We travel through life, beginning our journey at birth and ending at the grave. The task of living is demanding. Perhaps, the greatest of the challenge is why we spend so many years with our caregivers to prepare us for the wild ride of life. Throughout the course of our development, we pick up different sets of skills—some unconsciously and naturally and others purposely. However, this isn’t random or accidental development, each stage has certain developmental tasks specific for that particular age.
Human development isn’t a haphazard journey. Our development is organized, passing through predictable stages. During the twentieth century, many scientist and psychologist focused their attention (and research) on the process of human development. Several longitudinal studies, examining entire life spans, were underway, providing a wealth of information for exploration of human development.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote that developmental theories “create a conceptual framework of sequential developmental stages and transitions that signal movement from one developmental milestone to another” (2022).
Inherent to each stage are developmental tasks that once accomplished prepare the individual for the challenges and learning opportunities in future stages of development.
What are Developmental Tasks?
One of the key contributors to the developmental tasks concept is Robert J. Havighurst (1900-1991). Although Havighurst coined ‘developmental tasks’ (1948), the concept has academic roots reaching further back.
Havighurst defined developmental tasks as “a task which arises at or about a certain period in the life of an individual, successful achievement of which leads to his happiness and to the success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by society and difficulty with later tasks” (Cushman, 1959, p. 247).
Developing as an individual and as a active participant of a the larger society is not automatic. Science has divided up life development into a series of stages, gathering information of specific tasks and challenges inherent for each stage. As an individual successfully masters tasks of one stage, overcoming the common challenges of that stage, they are prepared to face the new challenges of the next stage of development.
Erich Erickson identifies eight stages of development. Each stage representing a set of challenges, which Ericson referrers to as ‘a phase-specific psycho-social crisis.’ We resolve the crisis through developing new skills. The development of the specific skill set to resolve the crisis is the developmental task for that stage, preparing us for the next life transition.
Joseph Zaccaria explains that developmental tasks can be represented on different levels of abstraction and then articulated by the underlying purpose. He explains two important considerations:
The Range of the Goal
- Ultimate goal (i.e. high paying job)
- Long-range goals (complete degree)
- Intermediate goals (get all A’s i n school this semester)
- Short-term goals (Study 2 hours a night)
The Developmental Task
- General developmental tasks
- Basic developmental tasks
- Sub-developmental tasks
(1965, p. 374)
While many tasks are universal, and most tasks are time sensitive, they are structural tools we can use to direct our lives, and assisting others traveling through these stages of development. If I have identified my ultimate goal, and have gained the knowledge of the steps needed to achieve that goal. I can design a time sensitive framework to arrive at the desired destination.
In this way, developmental tasks can be very personalized. However, the ability to structure personalized developmental tasks in service to long range goals requires development of many universal skills, acquired during earlier periods of development.
Change and Stage Development
Timothy H. Brubaker explains, “as an individuals grow older, change is a potent characteristic of life. Aging involves, physical, psychological, and social changes that are experienced by both men and women. Everyday activities are altered. relationships are modified, ended, or initiated. the ubiquity of change is common as people age” (1986, p. 381).
Early developmental stages contain some universal tasks that are mastered in similar ways, no matter which culture, society, or family. Later stages increasingly take on individual strivings for a diverse range of goals. We share a similar crisis but may address the crisis in drastically different ways.
The Collision Crisis
Erickson suggests a collision between individual and the environment creates the crisis at each stage. He wrote the child begins “to experience the whole critical alternative between being an autonomous creature and being a dependent one; and it is not until then that he is ready for a decisive encounter with his environment.” Erickson continues to explain that the environment attempts to force the developing individual to accept “particular ideas and concepts of autonomy” (1994, Kindle location 700).
The young toddler becomes master of their home. They learn the basics of survival (from the hand of a caregiver). Yet, and in their confidence and mastery, they are sent off to school, challenged with a whole new environment. They are faced with new rules, new tasks, and new social relationships. The child must contend with other children, learning basic social interactions of friendship.
