Initiative vs Guilt (A Complete Guide)

Initiative vs Guilt is a developmental stage explained by Erikson.

There is no person in the field of psychology who is not aware of Erik Erikson and his infamous theory of psychosocial development.

This theory meticulously explains the psychosocial development of a person through different stages of life.

Erikson’s theory helped understand people much about how human development takes place in early years of life as well as throughout the lifespan.

However, this theory is exclusively focused on the psychosocial aspects of development contrary to Freud’s theory of psychosexual development theory. 

Erikson left a mark with so carefully defined theory. Initiative vs guilt is the third stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development theory.

We shall discuss all the stages one by one and in separate articles for better understanding.

Let’s discuss the third stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development which is initiative vs guilt.

Every single thing including the purpose of this stage, stimulants and hindrance of this particular stage in children will be discussed.

Everything related to initiative vs guilt will be clarified. However, before jumping towards the deeper understanding of the third stage we should carefully discuss the overview of Erikson’s theory.

Therefore, we’ll first discuss the background of initiative vs guilt in context to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development and its all stages.

  • Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson was born in 1902 and he was a stage theorist. He always looked at Freud’s theory of psychosexual development as very controversial.

He responded to the theory by developing his own theory of psychosocial development.

According to Erikson ego is one of the important aspects of development and it plays a positive role by mastering skills, attitudes and ideas on every stage of development.

This is mostly helpful for children to grow up successful members of society.

However, in every stage of psychosocial development, the person is confronted with a conflict which must be overcome so the child can develop himself into a healthy adult who is well-adjusted in the society.

There are eight stages of psychosocial development theory and every stage has two conflicting ideas.

Mastery to resolve these two conflicting ideas will result in mastery of that stage while failure to master will result in inadequacy for that stage. He also studied cultural influences on the development of a person.

Different cultures respond differently in order to resolve the stages due to their survival and cultural needs.

The eight of Erikson’s psychosocial development has following stages:

  1. Trust vs Mistrust
  2. Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt
  3. Initiative vs Guilt
  4. Industry vs Inferiority
  5. Identity vs Role Confusion
  6. Intimacy vs Isolation
  7. Generativity vs Stagnation
  8. Integrity vs Despair

We’ll discuss the third stage of Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development in detail in this article and how the conflicts in this stage are resolved.

What stage is initiative versus guilt?

The third stage of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development is initiative vs guilt. In this stage children are more assertive than any other stage.

These are known to be rapid developing years of a children’s life.

Sometimes parents see their children as being aggressive but according to a psychologist, initiative vs guilt is ‘a time of vigor of action and of behaviors that the parents may see as aggressive’.

In this stage, children usually have interaction with their schoolfellows and the central function in this stage is play.

This stage allows a child to explore his potential in interpersonal skills by taking initiative in different activities.

At this stage, children are able to make up games, initiate and plan activities with others.

Children can be able to become leaders if given opportunities.

 A sense of guilt can be developed in a child if this ability to take initiative meets with criticism or control.

The child also asks a lot of questions in this stage and it can create both a sense of satisfaction or guilt depending on the behavior of the parents.

If a child develops too much initiative vs guilt, he might not be able to interact with other people and inhibit his activity.

Some amount of guilt is ok; in fact it is necessary to have a little guilt because it creates balance and self control in a child.

Understanding of this age is important for parents as well because parents can lead the way and they can understand how to deal with children in order to help them grow into healthier adults. 

  • Overview of Initiative vs Guilt Stage

Parents need to create a healthy balance between initiative vs guilt because success depends on that balance and this balance will lead to purpose while failure to achieve the purpose will result in development of guilt.

Here is an overview of what initiative vs guilt stage actually holds this in it. 

  • Important Event (s): Play, Exploring
  • Major Question: ‘Am I good or bad?’
  • Psychosocial Conflict: Initiative vs Guilt
  • Basic Virtue: Purpose

Let’s discuss in detail about the overview.

  • Introduction to Initiative vs. Guilt

This stage occurs when a child is three to five years old and Erikson referred to it as ‘play ages’.

