion. At the moment of death, when the world is crumbling around us and we can’t imagine life without that person, we are certain we’ll never be happy again. That feeling persists for a time, often a very long time, but then, as if by magic, it gets a little easier. We catch ourselves laughing, or having several sadness-free minutes. That realization is often followed by guilt, as if we are somehow betraying our lost loved one by allowing ourselves to be, not even happy, but just “okay” again. It’s a relief, like not being physically sick anymore. We take normal health for granted until we lose it and start praying to just stop throwing up or feeling pain. The same is true of the heart, except that after losing someone, there’s a new normal. The old world dies along with that person, and we slowly build a new one. 

I was in Vancouver one year, helping a friend make an independent movie. We were driving through a canyon between Vancouver and a town called Cache Creek. At points, this canyon had very high, vertical, rock walls on either side. It was beautiful to drive through in daylight, but ominous and claustrophobia-inducing at night. I was given the task of picking up an actor (Paul Jarrett) in Vancouver and left a little late, so I had to drive through the worst part of the canyon in the pitch black of night. The darkness started to play with my mind. I had both of my parents then but started having very dark thoughts about how I would handle losing them. Like anyone we love, they defined me so much, I didn’t know who I would be without them. Paul, who was a little older than me, asked if I had children. At the time, I didn’t. He said, “Start your own family. It won’t make it easier to lose your parents, but they are the best possible kind of distraction from the pain.” He was a wise man.

I now have two children, one and four years-old, and Paul’s words returned to me just this morning. I lost my brother and only sibling when I was 34 and he was 37, and my father last December. Suffice to say I have more than my share of sadness at the moment.

Since my father died, I have been feeling my brother’s death more intensely than I allowed myself to before because they were so intertwined in my mind and memory. So much falls away as time passes, and all we’re left with is memories. 

I was playing hide-and-seek with my eldest daughter this morning. She was looking for me and I saw her come around a corner very furtively. It reminded me of a photograph from 1965 or so of my brother coming around a corner in exactly the same way. I had always been amused by that photo because he looks so timid, as if worried someone was going to jump out and scare him at any moment. He may have been playing hide-and-seek with our father or mother when that photo was taken. It was then that the sadness hit me, right in the middle of a game. The sadness of how far my brother fell from that state of perfect innocence.

None of us can avoid that fall. It’s inevitable in this world. We all must grow up and “put away childish things” as the old poem says. But my brother fell a lot further. He started using marijuana at the age of thirteen and went right up (or down) the ladder to harder drugs, until he died of an overdose. He had spent eight years of his life in jail for drug-related offenses, had very few teeth left, and was covered with menacing tattoos. Only I remembered the fair-haired boy who built sand castles with me in the sun at Venice Beach. 

My daughter found me in the closet where I was hiding. She laughed as she always does. I smiled but couldn’t seem to muster a laugh. She noticed and her smile dimmed. I always hate that. I don’t want her to know about death yet. I even told her my father moved back to Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, he’s still alive and skipping through the shamrocks over there. She’ll learn about death and the other harsh realities of life soon enough. I picked her up, walked into the other room, and sat with her on the floor, her arms around my neck. I smelled her honey hair, savoring that hug, but unable to stop thinking about my brother, wishing his life would have been different, wondering how and why he could have gone from a curious, happy, fun-loving child to a drug addict, convict and overdose statistic.

I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions. I didn’t cry so I don’t know how she knew something wasn’t quite right, but my 18 month-old toddler also came over and put her little arms around me, too. I was now swallowed by hugs from my two girls, just when I needed to be. She’s a loving child so this isn’t unusual, but it was just what I needed, just when I needed it. I could feel the scale inside me, one side holding sadness and the other love. They teetered back and forth for a moment, but the love side eventually won, and I was able to get back to the business of living, and loving my children without sadness tainting happy moments. Emotional instability is a terrible burden to hang on children. I will not let that happen. As Lee Greenwood sang, hearts aren’t made to break, they’re made to love.

Happiness and inner peace don’t win on their own. We need to allow them to win. If we don’t choose them for ourselves, who will? They’re the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, and our children.