Stress Across the Life Span—In Three Parts: Part One
Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…in short, the period was…like the present period.”1 This condition describes most people’s lives today.
Every Life is Worth a Novel
No one lives a stress-free life. At every age, there are certain stresses we all must face—the frustrations of childhood, the conflicts of adulthood, and the pressures of advancing old age. The child’s first day of school, adult work-life balance, and the declining strength of old age are challenges that result in stress across the life span.
Why are some people happy and fulfilled, while others are sad and depressed? Psychology provides an answer with Erik Erikson’s model of lifespan development. Erikson described life as a journey with predictable challenges at different ages. If we meet these tests successfully, our self-image is enhanced. We have a sense of worth and well-being. With strength, skill, and an optimistic attitude, we are more likely to accomplish the tasks of the next period of life. Each person’s life is like a novel, with each chapter building on the past, but capable of change for better or for worse.2
The importance of self-concept should not be underestimated. What a person thinks and feels about him or herself influences every aspect of life. It affects how they treat themselves and how they treat others. It is arguably the most important determinant of the stress and overall quality of a person’s life. Magazines, newspapers, and social media are full of accounts of famous people who have made shambles of their lives and are miserable, proving that nothing—not money, prestige, or the attention of others—can make up for not liking oneself.3
Stages and Tasks of Lives in Progress
During each stage of life, the individual is challenged to accomplish certain tasks—physical, psychological, and social. The successful completion of these tasks results in happiness and a positive self-concept. The failure to meet the tasks of any of life’s stages can lead to low self-esteem and difficulty with later development. The following figure shows the eight stages and tasks of lives in progress.4
Developmental tasks arise from physical maturation, the influence of culture, and the desires and values of the emerging self. They arise in most cases from a combination of these factors acting together. At this point, the individual is at the optimum “teachable moment.” Important teachers and learning sites at each stage of development are as follows: Birth–6, parents in the home; 6–20, teachers in the school; 20–40, leaders in the workplace; 40 onward, self in society.
We are faced with three objectives at every stage of life: (1) resolve issues unsolved in previous stages; (2) accomplish the critical tasks of the present stage; and (3) prepare for the next stage. Just as constructing a solid base when building with blocks provides a firm foundation to support the structure, meeting the developmental tasks of each stage of life provides a foundation for further development. The eight stages and developmental tasks are as follows.5
Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust—Can I Trust the World?
The first stage of development occurs during infancy (the first 1 to 2 years of life). A baby in Chicago, Zamboanga, Amsterdam, or Rangoon has the same pitch and key, each saying, “I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the human family.” A newborn needs stimulation and affection. If these needs are satisfied, the infant will develop trust—a sense that the world is a safe and secure place and that other people (particularly parents) will provide protection. On the other hand, if a baby’s needs for stimulation and affection are not satisfied and the child is ignored or abused, mistrust will result. The baby will learn to view the world as a hostile place, requiring self-protective behavior rather than openness toward others. Basic mistrust may become the core of later insecurity, suspiciousness, or inability to relate to others. Problems that can stem from infancy include fear of rejection, emotional withdrawal, and inability to form or maintain intimate relationships.
Challenges: The major developmental tasks of infancy are (1) giving and receiving affection; and (2) achieving a loving, reliable relationship with the mother and other primary caregivers.
Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Doubt—Can I Control My Behavior?
The second stage of development usually occurs during young childhood (from about 2 to 4 years of age). If a young child learns to explore and to do things independently during this period, self-confidence and a sense of autonomy will develop—the sense that “I can do it myself.” On the other hand, if the child does not succeed at such tasks as eating or controlling body functions and is continually criticized for making mistakes, shame and doubt will result. Patience and persistence are important attributes for parents and other caretakers during this developmental period.
Challenges: The major developmental tasks of this period are (1) achieving physical self-control; and (2) viewing oneself as an independent and worthy person.
Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt—Can I Become an Independent Person?
