The Formative Years: Erik H. Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development

Not only do we change as we go through life, life changes us as we go through it. While that may sound silly, how successfully we move through the different phases we experience at each stage of life shape us, our personalities, hopes, dreams, fears, careers, partners and much more. Successfully going through each stage of life, can lead one to happiness, satisfaction and securely attached relationships whereas not successfully going through one or more stages, particularly the formative years, may cause us long lasting problems.

What are the formative years of development?

The formative years of childhood development start at birth and continue until the child is eight years old. Children will experience vast emotional, physical, social and cognitive development during this time. You will see in more detail below with Erikson’s Eight Stages the critical development milestones and how the formative years of our childhood impact our life and relationships as an adult.

Who is Erik H. Erikson?

Erik H. Erikson was a German developmental psychologist whose specialty was psychoanalysis and who has provided one of the most practical frameworks for understanding human development in the formative years. He is best known for his theory of psychosocial development, which combines a person’s individual needs (psycho) with societal expectations (social.)

What are Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development?

According to this model, a person passes through eight developmental stages and inherent in each stage is a crisis that must be faced. In this crisis, two conflicting ideas must be successfully reconciled for a person to develop correctly. The way that this crisis is handled and ideally overcome imbues one with characteristics and strengths and shapes the personality. The formative years of development span across stages 1 to 4 of Erikson’s framework.

  • Stage 1: Birth to 18 months 
  • Stage 2: 18 months to 3 years
  • Stage 3: 3 to 5 years
  • Stage 4: 5 to 12 years
  • Stage 5: 12 to 18 years
  • Stage 6: 18 to 40 years
  • Stage 7: 40 to 65 years
  • Stage 8: 65+ years

Let’s have a look at his eight stages of development and see what we can learn from each stage as a parent and adult, as well as see how they connect to attachment theory.

Stage 1: birth to 18 months

Formative Years: Stage 1: Birth to 18 months

Conflict faced: Trust vs. mistrust

Song for this phase: Lion King – “Circle of Life”

Summary: This stage begins as soon as a child is born and lasts until approximately 18 months of age. By providing a baby with a secure and nurturing environment and responding to their needs as they appear, for example feeding them when they are hungry, comforting them when they are upset etc – the baby learns that it can depend on the parental figure. Not only does this set the stone for them to develop secure attachment but it provides them with the security to explore the world.

Unfortunately some children do not get all of the secure love and affection that they need at this phase, and this can cause these children to grow up more distrustful and insecure than others. They may develop anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachment because of this.

Even parents who devote all of their attention to their children will make mistakes sometimes, or chance will happen and the baby will witness strangers arguing for example, but these small instances will help children to learn which obstacles to look out for. As long as these experiences are exceptions and not the norm, children who have a secure attachment to their parental figures will likely be able to form secure attachments later in life.

This conflict of trust versus mistrust plays a paramount role in early childhood development and in the type of attachment style the baby will ultimately develop. The attachment style will generally be formed to completion by the time this stage ends.

Stage 2: 18 months to 3 years

Formative Years: Stage 2: 18 months to 3 years

Conflict faced: Autonomy vs. shame & doubt

Song for this phase: Aladdin – “A Whole New World”

Summary: At this stage, the baby is beginning to want to assert his or her independence and is morphing into a toddler. They do not call them the terrible twos for nothing! They are learning how to express what they like and do not like, want and do not want and to say no. They may insist on eating only potatoes and insist on wearing their shirt inside out as they discover independence and the ability to choose and stubbornly stick to those choices. This is also when toilet training begins and, as they learn how to control their bodily functions, they develop a greater sense of autonomy.

Toddlers who healthfully learn to express themselves and their newfound independence develop feelings of confidence and self-trust, while toddlers who are not supported during this stage may experience self-doubt, shame and lack of self trust as they go through life and may move into a type of insecure attachment if they were previously secure. The opposite is also true, babies who show insecure strategies will move into a more secure range with positive parental behaviors where the parent is tuned into the emotional needs of the child where the child feels seen and known.  This stage is crucial for the development of a positive sense of self.

Stage 3: 3 to 5 years

Conflict faced: Initiative vs. guilt

Stage 3: 3-5
Formative Years

Song for this phase: Chumbawamba – “Tubthumping”

Summary: At this stage during the formative years, your toddler will turn into a preschooler right before your eyes and learn how to interact and play with children. This is typically where children learn to share and to make friends. They may have new adult caretakers in their lives as their teachers take on part-time roles as guides and disciplinarians, and by attending school they will have a new setting. Nowadays many babies go to a care program starting as early as age 1, so depending on how much time your baby spent at home or in a caretaking program previously will affect how much they need to adapt to this new environment. 

The increased independence children experience at this age sees them exploring new things and the more secure their relationship with their primary caregivers, the more confident they are to explore. Children also start to ask more questions at this stage as part of their exploration. They also like and need to play at this age. When children do not feel supported by their parents and allowed to explore their independence and to play, they could feel stunted and suffer from excessive feelings of guilt. They need to be seen at this stage – reading my book Love Rays with your child is a perfect way to help the development of secure attachment at this stage.

