Emotional Development Theories

By Ashley Seehorn

Despite being a relatively new field of study, there are many theories of emotional development. While one could fill entire volumes explaining the intricacies of these theories, two of them will be the focus of this article. One of the most prominent theories is that of Erik Erikson, whose work is based on the psycho-sexual theory of Sigmund Freud. Another important theorist in the area of emotional development is Lawrence Kohlberg, whose work is based on the work on developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who focused on a constructivist perspective of development.

Erikson's Psychosocial Development Theory

Developmental Psychologist Erik Erikson proposed a theory of emotional development that consists of eight crises. Each crisis occurs during a specific window in an individual's development. The first crisis, Trust versus Mistrust, occurs in infancy (birth to 18 months). If a baby is fed when hungry, changed when necessary, and generally cared for, she will develop trust. This is linked with healthy risk-taking behavior in adults. If a baby is neglected or abused, she will develop mistrust. Mistrust can cause an individual to insulate herself from society and fear trying new things. The second crisis, Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt, occurs in toddlerhood (1-3 years). In this stage, a child builds self-confidence and independence through exploration of herself and her environment. If parents are neglectful or do not allow the child to take some risks, she will not build a healthy sense of independence.

Erikson's Theory and School-Aged Children

The third crisis in Erikson's theory is Initiative Versus Guilt (3-6 years). In this stage, a child should develop a sense of purpose by planning and doing things on her own, such as dressing herself. If a parent discourages her from doing these things, either because they are done incorrectly or because the child takes too long, the child will be afraid to attempt tasks due to a fear of disapproval. The fourth stage, Industry Versus Inferiority (5-12 years), is crucial for a child to develop a sense of competence. A child needs to find her strength areas and develop a sense of accomplishment. Children who fail at schoolwork or who are not allowed to develop their potential will feel inferior. The fifth crisis, Identity Versus Role Confusion, begins at puberty (9-18 years). In this stage a child needs to develop a sense of her own identity through self-exploration. If she is forced to conform to a parental ideal, she will develop identity confusion, not knowing who she is as an individual.

Erikson's Theory and Adulthood

The sixth crisis, Intimacy Versus Isolation (18-40 years), deals primarily with choosing a mate and a career. The individual must find the right person and path for herself or she will develop a sense of isolation, of feeling left out. The seventh stage is Generativity Versus Stagnation (30-65 years). In this crisis, the individual should feel a sense of having contributed to the next generation. Otherwise, she will feel a sense of stagnation due to having not made an impression on future generations. The last stage, Integrity Versus Despair, takes place in late adulthood (50 years +). If the older individual looks back on her life and feels satisfied with her accomplishments, she will develop a sense of integrity. If she is overcome by regrets and feelings of failure, she will develop a sense of despair.

Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development-Preconventional Level

Lawrence Kohlberg espoused a constructivist theory of emotional and moral development based on the work of Jean Piaget. Kohlberg proposed six stages of development that can be grouped into three levels. The first level is the pre-conventional level. Pre-conventional morality is generally associated with children, but many adults operate on this level of moral development. The first stage of this level is Obedience and Punishment Orientation. In this stage, individuals associate right and wrong with direct consequences to themselves. If a behavior is likely to end in punishment, a child labels it as "bad" behavior. If the result is praise or reward, the child labels it as "good" behavior. The second stage of this level is Individualism and Exchange. In this stage, children judge morality based on individual self-interest. Right and wrong seem relative to the person involved. These stages are linked by the lack of consideration for family or society, and focus exclusively on the actions of and consequences to the individual.

Conventional Morality

The conventional level is generally associated with adolescence and early adulthood. The first stage is concerned with Interpersonal Relationships. At this stage, an individual is concerned with behavior that will help her integrate with her peers and community. She looks for approval of others toward her behavior. This is also known as the "Good Boy" or "Good Girl" stage. A person's intentions become important at this stage. The second stage of conventional morality emphasizes Maintaining the Social Order. At this stage, individuals begin to appreciate the rules of society. Good behavior is associated with following social rules and laws, thus maintaining an orderly society. In general, conventional morality is associated with following conventions of the group.

Post-Conventional Morality

Post-conventional morality is associated with late adolescence and adulthood, however, individuals do not always achieve this level of moral reasoning. The first stage of this level is concerned with Social Contracts and Individual Rights. Individuals operating at this level concede that laws are important to a society, but individual rights and beliefs must also be considered. Laws can and must be modified to fit an evolving society. The democratic process is associated with this level of moral development. The last stage in Kohlberg's theory is driven by Universal Ethical Principles. In this stage, the individual must act upon an internal sense of conscience rather than on rules or laws of society. Often this means acting in opposition to laws when an individual feels she is ethically obligated to act on her beliefs.

About the Author

Ashley Seehorn has been writing professionally since 2009. Her work has been featured on a variety of websites including: eHow, Answerbag and Opposing Views Cultures. She has been a teacher for 20 years and has taught all ages from preschool through college. She is currently working as a Special Education Teacher.