Erickson explains that the autonomy and environment collision creates the dynamics of each stage. He wrote “it is this encounter, together with the resulting crisis, which is to be described for each stage” (1994, Kindle location 700). The mastery of the previous stage is not sufficient in the new stage. The past learning must be integrated with new skills to accomplish the new developmental task. These new masteries, in turn, prepare the individual for the next exciting phase of development.
Stage success is crucial impacts our lives exponentially. Perhaps, Albert Bandura’s reciprocal determinism best describes the reciprocal impact of stage successes and failures. T. Franklin Murphy explains reciprocal determinism “theorizes that cognitive personal factors can influence the traditional deterministic elements of the environment, and subsequent behaviors, influence both the environment and personal factors” (2021).
A dynamic interactive process of environments influencing behaviors and behaviors influencing environments create the conditions of our lives. Our behaviors (or behaviors of significant others) in one stage establishes the basis of our success of failure of the developmental task of that stage, pushing us into the next stage on a trajectory that largely determines how we will fair with the next crisis.
A young star running back for his high school football team, was forced to face his next life transition without completing some of the basic developmental tasks of adolescence. He was good, just not good enough for a scholarship. Junior college provided an opportunity to continue playing football, but his other skills of survival in the adult world collapsed under pressure. His drive for autonomy moved him out of the family home, renting a room with other floundering individuals. Subsequently, the lack of vision for opportunities, coupled with a growing desire for independence, led to accompanying (and participating) in a botched bank robbery and gun battle with the police.
Failure to Accomplish Appropriate Stage Tasks
Failures of appropriate stage development left this nineteen year old boy vulnerable to the harsh environment push to act a certain way. Or in Erickson’s words, “the environment attempt to force the developing individual to accept particular ideas and concepts of autonomy.”
Barzeva et al. explain that “developmental task theory suggests that when life events are off-time–occurring earlier or later than majority of the peers–adolescents experience negative social sanctions for deviating from normative patterns of development and receive fewer social resources from friends” (2021, p. 1767). This brings up two important points. One is the impact of on time development and the other is the quality of the behavioral norm of our peer group.
Our cultures are not evil. they provide essential information for living within them and drawing from their benefits. Developmental tasks of learning to balance cultural demands against autonomous drives for pleasure is an intricate and complex process. George E. Valliant wrote in his classic book Adaptation to Life that, “the very complexity of social order meant that, unlike animals, man must grow for decades in order to fit into his own society’s mold” (1998, Kindle location 4435).
Brubaker reminds that, “when attempting to complete successful developmental tasks throughout life, various resources and options are presented to families and individuals as a result of different societal influences” (1986, p. 382).
I thought as an adolescent boy that stage development was automatic, just a matter of age. My middle class background infused my mind with a college degree, and happy family as normal achievements of early adulthood. In my first attempt, I failed at both. A twenty year detour sent me back to earlier developmental phases to accomplish tasks that were overlooked and dismissed with ignorance.
What are the Development Tasks of Each Stage?
Stages are not biological givens. Stages are concepts created for the purpose of research and understanding, often there are underlying characteristics identified to create markers for stage transitions. Over the history of developmental research different stages of development have been developed, utilizing different models (biological, psychological, bio-psycho social).
Once a model of developmental stages is presented the model may be used in on-going research of specific behaviors and influences occurring in that particular stage.
Common stages of development and associated developmental tasks:
Infancy and Early Childhood (0-5 years)
In the early moments of a life, the infant begins their journey, learning the necessary skills for survival. Many of the early challenges are universal, crossing cultural and family lines. Every young child learns the very basic tasks:
- communication (language)
- control of elimination (toilet training)
Other critical tasks should also be learned in these early stages:
- learning trust in oneself
- learning to trust others (attachment theory)
- respect for rules and authority
- exploring immediate environments
- developing skills through play
The foundational tasks accomplished during these critical years of development set the stage for a life long journey of growth. Erickson believed, and Valliant’s studies confirmed that the tasks of building basic trust, autonomy, and initiative were the most important tasks of childhood (1998, Kindle location 4435).
