The Development of Children and Youth

Since the beginning of psychology, childhood has been the focus of a great amount of attention. It is in the experiences of children that the seeds of adulthood are planted and nurtured.  If a good childhood, adulthood can be a meaningful and productive time.  However, if childhood is trauma-filled, adulthood can be a troubling time riddled with anxiety and depression.  As psychologists and researchers began to study this, they hypothesized that all children develop in a general way passing through stages as they mature.  If the needs and challenges of these stages are met, the child’s experience will be more meaningful leading to a more successful adulthood.  While contemporary psychology has questioned some of these theories, developmental theory can be helpful and provide a compass to parents and caretakers on the needs and challenges children and youth face as they mature into adulthood.  We examine some of these theories on this page.

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Overview of Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology seeks to understand the influence of genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) on human development.

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson’s eight-stage theory of human development is one of the best-known theories in psychology. While the theory builds on Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, Erikson chose to focus on how social relationships impact personality development. The theory also extends beyond childhood to look at development across the entire lifespan.

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Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of personality development that focused on the growth of moral thought. Building on a two-stage process proposed by Piaget, Kohlberg expanded the theory to include six different stages. While the theory has been criticized for a number of different reasons, including the possibility that it does not accommodate different genders and cultures equally, Kohlberg’s theory remains important in our understanding of how personality develops.

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Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Sigmund Freud gets a lot of negative press today, but without his insights and theories, psychology as a field may not exist. His work on psychopathologies led him to believe that the secret to mental health lie in childhood and unconscious desires.

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development remains one of the most frequently cited in psychology, despite being subject to considerable criticism. While many aspects of his theory have not stood the test of time, the central idea remains important today: children think differently than adults.

According to Piaget, children progress through a series of four stages that are marked by distinctive changes in how they think. How children think about themselves, others, and the world around them plays an important role in the formation of personality. 

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