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Why the Stages of Psychosocial Development Matter in Addiction

The stages of psychosocial development can be attributed to Erik Erikson, an ego psychologist who created one of the most influential development theories. For Erikson, personalities were determined by psychosocial development rather than psychosexual development like Sigmund Freud’s work. Many therapists today believe that these psychosocial development stages can help us recognize specific periods in which people are more susceptible to drugs, alcohol, and, consequently, addiction. 

What Are the Stages of Psychosocial Development?

Each stage in Erikson’s theory builds on the preceding stages. According to him, we all experience a conflict that becomes a turning point in our development. When someone successfully deals with the conflict, they emerge from the stage with psychological strengths that will help them later in life. For those who fail to deal with conflict, Erikson says they may not develop the skills needed to develop a strong sense of self. 

Infancy (birth to 8 18 months)Trust vs. MistrustFeedingHope
Early Childhood (2-3 years)Autonomy vs. Shame and DoubtToilet TrainingWill
Preschool (3-5 years)Initiative vs. GuiltExplorationPurpose
School Age (6-11 years)Industry vs. InferioritySchoolConfidence
Adolescence (12-18 years)Identity vs. ConfusionSocial RelationshipsFidelity
Young Adulthood (19-40 years)Intimacy vs. IsolationRelationshipsLove
Middle Adulthood (40-65 years)Generativity vs. StagnationWork and ParenthoodCare
Maturity (65+ years)Integrity vs. DespairReflection on LifeWisdom

When we look at these stages and the onset of addiction, it’s clear that our psychosocial development starts well in our early years of preschool. Defining our purpose, confidence, and fidelity through exploration, school, and social interaction can often steer us into the wrong or right environment. Of course, psychosocial development isn’t the only factor in addiction, and Erikson’s theory of failing in one of these stages won’t necessarily mean an addiction sentence tomorrow. As we know, many aspects intervene in the onset of addiction, from genetics and family history to environment and social pressure. There isn’t a single cause of addiction.

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

Although this stage happens between birth and the first year of age, it is indeed a fundamental development stage. Developing trust at this stage depends on the quality of the child’s caregivers. They count on their caregivers for food, love, protection, nurture, and warmth. If the caregiver fails to deliver adequate care, odds are the child will come to feel they cannot trust the adults in their life. On the contrary, if they develop trust, they’ll feel safe in the world around them. Of course, this isn’t to say a child will develop 100% trust or 100% doubt. Ideally, it will be a balance between trust and mistrust to be open to experiences but still be tempered by wariness that danger may exist. 

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The second stage is about developing a greater sense of control. At this point, children start to experiment with independence. As children begin to perform necessary actions independently and choose things they prefer, it starts to build their sense of personal control. It seems silly, but potty training is a huge part of this stage. Those who struggle to succeed will feel shamed by their accidents and may be left with no sense of control and self-doubt. On the contrary, the success of this outcome fosters autonomy and intention. 

Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt

By the third stage, which happens during the preschool years, things start to play an even more significant role. Here, children begin to assert their power and control over the world around them. Children who successfully move through this stage’s challenges learn a sense of initiative and become small leaders. Those who fail are left with a sense of self-doubt and guilt, with little to no power over their choices. Without a sense of purpose, children won’t try to exert much power or even try to fight someone else’s choices, eventually resulting in the sense of guilt for not standing up for themselves. 

Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority

Social interactions are a significant element of psychosocial development. Children encouraged by their parents and teachers will develop a strong sense of competence in their beliefs and skills. Those who don’t doubt their abilities struggle with a sense of inferiority even if it isn’t true. In the long run, a sense of inferiority can accompany these individuals well into adulthood. So, the feeling that they’re not worth salvation, health, and success may lead them to fall for a life of substance abuse and problems.

Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion

When talking about identity, this means collecting someone’s beliefs, ideas, and values that drive someone’s behavior. This stage happens during very turbulent times and plays an essential role in developing a sense of personal identity, which will continue to influence behavior and development for the rest of a person’s life. Completing this stage successfully leads to fidelity, which translates to someone’s ability to live by society’s standards and expectations. 

Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future. Plus, it also ties back to previous stages. So, having inferiority complexes and self-doubt can lead someone to fall for the pressures and demands of someone who appears to be superior to them. 

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation

Young adults need to form intimate, loving relationships with other people. Those who are successful at this step will form relationships that are enduring and secure. Stages 5 and 6 are closely related because a strong sense of identity is key for developing intimate relationships. Studies show that those with a poor understanding of self tend to have less committed relationships and are more likely to struggle with emotional isolation, loneliness, and depression. As we all know, isolation and depression are strong drivers of substance misuse and abuse. Whether it is for self-medication or as a way to “bury” their sorrows, young adults struggling with isolation, self-doubt, and confusion are likely to find comfort in drugs and alcohol. 

Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation

During adulthood, we continue to build our lives, focusing on our career and family. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world. Those who fail to attain this skill will feel unproductive and uninvolved in the world. Not having a sense of purpose in life can be challenging for many adults, particularly those already struggling with inferiority complexes and poor self-identity. 

Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair

At this point in development, people look back on their lives’ events and determine if they are happy with their life or if they regret the things they did or didn’t do. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair. Even at this stage, Erikson’s theory believed that our personality continued developing. Those who are unsuccessful during this stage will feel that their life has been wasted and may experience many regrets. The person will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.

A Word from Lighthouse Recovery Institute

Of course, these are just theories and not death sentences. If someone doesn’t resolve the conflicts between stages, this doesn’t mean they’re not well developed. Researchers have found evidence supporting Erikson’s ideas about identity and have further identified different sub-stages of identity formation. Other research suggests, however, that identity formation and development continues well into adulthood.

These theories are an excellent way to think about the different conflicts and challenges people experience through life. But these are not set in stone. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems, please reach out for help immediately. Our mission is to help everyone struggling at Lighthouse Recovery Institute, no matter what stage of their life they’re experiencing. With our comprehensive addiction recovery programs, we can help you find the best treatment plan to help you start your recovery journey today. 

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