Dr. Robert Demoss, a Clinical Director of a mental health center in New Mexico and a psychologist in Colorado, believes that the beginning of emotional regulation has foundations traced back to these early stages of development.
Children learn the developmental task of self soothing. He writes “children learn to rock themselves, divert their attention from desired objects, suck their thumbs, or hold a blanket. All these behaviors are normal, if they are used as temporary coping strategies. Children who learn to handle frustration develop greater confidence and maturity. The ability to self-soothe in the face of temporary frustration is a critical developmental task” (1999, p. 156-7).
Middle Childhood (6-12 years)
During these middle childhood years, the growing child begins to expand on their knowledge of the physical and social worlds. Basically, the child begins to learn general social roles. A primary middle childhood developmental task is the developing of skills learned in the previous stage to implement them on a larger social stage.
In this stage children should:
- develop skills in determining who to trust
- developing conscience (ethics, values)
- learn to take responsibility
- acquire academic skills
- cognitive skills of reasoning and judgment
- develop social skills through group interaction
- experiment with a variety hobbies, discovering personal preferences
This period establishes the basics of frustration tolerance in achieving distal goals over immediate gratifications. these foundational tasks pave the way for success in advanced learning, trusting relationships, and healthy parenting.
During this stage of development children learn the power of reason. Carol Poole wrote about this stage of development that the child “interpolates her own structure, tests the rules, disagrees, makes up rules, and practices using her own values.” Poole continues “if these needs are satisfied, the child learns she can trust her feelings to guide her, and that it is acceptable to disagree…and that it acceptable to do things her own way” (1986. p. 272).
This stage is the third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, characterized by the development of organized and rational thinking.
Adolescence (13-17 years)
Adolescence is the springboard into entering the adult world, marked by a gradual separation from parents. During this phase a child faces the crisis of self identity, growing sexual interest, and autonomy. The adolescent tasks are:
- developing a sense of identity
- identifying strengths and weaknesses
- establishing mature relationships
- developing emotional independence from parents
- defining personal social and ethical values
- exploring interests, abilities, and passions
- planning for long term relationships (marriage, family)
- discovering possible career paths
Adolescents is a period of great vulnerability as a child embarks on the monumental task of establishing a personal identity autonomous of parental attachment. Joanna H. Fanos explains, “since the adolescent has begun to relinquish parental attachments and does not yet have adult primary attachments, it is a time of great vulnerability and desire for peer approval” (1997, p. 26)
Roisman and colleagues suggested that the developmental tasks of academic success, high-quality friendships, and law abidingness were more predictive of success in adult romantic relationships and career success than any other developmental tasks of this period (2004, p. 124).
The major life transitions and the following stakes are extremely high during this critical stage of development.
Early Adulthood (18-35 years)
Many of the preceding stages of development begin to playout during early adulthood. During this period young adults:
- complete formal education
- embark on a career
- learning to live with a romantic companion
- providing for emotional and material needs of children
- finding a new social group
- participating in civic affairs
- developing a basic philosophy of life
Roisman et al. wrote “emerging adulthood is conceptualized as a new and distinct developmental period in modern industrialized societies, characterized by a period of prolonged exploration among 18- to 25-year-olds before they settle into stable adult roles and responsibilities” (2004, p. 124).
This stage of development continues to dynamically change along with the rising complexity of our modern society. Erickson saw young adults’ challenge as “intimacy versus isolation” (Montgomery & Arnett, 1920, p. 206). However, over the last seventy years, the tasks of this period have expanded to accommodate the intensely competitive and demanding environment.
Marilyn Montgomery and Jefferey Arnett explain “the structure of a stable adult life is not built at 20 but closer to 30. For most young people, the twenties are no longer a time of settling into the structure of a stable adult life, but a time of maximum disorder, unpredictability, and change. Marriage and parenthood take place in the late twenties or early thirties, more young people pursue education for longer than ever, and jobs change more frequent” ( 1920, p. 207).
