Understanding Initiative vs. Guilt

Stage 3 of Psychosocial Development

Initiative versus guilt is the third stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs during the preschool years, between the ages of 3 and 5. During the initiative versus guilt stage, children begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interaction.

initiative vs. guilt in psychosocial development

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

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


  • Psychosocial Conflict: Initiative versus Guilt
  • Major Question: “Am I good or bad?”
  • Basic Virtue: Purpose
  • Important Event(s): Exploration, Play

A Closer Look at the Initiative vs. Guilt Stage

According to Erikson's theory, the first two stages of children's development are concerned with trust versus mistrust and autonomy versus shame and doubt. During these first two periods, the focus is on children forming a sense of trust in the world as well as feelings of independence and autonomy. Each of these foundational stages plays a role in the later stages that will follow.

It is as children enter the preschool years that they begin the third stage of psychosocial development centered on initiative versus guilt. If they have successfully completed the earlier two stages, kids now have a sense that the world is trustworthy and that they are able to act independently. Now it is important for kids to learn that they can exert power over themselves and the world. They need to try things on their own and explore their own abilities. By doing this, they can develop ambition and direction.

How Do Kids Develop Initiative?

Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment by taking initiative by planning activities, accomplishing tasks and facing challenges. During this stage, it is important for caregivers to encourage exploration and to help children make appropriate choices. Caregivers who are discouraging or dismissive may cause children to feel ashamed of themselves and to become overly dependent upon the help of others.

This stage can sometimes be frustrating for parents and caregivers as children begin to exercise more control over the things that impact their lives. Such decisions can range from the friends they play with, the activities they engage in, and the way that they approach different tasks. Parents and other adults might want to guide children toward certain friends, activities, or choices, but children might resist and insist on making their own choices. While this might lead to some conflicts with parental wishes at times, it is important to give kids a chance to make such choices. However, it is important that parents continue to enforce safe boundaries and encourage children to make good choices through the use of modeling and reinforcement.

As you might guess, play and imagination take on an important role at this stage. Children have their sense of initiative reinforced by being given the freedom and encouragement to play. When efforts to engage in physical and imaginative play are stifled by caregivers, children begin to feel that their self-initiated efforts are a source of embarrassment.

Children who are over-directed by adults may struggle to develop a sense of initiative and confidence in their own abilities.

Success and Failure In Stage 3

Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose, while failure results in a sense of guilt. What does Erikson mean by guilt? Essentially, kids who fail to develop a sense of initiative at this stage may emerge with a fear of trying new things. When they do direct efforts toward something, they may feel that they are doing something wrong. While mistakes are inevitable in life, kids with initiative will understand that mistakes happen and they just need to try again. Children who experience guilt will instead interpret mistakes as a sign of personal failure, and may be left with a sense that they are "bad."

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  1. Erikson EH. Childhood and Society. W. W. Norton & Company; 1993.

Additional Reading
  • Erikson, E.H. Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton; 1963.
  • Erikson, E.H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton; 1968.