Social Skill Development

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One of the most cogent theories of social development is Erik Erikson’s “Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development”. Each step is based on making healthy choices for a child and teaching him or her to act in kind when opportunities to make decisions on their own present themselves. The stages outline positive benchmarks – and their opposites – that span from birth to death.

Preparing a child for common ties,
through Erik Erikson’s theory

Forming deep bonds, for all children, is dependent on the development of a healthy self-concept. That, of course, can be difficult to cultivate amid a battery of physical or developmental issues that can set him or her apart from other children. But it’s not impossible.

The German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson believed that the foundation for positive – or negative – socialization is constructed in childhood. Erikson’s “Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development” offers a key that may unlock a child’s ability to form relationships.

Erickson believed that personality traits – whether a child is shy or outgoing, or passive or aggressive – are fixed states. Individual characteristics – such as feeling ineffective or empowered – are learned, which means they can be influenced during certain stages of development by using the right emotional supports and opportunities. Each step builds on the other.

Of course, most children don’t fit into any particular box; this is especially true of young people with a disability. The value of Erikson’s theory is that it allows parents to identify cues in a child’s behavior that are not conducive to building friendships – and it gives a parent time to influence workable solutions so a child can grow into a strong, confident adult. The information is used in a way to impress upon the importance of child-rearing practices and teachable opportunities that could influence a person’s development.

Erickson’s stages are an attempt to explain how a person develops their sense of identity. The model assumes that, at certain ages in human development, a child goes through a life-altering conflict. The opportunities a child is afforded, the parenting style the child is guided by, and the experiences the child encounters influence their social identity.

Erikson’s hope was that with knowledge of these stages, parents and psychologists can help a child move past psychological barriers. If parents understand the importance of social stages and development, they will be able to better support their child as they build life-long relationships.

Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development

Erickson’s eight stages are detailed below in two parts, those that occur in childhood and those that transpire in adulthood.


Stage I: Hope – Learning basic trust vs. mistrust, 0 to 18 months

The first stage takes place when a child is 0 to 18 months old and highly dependent upon others to competently meet their basic needs of food, shelter, and security. In infancy, it is necessary for a parent to nurture and love a child so that he or she develops a sense of security, optimism and curiosity. If this does not occur, a child may become insecure and mistrustful of others and left with a feeling of abandonment – which is counterproductive to relationship-building.

Stage II: Will – Learning autonomy vs. shame, 18 months to 3 ½ years

The second stage is the period of time when a child either exerts newfound control or becomes immobilized by fear. For most children, it is a time where they are not held by everyone, all the time. They learn to roll, sit, crawl and walk. With this newfound mobility, they explore. For a child with Cerebral Palsy that has a form of mobility impairment, the child is still seeking the freedom to explore their surroundings unhampered and uninhibited even if they have a mobility challenge. They begin to develop a sense of wanting some form of control over their environment. Providing a child with mobility devices can help. Providing opportunities to explore are necessary.

The secure child has a sense of space and is beginning to feel compelled to interact within it. He tries to control his or her body movements to the best of ability, learns from those around him, and attempts to interact with others. As a baby, he or she communicates joy and sadness through facial expressions and kicks of joy, whereas by the age of four, he is afforded opportunities to play alongside other children and become an integral part of what is happening in the room with others.

This stage represents an opportunity for a child to make choices – do I put this in my mouth, or not; do I want to be in the room with others, or explore? It’s a time when parents provide choices, experimentation, boundaries, and supervision. A parent should guide the child, use consistency, teach cooperation, and encourage positive interactions with others as the child determines, “Is it okay to be me?”

On the other hand, if a child is yelled at for being a curious child, has limited opportunity to explore their environment, and met with inconsistent or hostile guidance, the child will likely become immobilized with a fear, shame and doubt.

Stage III: Purpose – Learning initiative vs. guilt, 3 ½ to 5 years

This stage centers on a child’s ability to cooperate with others, master their bodily functions (toilet training), interact with their surroundings, and further develop acceptable social skills. How children are parented and supervised plays a role in their ability to develop initiative, or question their abilities. The child is determining, “Is it ok for me to do, move and act?”

Parents are advised to use encouragement to foster autonomy and to feed their curiosity through teachable moments. It is a time to avoid power struggles. This is a time where children begin to develop preferences, interest and desires through natural curiosity.

Children with newfound mobility and dexterity are prone to explore and test. They explore safe and unsafe territory, requiring supervision laced with encouragement and sometimes distraction tactics. They are learning to balance risk-taking with self-limits.

However, children with mobility impairment who may not be as mobile still require opportunities to explore, to learn, to share, and to gain preferences, interests and desires. They need to develop a sense of some control over their environments, self-sufficiency, and the ability to make choices. All children should emerge through this stage with initiative and a sense of accomplishment.

Children should be provided the chance to accomplish by starting tasks and finishing them on their own. Their newfound independence and control over their environment may come with bouts of frustration in not being able to achieve what their minds have set out to accomplish. They will require guidance in making realistic and age-appropriate pursuits.

According to Erikson, if a child is refused the opportunity to perform tasks they are capable of, or discouraged by reprimands or ridicule while trying to gain a sense of autonomy, children are vulnerable to feelings of frustration and aggressive behaviors such as throwing objects, hitting, biting, and attention seeking outbursts. Often a parent’s first instinct would be discipline or refuse them to complete their task. However, the outburst should be considered a teachable moment that may instead require diversion or providing the child with two acceptable choices.

Children met with power struggles between parent and child, or unconstructive discipline techniques often fall into guilt, shame and self-doubt during Stage III and may form co-dependent relationships with adults. In school, they may lack the confidence to feel worthy as part of the group or team. They may lack a sense of initiative, empowerment and motivation. A child that is reliant on a parent to provide approval of their pursuits will be less inclined to feel confident to interact with other children at school or at play. Likewise, other children sense this difference in the child which may cause them to avoid creating friendships.

