2nd Developmental Task: Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt: Ages 1 to 3 and Beyond
by Cynthia M. Braden, LMFT
In this article we are continuing our review of the developmental tasks and stages of Erik Erikson, famous early 20th century psychologist, as well as how the tasks and stages may apply to your or your child's therapy.
The second task according to Erikson's model is that the baby is already beginning to develop a certain amount of Autonomy in the second and third years of life. The toddler learns how to self-entertain and that everything is a toy to be explored and manipulated.
What Can Go Wrong in the Developmental Phase of Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt?
Sometimes parents can be overwhelmed with their responsibilities and become anxious. This may naturally result in the child being restricted from exploring. The child at this stage is learning that he or she can stay entertained for sustained periods of time playing with physics and gravity, making noises, putting things in the mouth. When the baby will put absolutely anything in the mouth, caretakers must stay vigilant. There is a fine line between letting the baby explore and learn how to entertain himself, and keeping him safe; as he doesn't have a sense of self-preservation and may do incredibly dangerous things.
Noise - if a parent is overly worried about the baby making too much noise, for example, banging pots and pans, it may restrict the baby's ability to feel confident taking risks.
Excessive Cleanliness - if a parent is excessively concerned with germ-free living, the baby may be restricted from playing on the floor for example, or not allowed to get messy or play with pets. Obviously we need proper hygiene, but babies need to be allowed to explore and get messy in order to start developing a sense of being able to self-entertain and communicate needs and wants.
Electronics - exposure to electronic media inhibits the infant's ability to manipulate and understand three-dimensional objects. Better to give the baby some blocks or pots and pans to play with instead of your iPhone.
Too Much Structure - If the baby is made to stay put, stay clean, and stay scheduled too much over time, he may develop an overly dependent personality style. He may feel continuously thwarted. He may learn that his desires don't matter, better not to have any desires, and it's not worth it to try for what you want. 'Others' have to entertain and provide.
Illness - if the baby happens to be a preemie, or have a serious or chronic illness, he may be delayed in his development of Autonomy.
These factors among many others may lead to a host of behavioral issues and a sense of shame and doubt rather than autonomy. He may be safe, but not self-sufficient, so we need to understand that even though he is a baby and doesn't seem to be doing much, he is really learning about communication and how to entertain himself. And this equals developing autonomy versus shame and doubt.
How this Relates to Therapy
If we are dealing with a child or adult who has developed an overly dependent personality style that is interfering in social, relationship, work or school functioning, we may need to help the person with his Autonomy. The person has unwittingly learned to feel ashamed and doubtful rather than confidently autonomous. We can work to improve this situation in individual, couples or family therapy.
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