Child development has been a subject of deep interest since the earliest days of psychological theory. Numerous psychologists and psychiatrists have put forth their own theories, but perhaps none has been as influential as Erik Erikson. A student of Sigmund Freud, Erikson divided human development into eight stages, five of which take place during childhood. Individual children may move through the stages at their own rate, which is not generally a reason for concern. Of course, if you have any questions or concerns about your child’s rate of development, contact your pediatrician.
Generally resolved before the age of 2, the earliest stage of development is trust vs. mistrust. In this stage, the infant is focused on the primary caregiver, who is responsible for his basic needs. If the child is regularly fed, bathed and comforted, he learns a basic trust in the wider world. Withholding care or rejecting the child may lead to conflicts and mistrust.
The second stage, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, generally occurs between the ages of 2 and 3. In this phase, the child is learning to control basic functions, such as toileting, as well as to make simple choices such as what to eat or what to wear. This is the age of the “terrible twos,” when some children seem willful and irritable. Provide age-appropriate options and encourage your child’s attempts at self-control. Kids who are encouraged to act within safe boundaries develop a sense of autonomy, while those who are over-controlled or punished for their explorations may become fearful and begin to question their own judgment.
In the preschool years, children build on the autonomy that they previously developed. Kids aged 3 to 5 are often intensely curious about their surroundings, as well as highly imaginative. They begin to take charge of their own leisure time, often inventing creative games and a rich fantasy life. Allow kids of this age to take on age-appropriate challenges and provide plenty of downtime for them to create their own fun. Kids who are stifled or dismissed tend to develop feelings of helplessness, and may feel guilty or embarrassed about their growing independence.
The early school years, typically ages 6 to 11, are marked by numerous changes. Children face new and increasingly demanding requirements in both schoolwork and social situations. This stage focuses on the child’s growing need to feel efficient and competent. Kids who successfully navigate these challenges develop a strong sense of self-confidence, while those who fail may feel inferior and lose self-esteem. Help your child work through age-appropriate challenges rather than attempting to solve every problem for him. At the same time, remember that he is still a child. Remain open and supportive, providing a safe place for your child to work through his feelings.
The teen years, extending roughly from ages 12 to 18, are challenging for both the teenager and her parents. Kids of this age are increasingly focused on developing an independent identity and a strong sense of self. They are concerned about how they appear to others and where they fit in, and may pay more attention to peer group feedback than advice from their parents. It is normal for teens to try on different personalities and ways of behaving. Support your child’s independence while setting age-appropriate boundaries. Foster open dialogue and offer feedback, but avoid the tendency to set harsh, age-inappropriate rules. Kids who successfully make their way through this phase develop a strong understanding of themselves that increases self-confidence and helps them make reasoned choices as adults.
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