Stage IV: Competence – Experiencing industry vs. inferiority, 5 to 12 years

Stage IV occurs during early school-age years when children have an innate desire to socialize and play with other children. During this phase, children leave the home nest for school or other children’s homes. This is where they learn to interact with adults and their peers according to accepted rules and mores of others.

They adapt to structured activities of interest, including sports. Classroom etiquette, homework demands, and team activities that further promote structure, cooperation and social grooming.

This is a crucial stage where early school-aged children are afforded opportunities to achieve, receive praise, and accomplish – the building blocks of self-confidence. Through positive encouragement from their parents, teachers and peers, they develop a sense of initiative and motivation to achieve as their confidence grows. They feel accepted.

Normally, a child entering this stage has emerged through the previous stages with initiative, autonomy, and trust. The child uses their sense of accomplishment and self-confidence to interact with others in a more structured environment filled with rules and demands.

If the child exiting Stage III emerged in Stage IV with low self-esteem and immobilized by fear when making their own choices or interacting with others, he or she is likely to feel a sense of inferiority and withdraw from group activities and interaction. The child may lack confidence in their ability, doubt their ability to make a decision, and be prone to defeat and guilt in team exercises.

This stage can be difficult for parents of a child with disability. They may be tempted to shelter the child from others out of a desire to protect them from being teased, ridiculed by others, or even bullied. Parents worry if their child will be accepted by others. Parents will need to resist the temptation to sequester their child and isolate them out of fear of the unknown.

Children with disabilities require additional support during this stage. Parents should avoid isolating a child from socialization as this is an stage in social development that will allow the child to feel a part of a group and have the self-confidence to be an equal amongst peers.

In this stage, the child is determining how they fit in with the world of people. They are discovering their special talents and worth. Every effort should be made to encourage the pursuit of their interests and to be with others of like interest. They require the ability to succeed at friendship and experience bonds.

Stage V: Fidelity – Gaining identity vs. role confusion, 13 to 19 years

Stage V, the final stage in childhood, involves an adolescent acquiring a sense of who they are and what they can be as an adult. Adolescence can be a difficult transition in many ways. The child is developing into adulthood through a myriad of physical, emotional and social challenges. They are conscious of their changing bodies, their sexual identity, their need for independence, and the role they will play in society. These are the years of identity crisis.

During Step V, a child will determine who he or she actually is, and who they would like to become. This can be a period of intense social experimentation; willfulness and rebellion are most likely to occur during this phase.

For students with special needs, the education system begins to transition the student with a disability into adulthood at the age of 16. They, more so than able-bodied students, are encouraged to plan their path into adulthood. Efforts are made to develop self-sufficiency, independent living skills, and navigate the community without the guidance or dependence on their family, whenever possible. This involves hygiene, financial planning, public transportation, housing, skill training or college planning.

If a child enters Stage V with a sense of lethargy and lack of motivation developed at the end of Stage 4, he or she will likely become more introverted and dependent upon others. They may lack motivation, vision, and confidence in their abilities.


Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development presume that the identity developed and influenced in childhood contributes to the identity of the adult. He details three developmental stages that are experienced during adulthood.

Stage VI: Love – Attaining intimacy vs. isolation, 20 to 24 years, or 20-40 years

This stage exemplifies the struggle to fit in with peers and partners. It is the stage in life where the individual is on a quest for intimacy as a basic human need of forming reciprocal relationships with others through friendship, marriage or partnership. When an individual is provided a secure, warm, and dependable environment during childhood, they are naturally suited to form like relationships with others during adulthood, according to Erickson. If they developed confidence and accomplishment, they transfer those skills towards relationship building.

However, for some, the journey to Stage V has the opposite outcome – the individual craves isolation, away from the painful reality of rejection they’ve experienced through the years. If in childhood they were frustrated, ridiculed, withdrawn, or mistrustful then these qualities may come into play in their adult relationships. If they have low self-esteem and have attained inadequate confidence in their ability, this will transfer into their ability to bond with friends and mates.

Stage VII: Care – Achieving generativity vs. stagnation, 25 to 64 years, or 40 to 64 years

Stage VII is a journey into middle age where we ask ourselves, “Can I make my life count?” Middle age is a time when an individual comes to term with what they wanted to accomplish versus what they were able to accomplish – how they define their purpose in life.

This stage assumes there is an innate need to be socially-valued in our ability to be productive members of society, our contributions in our marriage, our pride in raising a family, and our strides of civic duty. Those in middle age are cutting their purse strings to their children, they are forging renewed relationships with their spouse, and they are accepting the role of aging gracefully.

For some, though, the journey is more self-centered, not as satisfying, less productive, and perhaps stagnant.

Stage VIII: Wisdom – ego integrity vs. despair, 65 to death

Stage VIII is the point in life when an individual looks back in retrospection to ask, “Is it okay to have been me?” Those socially developed would lay claim to their success in life, their accomplishments, and their individual traits that persevered.

Although life doesn’t always play nice, the general feel of a well-socialized individual is to make peace with their journey, be content with achievement, and age gracefully.

For those with a difficult journey through the stages of social development, they may feel some disappointment, and at a loss for goals unattained.


two friends hugging


When a child with a disability reaches adulthood, feelings about acceptance by others may linger. If young people learn to accept themselves during their formative years, explore interests, form friendships, accomplish, interact, and socialize at age-appropriate stages, it can help empower a sense of belonging when they’ve grown.

Learn more

For more helpful tips, visit
Managing Cerebral Palsy and
Maximizing Potential.