Data on the different stages of complex life cycles are often rather unbalanced, especially those concerning the effects of density. How does this affect our understanding of a species’ population dynamics? Two discrete three-stage models with overlapping generations and delayed maturation are constructed to address this question. They assume that survival or emigration in any life stage and/or reproduction can be density dependent. A typical pond-breeding amphibian species with a well-studied larval stage serves as an example. Numerical results show that the population dynamics resulting from density dependence at a single (e.g. the larval) stage can be decisively and unpredictably modified by density dependence in additional stages. Superposition of density-dependent processes could thus be one reason for the difficulties in identifying density dependence in the field. Moreover, in a simulated source-refuge system with habitat-specific density-dependent dispersal of juveniles density dependence in multiple stages can stabilize or destabilize the dynamics and produce misleading age structures. From an applied perspective this model shows that excluding multistage regulation prematurely clearly affects our ability to predict consequences of human impacts.