Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt

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Considered the father of developmental psychology, Erik Eriksen is renowned for his theories on psychosocial development. He believed that society’s expectations and our relationships with others interact to affect our development through life.

Like Sigmund Freud, Erikson thought that human development happens in stages. Each stage builds on the previous and lays the foundation for the next.

He identified 8 developmental stages from birth to death. According to the theory, we must overcome a crisis or conflict at each stage. Those who overcome the conflict will develop strength or virtue. Those who don’t will suffer feelings of inadequacy.

Let’s take a closer look at autonomy vs shame and doubt.

Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development: Table

Understanding the aspects and outcomes of each stage can give parents the insight to help their children to become emotionally-rounded adults.

Erikson’s eight stages of development appear in the table below.

StagePsychosocial crisisVirtueAge
1Trust vs mistrustHopeBirth to 18 months
2Autonomy vs shameWill1 year to 3 years
3Initiative vs guiltPurpose3 to 5 years
4Industry vs inferiorityCompetence5 to 12 years
5Identity vs role confusionFidelity12 to 18 years
6Intimacy vs isolationLove18 to 40 years
7Generativity vs stagnationCare40 to 65 years
8Ego integrity vs despairWisdom65

Autonomy vs shame and guilt

Autonomy versus shame and guilt is the second stage of childhood development in Erik Erikson’s psychosocial construct. From the ages of one to three years, a child starts to do things for themselves. They’re walking and exploring. They’re learning to dress and feed themselves.

This new independence is exciting and probably also a little scary so emotions run high and tantrums become a part of life.

It is now that your toddler will explore his independence. He will start to express preferences and may be quite determined to get his way. This is your chance to help your child to become autonomous, build his self-confidence, and grow his independence.   

Seeking autonomy

As toddlers learn to crawl and walk, they start to explore the world around them. Now they make decisions, like where to go and what to do. They realize that they have more control over their lives. They are also better able to communicate and express themselves.

Toddlers will explore and develop a sense of independence. Children at this age don’t understand the word “no”. When you say “no”, you’re preventing your toddler from doing what he’s programmed to do.

He will keep touching and exploring. So, childproof your home and let your little one push the limits of exploration. In the end, you’ll find it easier than trying to curb his curiosity.

Your attempts at gaining your toddler’s cooperation should be gentle yet firm. It shouldn’t revolve around control or punishment

At this time of life, toddlers will start to show a preference for items such as what toys to play with, what clothes to wear, and what food they prefer. Parents who allow their children to explore the world and make choices teach them independence. They learn to trust themselves and to take control of their lives.

As your child starts to take on tasks like getting dressed or feeding themselves, they will either succeed or fail. Success helps a child to develop self-confidence whereas failure can lead to self-doubt and shame.

How children develop autonomy

The mother is the most important parent in getting the child past the first crisis in stage 1. Now both parents play an important role in helping the child to develop autonomy.

Children who are encouraged to make their own decisions will develop a sense of autonomy. They will have the confidence to make decisions without always referring to a parent.

Acts that help to build autonomy can be as simple as letting your child choose their own clothes. There will be days when the clothes don’t match but who cares when your child is learning one of the most important lessons in life, independent choice.

Potty training

It is during stage 2 that children start to recognize bodily urges and know when it’s time to go to the bathroom. They will also find ways to tell their parents of the need.  Supportive parents will praise the child for letting them know that they need the toilet. Rewards and praise can accelerate the process.

Potty training is often tiresome but it is vital to avoid negative feedback. Children who are punished for toilet mistakes will feel a sense of uncertainty and shame. They will doubt themselves when they have bodily needs and may start to think that communicating these needs is somehow shameful.

Making decisions

Your child is starting to explore her independence. She wants to test her control so she’ll begin to express a preference for what she wants to eat, do and wear.

Most parents have experienced a two-year-old who has a preference for particular clothing combinations. Though the choices might be awful or simply inappropriate, your toddler will feel a sense of independence if she’s allowed to make her own choices.

If you don’t allow her some independence, she may start to doubt herself. This may lead to shame and low self-esteem.

Make the choices easier by offering a limited selection; “Do you want to wear your pink jersey or the green jersey today?”

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt

Don’t do for a child what they can do for themselves

It’s time to allow your child to dress themselves and tie their own shoes unless they ask for help. This will help her to learn independence secure in the knowledge that you will protect her from failure. Understand that the tasks will take a little time to do. Be patient and don’t pass judgment. It will damage her self-esteem.

In today’s busy world, it is often easy for parents to forget the importance of allowing toddlers to do things for themselves.

Think of the morning rush as everyone prepares for a day at the office, dropping junior off at playschool along the way. Do you find the time to allow your youngster to dress himself or to tie his shoes? The temptation to do it for him could be overwhelming. It is also tempting to hurry him up, making him feel inadequate.

For our children’s sake, we need to slow down and give them time to learn autonomy and gain the self-confidence they need to thrive in the world.

Children will make mistakes along the way. Use these mistakes as a learning experience and help your child to deal with them. This will help the child to develop a sense of autonomy.

Setting limits

There comes a time when you have to set limits. This really is a balancing act as you decide when your child can make her own choices, and when your choice will prevail. Through this all you’ll want to avoid confrontation.

Understanding limits is a vital aspect of emotional development as your child learns independence and self-affirmation. There are ways to assert your will and still give your toddler a choice. Ask which jacket she wants to wear rather than whether she wants to wear a jacket.

When you prevent your child from making choices, you will create one of two scenarios

  • With a strong-willed child, you’ll create an environment where there is constant conflict and struggle
  • The less forceful child will lose confidence and will start to feel inadequate.

Parents set the framework for emotionally healthy lives when they allow their children to make choices. Still, you can’t allow a situation where your child constantly gets his own way. Life is about both success and failure so children also have to learn to deal with disappointment.

Developing the will to make our own decisions

Eriksen believed that we learn a virtue at each psycho-developmental in our lives. In the second stage, we learn the will to make our own decisions. Parents who encourage their children to make choices help them to develop their autonomy and growing their confidence.

Adults who make all the decisions for their child, discourage independent thought and teach their child that they have no control. That child will remain dependent on his parents for decisions.

Tips for parents of toddlers

  • Allow your child to dress themselves
  • Don’t give your child electronic devices. They need to experience the real world.
  • Let your child feed themselves
  • Don’t criticize your child for making toilet mistakes
  • Don’t criticize or hurry your child while they attempt a complex task
  • Allow your child to make some choices.

The bottom line

Children who gain autonomy will develop confidence and a sense of security. The child who fails to gain autonomy will remain dependent on others. They will doubt their own abilities and will lack self-esteem.

As a parent, it is your task to help your toddler to have faith in themselves and in their abilities, building a foundation for the next important stage of development.  

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