Introduction to Psychosocial Development Theory in Social Work

If you are seeking your bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or master’s degree in social work (MSW), your coursework has likely included the discussion of theories and their importance to the field of social work. They direct how social workers view and approach individual clients, groups, communities and society.

Theories help predict, evaluate and interpret situations and behaviors and provide a basis for how a social worker needs to react and intervene with clients who have certain backgrounds, issues or goals. Social workers typically know conventional and researched social work theories that are rooted in social work values and draw continuously upon these theories.

This introduction addresses many facets of Erik Erikson’s eight-stage psychosocial development theory, including an overview of the stages, assumptions, applications, and strengths and weaknesses. Included is a list of books and online resources should you wish to learn more about this topic.

What is Psychosocial Development Theory?

Psychosocial development theory is an expansion of Sigmund Freud’s original five stages of development. Erikson, a 20th-century psychologist and psychoanalyst, formulated the eight-stage life cycle theory in 1959 on the supposition that the environment plays a critical role in self-awareness, adjustment, human development and identity.

Erik Erikson’s 8 stages of psychosocial development

Erikson asserts in his psychosocial theory that ego identity is reached by facing goals and challenges throughout eight stages of development over the entire life cycle. Each of the psychosocial stages is distinguished by two opposing emotional forces, known as contrary dispositions, that result in a crisis that needs to be resolved. Each crisis must be mastered as swiftly as possible, otherwise, a person’s psychology is in jeopardy. However, a successful resolution of the conflict results in a healthy personality and the attainment of a basic virtue. The ego uses these character strengths to resolve subsequent crises.

1. Trust vs. Mistrust

The first stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development starts at birth and continues to approximately 18 months of age. The principal task is trust versus mistrust. Infants rely solely upon their caregivers; thus, if caregivers are responsive and sensitive to their infant’s needs, it helps the infant develop a sense of trust. Apathetic caregivers who do not meet their baby’s needs may cause the baby to develop feelings of anxiety, fear and mistrust and see the world as unpredictable. Basic virtue developed: hope.

2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The second stage occurs between the ages of 1½ and 3 years. If a child is allowed to develop at their own pace during this stage, they can acquire self-reliance and self-confidence. However, if parents are inconsistent, overcritical, or overprotective, the child may doubt their ability to control themselves and their world. Basic virtue developed: will.

3. Initiative vs. Guilt

The third of Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development arises during the preschool stage, 3-5 years of age. A child can develop initiative through social interactions, and by planning and commencing in play and other activities. If the child’s pursuits fail or are criticized, feelings of self-doubt and guilt may arise. Basic virtue developed: purpose.

4. Industry vs. Inferiority

The fourth stage occurs from ages 5 to 12 years. During this period, a child begins to compare themselves with peers. The child learns to be productive and to accept the evaluation of his or her efforts, and in turn, can develop a sense of accomplishment and pride in their academic work, sports, social activities and home life. If a child feels they do not measure up, feelings of inferiority or incompetence may be established. Basic virtue developed: competency.

5. Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage of psychosocial development is marked by an adolescent identity crisis. Between the ages of 12-18, an individual develops a sense of self by experimenting with a variety of social roles. An adolescent who is successful at forming a cohesive, positive identity will have a strong sense of identity, whereas adolescents who do not search for an identity or are pressured into an identity may experience role confusion and develop a weak sense of self. Basic virtue developed: fidelity.

6. Intimacy vs. Isolation

The sixth stage extends from late adolescence to early middle age, 18 to 40. A strong sense of self must be developed in adolescence in order to create intimate relationships with others during this stage. Adults who lack a positive self-concept may experience emotional isolation or loneliness.

To avoid feeling isolated or alone, individuals must learn to not lose themselves when sharing or caring for others. Gaining a strong self-identity allows an individual to achieve true intimacy, whereas identity diffusion can be a challenge. Basic virtue developed: love.

7. Generativity vs. Stagnation

Also called generativity versus self-absorption, the seventh stage in Erikson’s psychosocial development theory occurs during the ages of 40-65. During middle adulthood, individuals have a positive goal of generativity. In most cases, this results in procreation, along with the fulfillment of parental and social responsibilities. This is in strict contrast to interest in the self or self-absorption. Basic virtue developed: care.

8. Integrity vs. Despair

The final stage of psychosocial development theory during old age (65+) is a period when a person reflects on life. One can either develop a sense of satisfaction of their life and approach death with peace or develop a sense of despair over missed opportunities and wasted time, leaving the individual to approach death with dread. Basic virtue developed: wisdom.

Assumptions of psychosocial development theory

Although Erikson built his psychosocial development theory upon many years of field research and study, the theory maintains a foundation in a few assumptions.

  • Social expectations in each stage are the same across all cultures.
  • Parental influence exists throughout the stages of childhood and adolescence.
  • Humans develop similarly across the eight stages.

Applications of psychosocial development theory

The psychosocial development theory holds that individuals are shaped by and react to their environment. For this reason, the theory may prove to be a useful tool in many fields, including social work.

Psychosocial development theory can be utilized in the analysis of a client’s symptomatic behavior in relation to past traumatic experiences and conflicts with current developmental tasks.

