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: Adolescence topic center.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

  • Health Tip: Ski and Snowboard Safely With Your Kids

    Skiing and snowboarding are great ways to keep your family active during the cold winter months. More...

  • Kids Who Need Sickle Cell Meds Don't Always Get Them

    Less than a fifth of U.S. children with sickle cell anemia are getting the antibiotics that could save their lives, a new study finds. More...

  • After Another Shooting Tragedy, 'Stop the Bleed' Kits Urged for Schools

    Some of the 17 people killed Wednesday in the senseless Florida school shooting might have survived if their bleeding could have been stopped in time, experts say. More...

  • Parents Find Kids' Weight Report Cards Hard to Swallow

    Schools across the country are issuing special report cards that assess a student's weight and health -- but parents often don't believe what they're seeing, a small study shows. More...

  • Food Allergies: To Test or Not to Test

    About 5 percent of American children and 4 percent of adults have a food allergy, but many more are getting unnecessary testing. More...

  • 45 More
    • Health Tip: Prevent Exposure to Lead

      Lead exposure has been linked to problems including reduced IQ, focus and academic performance. So every effort should be made to prevent lead exposure in the home, particularly among children. More...

    • Hey Kids, Just Say No to Energy Drinks

      Highly caffeinated energy drinks aren't safe for children and teens, and should not be marketed to them, a leading sports medicine organization warns. More...

    • Head Injuries Hit 1 in 14 Kids, CDC Reports

      Given the news of the devastating effects of head injuries among professional football players, parents may wonder if their mini athletes are at risk, too. More...

    • 2018 Immunization Schedule Issued for U.S. Children

      The recommended childhood and adolescent immunization schedule for the United States has been issued for 2018 and published online Feb. 6 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Kids Can Roll Up Their Sleeves -- Again -- for Mumps Protection

      When it comes to mumps prevention, an extra jab may do the trick. More...

    • Fetal Alcohol Cases More Common Than Thought: Study

      More U.S. children may be living with brain damage from prenatal drinking than experts have thought, a new study suggests. More...

    • Easing Your Child's Asthma

      If your child is among the 10 percent of kids with asthma, you want to do everything you can to control it. More...

    • Health Tip: X-Ray Suggestions for Parents

      X-rays have led to countless improvements in diagnosing and treating broken bones and other conditions. But they're not without risks. More...

    • If You Suspect a Child Is Being Abused or Neglected, Report It

      You should alert authorities if you suspect a child is being hurt or is in danger, a child abuse expert says. More...

    • Persistent Respiratory Issues in Youth May Decline Lung Function

      For young adults, persistent respiratory symptoms are associated with accelerated decline in lung function, according to a study published online Jan. 25 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. More...

    • Few Prescription Meds Have Dosing Guidelines for Obese Kids

      Obesity can change how prescription drugs work, but many medications used to treat children don't say so on their labels, researchers report. More...

    • Health Tip: Encourage Your Child to be Active

      If children adopt active lifestyles at a young age, they are less likely to become obese as adults, research shows. More...

    • Positive Attitude Adds Up to Better Math Grades

      It's said that a positive attitude can help kids do better in math. Now, a new study shows how that connection adds up in the brain. More...

    • Review: Lower Cognitive Scores for HIV+, HIV-Exposed Children

      HIV-infected and HIV-exposed but uninfected children have lower cognitive and motor scores than HIV-unexposed and uninfected children, according to a review published online Jan. 26 in Pediatrics. More...

    • A Sleepy Child Is More Likely to Pile on Pounds

      Poor sleep may make your children more than just grumpy, a new study suggests. More...

    • Can't Pay the Rent? Kids' Health May Suffer

      Millions of American families struggle to find and keep stable housing -- and the fight to do so may end up harming kids' health. More...

    • Repeat BP Reading Needed in Children With Initial High Result

      Only approximately half of pediatric patients with a blood pressure reading ≥95th percentile would be correctly classified based on their initial blood pressure reading, according to a study published Jan. 12 in the Journal of Clinical Hypertension. More...

    • Don't Rely on Just One Blood Pressure Test for Kids: Study

      It's important to take a second blood pressure reading if your child's first reading points to high blood pressure, researchers say. More...

    • From Birth On, One Sex Is Hardier

      Women are known to outlive men. And that advantage may start early, according to researchers who've found baby girls more likely to survive famines, epidemics and other misfortunes. More...

    • Health Tip: Talk to Your Youngster About Adoption

      If you are a parent of a young adopted child, it may be time to talk about the child's birth story. More...

