What Is Developmental Psychology?

Published on: 02 May 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Marris Adikwu
child playing with Alphabet, developmental psychology.

Every once in a while, you may find yourself wondering how you became the person you are today, or why some people act differently from others. You also may have thought about why a cheerful child might grow into a rebellious teenager, or why people adopt different views, values, or principles as they grow older.

These are some examples of questions that form the basis of developmental psychology.

What is Developmental Psychology?

Throughout our lives, we go through various vital stages of development, in which each individual grows and adapts in some standardized and some unique ways. The field of developmental psychology is primarily focused on the study of human development through these vital stages, and the discovery of new and better ways for people to maximize their potential in every stage of development.

The American Psychological Association describes developmental psychology as the study of human growth and changes across the lifespan, including: physical, cognitive, social, intellectual, perceptual, personality, and emotional growth. The study of developmental psychology is of great importance in understanding how we learn and adapt.

Developmental psychology was originally concerned mainly with child psychology, but the scope of this field has broadened over the years. Today, it focuses on every stage in human growth, from infancy to old age. Developmental psychology examines how babies develop the ability to function in the world, the changes that occur during adolescence and adulthood, and the reason why the human body and mind often decline in old age.

The study of developmental psychology is vast, and new scientific discoveries in every stage of growth and development are made frequently. The American Psychological Association publishes a monthly peer-reviewed journal that aims to advance knowledge about development across the human lifespan. The journal has made significant contributions in the field of developmental psychology, with notable research findings on how high lead levels contribute to lower IQ and reduce attention span in children, and on the harmful effects of exposing kids to violence on television and in video games.

Theories of Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychologists still study the ways in which children develop, and how their development affects them later in life. Extensive research in the area of child development has birthed a number of theories that provide insight into what factors affect a child’s development and the actions that maximize a child’s development while minimizing potential developmental setbacks.

The following are some of the most widely-recognized theories in this field.

Psychosexual Developmental Theory

In developing the field of psychoanalysis, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud made significant contributions to the field of developmental psychology, including the psychosexual developmental theory. Freud proposed that a person’s experiences at different stages in childhood directly affect that person’s behavior and personality later in their adult life.

According to this theory, there are five universal stages of development. Each stage is centered around an erogenous zone, which is the source of a person’s psychosexual energy. At each stage of development there is some tension between the conscious (where a person is aware of their mental processes) and the unconscious (the mental processes a person is unaware of); this tension arises because the conscious often works to suppress the unconscious.

Freud believed that when a child successfully passes through each of these stages, development culminates in a healthy personality in adulthood. However, being unable to progress from the challenges in one stage will negatively influence a child’s behavior as an adult. While the theory was incredibly influential for decades, Freud’s theory of psychosexual development holds less sway today.

Psychosocial Developmental Theory

This theory was developed by renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, and it suggests that human growth through all stages, from infancy to adulthood, can be organized into eight distinct stages. According to Erikson, each stage of life presents an existential dilemma a person must go through successfully in order to gain positive virtues. Failure to resolve any of these hurdles can lead to developing a negative outlook of the world, further affecting a person’s growth and development.

Erikson’s psychosocial developmental theory is generally based on social interactions and the conflicts that arise during each stage of development. The theory suggests that exposing a person to social interaction and a wide range of experiences is important in achieving positive outcomes in each stage.

Attachment Theory

Proposed by another notable psychoanalyst John Bowlby, attachment theory is concerned primarily with the necessity of early meaningful relationships in the development of a child. The theory asserts that these relationships help a child form attachments to a number of people, places or things, and these attachments, in turn, largely affect further developmental patterns throughout the course of the child’s life.

This theory also suggests that the need to form attachments develops naturally in a child as a survival instinct, and explains why a child would likely gravitate more towards relationships that provide them some form of physical or psychological safety.

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura, one of the pioneers in the field of development psychology, believed a child’s development doesn’t come mainly from learning through direct experience, but through modeling and simple observations. Bandura’s theory suggests that learning can be effectively achieved by listening to instructions on how to perform behaviors, or by attentively observing real or fictional persons practicing these behaviors.

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Swiss theorist Jean Piaget held the now widely accepted view that children think quite differently than adults. And, therefore,one role for adults and caregivers is to provide children with suitable materials to help them develop interaction skills and improve their ability to reflect on their actions.

According to Piaget, intellectual development occurs in four stages, each stage consisting of skills that a child must master before moving on to the next stage. Successful completion of each of these stages is necessary for the development of a healthy thought and behavioral processes.

Life Stages in Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology is equally concerned with the study of development over different stages of life. At each of these stages, there is a significant event a person is naturally expected to go through.

1. Prenatal Development

This is the first stage of life where conception takes place and the child begins to develop. At this point, developmental psychologists are mainly concerned with the environmental and nutritional factors that can lead to birth defects, as well as factors such as maternal drug use or inherited diseases that may affect the child upon delivery.

2. Early Childhood

The early childhood phase brings phenomenal life changes and is also the starting point for milestone events such as learning language, gaining some level of independence, and observing how the world works. At this stage, learning occurs through a gradual process, and developmental psychologists focus on helping the child attain full physical, cognitive, and emotional growth.

3. Middle Childhood

At this stage of development, a child is encouraged to learn more about social interactions outside of the family as they pass through the early grades of school. This is often where children refine their motor skills and begin socialization with other children. The primary concern in middle childhood is to ensure that these abilities are not hindered by social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.

4. Adolescence

The adolescent phase brings a full transition into puberty, as well as a heightened sense of maturity and independence. At this stage, a child is likely to go through some psychological dilemma as a result of rapid physical and mental growth as well as external influences like peer pressure. This results in the need for a child to gain experiences that will help the child form a unique identity.

5. Early Adulthood

The twenties and thirties are known as the early adulthood stage. This is where a person is at a psychological peak, and the main focus at this stage is on career goals and building relationships. Some who have difficulty in building lasting relationships at this stage may struggle with feelings of loneliness.

6. Middle Adulthood

The late thirties to mid sixties are known as the middle adulthood stage, where aging becomes more noticeable and one’s expectations of life are reevaluated and may become more realistic. At this stage, many people tend to search for a sense of purpose and look for ways to make meaningful contributions to society.

7. Old Age

This stage of life represents a time when a person is faced with the physical, mental, and emotional issues involved in the aging process. Common concerns at this stage include physical health challenges and mental decline.

Developmental Psychology and Mental Health

There is a definitive link between developmental psychology and mental health, as mental illness can sometimes stem from childhood risk factors. Preventing avoidable risk factors, like drug use, can significantly reduce the chances of developing a mental health condition at the later stages of life.

Children develop at varying paces, but when a child is unable to meet certain milestones, it may be an indicator of a psychological condition or mental impairment. In these cases, parents and caregivers are encouraged to consult a developmental psychologist who will work closely with the child to ascertain the degree of the issue, and come up with effective ways for the child to overcome or manage it. Developmental psychology also provides ways to manage and control cognitive, behavioral, and emotional challenges in adolescents and adults.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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