The third stage of development is associated with the preschool years (from about 4 to 6 years of age). Language develops, and motor skills and physical coordination improve during this stage. It is an extension of the previous stage, when autonomy can develop into initiative or doubt can deteriorate into guilt and fearfulness. If a 5-year-old proclaims, “I am going to climb that tree,” and succeeds in this initiative, self-confidence and mastery of the environment are reinforced. In contrast, if the child is discouraged from trying, or is ridiculed for failing, the child may feel guilt and may be reluctant to attempt anything new or difficult again. The small child has dreams of being a giant and a tiger but may, in these same dreams, run for dear life. Also, the young child must learn the concept of right and wrong. The rest of one’s life is spent distinguishing what falls into each category. These lessons are learned primarily from parents and mainly by example.
Challenges: Important developmental tasks of this period include (1) learning personal care; (2) learning to be a member of a family or social group; (3) beginning to distinguish right from wrong.
Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority—Can I Master Skills to Succeed?
The fourth stage of development usually occurs during later childhood (from about 6 to 12 years of age). If scholarship, craftsmanship, and social skills are learned successfully during this period, a child develops a sense of industry and feelings of accomplishment. Tremendous self-worth can be created by succeeding in schoolwork, animal care, athletics, music, hobbies, and other activities. On the other hand, feelings of inferiority (the feeling that “I can’t do anything right”) can result from failure. This is why it is important for every child to be encouraged and receive recognition in the areas of his or her interests and aptitudes during this period of life.
A positive self-concept formed during this period of a child’s life represents an advantage for all subsequent growth. The sphere of activity during this stage of development usually extends beyond the family and includes the neighborhood, school, and other social institutions. Scouting, sports, and hobby clubs are examples of important childhood activities. Caring teachers, coaches, and other youth leaders can be highly important to the developing child during these formative years.6
Challenges: The major developmental tasks of this period include (1) developing a conscience and a system of values; (2) learning mental, physical, and interpersonal skills; (3) learning to compete and cooperate with age-mates; and (4) learning how to win and lose gracefully.
The German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe once said, children learn from those they love, and what is taught is taught by example. Consider Dorothy Law Nolte’s Children’s Creed, found on most pediatricians’ walls:
The Children’s Creed7
If a child lives with criticism, He learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, He learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, He learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, He learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with encouragement, He learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise, He learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness, He learns justice.
If a child lives with security, He learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, He learns to like himself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, He learns to find love in the world.
What are the main sources of stress for children? 1) Low educational achievement as evidenced by poor grades and lack of interest in school. Coaching, encouragement, and affirmation by parents and teachers are interventions that work. 2) Problems with peers, including physical conflict and lack of acceptance. Youth groups and activities that build character, raise self-esteem, and develop friendships with age-mates can be helpful. 3) Problems with parents, including rejection or low emotional involvement. The child must feel loved and cherished unconditionally. Parental actions that demonstrate the importance of the child and emotional involvement are required.8
The following are six time-tested rules for raising children.
Make raising your children your number-one priority.
Set aside time for one-to-one interaction with each child every day.
Hug your children. Show them you love them and are happy to see them.
Remember, it’s not just little kids who need to be “tucked in.” Although they protest, children of all ages need signs of love and affection.
Provide learning opportunities. Take them to the library; let them bake cookies; teach them to care about others.
Teach morality. Set standards and limits for behavior that all family members follow.
Childhood and Society by Erik Erikson
Recommended Ted Talks
Don’t Eat the Marshmallow! by Joachim de Posada
Dickens, C. (1859) A tale of two cities. London: Chapman and Hall.
Erikson, E.H. (1993). Childhood and society, reissue edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton; Havighurst, R.J. (1952). Developmental tasks and education. New York, NY: Longman’s, Green, and Co.; and Piaget, J. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Ford, L., (1997). Game plan: A guide for improving human relations and personal adjustment. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Sandburg, C. (1955). The family of man. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art; and Erikson, E.H. (1993). Childhood and society, reissue edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Erikson, E.H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Sears, S. & Milburn, J. (1990). School-age stress. In L.E. Arnold (Ed.), Childhood stress. New York, NY: John Wiley; and Erikson, E. (1963). The challenge of youth. New York, NY: Norton.
Nolte, D.L. The Children’s Creed (physician’s wall plaque, source unknown).
Meyerhoff, M.K. & White, L. (1986, September). Making the grade as parents. Psychology Today, 38-45.
George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn
Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor
Freelance editor, writer, and consultant