This post is the second in a series about Erik Erikson’s Stage Theory of Psychosocial Development. If you would like to know more about this series, go here.
Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust
We are born into the world helpless and vulnerable. The way we are cared for in the very first moments of life – from birth until 12-18 months – will determine if we can trust the world around us.
When we cry, does our caretaker respond to us quickly and consistently? When we’re hungry, are we fed? Are we cuddled and touched in loving ways? Can we depend on our loved ones to keep us safe, clean, warm, fed, and healthy? If the answer is yes, an infant will develop a sense of trust in the world.
Trust is established through time and experience. An infant whose caregiver provides loving, consistent care teaches an infant that the world – and other people – can be trusted. Once trust is established, the child can have hope that they will continued to be cared for in the future.
According to Erikson, if a child develops trust during this stage of life, it will affect their relationships through adulthood. They may find it easier to bond, or attach, to others in safe relationships.
On the flip side, if an infant experiences abuse, neglect, or inconsistent care they will develop a mistrust of the world. In their experience, the world is unpredictable and will not meet their needs. Erikson believed that these infants would then grow into adults who were anxious, distrusting and unable to form healthy, safe relationships.
How do you help your infant pass successfully through this stage?
1. Respond to your child’s cries as quickly and consistently as you are able.
2. Hold your child often, even when they’re not in distress.
3. If you’re able, ask for help from a trusted friend or family member to help you meet your infant’s needs when you are drained and need a nap/break/a shower.
In therapy, most intervention would be around supporting the primary caregiver in meeting the needs of the infant. A therapist trained in caregiver-infant attachment could help increase feeling of security by baby through interventions implemented by the parents.
Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
As a child becomes mobile, via scooting, crawling, cruising and walking, it gains a whole new world of independence. Now, a child can achieve their goals without as much help from a caregiver.
Between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, a child’s abilities develop at a rapid pace, and can lead to a newfound sense of independence, or autonomy. This stage builds upon the first in that, a child with a secure attachment and general trust of the world, is more likely to explore and try new things with abandon.
A child who trusts its caregiver, will begin their exploration in small ways, often looking back at the caregiver to provide encouragement and reassurance. Soon, a child may move from small adventures to big ones, from small tasks, such as using silverware, to larger tasks of dressing and toileting. Children will also begin to choose their own toys and initiate caregivers or peers in play.
If a caregiver is able to allow the child enough freedom to explore, while at the same time coming to their aid when needed, a child will develop confidence and independence. If a caregiver is able to praise the child’s successes and reassure them in their failings, a child will develop even more autonomy.
However, if a caretaker is too controlling, not allowing the child to try new things on their own, the child will be given the message that they are incapable and may not gain that feeling of independence and confidence.
Similarly, if a caretaker is critical or shaming of a child’s attempts and failings, that child will be discouraged from exploring and may stop trying new things with the same frequency and vigor. These children make have low self-esteem, higher anxiety, and over dependence on others.
How do you help your 18 month-3 year old pass successfully through this stage?
1. Thoroughly toddler-proof your home, and remove anything that you don’t want to be broken/destroyed (such as important paperwork, fragile decorations, etc.). Create a safe space for your child to explore.
2. Do not shame or punish your child if they accidentally break something. Remember that mistakes will happen during this exploration stage, and are not a sign of your child being purposefully “bad”.
3. Be positive and encouraging while your child explores.