Autonomy vs. Shame: Psychosocial Stage 2

Erik and Joan Erikson developed eight stages of psychosocial development that outline the crises that each person faces in their lives. The second psychosocial stages is autonomy vs. shame, also known as autonomy vs. shame and doubt. 

What Is Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt? 

Autonomy vs. Shame is the second psychological crisis that a child experiences in their psychosocial development. The first is Trust vs. Mistrust, which occurs starting at birth. This second stage occurs between the ages of 18 months and three years of age. 

As the infant becomes a toddler, they are exploring many things outside of their social development. They are learning to walk, crawl, eat on their own, and communicate their needs. With these new abilities become new choices. Do they walk away from their mother to explore the house or to their mother for guidance? Should they communicate when they need to use the bathroom? Can they refuse food if they are not hungry, or ask for it when they are? 

How Do Children Develop Autonomy?

When a child is encouraged to make these decisions on their own, they gain a sense of autonomy. Autonomy is a state of self-governance. If a child feels comfortable making decisions for themselves about their needs, they have a sense of autonomy. 

Autonomy gives someone independence. If a child is comfortable with a state of self-governance, they will be able to explore making decisions for themselves without relying on a parent. 

How Can Parents Encourage Autonomy? 

The mother was the primary figure in Stage 1 of Psychosocial Development. The father has a role alongside the mother in Stage 2. Both parents can help their child form a sense of autonomy (or, if they are not careful, may encourage shame and doubt.) 

Toilet Training 

One of the pivotal moments in this stage is toilet training. The child will start to recognize when it’s time to go to the bathroom. They will explore how to communicate this to their parents as well. Parents who are supportive during this time will teach their children that it is good to have control over your body and make decisions based on changes in your body. Rewarding a child for using the toilet or communicating their needs will help to speed up this process. 

Of course, toilet training can be frustrating. But if this stage of a child’s life is filled with punishment and negativity, they will develop a sense of shame or doubt. They will learn that communicating their needs is shameful. The child will start to doubt the instincts that they get when their body changes or they have needs to be met. 

Other Decisions

This crisis goes beyond toilet training. Children at this stage will want to make decisions about what they want to wear, eat, or do. They will communicate whether or not they want to play with dolls or go outside. These are all decisions based on the child’s feelings and needs. 

If they are encouraged to explore these different options and make decisions for themselves, they will continue to develop a sense of autonomy. If the parent shames the child for this exploration and tries to make all of the decisions for the child, shame and doubt will arise. Of course, children are going to make mistakes along the way. Talking to the child through these mistakes, rather than punishing them for trying something at all, can still help the child form a sense of autonomy. 

Like trust vs. mistrust, autonomy or shame can impact a child far beyond the second stage of their psychosocial development. 


Erikson theorized that each stage of development, when completed successfully, leads a person toward a virtue. In the second stage of development, that stage is Will. If a child is encouraged to make their own decisions and believes they are in control of their bodies, they will develop the will to make these decisions. If parents discourage the child from making decisions and teach them that they are not in control, the child is more likely to become helpless. Like the dogs in Martin Seligman’s study, understanding that we are in control of our bodies and decisions is crucial to our motivation and will.

Example of Autonomy vs. Shame in Psychology

In 1967, Martin Seligman conducted a monumental experiment on helplessness and will. He separated dogs into one of three groups and gave the dogs a series of electric shocks. One group was able to “turn off” the shocks by completing an action, and the other group was not able to turn off the shocks. 

Later, Seligman put the dogs in another situation in which they were receiving electric shocks. All they had to do was take a few steps to turn the shocks off. He observed that the dogs in the second group I mentioned felt helpless, and didn’t have the will to try anything. They assumed that they were not in control and nothing they would do would help the situation. 

I mention this now because the second stage of psychosocial development puts children into very similar situations to those dogs. (Of course, no electric shocks are involved.) In the second stage of psychosocial development, children begin to explore whether or not they are in control. They enter into a psychological crisis, and leave the crisis with either a sense of autonomy or a sense of shame and doubt. 

Theodore Thudium

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.