“Children love and want to be loved and they very much prefer the joy of accomplishment to the triumph of hateful failure. Do not mistake a child for his symptom. “ – Erik Erikson

‘Crisis’ is a word that we mention quite often and in most various contexts – most frequently related to the economy and society as a whole, in this text, however, we will examine the aspect concerning the general psychological and emotional condition of a person.

People of all ages are susceptible to psychological crises of their kind, and we most often hear that young people, and especially adolescents, are going through something that we define as an identity crisis.

Is there a person i the world who has never experienced some sort of a psychological crisis?

For those who believe that they had not been through such a crisis, we are sincerely sorry to say that they are delusional. A famous psychoanalyst Erik Erikson claims that crisis precedes development, or, in other words, without the crisis, there is no development.

Before we start the in-depth examination of the main subject of this text, and that is the fourth developmental stage in Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development – Industry vs. Inferiority, let us first say a little about Erikson himself and his theory as a whole.


Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994) was an American (born in Germany to the Danish parents) psychologist and psychoanalyst with his study dedicated to the psychosocial development of a person.

He is famous for his all-encompassing developmental theory with the notion of ‘crisis’ taking a central place.

Although he was a psychoanalyst and influenced by Sigmund Freud and his work, Erikson’s theory differs from Freud’s in these points:

  1. personal development lasts a lifetime, it does not end when people are five, or thirty-five, or later
  2. the emphasis is on the psychosocial rather than psychosexual development
  3. the development is not influenced by not only family relationships, but by interactions in a broader social and cultural environment (e.g. schools or neighbors)

In fact, in each stage of the psychosocial development, according to Erikson, there is a specific relationship between a person and their socio-cultural environment.

This relationship leads to a psychosocial crisis.

The way we solve and deal with the crisis determines further development.


Psychologically speaking, identity is the experience of continuity and the sameness of the meaning of our ‘self’ during a longer period of time regardless of the changes that come as consequences of different circumstances in various stages of our life.

This experience is only partly conscious.

When we are satisfied with ourselves and the reactions we get from people, if we are content with our ‘life’s purpose’, we do not actively think about our identity.

On the other hand, if we happen to become occupied by thinking about who we are, what do we strive for, what is important to us, whether we are good or bad those are clear-cut signs that we are confused i.e. that we are going through an identity crisis.

Identity, although implying continuity and stability, is not unchangeable and static but it develops with age, life experience, and socio-historical circumstances.

Erikson based his theory on two sources:

  1. researches that are done on the American war veterans (loss of identity, “they do not know who they are”, “changed understanding of oneself”, “feeling insecure”)
  2. researching identity confusions in young people (especially adolescent delinquents who had issues with defining “who they are and where they are going”)

Researching those abnormal situations, Erikson came to discovering normal developmental crisis.

This normal developmental crisis is temporary but can lead to serious troubles in forming a person’s identity.

Searching for your own identity is often difficult and uncertain way (not always, though), filled with wandering and experimenting with various roles.

What is important is that crisis by itself is not inherently unhealthy.

On the contrary, it can set up a solid ground for successful and healthy personal development.

It often leads to a higher degree of psychosocial integration and stage of maturity.

Each new developmental stage poses a challenge and potential crisis because it gives new possibilities to change the perspective of life.

In this case, a crisis is defined as a positive crisis. Negative crisis, on the other hand, may lead to social isolation or permanent negative behavioral changes.

To achieve a positive outcome in development we need to successfully solve the identity crisis.

The goal is for a person to surface form this as a self-confident, self-aware personality with a strong sense of identity.

This is specifically important for the period of early childhood because it is then when the grounds are set for a successful development in adulthood.

Erikson presented his Theory of Psychosocial Development in eight stages:

  1. Stage one – Trust vs. Mistrust – It is characteristic for the very first year of our lives – the infancy (0 – 18 months) and it presents feelings of security and faith in adults. This is in accordance with Freud’s oral phase and with researches by Harlow and Bowlby about the importance of forming an adequate emotional attachment of a child to their mother in this first year of life which has an enormous effect on the child’s later social and affective behavior. This is the ground on which the identity is formed. The crucial relationship that makes the important impact is with one’s mother or guardian, and timely responsiveness to the child’s needs to develop trust towards the surrounding world.
  2. Stage two – Anatomy vs. Shame and Doubt – This stage takes place around the second and third year of a child’s life (Freud’s anal stage). Here, both parents encourage the child’s activity and behavioral autonomy, and, on the other hand, they impose some restrictions. This is the period where a child is taught self-control which is the main developmental task along with the development of movement, speech, and imagination. On both sides of the spectrum, there is a bad outcome if the crisis is not successfully solved: impulsivity as a product of too much autonomy or compulsiveness as a product of too much shame and doubt. A positive outcome of the crisis’ solution leads to the child’s self-control, creating the free will that relies on their strength, and self-confidence.
  3. Stage three – Initiative vs. Guilt – It happens in the period between the years of 3 and 6 and is relevant to Freud’s phallus stage. The crisis deals with the development of morality. It is characterized by rivalry towards the parent of the same sex. Successfully solving this crisis leads to the development of conscience and the respect of authority. Maladaptations lead to on the one hand-inconsideration (comes as a product of too much initiative), and on the other, inhibition in behavior caused by too much guilt.
  4. Stage four – Industry vs. Inferiority – Corresponding to Freud’s latency period, this stage is characteristic for the ages of 6 to twelve. In this stage, a child starts going to school and relationship with teachers and their peers become the most important relationship in the child’s life. Academic success becomes more important, and it develops a sense of competence if it is properly encouraged. If the crisis is not properly solved, we get children, and later, adults who are not able to assert themselves socially. (We will go into a more in-depth analysis of this stage later in the text).
  5. Stage five – Identity vs. Role Confusion – This crises marks the period from the ages of 12 to 18 where a person is no longer a child but is still not an adult. It is characterized by questions “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” Successfully solving this crisis leads to these young people who have a strong sense of identity, if they are allowed to experiment to some extent. Too much experimentation or too many restrictions lead to maladaptations. Parents and peers now have the biggest role.
  6. Stage six – Intimacy vs. Isolation – Characteristic for young adults (18-40). The developmental task of this stage is forming close and steady relationships with other people outside our families. If the crisis is not properly solved i.e. a person does not manage to form healthy relationships with others, feelings of solitude and loneliness or narcissism may come as a consequence. People are afraid to of intimacy wrongly seeing it as a factor that threatens personal autonomy. Healthy crisis resolution in this stage leads to forming happy, satisfying relationships.
  7. Stage seven – Generativity vs. Stagnation – This stage occupies people’s development from 40 to 65 years of age. The tasks of this developmental stage are concentrated towards home management, career, and family. We tend to start contributing to society and want to prepare the next generation. If the conflicts brought up by this crisis we feel happy. On the other hand, the feeling of stagnation may occur. The main task, however, is taking care of what was lovingly created, and overcoming ambivalence of unchangeability of the duties as they are needed for continuity and progress of a society.
  8. Stage eight – Integrity vs. Despair – Characteristic for people over 65 years of age. The main developmental task is facing the old age and approaching the end of one’s life. A person at this stage has to find the purpose of the old age, finding hobbies, redefining the role one has in society. People recapitulate and asses their lives, and measuring the level of control in life. Successfully solving this crisis leads to wisdom. In the case where the previous developmental crises are not successfully solved, then it is unlikely that a person reaches integrity, wisdom, and the purpose of living. The outcome of negative solutions leads to the feeling of life’s uselessness, hopelessness, and despair in front of incoming death.

The critics have pointed out that Erikson did not explain how unsuccessful solving of one stage’s crisis affect the solution of the next one.

The theory is largely descriptive in this sense, but it offers us tools to figure out how we should behave.

We think that the key concept here is a balance, which is probably the most difficult to achieve.

Extremes, in any case, lead to maladaptations and essentially, potentially unhappy individuals later in life.


“The richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love, and play.” – Erik Erikson

So we have already said that, according to Erikson, a person’s psychosocial development is a lifelong process.

In this section, we will focus on the fourth stage in development and that is Industry vs. Inferiority.

So what is it that happens in this stage? What can be the outcome of a balanced approach and what happens if a child is exposed to extreme crisis solutions?

What can we, as parents and teachers do to help the children solve this crisis successfully and help them on the road to becoming a happy and successful individual with a strong sense of identity and trust in their capabilities?

A child reaches this stage of development right about when they start getting out their family home and going to school, so around 6-12 years of age.

The main relationship now aside from the relationship with the parents becomes the relationship with other people. Most importantly with teachers and peers from school.

Their social surrounding expands and they need to learn how to function and assert themselves in this new environment.

The appraisal of others becomes crucial for their healthy psychosocial development.

The main questions that occupy a child at this age are: “What am I good at?”, “How can I be good at what I do?”


Children’s raising competency (they are capable of completely autonomous movement, they are able to communicate everything, they know their needs and start asserting themselves in the outside world) makes them want to compete.

They start to compare themselves to their friends (classmates, neighbors, even siblings) in terms of how well they can perform a certain task.

Even playing for fun becomes a type of competition (e.g. my sandcastle is bigger/better/prettier than yours).

