Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt: Psychosocial Stage 2

Learning to become self-reliant

Toddler playing
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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.

An Overview of the Autonomy Versus 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 Versus 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.

Gaining a sense of personal control over the world is important at this 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. Successfully potty training can help children at this stage of development gain a greater sense of autonomy. Those who learn to use the toilet emerge feeling confident in themselves.

Problems with potty training can leave kids feeling doubtful of their own abilities and may even result in feelings of shame.  

Other important events include gaining more control over food choices, toy preferences, and clothing selection. 

Children at this age are becoming increasingly independent and want to gain more control over what they do and how they do it. 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.

View Article Sources
  • Erikson, EH. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Norton; 1963.
  • Erikson, EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton; 1968.