What Are The Phases of Psychological Development? Accounts by Freud and Erikson

Freud and Erikson put forward distinct accounts of how people’s psyches develop. They agreed on the time frame for the phases of psychological development but their accounts of what happened during each such phase differed. Read on to learn in what ways.

One of Freud’s important contributions to the field of psychology was to posit the existence of an unconscious and the idea that many of our behaviors are driven by wishes and needs that are out of awareness. He proposed a structural account for his theory of mind with the id representing innate and primitive libidinal/aggressive drives, the superego representing societal prohibitions to the unmitigated satisfaction of those drives (which prohibitions we initially face in the form of our parents) and the ego representing each person’s distinctive way of compromising between the demands of the id and of the superego.

In addition to his structural account, Freud also developed a developmental account of the psyche for the first 6-7 years of life divided into the oral/anal/oedipal phases. One of the reasons this account is particularly helpful to psychologists is because it helped define both diagnostic and treatment approaches. According to Freudian theory, people develop psychological conditions when they get stuck or “fixated” at one or other of these particular phases. People get stuck or fixated when their needs at each of these stages are either deprived or overly gratified. This deprivation or over-gratification would make it difficult for the person to successfully resolve the compromise between id and superego and the person would as a result remain stuck at that phase.

Erik Erikson, a psychologist in the 1950s, basically agreed with Freud’s time frames for the foundational phases of psychological development. Erikson however proposed paralleling and overlapping psychological “crises” for each of these phases.  According to Erikson, healthy psychological development depended on the successful resolution of each such crisis. The first such crisis, basic trust v. mistrust, takes place during the first 1½ years of life and corresponds to Freud’s oral phase. During this phase, Erikson saw the attainment of basic trust as the essential task. Developing basic trust means that an infant would internalize an experience of the external world as a basically safe place. Not attaining such trust would mean developing a perspective on the world and others as basically unreliable and even dangerous.

Between 1½ and 3 years of age, corresponding to Freud’s anal phase, Erikson saw the psychological task as arriving at a sense of basic autonomy. We learn to walk, talk, toilet train and feed ourselves during this period; attaining such “autonomy” means achieving a basic sense of self-control, mastery, and will power. Not attaining such autonomy would mean developing pervasive self-doubt and shame.

Erikson considered the period between the ages of 3 and 6 – corresponding to Freud’s oedipal phase – as critical for the development of a basic sense of self-efficacy and initiative.  We learn to play creatively during this period, imitate the activities of adults in our games, and sometimes engage in daredevil activities. Attaining a sense of initiative and purpose depends on caretakers encouraging children’s efforts, guiding their judgment, and setting limits for some of their activities. The frustration of these efforts – due to caretakers’ dismissiveness or ridicule – results in guilt.

The remaining Eriksonian phases of psychological development are:

  • Ages 6-12: Industry v. Inferiority
  • Ages 12-18: Identity v. Role Confusion
  • Ages 18-35: Intimacy and Solidarity v. Isolation.
  • Ages 35-65: Generativity v. Stagnation.
  • Ages 65 and up: Integrity v. Despair

Freud and Erikson’s innovative thinking continue to influence the practices and research of mental health professionals to this day.