Autonomy vs shame and doubt is the second stage in Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development which occurs between 18 months to 3 years old. At this stage, a child begins to trust their world and understand their abilities to make small decisions.
During this period, children build autonomy and authority over their surroundings. They are gaining the power to make decisions, take risks, and start cultivating a sense of self-identity.
This stage’s challenge is balancing the desire for autonomy with the need for adult guidance and support. If a child successfully develops autonomy, they will feel confident and self-assured in their abilities.
Nevertheless, if children are not given chances to become self-sufficient and in control of their destiny, they will start feeling ashamed and uncertain. They may come to rely too heavily on others instead of having trust in themselves.
Overview of Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt
At 18 months to approximately 2 or 3 years, children face Erikson’s autonomy vs shame and doubt stage. During this time, they focus on reinforcing self-control while building a strong sense of identity (Erikson, 1963).
Starting to walk, children discover the possibilities of their bodies and ways to control them. They learn to eat and dress, use the toilet, and learn new ways to get around.
Since during this period, the neuromuscular system, speech, and social selectivity develop rapidly in children, they begin to show independence in the learning of the world around them. Children want to do everything themselves (wash, dress, eat).
When a child manages to do something on their own, they gain a sense of self-control and self-confidence. But if a child constantly fails and is punished for it, or called sloppy, dirty, incapable, or bad, they get used to feeling shame and self-doubt.
The key crisis or challenge in this stage is to find the right balance between relying on adults and doing things independently. So, the main question is:
“Can I do things myself, or am I reliant on the help of others?”(Erikson, 1963)
The basic virtue associated with the autonomy vs shame and doubt stage is will, which Erikson (1963) defines as the capacity of human beings to make decisions and act on them.
When a child comes out of this stage successfully, they will have the capacity to act freely and think independently (Orenstein & Lewis, 2021).
Finally, an important event that occurs during the autonomy vs shame and doubt stage is toilet training. It is where parents teach children to control their bodily functions and gain a sense of control over themselves.
Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt Examples
- When young children learn to dress themselves, they often want to choose their own clothes, even if their choices are not ideal for an adult. Allowing them to make these choices and dress will give them a sense of independence and control over their own lives.
- Children may want to feed themselves, even if it means making a mess or taking longer than if an adult were to do it. If they are allowed to do so, they will feel a sense of autonomy. They may doubt their abilities if criticized or made to feel ashamed of their mess.
- Accidents are common as young children learn to use the bathroom and toilet independently. However, if they are encouraged to try and learn without feeling ashamed of their mistakes, they will feel a sense of independence and control over their own bodily functions.
- Children may want to explore their surroundings, even if it means going off-limits or potentially dangerous areas. If they are allowed to explore within safe boundaries, they will feel a sense of autonomy. If they are constantly restricted or scolded for exploring, they may doubt their abilities to explore the world around them.
- Small children often want to make their own choices, such as which toy to play with or which activity to do. If adults frequently dismiss or criticize their choices, kids may start to doubt their decision-making abilities and feel less confident in their choices.
- Kids may want to express themselves, even if it means being loud or using unconventional methods. Still, If they are constantly told to be quiet or criticized for their expressions, they may feel doubt about their abilities to communicate effectively.
- Children are encouraged to explore the world and make mistakes. Allowing them to walk or run independently and learn from their actions’ consequences will give them an essential sense of autonomy without feeling ashamed. If kids are constantly suppressed or disparaged for their efforts, they may question their physical competencies.
- Kids may want to play with others but not know how to share or cooperate. If they can try and learn without feeling ashamed or criticized, they will feel a sense of autonomy. They may feel doubt about their social abilities if they are constantly scolded for not sharing or criticized for their interactions with others.
- Letting children explore and attempt to learn new skills without worrying about failing or being judged can help nurture a sense of autonomy. Even if they don’t get it right the first time, it’s essential to ensure that they know that the effort was worth it. Consistently telling a child that they aren’t good enough or making them feel embarrassed by their mistakes can create a sense of shame.
- Children may want to become more independent, such as by sleeping in their own beds or going to daycare without a parent present. If they are allowed to try and become independent without feeling ashamed or criticized, they will feel a sense of autonomy.
Factors Causing Children to Succeed at Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt Stage
Parents’ encouragement, support, and freedom to make choices are critical factors in helping children successfully transition through the autonomy vs shame and doubt stage (Lewis & Abell, 2017)
If parents give their children unconditional love and acceptance, the latter develop autonomy.
Here are several factors that can contribute to a child’s success in this stage:
- Encouragement: Children who are encouraged to make their own choices and explore their environment are more likely to develop a sense of autonomy. When kids are praised and rewarded for their efforts, they are more likely to feel confident and capable.
- Support: Having a stable and supportive home environment is essential for children to feel safe enough to explore and take risks. With a safe base to come back to, kids can feel liberated to push the boundaries and discover new things about their surroundings, thus developing autonomy.
- Freedom to Make Choices: Children who are given opportunities to make their own choices within safe boundaries are more likely to develop a sense of autonomy. For example, allowing a child to choose which toy to play with or what food they want to eat gives them essential practice in making decisions.
Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt Positive Outcomes
The successful development of autonomy in children helps them increase confidence, gain independence, and have better relationships with others at a small age and in adult life (Slee et al., 2012).
