Infancy: Personality and Social Development

Dimensions of Development: Infancy and Childhood: Personality and Social Development

Psychosocial Stages

Psychologist Erikson proposed that personality development proceeds through eight major psychosocial stages. Each stage involves a major crisis (i.e. conflict) over how we view ourselves in relation to other people and the world. Four crises occur in infancy and childhood:

· Basic trust versus mistrust (age 1)

How adequately our needs are met, and how much love and attention we receive, determine whether we develop a basic trust or basic mistrust of the world.

· Autonomy versus shame and doubt (age 1-2)

If parents unduly restrict children or make harsh demands during toilet training, children develop shame and doubt about their abilities and later lack the courage to be independent.

· Initiative versus guilt (age 3-5)

If children are given freedom to explore and receive answers to their questions, they develop a sense of initiative. If they are held back or punished, they develop guilt about their desires and suppress their curiosity.

· Industry versus inferiority (age 6-12)

Children who experience pride and encouragement in mastering tasks develop “industry” – a striving to achieve. Repeated failure and lack of praise for trying leads to a sense of inferiority.

Because each stage of life creates new opportunities, personality is not fixed in childhood. The way we resolve each crisis influences our ability to meet the challenges of the next stage.

Temperament reflects a biologically based pattern of reacting emotionally and behaviourally to the environment. Extreme temperamental styles in infancy and childhood can predict some aspects functioning years later.


Attachment refers to the strong emotional bond that develops between children and their primary caregivers.

Imprinting is the sudden, biologically primed form of attachment that for some species means they must be exposed to parents within hours or days after entering the world to attach to them. Humans do not automatically imprint on their caregivers, and have a sensitive period of the first few years of life to most easily form a first attachment to caregivers – a bond that enhances their social and personality adjustment later in life.

The Attachment Process

British psychoanalyst John Bowlby proposed that attachment during infancy develops in three phases:

-Indiscriminate attachment behaviour: Newborns emit behaviors such as crying toward everyone. In turn, these behaviors evoke caregiving from adults.

-Discriminate attachment behaviour: At around 3 months, infants direct their attachment behaviors more toward familiar, regular caregivers, than toward strangers.

-Specific attachment behaviour: By 7 to 8 months of age, infants develop their first meaningful attachment to specific caregivers. The caregiver becomes a “secure base” from which the infant can explore the environment.

As an infant’s attachment becomes more focused, two types of anxiety occur:

Stranger anxiety is when contact with a stranger causes an infant to become afraid, cry, and reach for the caregiver. It typically emerges at 6 or 7 months, and ends before the infant is 18 months old.

Separation anxiety is when the infant becomes anxious and cries when the caregiver is out of sight. It typically begins later, peaks at 12 to 16 months, and disappears between 2 to 3 years of age.

Infant-caretaker attachment develops in three phases, and infants experience periods of stranger and separation anxiety. Secure attachment is associated with better developmental outcomes in childhood and adolescence than is insecure attachment.

Variations in attachment

While infants go through similar attachment stages, they develop different types of attachments with their caretakers. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues developed a standard procedure called a strange situation to examine infant attachment. The infant, typically 12 to 18 months old, first plays with toys in the mother’s presence. A stranger enters the room and interacts with the child. The mother then leaves the child with the stranger. After a while, the stranger leaves and the child is left alone. Finally, the mother returns. The infant’s behavior is observed throughout the procedure.

Securely attached infants explore the playroom and respond positively to strangers while in the mother’s presence. They are distressed when she leaves and happily greet her when she returns.

There are two types of insecurely attached infants:

Anxious-resistant infants are fearful when the mother is present, demand her attention, and are highly distressed when she leaves. They are not soothed when she returns and may angrily resist her attempts at contact.

Anxious-avoidant infants show few signs of attachment and seldom cry when the mother leaves. They don’t seek contact when she returns, but won’t resist contact if the mother initiates it.

Mothers who are sensitive to their babies’ needs at home tend to have infants who are securely attached in the “strange situation”, while mothers who respond to their babies more slowly and inconsistently tend to have insecure infants.

Early attachment appears to have a long-term influence on children’s adjustment.

Children who were securely attached as infants tend to be better adjusted socially, have higher self-esteem, and are better behaved at school. Infants who were insecurely attached, in contrast, are more likely to show behavioural problems in school, be overly aggressive, and show more attention-seeking behaviour in the classroom.

Styles of Parenting

Parenting styles vary along dimensions of warmth-hostility and restrictiveness-permissiveness.

Warmth versus hostility: Warm parents communicate love and caring for the child, and respond with greater sensitivity and empathy to the child’s feelings. Hostile parents express rejection and behave as if they do not care about the child.

Restrictiveness versus permissiveness: Parents differ in how much they make and enforce rules, place demands on children, and discipline children.

The combination of the two basic dimensions of parental behaviour yields four different styles of child rearing:

Authoritative parents are controlling but warm. They establish clear rules, consistently enforce them, and reward their children’s compliance with warmth and affection. They communicate high expectations, caring, and support. The most positive childhood outcomes are associated with this style.

Authoritarian parents are controlling, but with a relationship that is cold, unresponsive, or rejecting. Their children tend to have lower self-esteem, be less popular with their peers, and perform more poorly in school.

Indulgent parents have warm and caring relationships with their children, but do not provide the guidance and discipline that help their children learn responsibility and concern for others. As such, their children tend to be more self-centred and immature.

Neglectful parents are indifferent and uninvolved with their child. They don’t provide warmth, rules, or guidance. This style is associated with the most negative developmental outcomes, such as insecure attachment, low achievement motivation, disturbed relationships with peers and adults at school, and impulsiveness and aggressiveness.

These findings generally extend to adolescence. However, parent-child influences are bidirectional (re. how a child behaves influences how parents respond), and how a child turns out also depends on interactions among their inherited characteristics, parental behaviors, and other environmental experiences.

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