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Developmental Psychology: Why We Become Who We Are

The way we learn things about the world, how we relate to others, our moral reasoning, and the journey we embark on to grow and establish our personalities are just a few things encompassed by developmental psychology. Several theories surround developmental psychology, all focusing on different stages of life and how people form their ideations […]

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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The way we learn things about the world, how we relate to others, our moral reasoning, and the journey we embark on to grow and establish our personalities are just a few things encompassed by developmental psychology.

Several theories surround developmental psychology, all focusing on different stages of life and how people form their ideations and behaviors. We’ll share five crucial — and commonly adopted — theories and models so you can learn more about how and why people, including yourself, become who they are.

What Is Developmental Psychology? 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), developmental psychology studies human development and changes across the lifespan, including physical, cognitive, social, intellectual, perceptual, personality, and emotional growth.

By understanding how we develop, we can understand our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

- Melissa Galica, LPC

The study of developmental psychology focuses on how human beings grow, develop, and adapt at different life stages. The beauty of it is that it can help us understand ourselves. “By understanding how we develop, we can understand our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, often leading us to respond more compassionately to ourselves and others,” says Melissa Galica, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with Grow Therapy.  

5 Key Developmental Psychology Theories

Many notable theorists have contributed to the evolution of developmental psychology. Their theories and models inform how psychologists and therapists in this field work today. 

Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development

You may have heard of Freud’s controversial work, most notably the Oedipus complex, a term used to describe the erotic feelings of a son towards his mother that arise during the phallic stage of Freud’s psychosexual development theory

Freud’s theory was that children go through five stages of development to form their personalities: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Each stage represents a part of the libido or the instincts that emerge from different areas of the body (i.e., erogenous zones). 

He believed that to mature into a well-functioning adult, a person must progress one by one through each psychosexual stage. When these instincts are repressed or unable to be acted upon, a child is left unsatisfied.

Here’s an outline of Freud’s psychosexual development model:

Stage 1 (0-1 year old) Oral, Mouth: A newborn baby’s primary source of pleasure comes from oral desire. The earliest attachment an infant forms is with its mother because she satisfies his oral needs, so they begin to trust her. If the infant’s needs aren’t met, it can result in underlying aggressive or passive tendencies in the future.

Stage 2 (1-3 years old) Anal, Bowel, and Bladder: During this stage, there’s a heavy focus on toilet training from the caretaker, shifting the libidinal (relating to a person’s sexual desire) energy from the oral to the anal area. This period can be challenging for the child as they may be admonished and feel inadequate because of the caretaker’s expectations of them performing well. Later in life, this can manifest as obsessive orderliness or, conversely, utter disorganization.

Stage 3 (3-6 years old) Phallic, Genitalia: Possibly the most controversial stage of Freud’s theory because of its emphasis on a child’s sexual desire, this period focuses on the pleasure a child starts to experience with their genitalia. Here, a child can become fixated on the parent of a different sex — the Oedipus complex.

Stage 4 (6-12 years old) Latency, Dormant Sexual Feelings: Freud didn’t specify an erogenous zone for this stage, so the libido is repressed. During this stage, the child focuses on school, sports, and building relationships. Any dysfunction in this phase is said to result in the child being unable to form healthy relationships as an adult.

Stage 5 (13-18 years old) Genital, Mature Sexual Feelings: A child’s ego fully develops in this phase and wants to be independent. They can create meaningful relationships, and their sexual desires and activities are healthy. Should a child or young adult encounter dysfunction at this stage, their ability to forge healthy relationships is impacted. 

Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development 

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development points to how a child acquires knowledge and creates the world in their mind. Piaget proposed that when young infants experience an event, they process new information by balancing assimilation and accommodation. 

Assimilation is when you take new information and fit it into mental schemas that you’ve already understood. Accommodation is when you adapt and revise an already-understood mental schema with new information. 

There are four stages to Piaget’s theory:

Sensorimotor (0-2 years old): During the first years, an infant will learn how to understand and master relationships of cause and effect. For example, if they shake a rattle, they’ll learn that it makes a sound, or if they cry, they’ll learn that it’ll get a parent’s attention. 

Pre-Operational (2-7 years old): Children learn how to imitate and pretend to play. Egocentrism is a big part of this stage; children don’t understand that others think differently and believe everything, whether good or bad, is about themselves.

Concrete Operational (7-11 years old): In this phase, children start thinking logically about events while remaining concrete in their thought process. However, they become less egocentric and start to think about how others think and feel. 

Formal Operational (12 years and older): Adolescents can now understand theories and abstract ideas like love and justice. They can also plan for the future and reason about hypothetical situations. 

Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development 

What individuals experience as they grow and face new decisions, including turning points during childhood and adolescence, and life transitions in adulthood, are represented in Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. Each step is marked by various milestones in a person’s life and is characterized by two opposing psychological tendencies — one positive and one negative. This is where a person’s strengths (virtues) or weaknesses are developed. The eight stages are: 

Stage 1: Infancy Period: Trust vs. Mistrust

During this stage, infants rely on their caregivers to provide for basic needs. It is important at this stage to demonstrate you are available to the child when needed.

