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 stage 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? As they answer these questions for themselves, and face various repercussions or rewards for doing so, they develop either autonomy or shame and doubt.

Preparing For Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

Before this stage begins, the toddler is an infant and, for the most part, helpless. The “trust vs. mistrust” stage forces them to explore trust or mistrust with their parental figures. All of the child’s needs must be met by the parent during this time: food, water, shelter, warmth, comfort, etc. If the child is in need, they will cry for attention. It is then up to the parent to fulfill those needs and show the child they can be trusted.

According to Erikson, if a child’s needs are met by their parent or guardian in a timely manner, they will develop a general sense of trust in the world. They will trust, at least, that their needs are met. Neglected children will develop mistrust. This trust vs. mistrust conflict can affect a person into their adulthood. Many psychologists make a comparison between Erikson’s trust vs. mistrust stage and attachment styles.

Going into Stage 2, a child should feel comfortable enough to take risks and try new things, knowing that their needs will ultimately be met.

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. This will carry them into later stages in life, where they have to make more and more decisions for themselves.

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. 

Will 

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 that 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. 

Skills Developed During Stage 2 of Psychosocial Stage of Development

During this time in a child’s life, they will learn how to:

  • Listen to stories
  • Listen to rules (but not understand they need to follow them)
  • Use their imaginations
  • Tell you generally what happened earlier that day
  • Show signs of independence
  • Talk in three-word sentences

They are still unable to:

  • Fully express their emotions
  • Empathize with others
  • Share time, toys, or other things they want
  • Sit still and focus for a long period of time

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Compared to Other Stages of Development

Remember that autonomy vs shame and doubt takes place between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old. Child psychologists have always taken an interest in this age. Most theories of development have one or two stages that focus on this time period, but not all of them highlight the development of autonomy or shame. Let’s compare Erikson’s observations of children of this age compared to Freud, Piaget, and other child psychologists.

Sigmund Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development

Freud also believed that toilet training was a huge part of a child’s development from ages 18-36 months, but not for the reasons you might think. He developed the Stages of Psychosexual Development. At each age, a child’s id is focused on satisfying a different erogenous zone. From the ages of 1-3, the id is focused on the anus and bowel movements. This is why Stage 2 of Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development is called the “Anal Stage.”

Like Erikson, Freud believed that learning how to relieve oneself gives a child a sense of autonomy and independence. He also encouraged parents to appropriately reward their children for using the toilet themselves. Unlike Erikson, Freud predicted specific outcomes if the child was faced with too much lenience or harsh punishments during this stage of life. Parents and guardians who were too relaxed during this stage may end up raising an “anal-expulsive” child. The child is disorganized, may have random outbursts of extreme emotion, or is generally a bit careless in their actions.

On the other hand, parents and guardians who are too strict during toilet training may end up with an “anal-retentive” child. (This phrase is more commonly known, probably because it’s less graphic than “anal-expulsive!”) An anal-retentive child is anxious, very Type A, and rigid. A child who is on either extreme may develop psychological issues down the line.

Freud’s theories are not accepted by most of today’s psychologists, but they have had a significant influence on modern psychology, which is why we continue to study them today.

Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Between the ages of 18-36 months, a child is transitioning from Jean Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage to the Preoperational Stage. Rather than focusing on how the child views their own needs, Piaget focused on how the child interacts with the world. The Preoperational Stage is when children begin to understand the world through symbols and play. They might, for example, play with a doll that they label as “mommy” or “me.” In exploring these relationships, they can explore autonomy vs. shame. Although a child is egocentric through the early parts of this stage, they can explore their relationship with others and how they can fulfill their needs rather than relying on someone else.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

According to Kohlberg, children are in the first stage of moral development until the age of 9. They are not yet making their own decisions regarding moral vs. immoral. If their parents give them a rule, they follow it “because they said so.” Like Piaget, Kohlberg sees a child at this age as largely egocentric. A child does not see beyond themselves until later in their development. This perspective is addressed in later stages of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, too.

Preparing for the Next Stage of Development

Whether the child has developed a sense of autonomy or not, they move on to their next psychological crisis around the age of 3. Erikson’s third stage of psychosocial development is “Initiative vs. Guilt.” In this phase, the child will continue to explore their autonomy and how they can begin to fulfill their own needs. In later stages, the child transitions to discovering who they are and how they fit into this world.

All of Erikson’s early stages are building blocks for the later stages. If a child does not trust the world or experience a lot of shame and doubt, they are going to have a much harder time exploring themselves and their place in the world. These early years are crucial to a child’s development.

Theodore T.

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.