Initiative Versus Guilt

Stage Three of Psychosocial Development

Initiative versus guilt
Initiative versus guilt is the third stage of psychosocial development. Mint Images / Getty Images

Initiative versus guilt is the third stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs during the preschool years, between the ages of three and five. During the initiative versus guilt stage, children begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interaction.

Let's take a closer look at some of the major events that take place at this stage of psychosocial development.

A Quick Overview

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Initiative versus Guilt
  • Major Question: “Am I good or bad?”
  • Basic Virtue: Purpose
  • Important Event(s): Exploration, Play

A Closer Look at the Initiative vs. Guilt Stage

Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment by taking initiative by planning activities, accomplishing tasks and facing challenges. During this stage, it is important for caregivers to encourage exploration and to help children make appropriate choices. Caregivers who are discouraging or dismissive may cause children to feel ashamed of themselves and to become overly dependent upon the help of others.

This stage can sometimes be frustrating for parents and caregivers as children begin to exercise more control over the things that impact their lives. Such decisions can range from the friends they play with, the activities they engage in, and the way that they approach different tasks.


As you might guess, play and imagination takes on an important role at this stage. Children have their sense of initiative reinforced by being given the freedom and encouragement to play. When efforts to engage in physical and imaginative play are stifled by caregivers, children begin to feel that their self-initiated efforts are a source of embarrassment.

Children who are over-directed by adults may struggle to develop a sense of initiative and confidence in their own abilities.

Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose, while failure results in a sense of guilt.

Next: Stage 4 - Industry Versus Inferiority

Return to The Psychosocial Stages


Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

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