Erikson's 8 Child Development Stages and the impact of divorce.


The psychiatrist Erikson presented his Eight Child Development Stages theory on human socialization in 1956.

In this article, we discuss each stage, how divorce could impact the development of your children and how you can help your children improve their social skills.

Social Development Stages

Timeline of Erikson's 8 stages of social development.

Erickson devised these 8 child development stages from working a very long time with children and adolescents from all social classes in our society. Stages 1 to 5 (age 19) are the most relevant regarding children and divorce. Stages 6 – 8 are added to complete the story. We human beings go through these development stages or phases one after the other.

According to Erickson, in each stage crisis occurs. We have to successfully deal with this crisis and learn from it, before we can be successful in the next stage. Depending on how a child develops during each stage, the outcome can be more positive or more negative.

When a child did not socialize in a positive way during a particular stage, it is possible to turn it around later. To mitigate negative socialization from an earlier development stage later in life requires more effort and attention and sometimes professional support is needed.

Divorce can impact the social development of children at each child development stage in a negative way. However, it does not have to be the case.

When you understand the most important needs of you children at every age, you know where you need to pay attention to. If you recognize that your child did not close one or more previous stages successfully, you can revisit the earlier stage and correct it.

Below, each of the 8 stages of development are described and the possible impact of a divorce are discussed:

Stage 1. Hope: Basic Trust versus Mistrust (birth to 1)

This first stage runs from birth to the first one or two years of life. Your child has to learn to trust other human beings, starting with you.

When treating your child the right way by loving, caring and nurturing, and by providing a calm and secure environment, a fundamental feeling of trust and security develops.

However, if you leave your child alone too much for too long, or when you live in a noisy and stressful environment, your child will become insecure and mistrusting.

Your very young child will not understand your divorce, but it will sense (verbal) aggression and the stressful situation that might result from it.

So, at best, keep your disputes and frustrations away from your children. Deal with your stress and make the necessary changes quickly. Accept your new situation and move on with your life.

Organize your life in such a way that you or someone close is around all the time. Here, your ex-partner can play an important role too.

Stage 2. Will: Autonomy versus Doubt and Shame (age 1 to 2/3)

Around the time your child starts walking, it must start to build self confidence and a feeling or autonomy. Encourage you child to take initiative, to start discovering him -or herself. Let it discover his home and the environment by itself. Of course, you have to assure that your child crawls around securely.

By doing stuff independently, you child develops a sense of autonomy.

Typically of this child development stage is that the young child develops it’s own will. It can become very stubborn in some situations. Refusing to do what his mother or father asks. He or she will often say no to questions or instructions.

This is all normal and positive behavior for children in this age group.

On the other hand, if you child is not allowed to discover freely, it might become doubtful and develop a feeling of guilt.

A divorce might shift your focus from your child to the divorce itself. Due to a lack of time and attention, recently divorced parents might limit the possibilities of their children to freely discover. It is more convenient to put your child in his box, so you do not have to pay as much attention to it when you discuss the divorce with your ex-partner or with some friend.

If your child is doubtful or displays guilt too often, you need to pay more attention and you might invest more of your time. Go outside into nature, to a park, to the beach or to an outside playground. Some place where your child can move on the ground freely and discover. At home, play more with your child, be creative but follow your child’s initiatives as much as possible.

Child Development Stage 3. Purpose: Initiative versus Guilt (age 3 to 5/6)

This is also called the “play” phase. In this phase, children learn:

  • to imagine and to fantasize. They improve their skills playing no matter what
  • to play, work and share with other children
  • to follow others, but also to lead.

A sense of guilt may develop when the children are not allowed to play freely.

Image Stage 3. Purpose: Initiative versus Guilt (age 3 to 5/6)

Stage 3. Purpose: Initiative versus Guilt (age 3 to 5/6)

Feeling guilty immobilizes them and prevents them from playing and developing their imagination. They:

  • become fearful
  • will hardly participate in groups
  • remain dependent on adults

Guilt may develop during the divorce, when parents pay little time and attention to the children. For your children to play freely, they need the space and the freedom to do so, but they will need your supervision and partial participation at the same time. Shared fun is double fun.

Parents should be aware that their children in this child development stage age need to be stimulated to play and that they have the right conditions to do so.

Parents should keep an eye on the development of their children continuously. If a child shows one or more of the signs of guilt or fearfulness, when he or she is not participating in groups or remains dependent on adults, the parents should take corrective action: create the right conditions and let them play.

Concluding: during this phase, the best thing parents can do is making more quality time and play with their children.

