At some point, most people wonder if they are progressing through life at a normal pace. Parents in particular want to know how their child is doing, and most of us hope to keep up with our friends. Indeed, this may explain our addiction to social media. At last, an opportunity to keep an eye on everyone! The German-born American psychologist Erik Erikson pondered this in depth, organizing life into a series of stages.
The first of Erikson’s stages covers the first 18 months and involves issues of trust and mistrust. A baby is driven by basic needs and drives, and these are either met or ignored. If the child senses it can trust its caregivers, it will develop hope and faith, not just in them but in the world. If the parents are inconsistent and unpredictable, the child will assume the same is true of all adults.
These feelings will then be carried into the next stage. Indeed, you can often sense when an adult was neglected as a child. It is also noticeable in adopted children. Those neglected by abusive or drug addicted parents often struggle with trust. And this is often true even when they were adopted at a very young age and then loved and nurtured. In spite of that, mistrust continues.
As the child reaches infancy, toilet training begins. In other words, he or she adapts to society. The child can no longer do whatever it wants whenever it wants. Its ego comes into conflict with other people for the first time. Society demands self-control, especially control of bodily functions. At this stage, questions of autonomy begin to dominate. If things are not handled well, shame and low self-esteem will mould the child’s personality.
The child’s personality is beginning to manifest. By three, he shows an interest in some things and a dislike of others. The parents need to give the toddler time and space to explore these interests. It is also important not to over punish or over criticise. The child needs to feel that failure is normal and acceptable. Parents who constantly nag and interfere create a deep sense of shame. This may paralyze the child and leave them afraid of risk. If the stage is handled correctly, the child will emerge with a will of its own. But a balance needs to be achieved between self-control and self-esteem. Some children develop high self-esteem but poor self-control, while others have plenty of self-control but no self-discipline.
From three to five the child begins to interact more and more with other children. Now, he (or she) must begin to assert his will. At this stage, the child needs to do things on his own. Over-attentive parents, who fail to give the child space, may cause harm. The child is learning to think for itself and develop initiative. If this is blocked, he or she may feel guilty instead. The crucial thing is to allow the child space to create its own games and activities. To a child, play isn’t silly or harmless. Indeed, adults are often amused at how seriously small children take their play. But that is because the adult is projecting his own self onto the child. A three year old doesn’t know she is “just playing.” To her it may be serious.
If the parents do not allow the child space but keep correcting him and making his decisions for him, guilt develops. The child concludes that he is a burden. That may not be how the parent feels, by the way, but that is irrelevant. What matters is the child’s interpretation. Others must make his decisions, therefore he cannot be trusted. Parents also need to be careful how they answer their child. Children constantly ask questions. If they receive nothing but a roll of the eyes and a demand for silence then, again, they will feel guilty. If handled correctly, this stage should leave the child with a sense of purpose.
Now the child begins school. As every parent knows, children change a great deal once they enter formal education. The child now risks feeling inferior. If he is unable to trust, and does not feel a sense of autonomy, he may doubt his future. A child who feels it can trust others, and feels it can rely on itself, will have a sense of hope and direction. Children who struggle at this stage tend to develop feelings of shame and inferiority. They feel defeated before life has even begun.
The child may also become cheeky, even obnoxious. After all, he is beginning to be conscious of himself as a separate individual. These years are crucial for the development of industriousness and self-confidence. A bad or abusive teacher, for example, causes immense harm. Children should be learning and trying new things. And they should be challenged a little (given tasks, introduced to new ideas, asked to build toys out of toilet rolls etc). If they are praised, they may learn to persevere at something until completed. If a teacher picks on a child, however, and constantly undermines him, he will not.
Children need to feel they meet adult expectations. When they do not, they often develop a sense of inferiority, leading in turn to low energy levels and a general disinterest in the world. They have concluded that there is no place for them out there, that they cannot make it and have no choice but failure.
Once the child enters adolescence, questions of identity arise. He or she now asks “who am I?” and “what can I, or should I, be?” For some, this new freedom is exciting, for others terrifying. Adolescence brings with it a new self-consciousness. The 13 or 14-year-old is increasingly aware of himself as an object in the world of others.
The child is now aware that he must take on a certain role or identity. Teenage rebellion is part of this quest to separate oneself from family and establish a new identity. The young often experiment with different roles: a teenager living in 1960s California might be a hippy, while a boy in 1970s London would be a punk. The identity doesn’t matter. The point is to assert oneself. Parents need to be very tolerant and patient at this stage; mockery will be deeply resented.
But this stage often brings with it a great deal of confusion as well (in spite of the posing and arrogance). The child is struggling with gender roles, political allegiances, religious taboos and the ever-increasing pressure to choose a career. Adults need to give the child space to try out new things and not mock or ridicule them. If they, or the wider society, exert too much pressure, the child will abandon the struggle and acquiesce, becoming what others want him to be.
Stage Six: Can I Love? (20-39)
As adolescence draws to a close, the next question is whether or not the individual can achieve intimacy. As they move into their 20s, they ought to know who they are, to have settled questions of identity and accepted a role. With a solid sense of identity and confidence, they can then be intimate and loving. The shift from identity confusion to loving intimacy takes time, however. Indeed, we’ve all met middle-aged men who still behave like adolescent boys and seem incapable of love and commitment.
Fear often arises at this stage. Intimacy means exposing oneself to risk. We risk rejection, humiliation and pain. Even those who have freed themselves from the need to belong to a group still fear committing to another person. Love means vulnerability. It also demands trust. Sometimes, people cannot bear intimacy, either because they cannot cope with the fear or because they cannot bear the sense of shame. When that happens, they will isolate themselves. Some people turn nasty in a loving relationship and drive the other person away. To family and friends this seems crazy; after all, he or she seemed so happy. In fact, the individual cannot bear the growing intimacy.
Stage Seven: Generativity or Stagnation (40-65)
Now the individual has reached middle-age he or she must embark on the second stage of adulthood. Usually, people have achieved a settled state by their 40s or 50s. They know who they are and what makes them happy, and they have finally outgrown the adolescent posing.
The question now is whether they feel productive or stagnant. For many people, their children or career (or both) give them a sense of creative purpose. Others lack this and feel stuck. Parenthood doesn’t suit them, or they have grown to loathe their job, and life begins to seem meaningless and purposeless. While their 20s and 30s were dominated by the search for love, their 40s and 50s are dominated by the search for meaning. Another psychologist, Carl Jung, once remarked that the midlife crisis is no joke. On the contrary, it is a serious, even dangerous, period. It is also a time of reflection. People look back and assess whether their life has been worthwhile, and whether or not they made the right decisions.
Stage Eight: Wisdom or Despair (65+)
Now retirement looms. Their children may have children of their own and no longer need them. The goal at this stage is wisdom, and that comes from a new “ego-integrity,” meaning acceptance of the life one has lived, not just the ups but also the downs, not just the victories but also the defeats. It also means accepting what can never be. The 65-year-old man will never be a rock star, the 70-year-old woman will never be a movie star, and so on. In a sense, it means taking a God’s eye view of one’s life: acknowledging the mistakes and missed opportunities without giving way to bitterness or regret. It was what it was.
Someone who cannot do this, whose conscience is troubled, or who clings to bitterness and rage, suffers a great deal. A sense of futility and hopelessness follow, leading in turn to depression and despair. They cannot let go of what “should have” or “could have” been. And they cannot stop saying “if only.” Wisdom means ripeness, fullness, and letting go. It means humility as well, seeing one’s insignificant little life in a broader context. Many people who live successful lives struggle at this stage because they cannot let go. Equally, many people whose lives have been failures find a new peace.