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

  • Parents Must Ask: 'Is There an Unlocked Gun in Your House?'

    Before your child goes to a friend's home to play, find out if there are guns in that home, a leading U.S. medical group advises. More...

  • How 'Helicopter' Parenting Impedes a Child's Development

    Overcontrolling moms and dads -- so-called "helicopter" parents -- can stunt their children's emotional development, new research warns. More...

  • AHA: Kids Can Drown Quickly and Silently, So Prevention Is Key

    Drowning is the third-leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7 percent of all injury-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The agency estimates there are 360,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide. More...

  • Walkable Neighborhoods Might Lower Kids' Asthma Risk

    Children may be more likely to develop asthma if they live in neighborhoods where it's difficult to get around on foot, a new study suggests. More...

  • Pediatricians Back Flu Shot, Not Nasal Spray Vaccine

    Parents should choose to have their children get the flu shot in the fall instead of the nasal spray flu vaccine, pediatricians say. More...

  • 45 More
    • Kids With Asthma Need a Flu Shot: Study

      An annual flu shot is key for children with asthma, a new study shows. More...

    • Tragedy of Child Sexual Abuse Takes Financial Toll, Too

      Child sexual abuse in the United States exacts an enormous economic toll, researchers report. More...

    • When Kids Expect a Needle to Hurt, It Does

      When it comes to kids and medical procedures like needles, expectation is everything. More...

    • Here Comes the Sun, and Kid Sun Safety

      Summer sun brings childhood fun, but experts warn it also brings skin cancer dangers, even for kids. More...

    • Closed Cars Can Become Deathly Hot in Minutes

      It only takes 60 minutes for a car parked in the sun to become a death trap for a 2-year-old child, a new study finds. More...

    • Preventing Child Maltreatment Not Yet Feasible in Primary Care

      The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) concludes that the evidence is inadequate for primary care interventions to prevent maltreatment. These findings form the basis of a draft recommendation statement published online May 22 by the USPSTF. More...

    • Increase in Pediatric ADHD Meds Exposures from 2000 to 2011

      From 2000 through 2011 there was an increase in pediatric attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder medication exposures reported to U.S. poison control centers, according to a study published online May 21 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Race May Play Role in Kids' Suicide Risk

      It's generally assumed that suicide is more common among white kids in the United States than their black peers. But that's not the case among 5- to 12-year-olds, new research shows. More...

    • Overdoses on ADHD Drugs May Be Rising

      The number of U.S. kids accidentally or intentionally overdosing on ADHD medications may be on the rise, a new study suggests. More...

    • Many Parents Say Restaurant Fare Has Made Kids Sick: Poll

      American moms and dads work hard to prevent food poisoning at home, but 10 percent say their kids have gotten sick after eating bad food elsewhere. More...

    • Health Tip: Plan Your Child's Chores

      Daily chores give a child a sense of responsibility and help the child understand that life is a mix of work and play, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. More...

    • Health Tip: Understanding Childhood Arthritis

      About 1 in 1,000 children has some type of chronic arthritis, the American College of Rheumatology says. More...

    • Big Rise Seen in U.S. Kids, Teens Attempting Suicide

      In a troubling sign that anxiety and depression are taking hold of America's youth, new research shows a doubling since 2008 in the number of kids and teens who've been hospitalized for attempted suicide or suicidal thoughts. More...

    • Prescription Med Use in Children Down Overall From 1999 to 2014

      From 1999 to 2014 there was a decrease in prescription medication use overall among children and adolescents, according to a study published in the May 15 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. More...

    • Fewer Antibiotics for Kids, But More ADHD Drugs

      American kids are taking fewer prescription medications these days -- but certain drugs are being prescribed more than ever, a new government study finds. More...

    • Dirty Air in Pregnancy May Raise Kid's Blood Pressure Risk

      Breathing polluted air is never wise for anyone, but pregnant women may pay an especially unwanted price. More...

    • More U.S. Parents Smoking Pot Around Kids

      Progress made in limiting kids' exposure to secondhand smoke could be undermined by the increasing popularity of pot, a new study suggests. More...

    • Shield Your Kids From the Sun's Damaging Rays

      Sun damage puts children and teens at risk for deadly melanoma, so parents need to protect their youngsters from the sun and teach them about sun safety, oncologists say. More...

    • Health Tip: If Your Child Becomes Too Aggressive

      All children become aggressive now and then. But is your youngster prone to long or frequent outbursts? If so, it may be time to see a pediatrician, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. More...