In this process of comparing themselves to others, children may take pride in their abilities.

They have achieved something on their own, and as a plus, it better, ore more favored than something that other children did. This creates a feeling of competence and belief in one’s abilities.

On the other hand, if a child notices that their abilities are not as developed or not as favored so that can lead to feelings of inertia and inadequacy in the social situations i.e. the children does not believe in their abilities.

Imagine this. A child has spent his entire childhood watching basketball at home, as dad was a basketball player in his youth.

He goes to school with the idea that he will be a great basketball player, but as it turns out, there are many children in the team that are more talented than he is- they are more agile or score more points.

The child then starts to doubt his abilities and wants to quit, or avoids going to practice.

The same goes for a student with high ability to have great academic skills, but he fails to live up to the class standards of a good grade on one occasion e.g. does not know how to solve a mathematics problem.

Even if it happens just that one time, the feeling of inferiority (in life, workplace, relationships, etc.) and doubting his ability can cause him to transfer that feeling to other aspects of his life even years later, in adulthood if it is not properly handled.

If the situations are handled in a way that allows children to make mistakes, lets them know that sometimes it is okay, and if they are afterward encouraged to get better and progress, then this crisis that was encountered leads to the development of confidence in the ability to overcome difficulty with a little more work.

On the other hand, if the situation and the struggle are either overlooked, or the child is not provided with proper and adequate encouragement, this leads to feelings of inferiority, incapability, and inertia, later in life.

Even adults remember the discouraging feeling and wishing to avoid doing something that they thought they were bad at.

People want to be good at the things they do, and wan to do the things they are good at, so why would it be different for the children?

These examples bring us to the question of who should be the one who is providing the necessary encouragement and support and to which extent.

In both situations, those are parents or teachers, or parents and teachers working together to reach better results.

1. What can teachers do?

With students who are already struggling with some aspect of academic performance, a teacher should provide assistance and encouragement.

Feedback is necessary, so even if you, as a teacher, decide to criticize a student’s work because it really is not on the desired level, you should not decide to stick only with the critic and let the student go about solving this issue by himself.

Try to give them pointers on how to improve, give them an easier task to perform and work up to that which causes them to fail.

And in the case where the student is not able to perform on the desired level, praise them for their effort.

Down the line, the appraisal will help them feel accomplished, and they will not give up causing their abilities to go even lower than they otherwise would.

Help students set realistic expectations; do not give them something that is too difficult for them that may cause self-doubt.

To help them feel useful, make them do things that are not purely academic.

For example, water the classroom plants, clean the whiteboard, and help distribute worksheets, and so on.

Just make sure that you do not favor certain students, they should all get the chance to do some of these things.

2. What can parents do?

Remember how you felt when you were between the ages of six and twelve.

You have probably already developed the feeling of things in which you were good at and in which you were not good at. Your child starts to develop those same feelings.

What your job as a parent is, is to praise the efforts, and attempts made by your children.

If you notice that they are good at something-tell them, encourage them to do what they are good at.

On the other hand, if they are not good at something what should you do? Should you make them persevere in any case?

If they only need a little bit more work to succeed than, definitely- give them space to improve, otherwise, making them stick to something they are not good may have the effect of low self-esteem later in life.

What should you do in that case? Aside from providing constructive criticism, affirm them for something they are good at, or offer them something else they might try.

Remember the little boy who wanted to play basketball like his dad and was not as talented as others?

Instead of making him go to practice, maybe support his singing, or musicality by allowing and encouraging him to take up an instrument.

Contrary to the lack of encouragement that causes inferiority and self-doubt, there is a problem of overpraising.

This can lead to arrogance (“I’m the best because my mum told me so!”) or even one-sided competence in only one thing (a pianist with no other skills besides playing piano exceptionally well).

Also, a parent should not use the child’s age to justify them being unsuccessful.

When the activities are appropriated to the age, letting them slack off and praising them where there is no need for it causes them to become latent, and lazy.

Another thing that parents need to pay attention to is to provide their children with unconditional love regardless of their successes and failures.

Children who equate success with love feel unloved each time they fail at something, even in adulthood.


Although Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial development does not fully offer the solutions of the crises and how they can be remedied if a miss has been made, it offers us great insight into how the development works.

The Industry vs. Inferiority stage is as important as any previous stage, especially since it draws the child out into self-exploration and makes him relate to other people.

The key to successfully passing through this stage of psychosocial development is the balance between appraisal and critic, and even the level of appraisal for the things the child is good at.

If the crisis is managed properly, as a teacher or a parent, you will witness a formation of a healthy young person who is capable of making their own decisions and does that according to their abilities.

Industry vs. Inferiority in Psychosocial Development

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