Psychosocial Development

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe temperament and the goodness-of-fit model
  • Use Erikson’s theory to characterize psychosocial development during infancy
smiling baby in a swing

Figure 1. Babies are born with different temperaments. Some are slow-to-warm-up while others are easy-going.


Perhaps you have spent time with a number of infants. How were they alike? How did they differ? Or compare yourself with your siblings or other children you have known well. You may have noticed that some seemed to be in a better mood than others and that some were more sensitive to noise or more easily distracted than others. These differences may be attributed to temperament. Temperament is an inborn quality noticeable soon after birth. Temperament is not the same as personality but may lead to personality differences. Generally, personality traits are learned, whereas temperament is genetic. Of course, for every trait, nature and nurture interact.

According to Chess and Thomas (1996), children vary on nine dimensions of temperament. These include activity level, regularity (or predictability), sensitivity thresholds, mood, persistence or distractibility, among others. These categories include the following:[foodnote]Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Brunner/Mazel[/footnote].

  1. Activity level. Does the child display mostly active or inactive states?
  2. Rhythmicity or Regularity. Is the child predictable or unpredictable regarding sleeping, eating, and elimination patterns?
  3. Approach-Withdrawal. Does the child react or respond positively or negatively to a newly encountered situation?
  4. Adaptability. Does the child adjust to unfamiliar circumstances easily or with difficulty
  5. Responsiveness. Does it take a small or large amount of stimulation to elicit a response (e.g., laughter, fear, pain) from the child?
  6. Reaction Intensity. Does the child show low or high energy when reacting to stimuli?
  7. Mood Quality. Is the child normally happy and pleasant, or unhappy and unpleasant?
  8. Distractibility. Is the child’s attention easily diverted from a task by external stimuli?
  9. Persistence and Attention Span. Persistence – How long will the child continue at an activity despite difficulty or interruptions? Attention span – For how long a period of time can the child maintain interest in an activity?

The New York Longitudinal Study was a long term study of infants, on these dimensions, which began in the 1950s. Most children do not have their temperament clinically measured, but categories of temperament have been developed and are seen as useful in understanding and working with children. Based on this study, babies can be described according to one of several profiles: easy or flexible (40%), slow to warm up or cautious (15%), difficult or feisty (10%), and undifferentiated, or those who can’t easily be categorized (35%).

Easy babies (40% of infants) have a positive disposition. Their body functions operate regularly and they are adaptable. They are generally positive, showing curiosity about new situations and their emotions are moderate or low in intensity. Difficult babies (10% of infants) have more negative moods and are slow to adapt to new situations. When confronted with a new situation, they tend to withdraw. Slow-to-warm babies (15% of infants) are inactive, showing relatively calm reactions to their environment. Their moods are generally negative, and they withdraw from new situations, adapting slowly. The undifferentiated (35%) could not be consistently categorized. These children show a variety of combinations of characteristics. For example, an infant may have an overall positive mood but react negatively to new situations.

No single type of temperament is invariably good or bad, however, infants with difficult temperaments are more likely than other babies to develop emotional problems, especially if their mothers were depressed or anxious caregivers (Garthus-Niegel et al., 2017).[1] Children’s long-term adjustment actually depends on the goodness-of-fit of their particular temperament to the nature and demands of the environment in which they find themselves. Therefore, what appears to be more important than child temperament is how caregivers respond to it.

Think about how you might approach each type of child in order to improve your interactions with them. An easy or flexible child will not need much extra attention unless you want to find out whether they are having difficulties that have gone unmentioned. A slow to warm up child may need to be given advance warning if new people or situations are going to be introduced. A difficult or feisty child may need to be given extra time to burn off their energy. A caregiver’s ability to accurately read and work well with the child will enjoy this goodness-of-fit, meaning their styles match and communication and interaction can flow. The temperamentally active children can do well with parents who support their curiosity but could have problems in a more rigid family.

It is this goodness-of-fit between child temperament and parental demands and expectations that can cause struggles. Rather than believing that discipline alone will bring about improvements in children’s behavior, our knowledge of temperament may help a parent, teacher or other caregiver gain insight to work more effectively with a child. Viewing temperamental differences as varying styles that can be responded to accordingly, as opposed to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behavior. For example, a persistent child may be difficult to distract from forbidden things such as electrical cords, but this persistence may serve her well in other areas such as problem-solving.  Positive traits can be enhanced and negative traits can be subdued. The child’s style of reaction, however, is unlikely to change. Temperament doesn’t change dramatically as we grow up, but we may learn how to work around and manage our temperamental qualities. Temperament may be one of the things about us that stays the same throughout development.

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Link to Learning

Read the article “Lasting Effects of a Goodness- or Poorness-of-fit” from Psychology Today to learn more about goodness-of-fit and poorness-of-fit.

Erikson’s Stages for Infants and Toddlers

Trust vs. mistrust

Erikson maintained that the first year to year and a half of life involves the establishment of a sense of trust. Infants are dependent and must rely on others to meet their basic physical needs as well as their needs for stimulation and comfort. A caregiver who consistently meets these needs instills a sense of trust or the belief that the world is a safe and trustworthy place. The caregiver should not worry about overindulging a child’s need for comfort, contact, or stimulation. This view is in sharp contrast with the Freudian view that a parent who overindulges the infant by allowing them to suck too long or be picked up too frequently will be spoiled or become fixated at the oral stage of development.

messy toddler girl covered with fingerpaint.

Figure 2. Exploring the environment allows the toddler to develop a sense of autonomy and independence.

Consider the implications for establishing trust if a caregiver is unavailable or is upset and ill-prepared to care for a child, or if a child is born prematurely, is unwanted, or has physical problems that could make them less desirable to a parent. However, keep in mind that children can also exhibit strong resiliency to harsh circumstances. Resiliency can be attributed to certain personality factors, such as an easy-going temperament and receiving support from others. A positive and strong support group can help a parent and child build a strong foundation by offering assistance and positive attitudes toward the newborn and parent.

Autonomy vs. shame and doubt

As the child begins to walk and talk, an interest in independence or autonomy replaces their concern for trust. The toddler tests the limits of what can be touched, said, and explored. Erikson believed that toddlers should be allowed to explore their environment as freely as safety allows and, in doing so, will develop a sense of independence that will later grow to self-esteem, initiative, and overall confidence. If a caregiver is overly anxious about the toddler’s actions for fear that the child will get hurt or violate others’ expectations, the caregiver can give the child the message that they should be ashamed of their behavior and instill a sense of doubt in their abilities. Parenting advice based on these ideas would be to keep your toddler safe, but let them learn by doing. A sense of pride seems to rely on doing rather than being told how capable one is (Berger, 2005).

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autonomy vs. shame and doubt:
Erikson’s second crisis of psychosocial development, during which toddlers strive to gain a sense of self-rule over their actions and their bodies
the notion that development is dependent on the degree of match between children’s temperament and the nature and demands of the environment in which they are being raised
inborn differences between one person and another in emotions, activity, and self-regulation, typically measured by the person’s responses to the environment
trust vs. mistrust:
Erikson’s first crisis of psychosocial development, during which infants learn basic trust if the world is a secure place where their needs (food, comfort, attention) are met

  1. Garthus-Niegel, S., Ayers, S., Martini, J., von Soest, T. & Eberhard-Gran, M. (2017). The impact of postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms on child development: A population based, 2-year follow-up study. Psychological Medicine, 47(1), 161-170.