Skip 
Navigation Link
secslider

An Overview of Child Development Theories

Child & Adolescent Development: Overview

   
This topic center provides a review of theories of child development. For information on parenting and child development of infants aged 0 to 2, please visit our Infant Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of preschool children (early childhood aged 3 to 7, please visit our Early Childhood Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of middle childhood children (ages 8 to 11), please visit our Middle Childhood Parenting and Development center. For information on parenting adolescents (ages 12-24), please visit our Child Development Theory: Adolescence topic center and Parenting and Child Development Theory: Adolescen...More

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What are the main child development areas?

  • There are four main areas or channels in which children grow: physical, psychological and cognitive, social and emotional, and sexuality and gender identity.
  • Children's bodies grow in height and weight over the years and change appearance during puberty.
  • Children also develop certain physical abilities during their progression towards adulthood, including crawling, walking, running and (possibly) writing or shooting a basketball.
  • Children develop psychologically and cognitively as their brains absorb more information and they learn how to use that information.
  • Children grow socially and emotionally and they learn how to interact, play, work, and live with other people such as family, friends, teachers, and employers.
  • They learn how to understand both their own feelings and others' emotions and ways of dealing with strong emotions.
  • Children must develop a sense of self-esteem as they go through the long process of figuring out what shape their identity, or who they are, will take.
  • They also develop a sense of morality as they learn the difference between right and wrong.
  • Finally, children have to develop sexually and form a gender identity.
  • Early on, children learn how their bodies work and look and what it means to be a boy or a girl; they learn how boys and girls are different.
  • As they grow older and enter adolescence and puberty, they continue to learn how their bodies work sexually and how to responsibly handle their sexuality so as to balance their sexual desires and appropriate behavior.

For more information

What is Sigmund Freud's theory of child development?

  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a Viennese doctor who came to believe that the way parents dealt with children's basic sexual and aggressive desires would determine how their personalities developed and whether or not they would end up well-adjusted as adults.
  • Freud described children as going through multiple stages of sexual development, which he labeled Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency, and Genital.
  • In Freud's view, each stage focused on sexual activity and the pleasure received from a particular area of the body.
  • In the oral phase, children are focused on the pleasures that they receive from sucking and biting with their mouth.
  • In the Anal phase, this focus shifts to the anus as they begin toilet training and attempt to control their bowels.
  • In the Phallic stage, the focus moves to genital stimulation and the sexual identification that comes with having or not having a penis.
  • Another part of Freud's theory focused on identifying the parts of consciousness.
  • Freud thought that all babies are initially dominated by unconscious, instinctual and selfish urges for immediate gratification which he labeled the Id.
  • As babies attempt and fail to get all their whims met, they develop a more realistic appreciation of what is realistic and possible, which Freud called the "Ego".
  • Over time, babies also learn about and come to internalize and represent their parents' values and rules, which he called the "Super-Ego."
  • The Super-Ego is the basis for the the child's conscience that struggles with the concepts of right and wrong and works with the Ego to control the immediate gratification urges of the Id.
  • By today's rigorous scientific standards, Freud's psychosexual theory is not considered to be very accurate, but it is still important and influential today because it was the first stage development theory that gained real attention, and many other theorists used it as a starting place.

For more information

What is Erik Erikson's theory of child development?

  • Erik Erikson (1902-1994) used Freud's work as a starting place to develop a theory about human stage development from birth to death.
  • Erikson focused on how peoples\' sense of identity develops; how people develop or fail to develop abilities and beliefs about themselves which allow them to become productive, satisfied members of society.
  • Because Erikson's theory combines how people develop beliefs psychologically and mentally with how they learn to exist within a larger community of people, it's called a 'psychosocial' theory.
  • Erikson's stages are, in chronological order in which they unfold: trust versus mistrust; autonomy versus shame and doubt; initiative versus guilt; industry versus inferiority; identity versus identity confusion; intimacy versus isolation; generativity versus stagnation; and integrity versus despair.
  • Each stage is associated with a time of life and a general age span.
  • For each stage, Erikson's theory explains what types of stimulation children need to master that stage and become productive and well-adjusted members of society and explains the types of problems and developmental delays that can result when this stimulation does not occur.

For more information

What is Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of child development?

  • Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) described three stages of moral development which described the process through which people learn to discriminate right from wrong and to develop increasingly sophisticated appreciations of morality.
  • Kohlberg believed that his stages were cumulative and that each built off understanding and abilities gained in prior stages.
  • According to Kohlberg, moral development is a lifelong task, and many people fail to develop the more advanced stages of moral understanding.
  • Kohlberg's first 'preconventional' level describes children whose understanding of morality is essentially only driven by consequences.
  • Second stage 'conventional' morality describes people who act in moral ways because they believe that following the rules is the best way to promote good personal relationships and a healthy community.
  • The final 'postconventional' level describes people who instead of just following rules without questioning them, determine what is moral based on a set of values or beliefs they think are right all the time.

For more information

What is Jean Piaget's theory of child development?

  • Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1990), created a cognitive-developmental stage theory that described how children's ways of thinking developed as they interacted with the world around them.
  • Piaget's theory has four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
  • During the sensorimotor stage, which often lasts from birth to age two, children are just beginning to learn how to learn. The major tasks occurring during this period involve children figuring out how to make use of their bodies, which they do by experiencing everything with their five senses.
  • During the preoperational stage, which often lasts from ages two though seven, children start to use mental symbols to understand and to interact with the world, and they begin to learn language and to engage in pretend play.
  • In the concrete operational stage that follows, lasting from ages seven through eleven, children gain the ability to think logically to solve problems and to organize information they learn.
  • During the formal operational stage, which often lasts from age eleven on, adolescents learn how to think more abstractly to solve problems and to think symbolically (for example, about things that aren't really there concretely in front of them).

For more information

What is Urie Bronfenbrenner's theory of child development?

  • Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) developed the ecological systems theory to explain how everything in a child and the child's environment affects how a child grows and develops.
  • He labeled different aspects or levels of the environment that influence children's development, including the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem.
  • The microsystem is the small, immediate environment the child lives in and includes any immediate relationships or organizations they interacts with, such as their immediate family or caregivers and their school or daycare.
  • The mesosystem describes how the different parts of a child's microsystem work together for the sake of the child.
  • The exosystem level includes the other people and places that the child herself may not interact with often herself but that still have a large effect on her, such as parents' workplaces, extended family members, the neighborhood, etc.
  • The macrosystem is the largest and most remote set of people and things to a child but which still has a great influence over the child, such as the relative freedoms permitted by the national government, cultural values, the economy, wars, etc.

For more information


News Articles

  • Social Media, Binge Eating Often Go Together for Kids

    "Children may be more prone to overeating while distracted in front of screens. They may also be exposed to more food advertisements on television," said study author Dr. Jason Nagata. More...

  • Stressed and Distracted, Kids and Their Teachers Say Virtual Learning Isn't Working

    Meltdowns are familiar to any parent of young children, but when they occur during a school day -- with other young siblings trying to learn through a screen and two parents working remotely -- chaos ensues. More...

  • Sports Position Doesn't Affect Risk of Concussion-Linked CTE Illness

    The position played in sports like football and hockey isn't associated with risk of a concussion-linked brain disease later in life, a new study suggests. More...

  • Pandemic Putting Added Strain on Parents of Kids With Cancer

    A cancer diagnosis for your child is devastating enough, but new research shows the coronavirus pandemic has made the battle even harder for many families. More...

  • Dogs and Kids Are 'In Sync,' Study Shows

    It is an image as heartwarming as any: Young children giggling as the family dog climbs all over them and licks their faces. But new research suggests the bond may be more than playful. More...

  • 45 More
    • Teachers Main Drivers of School COVID Outbreaks, So Vaccinations Needed: Study

      In the wake of U.S. recommendations to re-open schools, a new government report indicates that teachers may be key spreaders of COVID-19 in schools and should be vaccinated against the coronavirus. More...

    • Tips to Keep Young Athletes Injury-Free

      Today's young athletes push themselves harder than ever before, which raises their odds for injury, experts say. More...

    • Fertility Treatments Might Affect Kids' Growth, But Not for Long

      The growth patterns of kids born through fertility treatment differ initially from those conceived naturally, but those growth rates do catch up over time, a new study finds. More...

    • Mom's Heart Health While Pregnant Could Influence Her Child's Health for Years

      In a finding that suggests heart health starts in the womb, a new study shows that the state of a woman's heart during pregnancy may predict her kids' health by the time they reach adolescence. More...