Social workers can use Erikson’s “maturation timetable” to identify individual challenges and to determine what support and services would be best for addressing the challenges.

Strengths and weaknesses of psychosocial development theory

As with all theories, the psychosocial development theory has strengths and weaknesses.

  • A strength of this Erikson theory is its ability to connect important psychosocial development across a person’s lifespan. This approach provides a pragmatic perspective on personality development.
  • However, a major weakness of Erikson’s psychosocial development theory is that Erikson himself concedes the theory falls short of explaining how and why development occurs.
  • Another strength of psychosocial development theory is that it demonstrates middle and late adulthood are active and significant periods of personal growth, while other theories deem both stages irrelevant.
  • Erikson does not clarify how the outcome of one psychosocial stage influences one’s personality in a later stage.
  • Adding to the theory’s strengths is that people can relate to the various stages through their own experiences.
  • The theory does not provide a universal method for crisis resolution.
  • Unlike Freud’s psychoanalysis approach, that psychosocial development theory was built upon, Erikson offers a wider and more comprehensive view of humanity.
  • The theory is dated, as it does not address the influence of single-parent households on a child.

How Does Psychosocial Development Theory Apply to Social Work?

Erikson’s theory postulates that people advance through the stages of development based on how they adjust to social crises throughout their lives. These social crises instruct how individuals react to the surrounding world. This provides social work professionals with a group of signals that help determine how successfully clients handle crises and progress along with a “maturation timetable.”

The eight stages in Erikson’s psychosocial development theory provide a stepping-stone for movement toward proper growth that social workers can apply to distinguish individual difficulties and, in turn, provide the appropriate support and services for tackling these challenges.

Criticism of Psychosocial Development Theory

While empirical research supports Erikson’s psychosocial development theory, that a positive resolution of crises throughout the stages correlates with self-worth, critics suggest the theory has several shortcomings.

  • Erikson lacks academic credentials.
  • The theory fails to detail what type of experiences are necessary to resolve the conflicts in each stage.
  • Erikson employed an ambiguous style of writing and used a variety of terms such as identity development, identity consolidation and identity foreclosure to define identity without offering an explanation for their use. This practice may leave readers or followers confused.
  • Psychosocial development theory focused on crises and asserted the completion of one crisis was necessary for the next crisis in development.
  • Social explanations used may not translate to other cultures besides the U.S. middle-class.
  • Erikson does not accurately address the experience of women, as evidenced in the Generativity vs. Stagnation stage. Women are more likely to move away from child-bearing and refocus on the self.

Summary and Resources for Further Learning

Although Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory establishes a maturation timeline that has empirical support and is relatable to many, the theory falls short as a one-size-fits-all social work tool. Rather, the theory is best suited as an addition to other relevant social work theories and practices.

You may find the following related books and online resources useful throughout your social work education and career.

Books

“Identity and the Life Cycle” by Erik H. Erikson: This book is a collection of three papers, “Ego Development and Historical Change,” “Growth and Crises of the Health Personality,” and “The Problem of Ego Identity” that introduce the reader to Erikson’s theories.

“Childhood and Society” by Eric Erikson: The author discusses the relationships between childhood experience and cultural attainment, analyzing the young and the mature, the modern, and the antiquated elements in human motivation.

“Life Cycle Completed” by Eric Erikson: Using countless examples from his case studies, Erikson continues the discussion on psychosocial development. As an evolutionary psychologist, the author offers insights and new discoveries of growth potential for older adults.

“Casework: A Psychosocial Therapy” by Mary Woods and Florence Hollis: An introduction to psychosocial therapy that provides a balanced focus on people, their environment, and the ways in which people interact with their environment. Discussion includes the influence of ethnicity, diversity in the social work practice, changes in family life roles, changes in ideas, and practice approaches.

“Psychosocial and Relationship-Based Practice” by Claudia Megele: This book offers a critical multidisciplinary analysis of case studies of social work interventions from a psychosocial and relationship-based perspective.

“The Oxford Handbook of Identity Development” by Kate C. McLean (Editor), Moin Syed (Editor): This book signifies a turning point in the field of identity development research. Researchers debate, extend and apply Erikson’s theory to contemporary problems and empirical issues. The result is a comprehensive and state-of-the-art examination of identity development that pushes the field in provocative new directions.

Online Resources

AdolescentHealth.org: The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (SAHM) offers a host of resources dedicated to the physical and psychosocial development of adolescents and young adults.

Nami.org: The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides information on psychosocial treatments, including psychosocial rehabilitation, assertive community treatment and vocational rehabilitation.

HHS.gov: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a collection of resources for youth-serving professionals, including a child development resource guide for parents and providers.

Aap.org: A clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that provides guidance on how to facilitate and coordinate care between specialists, schools, behavioral health providers and social services for children and youth with special care needs and their families.

CHADD.org: The site for Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) offers a fact sheet on psychosocial treatment, along with information on parent training and education, and school and social skills interventions.

ScienceDirect.com: Science Direct provides sample book chapters and research articles on psychosocial development theory.

Last updated: July 2020