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INITIATIVE VS GUILT (A complete guide)

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This article will briefly describe “Initiative vs. Guilt”, Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, how children take and develop initiative, how children develop guilt, why balance is essential and what are the negative outcomes in initiative vs. guilt. 


Erik Erikson has given the theory of psychosocial development in which the third stage is Initiative vs. Guilt. According to Erikson’s theory, the first two stages of children’s development are trust vs. mistrust and autonomy vs. shame, in these two stages, the main focus was the children working on the conflicts and forming a sense of trust in the world as well as feelings of independence and autonomy. 

When the children entered the preschool years, they enter the third stage of psychosocial development which is initiative vs. guilt. If the children successfully complete the earlier two stages then the kids have a sense of trust, the world is trustworthy and they are able to act independently. Now, it is the time that they learn to exert power to themselves and the world. This is the time when they try their things on their own and explore their own abilities and by doing this they can develop ambition and direction.


Erik Erikson was a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who has given the psychosocial development theory which explains human development throughout life via social interactions. Each stage has a psychosocial conflict that the children if successfully pass they move towards another stage. The following are the 8 stages:

  1. Trust Mistrust- Birth to 1 and ½ years old
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame- 1 ½ to 3 years old
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt- 3 to 5 years old
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority- 5 to 12 years old
  5. Ego Identity vs. Role Confusion- 12 to 18 years old
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation- 18 to 40 years old
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation- 40 to 65 years old
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair- 65 years old and beyond

Stage 3- Initiative vs. Guilt 

Initiative versus Guilt is the 3rd stage of Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. It occurs between the ages of three to five years old and which according to Erikson refers to the “play ages”. In this stage, children spend time with other children, they spend their time playing and developing their interpersonal skills.

When children play, they begin to take initiative and may attempt to feel out leadership roles and actions, this is known as the beginning of an initiative. The guilt comes into action when children make mistakes while trying to initiate and while navigating these positions. The children learn the art of cooperating without being aggressive and bossy via trial and error. Guilt or shame is considered as the feeling of the children- caring and respect towards others and choosing to do what is considered to be right. This might have some negative effect as well as it can also cause a child to avoid trying to take initiative and lead others.


Children in this stage according to their age learn how to begin asserting control and power by taking initiative in playing games, making decisions and leading other children. They face challenges in this stage as well and in this stage, it is important for the caregivers or parents to encourage their children to explore and help other children in making appropriate choices. If the parents of the caregivers fail in encouraging their children then their children develop feelings of being ashamed of themselves and eventually they become dependent upon others.

In this stage, the children are seen to be taking initiative and exploring their ways in developing their interpersonal skills, while it is also possible that it might become frustrating for parents and caregivers as the children begin to control the things that impact their lives. Although, for children in this stage, play and imagination play an important role in this stage. They make their own games and they may also suggest that the group plays at all. They not only practice initiative but also try and develop their leadership skills as well.


In Erikson’s Psychosocial stage 3, children often seem aggressive. They work on their subtleties in getting others to cooperate without being bossy or aggressive. These children don’t have the maturity of choosing appropriate games or roles for themselves and others. They tend to make mistakes and these mistakes might develop guilt in the child.

Developing an initiative in this stage takes place when the child interacts with another child. It also opens to the feelings of guilt and this guilt can lead to healthy outcomes, like caring for others’ feelings and focusing on what is considered right. The guilt might make the child avoid trying to start new games or lead others and take new challenges. 


The balance between the initiative and guilt is very important, initiative without guilt can be harmful as well as guilt without initiative may make the child in withdrawing himself from others. It is essential for the parents and caregivers to subtle the situation and helps their children in finding the proper balance between the two. Parents must encourage their children to explore the possibilities.

The parents must point out the mistakes of the children and give solutions for the next time, the main thing is mistakes must be corrected and it should not be considered to be “bad”, as children are in their exploration stage. It is easy to take on guilt and shame for the things that never was the intention to carry. It also focuses on the parents as if the child asks his parents and they don’t reply appropriately then the child might feel guilty of bothering his parents as well.

The child needs to feel some form of guilt but only when necessary to control themselves. A child if interrupts and asks something, then a level of shame or guilt is necessary in order to realize that these actions might have negative social effects.


If initiative vs. guilt goes wrong the child goes out of balance in one way or another. They either may become guilt-ridden, become isolated from society or even may become emotionally fragile. And it is also possible that they may become pushy and even aggressive. They may doubt their ability to take actions and therefore, they may stop taking any initiative in return. It is also possible, that they may selfishly disregard the feelings of other people.


This blog has briefly described “Initiative vs. Guilt”, Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, how children take and develop initiative, how children develop guilt, why balance is essential and what are the negative outcomes in initiative vs. guilt. Please feel free to leave a comment or a suggestion, we appreciate your time.


What age is initiative vs guilt?

Initiative versus guilt is the 3rd stage of Erikson’s Psychosocial Development and its age group is children between 3 to 5 years old.

What is an example of initiative versus guilt?

An example of initiative versus guilt is that the child in his pre-school years takes initiative to play games, lead others and take challenges, etc. 

What are the 8 stages of life according to Erikson?

The 8 stages of life according to Erikson are- Trust vs Mistrust, Autonomy vs Shame, Initiative vs Guilt, Industry vs Guilt, Industry vs Inferiority, Identity vs Role Confusion, Intimacy vs Isolation, Generativity vs Stagnation, and Integrity vs Despair.

What happens during Initiative vs guilt?

Initiative vs guilt is the 3rd stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development, in this stage children assert themselves more frequently, through this either the child learns how to take initiative or develop a sense of guilt. 

Why is Erikson’s theory important?

Erikson’s theory is important because it provides a broad framework to view development throughout the entire lifespan and it also emphasizes the influence of the social relationship on the overall development.


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