Children with a strong sense of autonomy are more likely to feel confident in their abilities and decision-making skills. They are more willing to take risks and try new things, which can lead to greater success and achievement.
Besides, autonomous children are more capable of handling their needs and making decisions on their own. It makes them more independent and less dependent on involving others for direction and support.
Importantly, kids with a strong sense of autonomy can better communicate their needs and desires to others (Slee et al., 2012).
They can foster stronger relationships with those around them by taking on a more assertive and confident approach to their conversations, leading to healthier social interactions.
Overall, the successful development of autonomy in children is essential for their growth and development and can lead to a range of positive outcomes in various areas of their lives.
Factors Causing Children to Fail at Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt Stage
A child can become less autonomous and develop feelings of shame and doubt if they are not allowed to make decisions on their own, have overly controlling parents, have stressful events, or even lack of support (Erikson, 1963).
Here are several factors that can contribute to a child’s failure in this stage:
- Lack of Opportunities for Exploration and Decision-Making: If children are not given opportunities to explore their environment or make their own decisions, they may not develop a sense of autonomy. When children are overly sheltered or protected, they may not develop the confidence and independence needed to make their own choices.
- Trauma or Stressful Life Events: Traumatic or difficult events in childhood can impede a child’s development of autonomy, such as abuse, disregard, or family strife. Kids who are facing survival issues or dealing with tough emotions may find it challenging to take charge and explore the world around them.
- Lack of Support: Children who do not receive support from their caregivers may feel that they are not capable of handling challenges or making decisions on their own. Without encouragement and guidance, kids may develop feelings of shame and doubt about their abilities.
Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt Negative Outcomes
The inability to develop autonomy can lead to a child’s lack of confidence and poor social skills or even create a negative self-image.
Children who have not developed a strong sense of autonomy may lack confidence in their abilities and decision-making skills. They may doubt themselves and their ability to handle challenges, leading to low self-esteem and a negative self-image.
Kids who lack autonomy may depend heavily on others to direct them. It can make it hard for them to make decisions or act alone. They may also find it challenging to manage their own lives independently (Lewis & Abell, 2017)
Furthermore, kids who haven’t gained a feeling of autonomy may find it difficult to express themselves in social gatherings.
Children may be unable to articulate their wants and needs when communicating with others, producing poor interpersonal connections (Slee et al., 2012).
Finally, a lack of autonomy in kids can create feelings of inadequacy, shame, or doubt and negatively affect their self-image. It could lead to mental health issues lasting for many years, resulting in a poorer overall quality of life.
|Stage||Age Range||Key Question||Description|
|Trust vs. Mistrust||Infancy (0-18 months)||“Can I trust the people around me?”||The child develops a sense of trust in their caregivers if their needs are consistently met, or they develop mistrust if their needs are not met.|
|Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt||Early Childhood (1-3 years)||“Can I do things myself, or am I reliant on the help of others?”||The child develops a sense of autonomy and control over their environment, or they develop shame and doubt about their abilities.|
|Initiative vs. Guilt||Preschool (3-6 years)||“Am I good or bad?”||The child learns to take initiative and plan activities, or they feel guilty and anxious about their actions.|
|Industry vs. Inferiority||Childhood (6-12 years)||“How can I be good?”||The child learns to feel competent and confident in their abilities through school, sports, and other activities, or they feel inferior and incompetent.|
|Identity vs. Role Confusion||Adolescence (12-18 years)||“Who am I?”||The teenager explores and develops their personal identity, or they experience confusion and uncertainty about their role in society.|
|Intimacy vs. Isolation||Young Adulthood (18-40 years)||“Will I be loved, or will I be alone?”||The young adult forms close relationships with others, or they experience feelings of loneliness and isolation.|
|Generativity vs. Stagnation||Middle Adulthood (40-65 years)||“How can I contribute to the world?”||The adult develops a sense of purpose and meaning in life through work, family, and community involvement, or they feel stagnant and unproductive.|
|Integrity vs. Despair||Late Adulthood (65+ years)||“Did I live a meaningful life?”||The older adult reflects on their life and experiences a sense of fulfillment and acceptance, or they feel despair and regret over missed opportunities.|
Autonomy vs shame and doubt is a significant stage in the psychosocial development of children between 18 months and three years old.
During this stage, children build autonomy and authority over their surroundings and begin to gain the power to make decisions, take risks, and cultivate a sense of self-identity.
Successful completion of this stage allows children to feel confident and self-assured in their abilities.
However, if children fail to develop autonomy, they may feel ashamed and uncertain, relying too heavily on others instead of trusting themselves in their future decisions.
The consequences of not mastering this stage can lead to a lifetime of poor self-image, low confidence, and a lack of independence.
So, allowing children to make mistakes, learn from them, and explore their surroundings within safe boundaries helps nurture a sense of autonomy without creating a sense of shame.
Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. Vintage Digital.
Lewis, S., & Abell, S. (2017). Autonomy versus shame and doubt. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_570-1
Orenstein, G. A., & Lewis, L. (2021). Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556096/
Slee, P. T., Campbell, M., & Spears, B. A. (2012). Child, adolescent and family development. Cambridge University Press.