    • Pandemic Has Affected Kids' Dental Health: Poll

      A new, nationwide poll found the pandemic has made it harder for parents to get their kids regular dental care. But on the other hand, many say their youngsters are now taking better care of their teeth. More...

    • New Rabies Prevention Treatment Also Works in Kids: Study

      Getting bitten by a dog or wild animal is frightening, especially for kids, but a new study may help relieve some of the worry about catching rabies. More...

    • When Will Kids Get the COVID Vaccines?

      While vaccinations for adults are underway in the United States, clinical trials for the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration-authorized COVID-19 vaccines haven't yet been completed for children and teens younger than 16. More...

    • U.S. Schools Can Reopen, With Safeguards in Place: CDC

      It may be safe for many of America's kids to head back to classrooms, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday. More...

    • Fetal Surgery Is Changing Lives for Kids With Spina Bifida

      Spina bifida is a diagnosis no parents-to-be want to hear as they await their child's birth, and the idea of performing surgery on a baby while it is still in the womb can be terrifying. But new research shows that performing the delicate procedure before the baby is born, and not after, is worth it. More...

    • Kids Who Got Flu Shot Had Milder COVID Symptoms: Study

      Here's a new reason to make sure your kids get their seasonal flu shot. A new study showed that it reduces kids' risk for symptoms and severe illness if they get COVID-19. More...

    • Very Little Spread of Coronavirus at Kids' Day Camps: Study

      Day camps could be considered breeding grounds for coronavirus infection, but a new study shows that when social distancing measures are followed, few illnesses result. More...

    • When Kids Misbehave, 'Verbal Reasoning' Can Sometimes Backfire

      Most parents know that child behavior experts recommend against spanking, but new research suggests that so-called "positive" discipline methods don't always work either. More...

    • Vaccines Saved 37 Million Lives, Mostly Children, Over Past Two Decades

      A new report finds that vaccines against 10 major diseases prevented 37 million deaths between 2000 and 2019 in low- and middle-income countries worldwide, with young children benefiting most. More...

    • Anchor It! Toppling TVs, Furniture Can Injure and Kill Kids

      Experts are warning that unsecured televisions, bedroom dressers and other heavy furniture can crush, maim and even kill curious children, and the issue may only worsen during stay-at-home lockdowns. More...

    • Why Do Black Children Get Fewer Scans When They're Seen in ERs?

      Black and Hispanic children who land in the emergency room are less likely than white kids to receive X-rays, CT scans and other imaging tests, a new study finds. More...

    • Pandemic May Be Affecting How Parents Feed Their Kids

      There have been good and bad changes to U.S. children's diets during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers say. More...

    • Race Plays Role in Kids' Food Allergies: Study

      Black American children have higher rates of shellfish and fish allergies than white children, a new study finds. More...

    • Too Many Kids With Special Needs Are Going Without Adequate Support

      As many as one in five U.S. children has special health care needs, and some of their caregivers are struggling to get them the support, care and services they need, new research shows. More...

    • There’s ‘A Path Forward’ to Reopening Schools, CDC Officials Say

      New studies suggest a return to in-person classes could be warranted, according to officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More...

    • Kids Aren't Scared by Medical Workers' PPE, Study Finds

      Kids aren't scared when surgical staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE), and many feel reassured by use of the gear, researchers say. More...

    • Hand Sanitizer Is Harming Kids' Eyes, Often Seriously

      The explosive rise in use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 pandemic has had a dangerous, unintended consequence: eye injuries among children. More...

    • Kids Highly Likely to Transmit Coronavirus to Others: Study

      While children are less susceptible to illness with the new coronavirus, they are nearly 60% more likely than adults over 60 to infect other family members when they are sick, a new study shows. More...

    • Kids' ER Visits for Injuries Rose During Lockdown, While Non-Injury Cases Fell

      Their new study suggests that being in lockdown, with schools closed, may have prompted more kids to go outside and play -- and potentially get injured doing so. At the same time, parents may have feared taking their children to the hospital unless it was a dire injury. More...

    • Should Your Child Get a COVID Test?

      Children and teens with COVID-19 symptoms should be tested immediately. This is especially important if they're going to school, playing sports or have in-person jobs, according to the academy. More...

