Write for Your Audience: Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development Can Help You Reach Your Readers

I have often been called a lifelong student: 4 years undergraduate work, 3 years of seminary, and 8 years from start to finish earning my Ph.D. Despite many differences in these programs of study, the work of Erik Erikson was part of each program. Erikson’s work touches on human development throughout the entire lifespan, focusing on key areas of conflict and resolution shaping both human identity and moral development. Educators, clergy, and psychologists use Erikson’s theories alike for his take on human and moral development achieved through key life stages and struggles. Even though these stages are focused on one stage of life, these conflicts continue to be part of the human identity or even ongoing struggles to resolve. Those struggles are listed below along with key insights for how to reach that audience and connect with them through your writing.

Trust vs. Mistrust is the first stage that infants resolve through the caring attention of parents as they meet the basic needs of the infant. If loving, attentive parents meet an infant’s needs, the infant will generally grow to trust those around him. If parents do not consistently meet the needs of an infant in a caring, attentive way, he will view the world with mistrust. The parent largely shapes this point of view of the child’s world according to Erikson.

According to Erikson, those who do not successfully resolve this issue of trust and mistrust will continue to deal with it. Even though many people will love your writing and hang on every word, you can expect some to read with skepticism and doubt. Your approach to your topic should acknowledge and honestly address questions others raise. Be up front in your writing, present clear facts, and give credit where credit is due. That will win over readers who otherwise would not easily become fans of your writing. In marketing there is often discussion about branding a product. Your writing will brand you in a similar way in the minds of your readers as a writer who is either trustworthy or not in how you approach your topic.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt refers to the stage of the toddler, exploring the world around him and emerging as his own self through words and action. The role of the parent is again crucial during this stage. Parents who smother their children—today’s helicopter parents accused of always hovering over their children—can frustrate the child. Hands off parents who don’t set limits can have an equally harmful impact. Children who grow up without structure may not have a clear sense of right and wrong and may even doubt whether they are loved.

Your writing should explore your world and wander as far as you would like into the depths of your imagination. Do not let the rules others impose on you hold you back. At the same time, utilize structure and form, not to smother you, but to transform your writing to reach your audience. Writing that empowers others to act and throw off what holds them back is writing that reflects this stage of development. Many incorrectly label this stage as a search for independence. Other scholars have pointed out that the goal is never truly independence but interdependence. People will need to depend on one another. Personal identity will develop and shapes who you are, but there is always a connection to others that is crucial.

Initiative vs. Guilt is a stage closely tied to the one before it. As a child learns to explore, he also will face obstacles. Toddlers are well known for saying No when they don’t want to do something. Or they are likely to say just the opposite when they are so inclined, “Me do it!” Or “By myself.” This stage is about a sense of accomplishment and pride in what he can do rather than carrying a sense of guilt for not meeting expectations of parents or being able to do things independently. Some parents do things for their children and not let them overcome obstacles or problem solve. These parents are not doing their children a favor by intervening and should let him deal with consequences involved.

This stage is all about the choices people make. We make tons of decision every day that we probably never stop to think about. Other decisions are life altering. The type of questions you raise in your writing will grip the attention of others, intrigue them, and draw them in to read more. Strong characters are defined by the choices they make. Working through complex situations brings realism into the process of decision making as well. Don’t let your writing avoid areas of conflict. Explore those gray areas. Ask the tough questions. Develop characters that are faced with dilemmas that intrigue and confound readers. No one wants to read about a character that has all his decisions made for him.

Industry vs. Inferiority refers to experiences of the school-age years. As children enter the classroom, they begin to see their own abilities, talents, looks, and so forth in light of that entire classroom of children of kids in the neighborhood. This comparison exists in schoolwork, on the playground, through popularity with friends, and in countless other ways. This can lead to children finding exactly what they like and are good at doing. Unfortunately, it also can lead to unfair comparisons, teasing, and bullying. One of the central tasks of this stage is to identify the things you are good at doing rather to feel constantly inferior to other children.

Hopefully, your writing will inspire others to action in a unique way, causing others to break the chains that hold them back from accomplishing what they desire. But those who feel inferior may need a champion who gives voice to what they are feeling. If your writing can help people find some of those ultimate questions about who he is and where his life fits into the grand scheme of things, it will bring another level of success to your readers.

Identity vs. Role Confusion is the one stage of Erikson’s theory that has gotten the most attention. This stage is the one associated with the adolescent years, in figuring out one’s identity as a person. This would include questions about one’s friendships, activities, place in the family, gender, and talents. Either he will form a clear understanding of who he is and what his purpose is in life or will be in a continuous place of role confusion until this conflict is resolved. Commonly people accuse adults of acting like a child or living out his own experience and wishes through his own child. This is evidence of this role confusion that probably has existed since these adolescent years.

You will speak to a segment of the population that will see eye to eye with you or who will be inspired and encouraged by your writing. Take time to nurture these fans, encourage them, and listen to their comments. Consider this your sweet spot and learn to live in it rather than try to be someone you are not. This does not mean avoid being stretched and challenged but know your talents, interests, and passions and live there. Your strong convictions and sense of purpose may awaken within your readers a sense of self that they have long ignored or not thought about in some time.

Intimacy vs. Isolation is the stage that refers to how people choose to invest themselves into the lives of others. Do they choose to marry and start a family? Or do they invest in the lives of others, such as future generations? People at heart are searching for relationship. This stage refers to one’s approach in connecting with others or to withdraw in isolation. Each adult has to decide how to approach and relate to others. Those who don’t have children often find ways to volunteer and invest their lives in others. In that regard, they are creating a legacy through their work and the time and love in the lives of others.

People want connection and closeness. Think of tips for your writing that brings couples, families, and multiple generations together. Build characters that feel like someone you could identify with, and you will have that reader for a lifetime. Encourage writers to take their ideas and vision and follow through to leave an impact and legacy.

Generativity vs. Stagnation involves crises of identity related to work, including the infamous mid-life crisis. This is where accomplishments and failures are examined in light of the person’s work and perhaps in light of the competition of facing a younger generation’s youth and expertise. This is such a difficult stage in so many ways, perhaps because I am personally located in this struggle. When you realize you are at midlife, you naturally want to examine how to spend the second half of your life.

There will always be someone younger, prettier, and more popular in life. As a person grows older, he depends even more on his life experiences and the wisdom gained along the way. In your writing, you should embrace your age, experiences, and wisdom. Pull from that well of experience, and it will add authenticity to your writing. Many people also choose to start over again in a new career. Empower others to follow these dreams and step out to take risks. Those forgotten dreams of yesteryear need not to lie dormant forever!


Ego Integrity vs. Despair is the stage of old age and through the end of life. When you reach retirement and beyond, will you despair and think of all the things you should have done or be satisfied with what you accomplished and how you have impacted future generations? That is the crucial struggle of this age.

Hopefully your writing can link younger and older generations together in amazing ways. It will lead people to reflect on a lifetime of accomplishments but also to make plans with confident to enjoy the gift of having another day to live. A sense of the joy of life can infuse any age! But interaction with and engagement in the lives of youth always seems to inspire the older generations. Don’t ever let your writing be limited by age or other ways we tend to separate people. The older generations hold valuable knowledge that needs to be communicated to both inspire and educate the generations to come.

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