Stage 4. Competence: Industry versus Inferiority (age 5/6 to 11/12)

The alternative name of Erikson for this phase is the school phase. This stage might last until the beginning of high school.

Industry can be seen as being capable to participate in our society and to contribute in a positive way.

During this phase, children learn mastering formal life skills, such as: - Interpersonal norms and values - Structured and rule based play - Play requiring more formal teamwork (for example playing basketball) - Social studies, math, comprehensive reading and reasoning - Doing homework and self-disciplining

Children that have gone through the previous phases successfully are self-confident and trustful. They are autonomous and they take initiative. They will go through this phase quite easy and become industrious.

However, for mistrusting and dependent children who are uncertain about the future, it is much harder to progress through this phase successfully. These children become ashamed as they cannot follow their peers. A sense of inferiority might develop.

To compensate, earlier phases should be revisited. A therapist can be very helpful.

The divorce can affect the development of the formal life skills, because of the changed circumstances. The children might have to go to another school in another city where they do not know anybody. They could be blocked from participating in team sports for a while, they could be distracted from studying and homework. Changes in the daily routines or worse, a complete absence of a daily structure will challenge and detract their self-discipline.

When the children divide their time between 2 houses (one of their mother and the other at their father’s), it is even more difficult for them to get back on track.

Parents should keep an eye on their children and take corrective measures as soon as they see their children start to struggle with one or more of these aspects.

When going through a divorce, parents should work out quickly where and when their children are going to live. Clear communication with their children is important, as well as a fast implementation of the decisions or agreements. Ideally, there is a daily routine in both places to which the children can adapt themselves to. Structure helps them to focus.

ven so, keep your parental fights away from your children and do not make them choose one parent above the other. This will only distract them from developing themselves positively.

Stage 5. Fidelity: Identity versus role – adolescence (age 13 to 19 years)

Now, children grow up and start forming their identity. They grow physically, mentally and socially. They discover and compare. They develop sexually.

Erikson talks about the identity crises that many youngsters go through at this age. The crisis results from how they see themselves and how they want to be.

They also start to care about how others see them. They start to participate in society by helping others, by traveling on their own, or with vacation or weekend jobs. They form their own sense of right and wrong, while interacting socially with others and they learn to deal with uncomfortable situations.

If children have freedom of thought and opinion, and they are challenged by friends, parents and other family, they will develop their own social, political and religious ideas and their own vision on society.

Sometimes, the family, social environment or culture prescribes or decides for the children what they have to become, which religion they have to follow, what profession they have to choose or even who they have to marry. When all these things are decided, there is no need or possibility for the youngster to continue to explore and experience and to prepare for our modern multi-cultural environment.

The adolescents should develop a devotion to friends and ideals.

The unsuccessful feel unpleasant, disconnected and are confused about their role.

Parents can help by having conversations with their teens about existential, political and society subjects, without imposing their own opinions. Ask questions and challenge their arguments instead.

The divorce will detract trust and the idea of long term relationships. It certainly does not help. The divorce might consume a lot of time of both parents. Valuable time that cannot be spent with the children to help them developing their identity.


  • Accept your new situation and focus on the future
  • Make quality time for your children (have conversations)
  • Create a new stable environment for you and for your children as soon as possible
  • Stimulate them to participate in society (volunteer work, after school activities, team sports)

Child Development Stage 6. Love: Intimacy versus Isolation – early adulthood (19 to 35)

Your children start to look for intimate relationships. Some start to cohabit or marry and have their own children.

If this intimate relationship suddenly comes to an end, isolation may occur as they are afraid of entering in another unsuccessful relationship.

Stage 7. Care: Generativity versus self-absorption - Middle adulthood (35 to about 60)

Family and career are the key words in this phase. People that develop properly in this age group are characterized by taking responsibility and wanting to make a valuable contribution to society. They are guiding the next generation.

A negative development results in being self-centered and not interested in helping to develop the society they live in. They experience a lack of productivity and are dissatisfied.

When their parents divorce, they feel sad and disappointed or even angry. The divorce of their parents usually does not affect their lives directly, as they run their own household. They will be mature enough to come to terms with their emotions.

In many cases, they will help their parents, or at least one of them, with the divorce and with building a life after their divorce.

Child Development Stage 8. Wisdom: Integrity versus despair - Later adulthood

In this last phase, we retire from work and we become less productive. We look back at our life: if we are happy with what we have done and what we have achieved and contributed, a sense of integrity develops.

However, if we did not achieve our goals and we are not satisfied with our contributions and productivity, despair develops instead of integrity. As time and energy is running out to make up for our failings, we start to feel hopeless or worse, we become depressed.

At this age, chances are very low that our parents divorce – if they are still alive.

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