When there is a disruption in psychosocial development, it can have a negative impact on the ability to function.
Substance abuse and addiction are very complicated issues, but contributing factors may be a result of poor, delayed or incomplete psychosocial development. Psychosocial skills and values, such as trust, self-identity, competence and purpose, are important for functioning normally within society. Any lapses in the development of these skills may contribute to a number of negative consequences, including substance use.
Psychosocial development refers to how people grow and develop important virtues or aspects of psychological and social health and well-being. This includes things like hope, identity, competence, love and other aspects that are important to healthy functioning.
When a person develops all of these virtues and qualities, he or she is also able to establish important life skills for functioning socially and as an individual. When there is a disruption in this development, it can have a negative impact on the ability to function and on a person’s developing personality.
Psychologist Erik Erikson coined the phrase psychosocial development.1 He outlined eight stages through which people progress, learning and gaining virtues and skills that contribute to their development and growth. It’s important to progress through these stages, from infancy to later adulthood, in order to become a healthy and functioning person. Erikson believed that a crisis initiates each stage and is required for someone to learn a lesson and develop a virtue associated with the stage.
The first stage occurs between birth and 18 months and forces an infant to decide if the world around him or her is to be trusted. A primary caregiver is crucial at this stage to provide stability and love and to develop trust. This helps a child learn to hope.
During the second stage, from two to four years old, a child should develop the virtue of will. The child begins to learn autonomy and independence. When encouraged by caregivers, a child during this stage will become increasingly confident in his or her abilities and skills.
Between four and five years old, a child should develop purpose. This is when children begin to explore more and interact with other children. Play is very important during this stage and helps a child to use initiative and to feel more secure in taking charge and creating.
During the early school years, from about age five to 12, a healthy child develops competence, in academics, learning, among peers and socializing, and within the family. With the right encouragement, a child will become industrious and feel competent and capable.
From ages 13 to 19 children go through adolescence, a crucial time for developing a strong identity and achieve the virtue of fidelity. Peers and role models are important to teens because, by comparison to others, they are able to develop and feel confident in an identity.
It’s during early adulthood, from about 20 to 39, that a person will establish the virtue of love by learning to become intimate. Both friends and romantic partners help develop this quality through the establishment of strong and trusting relationships.
From about age 40 to 65, the mid-life years, a person develops the quality of care by contributing to the world at large. This may be through raising children, through work, or through community and volunteer projects.
In the later years of adulthood, people develop wisdom. At this stage, a person hopefully sees his or her life as having been meaningful and productive, and may grapple with guilt about the past and goals that went unaccomplished.
Poor or disrupted psychosocial development may contribute to substance use and addiction. For instance, when a young person struggles to develop a strong identity, he or she may be more likely to use drugs as a way to create an identity. Disruptions to overall development are known to increase the risk of substance abuse,2 and children are most vulnerable during transitions, such as the crises faced during psychosocial development.
One study showed that there is a connection between psychosocial problems and the age of first use of substances among people who struggle with substance use disorders.3 Those participants who first used drugs or alcohol before the age of 17 had significantly more psychosocial problems across a range of issues, including social competency and peer relationships.
Another study showed that first substance use is associated with slower psychosocial development.4 The study tracked third- and fifth-graders, and children who initiated substance use later showed significantly less development in areas of psychosocial skills than those who had not used any substances.
Psychosocial development is important for growing into healthy, functioning adults and for continuing to grow as adults. When this process is disrupted or does not proceed robustly, it may contribute to substance abuse and later addiction.