DEVELOPMENT, change and ageing are inevitable facts of living. From the time we are born there is continuous progression and change – physically and psychologically.
The first two years of life probably sees more of this development and change than any other period during the lifespan. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) a Swiss psychologist who based a lot of his writings on the observation of his own children’s development, labelled this the Sensorimotor stage. This stage is the first of four stages Piaget used to describe human cognitive development. During the Sensorimotor stage the infant learns about the world through exploration using the senses. For example, learning about objects through placing them in their mouths and general tactile exploration.
Erik Erikson (1902-1994) a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst also conceptualised the lifespan in terms of stages. He called this the “Eight Ages of Man”, an eight-stage psychosocial theory of development. According to this theory, we progress from each stage to the next in a linear fashion. Progression runs parallel to physical development and ageing and successful progression is contingent on completing the work (task) of each stage. Failure to master this task leads to feelings of inadequacy. Successful completion of the task, on the other hand, results in a sense of competence and good mental health at each particular stage. For example, during the teenage years, the stage we work through he labelled “identity vs role confusion”. Young people may enter their adolescence identifying with their peers, not wanting to stand out or be different and are often confused about their roles in life, what they want to become. Successful resolution of this stage results in the formation of a sense of identity and the confidence to stand over personally held beliefs. As adults, the stages that we traverse are: in early adulthood (approximately 20’s through to early 40’s) “intimacy vs isolation”; middle adulthood “generativity vs stagnation”; later years (mid-60’s to end of life) “integrity vs despair”.
In early adulthood Erikson posits that the main focus is on finding a mate. (This presupposes that as an adolescent we have managed to establish our own identity or sense of self first, before we are able to successfully share our lives with another!) Middle adulthood is concerned with productivity, be it work, career, activities, children, family... The focus is on contribution to society, making our mark and perhaps leaving a legacy. If this stage is not successfully concluded we may feel stagnated and unproductive. In the final adult stage, the adult reflects back on life so far and takes stock. If they are happy with what they have achieved, produced, contributed, they may experience a sense of integrity. Conversely, this can be a time of regrets and can lead to a sense of despair, sadness or failure. The focus may be on “what could have been” or “if only”.
Whatever their theoretical training and preferences, psychologists are employed to meet the needs of people across the lifespan. We can educate on the expected norms of each stage. For example, it is normal for toddlers to want to explore their environment and to do things for themselves, even if it can be challenging for their parents. It is normal for a pre-adolescent child to begin to establish a more independent life outside the home - school, sport, friendships with their peers. It is normal for adults to want to connect with others, to achieve and produce and contribute to society and the next generation coming along.
Psychologists are here also for when people – children and adults – get stuck. For example, the youngster who finds it hard to establish or maintain friendships, the teenager who feels lost and different to his or her peers, the older adult who experiences feelings of depression as they ruminate on the regrets or “if onlys”.
It is useful to return to the attitudes of mindfulness which we frequently mention in this column – present moment awareness, acceptance, patience, self-compassion, non-judgement, curiosity and responsivity. If we can remind ourselves to apply these attitudes as we are negotiating any of life’s challenges whatever stage we are at, or if we can help a friend, partner or family member negotiate their own challenges, life really could be easier.
Imelda Ferguson and Julie O’Flaherty are chartered clinical psychologists, both based in private practice in Tullamore. Through Mind Your Self Midlands, they run courses on Positive Psychology and Mindfulness through the year. They are running a 'Beat Anxiety Bootcamp', a one-day workshop on the management and reduction of anxiety, in Mucklagh Community Centre on Saturday, June 1 next (10am-3pm, €80, €70 early bird fee if booked and paid by May 24, tel Imelda on 087 2271630 or Julie on 087 2399328 to book). They can also be contacted through the Psychological Society of Ireland www.psychologicalsociety.ie (Find a Psychologist section) or on their Facebook page, Mind Your Self Midlands.