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Autonomy vs Shame & Doubt in Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

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  • 0:00 Autonomy and the Toddler Years
  • 0:55 Erikson's Theory
  • 3:40 Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

This lesson will explore autonomy vs. shame and doubt, the second stage in Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs between ages one and three and is characterized by independence and exploration.

Autonomy and the Toddler Years

Do you remember being three years old? Most of us have a few vague memories of this time period. You may remember exploring your world and wanting to do things on your own. Perhaps you're a parent yourself, and have noticed your toddler beginning to express more independence and develop his or her own interests. This willful exploration and sense of independence is called autonomy, and it's a notable feature of the toddler years.

Parenting plays a large role in a child's development, and how a parent handles this tumultuous and exciting stage can have a lifelong impact. A developmental psychologist named Erik Erikson (1902-1994) referred to the conflicts of this life period as autonomy vs. shame and doubt, which is one of eight stages in his theory of psychosocial development. In order to fully understand this stage, it would be helpful to view it within the context of Erikson's theory as a whole.

Erikson's Theory

It's likely that you've heard of Sigmund Freud. His writings on child development focused on the influence of early experiences on personality. He conceptualized development in psychosexual stages, occurring during the first five years of life. Each stage is characterized by a sexual conflict that, if left unresolved, could lead to psychological dysfunction later in life.

Like many of Freud's contemporaries and future scholars, Erikson was influenced by Freud's work. He also viewed development in stages that coincided with different types of conflict, but he placed a stronger emphasis on social interaction than sex. Furthermore, Erikson's stages span a person's entire life rather than the first few years. Erikson's theory consists of eight stages that are written as conflicts that people encounter at certain age ranges. It's important to note that it's not feasible for a child to only experience the 'positive' side of the conflict, and the 'negative' side isn't always negative. According to Erikson, there should be some balance.

Following are brief descriptions of each stage to give you some context:

  • Trust vs. Mistrust (birth - 1 year): Infants rely on their parents to provide care, and develop trust when their needs are met. Otherwise, they may grow up to be mistrustful and suspicious.
  • Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (1 - 3 years): Toddlers express willful exploration. If they are restricted by controlling parents, they may experience shame and doubt.
  • Initiative vs. Guilt (3 - 5 years): At this point, children develop an idea of who they are through play, interaction, and self-expression. Too much criticism can lead to guilt.
  • Industry vs. Inferiority (5 - 12 years): In this stage, children learn to read and create. Those who are positively reinforced will feel industrious, whereas those who are stifled may feel inferior.
  • Identity vs. Role Confusion (12 - 18 years): Teens seek to understand their identities and the roles they will play in society. Failure to do so can lead to confusion.
  • Intimacy vs. Isolation (18 - 40 years): This stage is marked by seeking intimacy with others. If this is not successful, a sense of isolation can develop.
  • Generativity vs. Stagnation (40 - 65 years): In middle adulthood, people focus on establishing careers and future generations. Failure to do so can lead to a sense of stagnation.
  • Integrity vs. Despair (65+ years): Older adults often contemplate their lives and accomplishments. If they feel successful, they have a sense of integrity. If not, they feel despair.

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