A Comparison of Freud and Erikson's Theories of Development

Key Similarities and Differences at All Stages of Life

Sigmund Freud's psychosexual theory and Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory are two well-known theories of development. While these theories have several similarities, perhaps because Freud was a mentor to Erikson, they also had some differences.

For instance, like Freud, Erikson recognized the importance of the unconscious on development. He also believed that personality develops in a series of predetermined stages. Yet, Erikson's theory differed in a number of important ways. Mainly, unlike Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages, Erikson’s theory describes the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan.

Freud's approach has fallen out of favor with many modern psychologists and researchers, but Erikson's views remain popular and relevant.

Let's compare and contrast these two theories by looking at some of the key similarities and differences between Freud and Erikson at the various stages of development.

Birth to 1 Year

Infant with mother
redheadpictures / Cultura / Getty Images

The two theories of development both focus on the importance of early experiences, but there are notable differences between Freud's and Erikson's ideas. Freud centered on the importance of feeding, while Erikson was more concerned with how responsive caretakers are to a child's needs.

Freud's Theory

The first stage of psychosexual development is known as the oral stage. At this point in development, a child's primary source of pleasure is through the mouth via sucking, eating, and tasting.

Problems with this stage can result in what Freud referred to as an oral fixation.

Erikson's Theory

Trust vs. mistrust is the first stage in Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. During this stage, children learn to either trust or mistrust their caregivers.

The care that adults provide determines whether children develop a sense of trust in the world around them. Children who do not receive adequate and dependable care may develop a sense of mistrust of others and the world.

Ages 1 to 3 Years

Mother watching daughter play
Chad Springer / Image Source / Getty Images

While there are a number of differences between Erikson's and Freud's ideas, their theories both focus on how children develop a sense of independence and mastery.

Freud's Theory

The second stage of psychosexual development is known as the anal stage.​ In this stage, children gain a sense of mastery and competence by controlling bladder and bowel movements.

Children who succeed at this stage develop a sense of capability and productivity. Those who have problems at this stage may develop an anal fixation. As adults, they might be excessively orderly or messy.

Erikson's Theory

Autonomy versus shame and doubt is the second stage of psychosocial development. During this stage, children become more mobile. They develop self-sufficiency by controlling activities such as eating, toilet training, and talking.

Children who are supported in this stage become more confident and independent. Those who are criticized or overly controlled are left doubting themselves.

Ages 3 to 6 Years

Young kids playing together
Sally Anscombe / Taxi / Getty Images

During the preschool and early elementary years, Freud's theory was much more concerned with the role of the libido. Erikson's theory was more focused on how children interact with parents and peers.

Freud's Theory

The third stage of psychosexual development is known as the phallic stage. In this stage, the libido's energy is focused on the genitals. Children become aware of their anatomical sex differences which leads boys to experience the Oedipus complex while girls experience the Electra complex.

By the end of this stage, they begin to identify with their same-sex parent.

Erikson's Theory

Erikson's third stage of psychosocial development is the initiative versus guilt stage. In this stage, children begin to take more control over their environment. They begin to interact with other children and develop their interpersonal skills.

Those who are successful at this stage develop a sense of purpose while those who struggle are left with feelings of guilt.

Ages 7 to 11 Years

Kids playing with friends
Hero Images / Getty Images

Freud believed that this age served as more of a transitional period between childhood and adolescence. Erikson, on the other hand, believed that kids continue to forge a sense of independence and competence during this phase.

Freud's Theory

The fourth stage of psychosexual development is known as the latent period. In this stage, the libido's energy is suppressed and children focus more on other activities such as school, friends, and hobbies.

Freud believed this stage was important for developing social skills and self-confidence.

Erikson's Theory

Industry versus inferiority is the fourth stage of psychosocial development. Children develop a sense of competence by mastering new skills, like writing and reading on their own.

Kids who succeed at this stage develop pride in their accomplishments, while those who struggle may be left feeling incompetent.


Teenagers taking selfies
Tom Merton / Caiaimage / Getty Images

Adolescence played a critical role in both Freud's and Erikson's theories of development. In both theories, teens begin to forge their own sense of identity.

Freud's Theory

The fifth stage of psychosexual development is known as the genital stage. It is the time when adolescents begin to explore romantic relationships. According to Freud, the goal of this stage is to develop a sense of balance between all the areas of life.

Those who have successfully completed the earlier stages are now warm, caring, and well-adjusted.

Erikson's Theory

The fifth stage of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development is the identity versus role confusion stage. It occurs during adolescence, from about 12 to 18 years.

During this stage, adolescents develop a personal identity and a sense of self. Teens explore different roles, attitudes, and identities as they develop a sense of self.

With proper encouragement, children will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and what they want to accomplish. Those who struggle will remain confused about who they are and their place in society.


Happy adult couple
Grant Squibb / Cultura Exclusive / Getty Images

Freud's theory focused exclusively on development between birth and the teen years, while Erikson's theory extended into adulthood.

Freud's Theory

Freud's theory implied that personality is largely set in stone by early childhood. According to Freud, the genital stage lasts throughout adulthood. The goal is to develop a balance between all areas of life.

Erikson's Theory

Erikson took a lifespan approach, believing that development continues even in old age. His theory includes the three additional stages that span adulthood:

A Word From Verywell

Freud's and Erikson's theories of development share a number of important similarities. Both stressed the importance of social experiences and recognized the role that childhood plays in shaping adult personality.

Unlike Freud's psychosexual approach, Erikson's psychosocial stage theory took a more expansive view of development, encompassing childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. While Freud believed that development was largely complete fairly early on, Erikson felt that it was a process that continued throughout the entire course of a person's life.

9 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.
  1. LaRose AP, West TV. Freud, Sigmund. Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology. 2014. doi:10.1002/9781118517390.wbetc034

  2. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Oral stage. American Psychological Association.

  3. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Basic trust versus mistrust. American Psychological Association.

  4. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Anal stage. American Psychological Association.

  5. Vogel-Scibilia SE, McNulty KC, Baxter B, Miller S, Dine M, Frese FJ 3rd. The recovery process utilizing Erikson's stages of human developmentCommunity Ment Health J. 2009;45(6):405–414. doi:10.1007/s10597-009-9189-4

  6. Armagan A, Silay MS, Karatag T, et al. Circumcision during the phallic period: does it affect the psychosexual functions in adulthood?. Andrologia. 2014;46(3):254-7. doi:10.1111/and.12071

  7. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Initiative versus guilt. American Psychological Association.

  8. Kar SK, Choudhury A, Singh AP. Understanding normal development of adolescent sexuality: A bumpy ride. J Hum Reprod Sci. 2015;8(2):70–74. doi:10.4103/0974-1208.158594

  9. Malone JC, Liu SR, Vaillant GE, Rentz DM, Waldinger RJ. Midlife Eriksonian psychosocial development: Setting the stage for late-life cognitive and emotional healthDev Psychol. 2016;52(3):496–508. doi:10.1037/a0039875

Additional Reading
  • Newman BM, Newman PR. Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Cengage Learning.

  • Schaffer DR, Kipp K. Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence. Wadsworth.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."