The most important part in this stage is the development of interpersonal and leadership skills.

Children’s ability to start new games is the beginning of initiative and guilt comes along when he or she is not able to successfully execute the play.

The development of guilt or shame can be healthy because children learn to take care of other people’s feelings while he or she can also avoid initiating games or leading others.

This stage can have a major impact on the child’s life as an adult.

Let’s discuss how this stage progresses and what happens in the later phases. 

  • How a Child Behaves in Play Ages (Initiative vs Guilt)

Initiative vs guilt stage of psychosocial development is also named as ‘play ages’ by Erikson.

Children start involving more and more in their plays and games and they are also trying to make and create new games.

Most of the kids start going to schools too in this stage and that’s why they are more likely to develop interest in games.

Children start playing with other preschoolers or even children around them (in home or a daycare).

Interpersonal skills development is also an important aspect of this stage.

  • How Initiative is Taken by Children

They are naturally driven to make decisions and lead their way with other children.

They mostly choose games which allow them to engage with others. They can assume different roles during the play as well as they assign different roles to their peers and play mates.

They are suggesting, planning and executing their game plans which is not essential for initiative but leadership skills are also being developed. 

  • How Guilt is Developed in Children

Most of the parents look at their children as being aggressive because children are not able to let other people be cooperative without having to be bossy and authoritarian.

They do not deal with problems with maturity and they are not able to choose games and plays which are age appropriate.

Parents need to understand that children make mistakes in ‘play ages’.

If parents won’t tactfully deal with children’s behavior, it will lead to the development of guilt. 

  • Balance between Initiative and Guilt

Sometimes it is important for the child to develop guilt because guilt in this stage can also lead to the development of caring feelings for other people’s needs.

Whereas initiative has its importance, in short, initiative without guilt can be problematic for others and guilt without initiative can be problematic for the child.

Parents can subtly help their kids to find balance between these two in play ages. A child is in need to have a space for his decision making while also understanding other people’s feelings.

Sometimes parents only need to point out the mistake and let the child find a solution.

Parents need to correct mistakes without labeling them as ‘bad’. 

  • What if Initiative Vs. Guilt is not a Success

Not able to achieve the virtue of this stage can take a child to get out of balance in a certain way. They can be socially isolated or emotionally weak or even guilt-ridden.

On the other hand, they can also become aggressive and pushy if they haven’t been dealt with caution.

They can also grow up to skeptical of their ability to take initiative and get positive outcomes.

Children with too much guilt are not able to be creative fully and children with too little guilt can be indifferent to other people’s feelings. 

  • What if Initiative vs Guilt is Successful

Children are grown with a strong sense of purpose if they move successfully from the initiative vs guilt stage.

Their purpose changes throughout their life but the core feeling of taking meaningful action to achieve their purpose and expecting positive results remain the same.

  • What Parents Can do to Make Initiative vs Guilt a Success 

A parent who knows the sensitivity of this stage can help his child move through this stage rather successfully.

If you are going to be or if you are a parent of a child who is in the third stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development stages, you can help your child in the following ways.

  • Provide emotional space to the children so they can take initiatives.
  • Provide opportunities to your kids for playing with other kids.
  • Don’t shame them for mistakes during play and try to understand their reason
  • Avoid trying to control your kids
  • Love and accept them unconditionally

FAQ about initiative vs guilt

When does this stage of initiative vs guilt start?

Initiative vs guilt starts when a child is 3 years old and ends when a child is 5 years old.

Can a child not be able to develop virtue of purpose if he or she is not able to pass successfully in initiative vs guilt?

That’s not true, according to Erikson, we continue to change throughout our lives so we can still create a balance between initiative vs guilt.

It can be harder but it can be achieved if you are determined. 

What can I do to achieve virtue or purpose?

First of all, change all the negative talk and try working for a change in you. 

Where I can get help to achieve success in initiative vs guilt?

You need to find reliable sources for help.

You can take help from family, friends, a book or even from a mental health counselor.


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