Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


4 Stages of Adult Development: Where Are You?

We all move through developmental stages but it's also easy to get stuck.

Key points

  • We move through 4 stages of development: dependence, counter-dependence, independence, interdependence.
  • Each stage has its own characteristics and challenges, but it is possible get stuck at a particular stage.
  • The key to moving forward is recognizing the challenges and behaviorally overriding past wounds.
Source: SZimmerman-DE/pixabay

Sigmund Freud developed a five-stage model of human development, each stage with its own characteristics and challenges. Not only was this a useful way of viewing our growth, but he believed that individuals could get stuck, "fixated," at certain stages, forever shaping them as adults. A more modern version is Stephen Covey's Maturity Continuum, a four-stage model that I have found most helpful in my work with clients. Here are the characteristics and challenges of each stage; see what resonates most with you:

Stage 1: Dependence

A 3-month-old isn't capable of changing her own diaper and an 8-year-old cannot drive himself to soccer practice. Dependence is where the foundation of relationships is formed, where the child learns whether or not the world and others are safe, reliable, and able to provide for their needs.

Challenges: For some children, the world is not safe and caretakers are not reliable or caring. To survive in this world, many children learn early on to be hypervigilant—always looking around corners, highly sensitive to their environments, so they know they are safe. Others go a different route and develop an early hyper-independence where no one can be counted on; there's me and me, a stance that rules the rest of their lives.

At the opposite pole are those children who, instead of being neglected, were maybe given too much attention—always babied, always bailed out, always the center of attention. They never had to struggle or fight their own battles, and as a result, never discovered what they were capable of nor developed the grit that builds self-confidence. As adults, they feel entitled or are still dependent—expecting others to make them feel better, solve their problems, run their lives.

Stage 2: Counter-dependence

This is what is talked about in the “terrible twos,” where toddlers learn to say no and push back, but it comes to the fore in their teen years. It’s called counter-dependence because you are still dependent—most of us at 13 are unable to get our own apartment and job—but you're pushing back. You now bounce away from your parents and into your peer group. They become your new support. This is a step toward individuation and discovering through trial and error with your peers who you are apart from your parents.

Challenges: Some teens don't push back; they may dip their toes in these rebellious waters but never really break out. They are the good kids who learned early on to fear conflict and strong emotions and make parents and others happy. Because they miss feeling the power that can come by standing their ground or experimenting with life, this trait can eventually catch up with them. At 32, they may find themselves angry at their parents for childhood grievances and cutting them off, or at midlife, getting divorced or having affairs. In short, doing the adolescent rebelling and experimenting that they missed years before.

As with dependency, some get stuck, in this case, in their rebellion. Their identity becomes not who they are but who they are not. They can move to extremes and may be susceptible to addictions or relationships they can’t manage. And so they are always struggling, feeling unheard, feeling lonely, feeling angry. Me against the world.

Stage 3: Independence

Ideally, you successfully navigate these first two stages. You calm down and are not always bucking your parents. You go to college or move out and begin to live a life as an adult, paying your own bills, making big decisions, having close friends. You become more your own person, not merely an un-version of what came before.

But this stage is fragile, particularly in its early years. You're afraid of sliding back into dependence, being the little kid, and so your independence is, at the start, one of self-sufficiency. While you don't explode like you did as a teen, you resist any help from your parents; you want things done your way and are adamant about what you want.

Challenges: Here, too, you can get stuck. Unlike the traumatized child, you trust others, but your everyday sense of independence and self remains rigid; you hold onto that I-can-do-it-myself attitude. You have a hard time asking for or accepting help because you associate it with weakness.

Stage 4: Interdependence

You move beyond that self-sufficient stage and accept that you can’t do everything on your own, that you can look to others for help, and that doing so doesn’t mean you're weak, doesn’t affect your self-esteem. You know you are capable of standing on your own and trust that others can be a support.

Challenges: You get close but don't quite round the corner: You allow others to help, but you need to be in control.

Moving forward

Can you learn to move forward if you're stuck at some stage? Yes, and the key is learning those skills to create the experiences that each stage requires. If, for example, you feel you are untrusting or realize you're too entitled or dependent, your challenge is to take baby steps toward leaning into a relationship or learning to run your own life rather than depending on others to do it for you.

If you are stuck in counter-dependence, you need to learn to challenge your rebellious anger to constructive paths. More importantly, you want to practice making your decisions and plans based not on your reaction to what they want or say but on what you want.

If you are stuck in self-sufficient independence, experiment with letting go of control, of feeling that you have to do it all. If you're self-critical, make pushing back against that voice a challenge to work on.

You don’t have to stay where you are. You can learn to heal your wounds from your past in your present.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today