Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt in Psychosocial Stage 2

Important tasks in psychosocial stage 2

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

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

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 vs. mistrust, is all about developing a sense of trust in the world.

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

Overview

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Autonomy vs. 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

Erikson's Psychosocial Stages

Psychologist Erik Erikson created the eight stages of psychosocial development in the 1950s. Similar to Freud's theory of psychosexual development, Erikson's theory posits that there are distinct stages children pass through that influence adulthood.

However, unlike Freud's theory, Erikson's stages continue into adulthood. Erikson believed that human personalities continue to develop past the age of five.

As opposed to Freud's theory, which posits that sexual crises are the main catalysts of psychological changes, Erikson's psychosocial stages put social dynamics at the forefront of development.

Erikson believed there are interpersonal challenges unique to each age group—these challenges form each of the eight stages. They are:

Why Autonomy Matters

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 between the age of 18 months and 3 years 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 vs. 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.

Autonomy is an important part of development for children. Autonomy allows children to:

Examples of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

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 ways in which parents may encourage autonomy:

  • A parent allows their child to pick out their own clothes to wear to preschool—even if the clothes are mismatched.
  • A caregiver toilet-trains their child and the child gains a sense of independence.
  • A mom or dad lets their child choose which snacks they'd like along with lunch.

Kids who have confidence in their skills are more likely to succeed in subsequent tasks such as mastering social, academic, and other skills.

There following are ways in which parents (even unknowingly) discourage autonomy:

  • A parent consistently rejects their child's ideas.
  • A caregiver doesn't allow a child to make any of their own choices.
  • When a child tries to dress themselves or tie their shoes on their own, a caregiver loses patience and simply completes the task for them.

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.

Consequences of Shame and Doubt

Shame is defined as a "self-conscious" emotion that results when a person feels there is something dishonorable about themselves or their conduct.

A person who experiences shame may hide parts of themselves from social relationships; they may also engage in avoidant or defensive behavior. Shame is linked with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Self-doubt is linked with low self-esteem levels, as well as greater nervousness in regard to performance.

Parents who tend to excessively control their children may unknowingly contribute to greater levels of self-doubt in their children.

A parent with an intensive parenting style may be prone to over-scheduling their child, excessively controlling their child, making decisions for them, and overly surveilling their child and their activities. However, these behaviors may negatively affect the child over time.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. And while there are positive and negative effects linked with intensive parenting styles, some of the negative effects may include a child experiencing:

However, it's important to keep in mind that there is no "perfect" parenting. There will be times when parents interfere with their child's autonomy (even without realizing it). Every child will, at some point, experience shame and doubt.

Erikson's theory simply points out that, during this stage of childhood, a child benefits from having more opportunities than not to engage with the world on their own terms. Being consistently blocked from having their own experiences or voicing their own thoughts, for instance, may be harmful.

How Can Parents Encourage Success?

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

Building Your Child's Autonomy

  • 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.

Overcoming Shame

Shame can feel overwhelming at times. But there are ways to address shame and the harmful effects it may have on your life:

  • Acknowledge your feelings: The first step is acknowledging when you feel shame. Start to notice situations or circumstances that trigger your shame.
  • Reflect on what causes shame: Sometimes, you can pinpoint an experience or interaction that directly led to shame.
  • Address mental health: Shame may be exacerbated by mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or if you've experienced any type of abuse or trauma. In some cases, shame may be accompanied by suicidal ideation, in which case, it's best to contact a health service or professional.
  • Seek help: If you are coping with shame, it's often helpful to speak to a mental health professional such as a therapist. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may teach you ways to self-soothe, and how to reframe your shame into a more adaptive mindset.
  • Develop compassion: Having compassion toward yourself and others can help alleviate shame. Remember, most people experience shame in their lives, and you can overcome your difficult feelings.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

According to Erikson, autonomy vs. shame and doubt is the stage in which a child learns to be independent and make their own decisions in life. Parents are encouraged to promote their child's autonomy, particularly during this stage.

However, it's important to remember that shame is part of the human experience. If you carry shame from childhood, know that you aren't alone. With time and emotional support, you can overcome difficult feelings that may be preventing you from being your most confident and self-assured.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Erikson, EH. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Norton; 1963.

  • Erikson, EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton; 1968.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.