Comparing Erikson's vs Freud's Theories

Sigmund Freud's psychosexual theory and Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory are two well-known theories of development. While he was influenced by Freud's ideas, Erikson's theory differed in a number of important ways.

Like Freud, Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of predetermined stages. Unlike Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages, Erikson’s theory describes the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan.

Let's compare and contrast these two theories by looking at some of the key similarities and differences at each stage.

Age: Birth to 1 Year

Infant with mother
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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 Stages of Psychosexual Development

  • Freud's called this 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 Stages of Psychosocial Development

  • Erikson called this the trust versus mistrust stage.
  • Children learn to either trust or mistrust their caregivers.
  • The care that adults provide determines whether children develop this 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.

Age: 1 to 3 Years

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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.

Psychosexual Development

  • Freud called this the anal stage of development.​
  • 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.

Psychosocial Development

  •  Erikson called this the autonomy versus shame and doubt stage.
  • Children develop self-sufficiency by controlling activities such as eating, toilet training, and talking.
  • Those who succeed at this stage develop a sense of independence while those who struggle will be left doubting themselves.

Ages: 3 to 6 Years

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

Freud's Theory

  • Freud referred to this as the phallic stage.
  • The libido's energy is focused on the genitals. Children begin to identify with their same-sex parent.
  • Boys experience the Oedipus complex while girls experience the Electra complex.

Erikson's Theory

  • Erikson's called this the initiative versus guilt stage.
  • Children begin to take more control over their environment.
  • 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

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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.

Psychosexual Development

  • Freud referred to this as the latent period.
  • The libido's energy is suppressed and children are focused on other activities such as school, friends, and hobbies.
  • Freud believed this stage was important for developing social skills and self-confidence.

Psychosocial Development

  •  Erikson called this the industry versus inferiority stage.
  • Children develop a sense of competence by mastering new skills.
  • Kids who succeed at this stage develop pride in their accomplishments while those who struggle may be left feeling incompetent.

Age: Adolescence

Teenagers taking selfies
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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

  • Freud referred to this point in psychosexual development as the genital stage.
  • Children begin to explore romantic relationships.
  • 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

  • Erikson's called this point in psychosocial development the identity versus role confusion stage.
  • Children develop a personal identity and sense of self.
  • Teens explore different roles, attitudes, and identities as they develop a sense of self.
  • Those who receive support and encouragement will emerge with a strong sense of who they are and what they want to accomplish.
  • Those who struggle to forge a strong identity will remain confused about who they are and what they want to do with their life.

Age: Adulthood

Happy adult couple
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Freud's theory focused exclusively on development between birth and the teen years, implying that personality is largely set in stone by early childhood. Erikson, on the other hand, took a lifespan approach and believed that development continues even in old age.

Freud's Theory of Psychosexual Development

  • Freud's theory largely focuses on the period between birth and adolescence.
  • According to Freud, the genital stage lasts throughout adulthood. He believed the goal is to develop a balance between all areas of life.

Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

  • Eriksons' theory includes three more stages that span adulthood. These three stages are:
  • Intimacy vs. Isolation: Young adults seek out romantic love and companionship.
  • Generativity vs. Stagnation: Middle-aged adults nurture others and contribute to society.
  • Integrity vs. Despair: Older adults reflect on their lives, looking back with a sense of fulfillment or bitterness.

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.

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Article Sources
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  2. Basic Trust Versus Mistrust. American Psychological Association. Dictionary of Psychology.

  3. Anal Stage. American Psychological Association. Dictionary of Psychology.

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  5. 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

  6. Initiative versus Guilt. American Psychological Association. Dictionary of Psychology.

  7. 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

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

Additional Reading
  • Newman, BM & Newman, PR. Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning; 2017.
  • Schaffer, DR & Kipp, K. Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2010.