    • Age of First Football Tackles Tied to Neuro Symptom Onset

      Younger age of exposure to tackle football predicts earlier neurobehavioral symptom onset among players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, according to a study published online April 30 in the Annals of Neurology. More...

    • Health Tip: Keep Your Kids Safer on the Internet

      For most people, the internet is a key source of information and a meeting place for social networking and chatting. But with all of that interaction comes risks of child predators. More...

    • Health Tip: Keep Communicating With Your Child

      Maintaining open communication between you and your child increases the likelihood that the child will come to you in times of need. More...

    • Kids' Exposure to Domestic Violence Takes Economic Toll

      The long-term effects of children's exposure to domestic violence costs the U.S. economy about $55 billion a year, a new study reports. More...

    • If Kids Exposed to Pot, Tobacco Smoke, ER Visits Rise

      Clouds of pot and cigarette smoke in a home make it more likely a young child will visit the emergency room or have an ear infection, researchers say. More...

    • Injured Kids Can Have Lasting Mental Scars, Too

      If your child lands in the hospital with an accidental injury, new research suggests you should watch for signs they may be struggling with what happened to them. More...

    • Strict Gun Laws Spare Young Lives: Study

      Fewer young Americans are killed by guns in states with stricter gun laws, a new study finds. More...

    • Low Neighborhood Walkability Increases Risk of Asthma in Kids

      Children living in neighborhoods with low walkability are at increased risk of asthma, according to a study published online April 17 in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society. More...

    • Sleep-Deprived Kids at Risk of Obesity

      Too little sleep can increase a child's risk of obesity, British researchers report. More...

    • Most U.S. Adults Support More Mental Health Services for Kids

      A vast majority of U.S. adults believe children should receive more mental health support, new research reveals. More...

    • Maternal, Child Sugar Intake Could Impact Child Cognition

      Greater sugar consumption during pregnancy and early childhood may adversely impact child cognition, according to a study published online April 16 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. More...

    • Health Tip: Protect Your Eyes During Sports

      Eye injuries are a leading cause of childhood blindness in the United States, the U.S. National Eye Institute says. More...

    • Gardening Isn't Just for Adults

      Still having a hard time getting your kids to eat fruits and veggies? Studies show one solution is to grow your own. More...

    • Soda During Pregnancy May Not Help Baby's Brain

      Pregnant women may want to skip all soft drinks while they're expecting if they want their child's learning and memory skills to be sharper, new research suggests. More...

    • Disagreement Seen Over Barriers to Kids' Daily Use of Asthma Meds

      Children, caregivers, and physicians report different barriers to daily use of asthma medications, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Asthma. More...

    • Don't Panic Over 'Dry Drowning' Reports, ER Docs Say

      Despite media hype this week around what's being called "dry drowning," a group representing U.S. emergency physicians says the water is still safe for kids this summer. More...

    • For Soccer Players, Heading May Pose Bigger Risk Than Collisions

      Heading the ball -- not player collisions -- may lead to temporary thinking declines in soccer players, a new study finds. More...

    • AHA: New Rules on Saving Kids Stricken With Cardiac Arrest

      Saving a child with heart disease whose heart has stopped requires a different approach than reviving a child with a healthy heart, according to a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association. More...

    • Contextual Factors Linked to Overeating, Loss of Control

      Eating-related factors appear to be most strongly associated with the severity of loss of control among young people with overweight or obesity, according to a study published online March 10 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. More...

    • Transgender Kids Face High Risk of Mental Health Woes

      Children and teens who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health woes, new research suggests. More...

    • Preschool, Day Care Not Asthma Triggers: Study

      Breathe easy, Mom and Dad. Sending your young children to preschool or day care probably won't increase their risk of developing asthma. More...

    • AHA: Rx for Sedentary Kids -- Friends and the Great Outdoors

      Hanging out with friends can make kids less sedentary, but having inviting outdoor spaces and nearby parks can help them be more physically active, according to new research. More...

    • Fewer U.S. Kids Are Getting Cavities

      Fewer U.S. kids are plagued by tooth cavities compared to just a few years ago, but income disparities persist, according to a new U.S. government study. More...

    • What Your Kids Want to Tell You About Social Media

      Memo to Mom and Dad: Rein in your screen time. More...

    • Kids in Tough Neighborhoods Head to ER More Often

      Growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood may mean more visits to the emergency room, a new study suggests. More...

    • Losing Excess Weight in Childhood Cuts Diabetes Risk

      If an overweight child slims down before puberty, the risk of type 2 diabetes seems to slide away with the lost pounds. More...

Share This

Resources