Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt in Psychosocial Stage 2

Autonomy versus shame and doubt is the second stage of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. This stage occurs between the ages of 18 months to around age 2 or 3 years. According to Erikson, children at this stage are focused on developing a greater sense of self-control.

Let's take a closer look at some of the major events of this psychosocial stage of development.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Stage

This second stage of psychosocial development consists of:

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Autonomy versus shame and doubt
  • Major Question: "Can I do things myself or am I reliant on the help of others?"
  • Basic Virtue: Will
  • Important Event(s): Toilet training

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt Builds on the Previous Stage

Erikson's theory of psychosocial development describes a series of eight stages that take place throughout the course of life. The first stage of development, trust versus mistrust, is all about developing a sense of trust about the world. The next stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, builds upon that earlier stage and lays the foundation for the future stages to come. 

What Happens During This Stage

If you are a parent or if you have ever interacted with a child between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, then you have probably witnessed many of the hallmarks of the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage. It is at this point in development that young children begin to express a greater need for independence and control over themselves and the world around them.

During the previous stage of development, trust versus mistrust, children are almost entirely dependent upon others for their care and safety. It is during this stage that children build the foundations of trust in the world. As they progress into the second stage, however, it is important for young children to begin developing a sense of personal independence and control. As they learn to do things for themselves, they establish a sense of control over themselves as well as some basic confidence in their own abilities.

Important Tasks at This Stage

Gaining a sense of personal control over the world is important at this stage of development. Children at this age are becoming increasingly independent and want to gain more control over what they do and how they do it. There are a number of different tasks that are often important during the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage of development.

  • Toilet training plays a major role; learning to control one’s body functions leads to a feeling of control and a sense of independence.
  • Other important events include gaining more control over food choices, toy preferences, and clothing selection. 
  • Kids in this stage of development often feel the need to do things independently, such as picking out what they will wear each day, putting on their own clothes, and deciding what they will eat. While this can often be frustrating for parents and caregivers, it is an important part of developing a sense of self-control and personal autonomy.

Children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. This stage also serves as an important building block for future development. Kids who have confidence in their skills are more likely to succeed in subsequent tasks such as mastering social, academic, and other skills.

What Can Parents Do to Encourage Success?

There are a number of things that parents can do in order to foster success during this stage of psychosocial development.

  • Provide opportunities for children to be independent. Allow them to make food, clothing, and toy choices and provide reassurance that they have done a good job.
  • Be supportive during potty training, but not punitive for accidents.
  • Offer safe outlets where children are able to play independently with the support and guidance of a trusted caregiver.

Offering reassurance and having faith in your child's abilities is crucial to the development of a sense of autonomy and confidence. Parents who are negative or who punish a child for simple mistakes can contribute to feelings of shame or self-doubt.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Erikson, EH. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Norton; 1963.
  • Erikson, EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton; 1968.