How to Apply Erik Erikson's Theory

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Erik Erikson proposed eight stages of development spanning from birth into old age. His work built on that of Sigmund Freud's, in that he suggested that the development of the ego was central to healthy development. However, he differed from Freud by stressing the importance of social and cultural demands and rejecting the influence of instincts and the unconscious. Each of his stages featured a primary psychosocial developmental task that must be completed before a person can enter the next stage. While he suggested that each task generally corresponds to a typical age-range, Erikson stated that children cannot be rushed through or protected from any of them. Developing an understanding of these stages and their associated tasks facilitates the development of appropriate behavioural interventions for people with adjustment challenges.

Assess the behavioural challenge in question. Use Erikson's stages to determine whether the challenge is age appropriate.

Familiarise yourself with the tasks associated with each stage: stage 1 (infant) is trust; stage 2 (toddler) is autonomy without shame; stage 3 (preschool) is initiative without guilt; stage 4 (school age) is industry without inferiority; stage 5 (puberty) is ego identity without role confusion; stage 6 (young adult) is intimacy without isolation; stage 7 (middle adult, child bearing) is productivity without stagnation; and stage 8 (older adult, retirement) is ego integrity without despair. Use this information to determine whether a behaviour is developmentally appropriate or not.

Assuming the behaviour in question is age-appropriate, guide the person into more appropriate expressions of his developmentally appropriate behaviours. Educate significant others about the normalcy of the developmental task while helping them encourage positive completion of the stage. For example, an adolescent struggling with the necessary step of defining his identity might defy authority. If he developed a strong sense of trust and hopefulness in previous stages, then guidance in asserting his will without endangering his position in society should reduce the defiance, according to Erikson.

Consider that the problem behaviour may stem from an earlier stage, even if the person is functioning at the appropriate level. For example, a child who did not develop trust in stage one might now be functioning in stage five but have significant difficulties with authority figures. If this is the case, then trust is the central issue to resolve not the typical stage five challenge of asserting her will.

Remember that Erikson defined task completion as cumulative. Individuals may struggle more with age-appropriate tasks because of weaknesses in the completion of previous stages, making diagnosis difficult.

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