    • For Kids, Chronic Illness May Trigger Mental Health Issues

      When children learn they have a long-term illness, such as diabetes or epilepsy, they're likely to suffer emotionally, too, a small study finds. More...

    • Grandparents Help Shape Kids' Views on Aging

      Kids who have a good relationship with their grandparents are less likely to become prejudiced against old people, a new study has found. More...

    • As CHIP Money Runs Out, Millions of U.S. Kids May Lose Health Care

      Time is running out for millions of American kids covered by the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). More...

    • Psoriasis Is Independent Risk Factor for Comorbidity in Children

      Children with psoriasis have an increased risk of comorbidities compared to children without psoriasis, independent of obesity, according to a study published online Jan. 10 in JAMA Dermatology. More...

    • FDA Bans Use of Opioid-Containing Cough Meds by Kids

      Trying to put a dent in the ongoing opioid addiction crisis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday slapped strict new restrictions on the use of opioid-containing cold and cough products by kids. More...

    • School-Based Telemedicine Asthma Management Is Effective

      A School-Based Telemedicine Enhanced Asthma Management program can improve symptoms for children with persistent asthma, according to a study published online Jan. 8 in JAMA Pediatrics. More...

    • Acetaminophen in Pregnancy Tied to Language Delays -- in One Sex

      Toddlers whose mothers used acetaminophen -- best known as Tylenol -- early in pregnancy may have a heightened risk of language delays, a new study suggests. More...

    • Is Surgery Riskier for Black Children?

      Black children are more than twice as likely as white kids to die from surgery complications in the United States, a new study suggests. More...

    • Mental Disorders Common in Kids With Chronic Physical Conditions

      Children with a physical condition frequently have a mental disorder, which impacts quality of life, according to a study published in the January issue of BMJ Open. More...

    • Is Your Child Ready for a Smartphone?

      When is it appropriate to give kids a cellphone? More...

    • What to Do if Your Child Has Chickenpox

      Have a child with chickenpox? Don't despair. There are a number of things you can do to care for a child with this disease. More...

    • Child Death Rate Higher in U.S. Than Other Wealthy Nations

      The United States has had the smallest decline in child death rates among wealthy nations over the past 50 years, despite spending more on health care per child than the other countries, a new study finds. More...

    • The Opioid Crisis' Hidden Victims: Children in Foster Care

      As the opioid epidemic continues to grip the United States, the toll on the littlest victims -- the children of addicts -- is mounting, new research shows. More...

    • Apple Investors Press for Parental Controls on iPhones

      Some big Apple investors want the iPhone developer to make it easier for Mom and Dad to manage their children's phone time. More...

    • Spike Seen in Kids' Eye Injuries From BB, Paintball Guns

      While BB and paintball guns may seem like harmless child's play, new research shows eye injuries among kids using them have shot up nearly 170 percent since 1990. More...

    • Fewer of America's Poor Kids Are Becoming Obese

      Obesity rates among poor kids may be declining, U.S. health officials report. More...

    • Respiratory Virus Lurks as Wintertime Worry

      A common respiratory virus that circulates in winter can pose a serious threat to children, an expert warns. More...

    • Exercise Boosts Kids' Brain Health, Too

      A lack of exercise puts kids at risk for very adult problems, like obesity and diabetes. More...

    • Health Tip: Talking to Your Children About Divorce

      When parents divorce, it's important to continue open, honest communication with the children. More...

    • Sleep May Mediate Fish-Cognition Relationship in Children

      Greater fish consumption is associated with fewer sleep problems and higher IQ scores in children, with sleep quality partially mediating the relationship between fish consumption and verbal IQ, according to a study published online Dec. 21 in Scientific Reports. More...

    • Health Tip: Schooling While Managing Cancer

      Homework may not be the number one priority when your child is being treated for cancer. More...

    • Getting to the Root of Sibling Rivalry

      Fights among your children can start for a variety of reasons, and sibling rivalry can take root even before your second child is born More...

    • Health Tip: Play Safer With Laser Toys

      Boys and girls of all ages have a fascination with laser toys. But it's important to use these devices safely to avoid injury. More...

    • Heavy Particles in Smog Up Kids' Asthma Risk

      Children who inhale coarse particles -- like dust, sand or even rubber emissions from tires -- increase their chances of developing serious asthma, new research indicates. More...

    • Reining in Kids' Expectations for Holiday Gifts

      There's little doubt that gift giving has become a central focus of the holiday season, but as a parent you can still rein in kids' expectations when it comes to presents. More...

Share This

Resources