    • Climate Change Is Spurring Malnutrition in Kids Worldwide

      Rising temperatures caused by climate change are contributing to low diet quality and malnutrition among young children in many parts of the world, researchers say. More...

    • New Year, New Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe and Healthy

      A new year can be a fresh start for you and your kids -- and perhaps no year has needed a fresh start more than this one. So, a leading doctors' group is offering parents tips for a healthy "reset" in 2021. More...

    • AHA News: Pandemic Pods Offer Social Relief, But There Are Risks

      "There's maybe a false sense of security with these pod arrangements," said Melissa Hawkins, director of the Public Health Scholars Program at American University in Washington, D.C. That's a serious issue as people grow eager for more contact, but vaccinations are months away for most. More...

    • Pediatricians' Group Says School Is Priority, With Proper Safety Measures

      A prominent U.S. doctors' group reaffirmed its recommendation this week that having kids physically in school should be the goal, while also outlining safety protocols needed to allow schools to be open. More...

    • Kids With Congenital Heart Disease Face Higher Odds of Mental Health Issues

      Kids born with heart defects may be more likely to develop anxiety, depression and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), regardless of the severity of their heart condition. More...

    • Ready to Resume Sports?  Health Tips for Getting Back in the Game

      Kids and teens may be eager to return to their regular sports routines when it's possible to play again, after being sidelined by COVID-19 restrictions. But a sports medicine specialist in California says they should take it slow to avoid injury. More...

    • Masks Don't Mask Others' Emotions for Kids

      Children can still read the emotional expressions of people wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers say. More...

    • Could Going Vegetarian Lower Kids' Asthma Risk?

      Compounds in meat may trigger wheezing in some children that can potentially lead to asthma or other respiratory conditions, a new study suggests. More...

    • Parents Feel the Strain as Pandemic Adds New Role: Teacher

      Many parents were forced to become "proxy educators" for their children without adequate training as schools transitioned to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More...

    • Involved Dads Make a Difference for Disadvantaged Teens

      Dads matter: New research shows how attentive, involved fathers can really boost the mental well-being and behavior of teens from low-income families. More...

    • Poll Charts U.S. Parents' Biggest Worries During Pandemic

      A new national poll found that parents' top concerns for their children include overuse of social media and screen time, internet safety, depression, suicide, unhealthy eating and lack of physical activity. Overall, they ranked COVID-19 as number 10 on their list of worries. More...

    • Schools, Day Care Not a Big Factor in Kids Getting COVID: Study

      Among those under 18, the virus is easily spread by close contact with family members who have COVID-19 and at gatherings where people don't wear masks, but going to school wasn't linked to positive COVID-19 tests, according to the researchers. More...

    • Type 2 Diabetes in Youth Is Especially Unhealthy: Study

      The younger people were when they developed type 2 diabetes, the greater their risk of complications like heart disease and stroke. More...

    • When Sepsis Strikes Children, Black Kids More Likely to Die: Study

      The risk of death from severe sepsis is much higher for Black children than for white or Hispanic children, U.S. researchers say. More...

    • New Clues to Crohn's Disease in Kids

      Important clues about Crohn's disease in children have emerged in new research. More...

    • Kids With Dyslexia May Have Hidden Strengths

      There's growing evidence that children with dyslexia may have heightened social and emotional intelligence. More...

    • Kids' Weight Rises When Convenience Stores Open Nearby: Study

      Children have an increased risk of obesity when there are more convenience stores in their neighborhood, a new study shows. More...

    • A Better, Safer Way to Rid Some Kids of Seizures?

      Children with tough-to-treat epilepsy now have another choice to help them live a life free of seizures, a new study suggests. More...

    • More Clues to Why Kids Have Much Milder COVID-19

      A stronger immune system and healthier blood vessels are among reasons kids are less likely than adults to have severe COVID-19, according to experts who reviewed research from around the world. More...

    • Pandemic Causing Dangerous Delays in Care When Appendicitis Strikes Kids

      Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors became concerned that people were delaying needed medical care to avoid hospitals. Now a new study hints that some parents may have waited to get emergency treatment for their children's appendicitis. More...

    • How to Keep Kids Resilient in a Strange Holiday Season

      A hospital survey found that two-thirds of parents worry that the effects on their children's mental health will be more challenging the longer the COVID-19 pandemic goes on. More...

Share This

Resources