Children’s Personality Development: The 5 Stages

While the development of personality is a gradual process, its foundations are laid during the first five years of life. Read on to know more about this interesting process.

By Aditi Sheoran Chhajta

Children’s Personality Development: The 5 Stages

The baby’s brain at birth is one-fourth the size of an average adult brain. However, it doubles in size in the first year and grows to nearly 90% by the age of five. A newborn has all the brain cells (called neurons) that he would have for the rest of his life. But, connections between these neurons (called synapses) is what makes the brain work and this ‘wiring’, or connection, develops at a rapid pace in the first five years through the baby’s interactions with his environment.

The way a baby’s brain gets wired determines his beliefs, values, emotions, thoughts and behaviour, which, in a nutshell, is his personality. While genetics (that defines temperament and physiology) plays a significant role, the quality of a child’s experiences in the first few years of life also helps shape his personality. These experiences, therefore, have a lasting impact on a child’s health, happiness, and ability to learn and succeed in life.

Sigmund Freud, the famous psychoanalyst, explained in detail the importance of the first five years in the formation of an individual’s personality. His student Erik Erikson outlined eight stages of human personality development, of which, three stages happen to take place in the first five years. At every stage, the child needs to deal with, and successfully overcome, an existential crisis to facilitate the formation of a well-rounded personality. Let’s look at each of these stages and how they shape a child’s personality.

1. Infancy: (0–18 months)

This is the age of trust versus mistrust. An infant’s basic need is nourishment. A parent/caregiver anticipating and fulfilling the baby’s needs in a timely manner helps her learn to trust others, which also develops her confidence and helps the infant blossom into a happy toddler. However, when the parent/caregiver does not respond to the baby’s needs, it makes the baby feel anxious and fills her with doubt and mistrust.

So, a parent/caregiver should respond warmly to the baby, and promptly attend to her needs at all times.

2. Early childhood: (1.5–3 years)

The second stage of socio-emotional development is autonomy versus doubt or shame. The child is ready to explore the environment independently as his nervous and motor skills develop markedly by this time, even though his judgment is still ‘work in progress’. At this stage, the child should be observed and guided as needed. Allowing a child to have a say in making decisions related to him will increase his confidence and independence. However, ‘helicopter parenting’ or not allowing age-appropriate freedom to do things on his own can dent the child’s confidence and fill him with a sense of self-doubt.

A safe middle path for the parent is to be attentive and involved, and guide the child as and when required. Let the toddler experience guided exploration and develop his own judgement.

3. Middle childhood: (3–5 years)

The third stage is initiative versus guilt. During this time, a child learns to function independently. She becomes more assertive and is eager to explore more and try out new things. The child also tries to establish relationships with other children and do things together. Doing these things fosters a sense of initiative and self-confidence in a child. It also helps the child channelise her energy in a constructive manner and make her experience a sense of happy engagement.

Either criticising a child’s initiatives or not allowing her to take up initiatives (assuming you are protecting her) can stifle her development and prevent her from successfully completing the third stage. This can fill the child with a sense of guilt.

4. Late childhood: (5–12 years)

Industry versus inferiority is the fourth stage of development. As the child’s attention span and strength increases, he wants to acquire new skills. He begins comparing himself with others to understand where he stands. He is filled with a sense of pride upon successfully accomplishing a task. At this stage, if a child is made to feel competent, he will showcase further industrious behaviour and strive to achieve the goals set for him.

But, if industriousness is not encouraged, the child may begin to develop inferiority complex and self-doubt. This can prevent him from realising his true potential.

5. Adolescence: (12–18 yrs)

The fifth stage is identity vs confusion. During this phase, teens try to find their place in the society as well as their personal identity. They seek greater independence and develop their own outlook towards life. They try to find the role they would play in the family, in the professional arena and in the society.

To successfully pass through this stage, teens need the support and encouragement of their parents and peers.

The early years are the most crucial time for a child’s brain to develop the connections she would need to be healthy, happy, responsible, capable and successful. However, at every stage, what a child really needs is a lot of love, responsiveness, guidance, understanding and time from all those around her, especially her parents. So, go ahead and make these years count for your child!

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