Erik Erikson (1902–1994) was another Post-Freudian psychologist who focused heavily on childhood development and the effect it had on adult pathology. Like Bowlby, he believed that the infancy stage of development was dominated by the need to acquire safety and security – but he called it ‘trust’. He placed the emphasis not so much on the actions of the primary care-giver (the mother) but also on the environment (the community) that surrounded her, as well as other key relationships in a child’s life such as teachers, older siblings, friends, and partners.
Erikson saw the human being as an organism that developed within the body of a larger organism (society). Thus, an individual’s development was not defined entirely by one primary relationship, but by a number of different influences present in the community such as extended family and other elders. According to Erikson, all of these relationships became increasingly important in forming a mature and balanced personality as the life cycle unfolded through its natural stages of development, which he called ‘The Eights Stages’. (See fig. 1).*
*Note that we are only looking at the first 5 stages of development through childhood and adolescence).
For Erikson, the important trait that any human infant must acquire, is the ability to trust, or have confidence in the world.3 In infancy, humans must feel that their environment is safe and that their parents are stable. According to Erikson,
if the parent isn’t stable, then the child won’t be either. As an extreme example, imagine a heroin addicted mother who cannot respond to her infant’s cries for attention, or an alcoholic married couple who are fighting all the time. This creates an atmosphere that lacks safety and stability.
2-3 Years Old
Two-year-old children are famously difficult to control, and have their fingers in everything. Erikson saw this as a natural exploratory stage of development. Parents need to find a perfect balance between allowing toddlers to explore their environment but at the same time keeping them safe, otherwise they will not grow up without a sense of autonomy, individuality or the ability to think independently.
3-6 Primary School Age
At primary school age (3-6) children learn to explore socially outside of their family of origin for the first time. They do this by playing with other children. Parents who are too strict (or too busy) often don’t allow much time for play. Also, some harsh environments like inner city areas or war zones do not enable safe places for children to play together, and this can be damaging in terms of limiting the development of the child’s imagination. Imagination is a key superpower in adult human functioning (think of how much imagination engineers, artists and businessmen need in order to accomplish what they do).
Pre-teens should be engaged in skill acquisition (in learning to perform tasks which will eventually make them useful members of society). In developed countries this might entail joining sports clubs or social initiatives (scouts, guides, football teams etc.). In developing countries this is often the age at which children begin helping adults with work (e.g. tending livestock, washing, cooking and cleaning). It is important that children:
- receive some kind of guidance in skill acquisition at this stage, and
- receive praise from one or both parents for doing so
If they are lacking in either of the above, children may develop a feeling of inferiority which they may carry with them into adult life.
Fig. 1: Erikson’s stages of human psycho-social development.
Trait that needs to be developed
Is the world a trustworthy place?
Trust vs Mistrust
Primary care-giver (usually the Mother)
Trust or confidence
Can I master my environment?
Autonomy vs Shame
Will or individuality
Am I ok in relation to others?
Initiative vs Guilt
Purpose & Imagination
Can I be a competent member of the tribe?
Industry vs Inferiority
Teachers (& family)
Competence & Skill
Who am I?
Identity vs Confusion
Fidelity or Faith (in oneself and one’s ideas)
Finally, the teenage stage of development entails learning to fit in with your peers. Everybody knows what a painful experience this can be during our teenage years. Rejection by one’s peers can have lasting effects which continue to affect adult relationships if we don’t do something to overcome that feeling of rejection. Usually, if people have had a difficult time in their teenage years – such as being bullied – they can put this right in their twenties by finding new friends through work, or a life partner who understands them. However, addicted people often struggle to manage this due to the fact that addiction complicates everything. Therefore they often remain stuck with the feeling that they ‘don’t fit in’.
In summing up about Erikson’s Stages of Psycho-Social Development, we should say that many addicted people had a less than ideal journey through these childhood developmental stages and that this experience has left them with many self-defeating traits and behaviors which continue to impact their lives as adults.
If we started taking drugs or alcohol early (while in the child or teenage stages of development) then this only compounds the problem, and we often remain ‘frozen’ emotionally at the stage of development where we were at when the drug use began. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as ‘arrested development’.