Stage 2: Early Childhood Period: Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt

During this stage, toddlers start to form independence. Encouraging and supporting the child in exploring and trying new things can help to ensure more autonomy develops.

Stage 3: Play Age Period: Initiative vs. Guilt

During this stage, young children learn to take initiative. Allowing children to learn from their mistakes and improve can lead to less inhibition in the future.

Stage 4: School-Age/Middle Childhood Period: Industry vs. Inferiority

During this stage, children learn new skills and see what they’re good at and bad at. 

Stage 5: Adolescence period: Identity vs. Identity Confusion

During this stage, adolescents start to form an identity and consider their role in the world. 

Stage 6: Early Adulthood Period: Intimacy vs. Isolation

During this stage, young adults start to form meaningful relationships that make them feel safe. 

Stage 7: Adulthood Period: Generativity vs. Stagnation/Self-Absorption

During this stage, adults raise their children and contribute to society. 

Stage 8: Old Age Period: Integrity vs. Despair

During this stage, older adults reflect on their lives and achievements. 

Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development 

Lev Vygotsky was interested in the space between what a learner can do without help and what a learner can do with adult guidance or while working with someone more knowledgeable. He called this the Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky suggested that if a child or student was in the zone of proximal development, as long as they had the appropriate help, they had enough encouragement to achieve the task in question. 

You can view a visual representation of this model here

John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory 

You’ve likely heard of attachment styles in relationships — you may even know your attachment style and be acquainted with how you behave in relationships. This work came from John Bowlby and his colleague, Mary Ainsworth. 

Bowlby maintained that the earliest bonds forged by children and their primary caregivers substantially impact the rest of a child’s life. A distant upbringing and professional work as a clinician in child guidance influenced Bowlby’s idea that mental problems and delinquency were linked to an inadequate relationship with the primary caregiver. 

His colleague, Ainsworth, further developed this idea and came up with three main attachment styles

Secure: A positive view of oneself, feelings of worthiness, and a belief that others are generally accepting and responsive characterize a secure attachment style.

Insecure Ambivalent (also be called Anxious Ambivalent or Anxious Avoidant): Someone with an insecure ambivalent attachment style is untrusting of others and tends to show dependent and rejecting behaviors simultaneously.

Insecure Avoidant: A person with an insecure avoidant attachment style tends to feel uncomfortable with others and avoid intimate relationships

A fourth attachment style emerged from Main and Solomon called disorganized/disoriented attachment, which is characterized by more random behavior: they can show distress upon separation but also display signs of detachment. 

Not only does attachment theory give us an insight into infant development, but they also help us observe how we behave in our relationships.

Why Is Developmental Psychology Important? 

Galica says, “Developmental psychology is vital because it helps us understand ourselves better. We usually talk about it in reference to children, especially ways to improve education and parental practices. We can also talk about developmental psychology through the lens of disorders like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Finally, we can talk about developmental psychology through the lens of aging. Our adult brains don’t reach maturation until we’re 25, but somehow we’re supposed to do all the “adulting” things. And our feelings change about ourselves and the world around us when we get into actual old age (60 and up).”

How Does it Help People?

JohnNeiska Williams, a Licensed Professional Counselor with Grow Therapy, says, “It can help someone reach their full potential and achievements. Not understanding the concept of how to adapt to certain things, situations, or people, could limit what they see or learn. But, that’s the beauty of adaptation; learning doesn’t have to stop, and behavior can change, and change is constant.”

Why Is Nature vs. Nurture Important?

“Nature is where we are prewired as soon as we are born. Nurture is where attachment and learning come in, including contributable influences from the environment, such as parents, culture, or emotional stability. They both play a huge role in the ability to mature and adapt across the lifespan because they can lead one to certain behaviors that limit them. The study of this can help someone understand themselves more,” Williams adds. 

What Is a Developmental Psychologist?

Developmental psychologists study how people grow, the developmental changes they experience, and how they adapt at different life stages. This includes intellectual development, emotional development, and psychosocial development, along with physical and personality growth. 

“Developmental psychologists work in a number of settings. For example, at the universities, teaching, researching, or at clinics, like government agencies, non-profits, and health care systems, assessing and treating developmental disorders,” advises Galica. 

Find a Developmental Psychologist Near You

From your attachment style to how you learn and what informs how you make your decisions, there’s a lot to glean from human development. The field of developmental psychology can help you understand yourself and those around you, especially your children. 

It’s also important to remember that “sometimes things happen textbook style, and sometimes, many times, they don’t,” says Galica. “Like most of life, developmental psychology isn’t prescriptive. It gives us a good idea that if someone struggles at a developmental stage, something might happen, but it’s not always the case.”

If you think you or a loved one, including a child, might be dealing with developmental problems, or you’re worried about your child’s mental health, it’s a good idea to get advice from a professional or a child psychology specialist

Maybe you’re struggling in relationships, and you’d like to work on healing your attachment issues. We have many qualified therapists who can help you with your needs. Use our search tool today to find a suitable therapist for your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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