How you relate to your little one shapes who she becomes.

Erikson & the Importance of Parent-Child Relationships

by Lora Mathews

That precious relationship between you and your little one affects so much of her development. You've probably noted how her personality and competence unfold in the light of your encouragement and how she seems to wilt, to shrink visibly when criticized. You may not have realized that there's a scientific basis for how your attitude and approach to your kiddo changes who she becomes. Renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson defined the parent-child interaction as central to early childhood development at multiple stages. The family is the most important social setting until age five, according to this theory.

1. Birth to 2: Trust and Hope

When your child was a baby (roughly birth to age 2), your nurturing closeness assured her that you were there to meet her needs for food, warmth and security. Your love and attention helped her progress successfully through Erikson's first stage of psychosocial development: Trust vs. Mistrust. This allowed her to explore her world with you as her touchstone; she knew the world to be a safe place and could be friendly and outgoing when you were present. When you came back after leaving her with Grandma or a sitter, she greeted you happily because she knew you would return to her. Babies whose needs are not met consistently, according to Erikson, are anxious and clingy. The goal for this stage is to develop trust in oneself and her parents.

2. Ages 2 to 4: Autonomy and Will

Erikson held that the "well-parented" child would weather the crisis of Independence vs. Shame to become confident and able. Kids who were discouraged or criticized for their early efforts to do things for themselves became very negative. This isn't to say that your preschooler, from ages 2 to 4, had a smooth transition to dressing and feeding herself, but rather that your reassurance and the loving relationship you share allowed her to try things on her own. Erikson put forth that parental encouragement and praise could help kids at that stage overcome the tantrums of "the stormy self." Erikson's goal for this stage is self-control.

3. Ages 3 or 4 to 5: Initiative

At Erikson's "play age," 3 to 5, preschoolers develop a sense of freedom when their parents give them space and time to try new things. When you engage in pretend play with your preschooler -- acting out a tea party, playing dolls or puppets -- you encourage her imagination. Your love and positive view and fantasy play help her to be more creative and confident. If you act like she is a burden who intrudes on your adult time, she may be overly dependent on adults and unlikely to use her imagination. Erikson characterizes this as guilt. Your special closeness and obvious delight in her personality and achievements make her braver and more imaginative at this stage. The goal at this age is to see purpose in activities.

4. Ages 6 to 12: Competence

Moving beyond the preschool years, Erikson's social development task becomes the achievement of capability and being industrious. The flip side of this stage is inferiority, which happens when parents don't reward or praise industry and accomplishment. Relationships with teachers and peers at school become an important social setting, but the parental relationship is still very powerful. Your expectations and reactions help determine whether your child feels comfortable trying new things or feels that trying is pointless.

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