Erikson’s Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Self-Doubt

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Self-Doubt “From the sense of inner goodness emanates autonomy and pride; from the sense of badness, doubt and shame.”-- Erik Erikson

Erikson’s second stage of development is the beginning of the individual discovering who they are apart from their caregiver. Children who succeed in this phase establish the ability to determine what they do and how they do it. The gift of this stage, according to Erikson, is the will or the ability to assert oneself. Parents play a crucial role in assisting a child in navigating this phase but finding a balance between supporting autonomy and setting limits can be tricky. Overall, parents who find a balance and offer support and choice are most effective.

What Is Learned in This Stage?

Children in this stage recognize that they have control over certain things and seek to make their own choices and decisions. They learn that they

  • are no longer an extension of the parent, but separate and independent being,
  • begin to recognize gender identity, and
  • recognize preferences over food, dress, etc.

Erikson asserted that potty training plays an essential role during this stage. Positive reinforcement from parents encourages confidence, while punishment for accidents could lead to shame and doubt.

Parents who set no limits do not set a foundation for boundaries and discipline. Parents who are critical or overprotective encourage shame and doubt. Children who are expected to behave like adults or who are overprotected may not experience independence and choice. This may result in children

  • becoming rebellious during teen years,
  • feeling anxious,
  • having an inability to connect with others,
  • hesitating when making choices, and
  • being unable to recognize needs, wants, or preferences.

Supporting This Phase

Throughout this stage, children do best when they are allowed to explore and make their own choices, and at the same time, have limits and structure. Parents walk a tightrope, balancing limit-setting and allowing independence and choice. Parents are best able to achieve balance when they are capable of attuning to the child’s needs. The child learns reciprocal attachment in which they can leave the parent to explore yet can return to a base. At the same time, they begin to recognize the coming and going of parents and resolve separation anxiety (Bowlby). Parents can support their child by offering choices: You may choose A or B. Do you want to do this now or in 10 minutes?

Unsupportive Environments

At the same time, children experience a lack of trust in environments where caregivers set no limits. This may result in an inability to delay gratification, feelings of anxiety, unwillingness to respect other’s boundaries and limits, inability to trust adults, codependence, or anti-dependence.

Most destructive is when limits, support, or structure are not created or inconsistent. The child is punished severely for transgression. This creates a double bind which makes functioning for the child difficult. Erikson recognized that this stage often mirrored issues in the stage of Identity vs. Confusion in the teen years (Erikson, 1982).

A Brief Overview of Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development

Childhood and Society by Erik Erikson

Attachment by John Bowlby