Stage 4: 5 to 12 years

Stage 4: 5-12

Conflict faced: Industry vs. inferiority

Song for this phase: Skee-lo – “I Wish”

Summary: Family is  paramount at this stage of life as they are better able to see themselves individually. Not only will they be comparing themselves to their peers in terms of intelligence, sports, appearance and popularity but they will also be comparing themselves in terms of their families and siblings. At this stage, they will likely be learning about their own strengths and weaknesses and what they like and dislike. They may be discovering that they love math but not English, or that art is their favorite class and science their least favorite. Self-esteem development is critical at this stage because parents rejoice and mirror their expressed delight in their child  

It is important at this stage for parents to emphasize areas where their children excel and make them feel good about them, providing them with opportunities to pursue them further where relevant. For instance, if your daughter loves ballet, it would be ideal to make sure that she is able to attend ballet classes. Children who discover things they like doing and also feel good about doing them tend to develop the healthy tendency in life to try new things with the confidence that they will go well and in the case that they do not, to handle failure and mistakes and move on. On the other hand, children who are forced to do things they do not like or do not feel they are good at, or who feel that they have repeatedly failed, may associate trying new things with negative emotions and begin to feel inferior to others. They may avoid trying new things out of fear of failure.

Stage 5: 12-18 years

Stage 5: 12 to 18 years

Conflict faced: Identity vs. confusion

Song for this phase: Britney Spears – “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”

Summary: Peers become critical at this stage as your child enters adolescence and becomes a teenager, their hormones also kick into effect and can dramatically change their height, appearance and personality. Your son may go from being skinny and quiet to tall and popular in less than a year. At this point, your teenager is furthering the development of their sense of self and considering their future  including possible careers and if and where and what they want to study. On the other hand, they are also beginning to date at this age and will be potentially experiencing their first crushes and first loves. They may have their first relationships where their attachment style first becomes visible.

Parents are encouraged to let children explore their personalities at this stage. If your 17-year-old daughter wants to dye her hair pink, it may make sense to let her do it and to have that experience. Children who are pressured to conform to their parents values and expectations may feel like they cannot be themselves, and as soon as they leave home go even further in rebelling than they would have if their parents had let them be themselves in the first place.

Of course teenagers still need to be nurtured and cared for and given structure, but they also need to have their autonomy respected. Teenagers may be rebellious, or they may be serious – their personality will begin to show and change. Striking this balance is the biggest struggle for parents of teenagers. Teenagers who healthfully emerge from this stage develop a positive sense of identity and prepare to enter adulthood and may have even had their first secure relationship.

Stage 6: 18 to 40 years

Stage 6: 18 to 40

Conflict faced: Intimacy vs. isolation

Song for this phase: Bon Jovi – “It’s My Life” or John Mellencamp – “Jack & Diane”

Summary: At this point the parent or parental figure has been internalized by the child.  As the now adult, they are responsible for their actions and bahaviors, but parents are needed. Parents are no longer responsible for the adult, and responsibility for actions and choices shifts to the adult alone.  This stage lasts longer than all of the others so far combined. At this phase in life, a person has reached adulthood and hopefully has developed healthy self-esteem, the courage to explore and discovered more of their personalities, strengths, weaknesses and preferences. This period of time is not just about the self – but even more about the self in relation to others and about relationships. This is where people enter healthy, secure and loving relationships and decide whether to have children themselves.

If everything has gone well in the previous stages, then a person will most likely have developed secure attachment and be ready to enter a stable partnership. For those who have not completed the other stages successfully, committed relationships will be more challenging and less likely to occur. Those with avoidant, anxious or disorganized attachment styles may have unsatisfying and unhappy relationships. 

Ideally at this stage, healthy relationships develop. If they do not, then isolation and loneliness may be dominant at this time.

Stage 7: 40 to 65 years

Stage 7: 40 to 65 years

Conflict faced: Generativity vs. stagnation

Song for this phase: The Verve – “Bittersweet Symphony

Summary: At this stage, the child has now perhaps become the parent and instead of being given to by caretakers, may be the one providing for others. People who successfully move through this stage get the satisfaction of contributing to society, through work or charities, and of contributing to the upbringing of children or grandchildren. When people do not have this feeling because they are not connected to their friends or family, they may feel like they are stagnating and feel frustrated and disconnected.

This is the age where community becomes very important. It is also important for people in this age group to continue to try new things and explore so that they do not become too stuck in their habits and patterns and so that they continue to grow. It is still not too late to change your attachment style at this age if you have an insecure attachment style, and to find a happy and healthy relationship if you are not in one.

Elderly woman reading a book on the couch

Stage 8: 65 years +

Conflict faced: Integrity vs. despair

Song for this phase: Otis Redding – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” or Goo Goo Dolls – “Broadway”

Summary: Congratulations once you have reached this stage. Now you have time to reflect on your life choices and to observe changes in yourself and in the world around you. You may also be a time of new beginnings if you have adult children and grandchildren at this stage, who will add wealth to your life.

For people who did not successfully complete the previous stages, this age may be a time of regret and bitterness. For those who have moved through it, they will hopefully find that these are their golden years!

A bad childhood during the formative years does not mean your chances for happy, healthy relationships are gone.

No matter what stage of life you are in, becoming aware of any developmental stage that may have gone wrong and of your attachment style can help you to consciously choose the life you want. A bad childhood does not mean your chances at healthy and happy relationships are gone – it just means you may need to speak to a professional and figure out the best way to work through any developmental or attachment issues so that you can live your best life.

Free resources about Erikson’s stages of development:

Best books about the formative years:

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Paula Sacks LICSW, Attachment Specialist & Author
Meet the Author

Paula Sacks is a licensed, clinically trained social worker.

  • Co-author to the book “Attachment Disturbances in Adults,” recipient of the 2018 ISST-D Pierre Janet Writing Award
  • Completed advanced course training through Harvard Medical School
  • Provided 5,000 hours as a volunteer therapist to low-income clients from 2004-2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Licensure Board of Registration of Social Workers from 2010-2015 in Massachusetts
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