Three important themes surface in the understanding of “the individuation tasks of the transition to adulthood: finding a preliminary adult identity and deciding upon a value system that is compatible with both self and society, making interpersonal commitments, and making occupational commitments” (Shulman & Ben Artzi, 2004, p. 218).
Middle Age (36-60 years)
During middle age years, we typically have accomplished many of our earlier goals. Careers are stable, families established, and finances are secure. During this stage, the crisis is boredom.
Developmental tasks for this stage include:
- taking greater social responsibility
- developing a fuller life through self-actualizing activities
- keeping romantic relationships alive, and exciting
- establishing financial security for old age
- preparing teenage children for adulthood
- caring for aging parents
- adapting to declining physical (and mental) capacities
Middle adult life developmental tasks can be organized into three general categories:
- finding a sense of meaning
- revising and reconstructing a sense of identity given the life already lived
- developing a sense of generativity
A Widening Perspective
The wonders of a widening perspective changes our views on many things. Consequently, many find themselves experiencing a midlife crisis, old meanings fade as we shift focus from what we are going to do next to what are we going to do for the rest of my life. We may silently proclaim, “wow, so this is it!” Middle adulthood, when we can finally see clearly, is fertile ground for new searches for meaning. Old narratives often invite an existential funk—the psychological crisis of tis stage of development.
We think we know who we are. Since, early adulthood our identities began to settle. However, middle life leads to revisiting and even rewriting these personal narratives. Kailin Burnell and Tara Kuther explain, “the experience of turning points and normative age-related changes in midlife can prompt growth and change in identity.” They continue, “midlife changes often trigger reflection, the tendency to look back on accomplishments in light of youthful goals” (2019, p. 31).
In midlife, we have the wider perspective to see what did and did not work. Illusions of identity are a little more difficult to hold in the context of a lifetime of experience. Some, nonetheless, seem to blindly grasp onto false images of self, doubling down on delusions to soothe emotions against the realities of a broken life.
Perhaps, the view from the top, seeing the decline in physical and mental abilities soon to come attention is refocused on the future through contributing to the life of others. Psychologists refer to this refocusing as generativity. Erickson taught that “generativity id the quintessential task of midlife, characterized by a concern for and commitment to giving back to the world and promoting the well-being of future generations” (2019, p. 31).
Senior (60+ years)
Our later life stage has its own challenges. We encounter massive life events during these later years. Undoubtedly, remaining psychologically and emotionally fit during these transitions challenges resolve and wellbeing.
During this stage, we typically experience role changes. Positions at work are relinquished to the younger generation, significant daily roles as a parent are lost as children grow and move out.
This late life stage has the following developmental tasks:
- adapting to physical and mental decline
- living with a reduced income
- loss of friends and spouse
- adjusting to retirement
- maintaining active social interest
- meeting social and civic obligations
- discovering appropriate family roles as grandparent and parent of adult children
Several theories have emerged, suggesting different paths to happiness during this strange period of adjustment. Some of the more popular theories are:
Whatever our belief, we need to make sense of life with death looming in the foreseeable future. Some how, during these sunsetting years of life, we our challenged to continue to add to the life of others, finish our fabulous stories while holding onto a eudaimonic existence.
A Few Final Remarks
My writing at Psychology Fanatic has spanned over three of these developmental stages, beginning in the later years of early adulthood, carrying me through middle life, and now entering the final stage. Subsequently, I have addressed many of these developmental tasks as I experienced them myself.
Life is fascinating from all angles, engulfing our senses with awe or dread. Developmental tasks as outlined here are not hard truths. We personalize our lives. We have our own subjective experience of aging. A sixty year old woman may feel and experience life as a young adult. Conversely, a fifty year old man may experience life as if he is in his final stage.
I like developmental theories because they cause me to pause, ponder, and reflect on the stages of my own life, giving vital energy to approach the coming years with vigor and hope.
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