Initiative vs Guilt: Psychosocial Stage 3

Initiative vs Guilt: Psychosocial Stage 3

Have you ever heard someone tell a new mom that 3 or 4 was a “fun age?” If you have kids or cousins or siblings at that age, you know that it’s true. Between the ages of 3-5, kids are becoming more independent and fun. Erik Erikson called this time in a person’s life the “Play Ages.”

If you have been watching my videos on The Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development, you already know who Erikson is. If you haven’t, I recommend that you go watch them now. This video is about the third stage of Psychosocial Development, which takes place between the ages of 3 and 5. 

Basic Information about the Third Stage of Psychosocial Development 

This stage takes place between the ages of 3 and 5, after the child has wrestled with the crisis of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. Ideally, the child has exited the stage with a sense of autonomy and the ability to make decisions for themselves. They also feel that the world is trustworthy (that comes from the first stage of development.) Unfortunately, some children do move forward with a sense of shame and doubt when it comes to their bodies and the decisions they make. 

This stage takes decision-making to a next level. Children in the third stage of social development undergo a new crisis: Initiative vs. Guilt. If they successfully complete this stage, they develop the virtue of purpose. Interactions with parents, family members, and even other children may develop to the outcome of this psychological crisis. 

What Is Happening During the Third Stage? 

During this third stage, children are learning how to play with others. In their play groups, they start to get a sense that everyone has a role. This allows some people to take initiative and take charge.

How Do Children Learn How to Take Initiative?

By taking initiative, a child might come up with a new game to play. They might map out the “rules” of make-believe. The child might be the one to suggest that it is time to play or time to do something else. Members of the play group may follow along or push back. Different members of the play group may also fight for the “top spot.” 

These conflicts and interactions are good for the child’s development - it helps them develop a sense of initiative. This is the first time in a child’s life that they can explore being a leader or how a leader operates. Children can also experience planning, executing these plans, and compromising with others. If you have ever been around a three- to five-year-old, you know that there are a lot of questions asked during these ages. But these questions only help the child understand how to take charge, make plans, and make things happen when they want them to happen. 

How is a Sense of Guilt Developed? 

Like the second stage, initiative is developed if the child is encouraged to make plans or take charge. Exploration of role-playing only helps to further this development along. If a child is discouraged or kept away from group play, they may begin to develop a sense of guilt. If a child’s questions are dismissed or left unanswered, they might begin to feel guilty for bringing up those questions in the first place. They may regret speaking their mind or asking for the things that they want.

Like mistrust or shame and doubt, guilt can have long-lasting consequences. If a child learns that taking initiative is something to feel guilty about, they will fail to branch out, make plans for themselves, or take on leadership roles. They may instead choose to rely on parents or other authority figures when making decisions about their life. 

Parents may find that it’s not always easy to encourage exploration. Children between the ages of 3-5 are very likely to make mistakes. They may choose to hang out with the wrong friends or indulge in activities that the parent doesn’t think is right for them. But when a parent tries to control their child, the child may start to feel guilty for breaking free from that control. 

Imaginary Friends 

One example is the creation of an imaginary friend. Without a best friend or a constant companion, a child may develop their own. An imaginary friend also gives the child the chance to make decisions for themselves and the friend and explore leadership. If a parent squashes the idea that the friend exists or that the child should interact with the friend, the child may not feel free to explore taking initiative. If the parent tries to control the whereabouts of the friend, the child may feel guilty for thinking they could take control. 

Scolding a “Bossy” Child 

Imaginary friends aren’t the most frustrating situation in this stage. Children also don’t always know if their method of leadership or asserting themselves is productive. If you’ve ever met a three-year-old who was “bossy,” you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s not uncommon for children to make serious demands during these ages as they explore what it means to take initiative or make decisions. 

One or The Other May Not Be the Answer 

Other children or family members may also make a child feel guilty during this stage. After all, children in play groups may also be in this stage of development and learning how they can be leaders as well. Conflict over leadership and who gets to make decisions isn’t always easy to navigate, but is crucial for development. 

Guilt isn’t always a bad thing during this stage. A child may feel guilt when they realized they (metaphorically) stepped on another child’s toes or made other children feel bad. At this stage, the child might start to see that their role in a group may require them to sacrifice their needs and wants for the sake of others. Guilt is not always a bad thing, but in order for children to develop a healthy balance of initiative and guilt, they will need to be encouraged to play with others and make mistakes. 

Industry vs. Inferiority 

Before a child enters school, they may have a sense that they can take charge or that others can take charge. But they likely haven’t grasped the idea that they can compare themselves to others. This is the central idea in the next stage of psychosocial development: industry vs. inferiority.

About the author 


Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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