Skip 
Navigation Link

Child & Adolescent Development: Overview

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: Help Your Child with Body Image

    Avoid negative language More...

  • Lead Exposure as Child, Lower IQ as Adult?

    Leaded gasoline in New Zealand may have stunted intellectual development, study suggests. More...

  • Just 17 U.S. States Require Defibrillators in Some Schools

    Easy-to-use portable devices can prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest, researchers say. More...

  • Many Kids With Diabetes Missing Out on Eye Exams, Study Finds

    Those with type 2 disease should see eye doc right away, while type 1 patients can wait 5 years. More...

  • Older Mothers May Raise Better-Behaved Kids, Study Suggests

    Tendency of moms to mellow with age may play role in children having fewer social, emotional problems. More...

  • 45 More
    • Health Tip: Check Your Child's Temperature

      Suggestions based on the child's age More...

    • Fruit Juice for Kids: A Serving a Day OK

      Review of studies finds 1 glass of 100-percent juice a day not linked with weight gain. More...

    • 'Eraser Challenge' Latest Harmful Social Media Trend for Kids

      Burns, abrasions the result as youngsters 'erase' their skin away. More...

    • 'Heads Up' Football Program Tackles Concussion Danger in Kids

      Players learn safer moves, reducing head injury rate and recovery time, study suggests. More...

    • Parents Don't Always Head to Child's Doctor When Illness Strikes

      Many turn to urgent care centers or ERs, believing they couldn't get a same-day appointment with usual physician. More...

    • Spring-Clean Your Medicine Cabinet to Safeguard Your Kids

      Tips for proper storage and disposal to help prevent accidental poisonings. More...

    • Fewer U.S. Kids Overdosing on Opioids

      But suicides involving these drugs are up more than 50 percent, study finds. More...

    • Why Some Kids Take Longer to Recover From Brain Injury

      Scans reveal white-matter decline after some accidents, researchers say. More...

    • Nearby Day Cares Don't Pose Health Risks to Kids: Study

      Strict immunization requirements kept local whooping cough rates low, researchers say. More...

    • Obese Moms May Fail to Spot Obesity in Their Own Kids

      Finding may reflect shifting attitudes about how much weight is too much, researcher suggests. More...

    • Too Much Screen Time May Raise Kids' Diabetes Risk

      Study finds 3-plus hours each day linked to increased body fat and insulin resistance. More...

    • Health Tip: Help Kids Maintain Healthy Cholesterol

      Foods to eat, and those to avoid More...

    • Mite-Proof Bedding May Help Curb Asthma Attacks: Study

      Kids whose mattresses and pillows were encased had less severe flare-ups, researchers report. More...

    • Watchful Waiting Cost-Effective for Pediatric Acute Otitis Media

      Implementation of the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines of watchful waiting for acute otitis media is cost-effective, according to research published online March 3 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Health Tip: Make Sure Kids' Shoes Fit Well

      Helpful shopping suggestions More...

    • City Tax on Cars Cut Pollution, Kids' Asthma Risk

      Traffic measure in Sweden reduced rates of wheezing disease by 50 percent, researchers report. More...

    • Kidney Transplant Survival Up Among Babies, Kids

      Patients under age 10 now have the best long-term chances of not rejecting organ, study finds. More...

    • Secondhand Smoke Linked to Food Allergies in Kids

      Passive exposure tied to more egg and peanut sensitivity in study. More...

    • Obesity May Raise Girls' Risk of Asthma, Allergies

      But same was not true for boys, study found. More...

    • Disabled Kids at Higher Risk of Abuse, Study Finds

      Certain conditions linked to greater odds for neglect, bullying. More...

    • Nasal 'Nerve Block' May Help Ease Kids' Migraines

      But one headache expert says procedure not without risks, pain relief not significantly better than meds. More...

    • Can Mom's Vitamin E Head Off Child's Asthma Risk?

      Association only significant with type of nutrient found in highest amounts of safflower, sunflower oils. More...

    • Asthma Much More Lethal for Black Children, Study Finds

      This group has 6 times the odds of dying from the illness compared to whites, Hispanics. More...

    • Insecticides Linked to Behavioral Issues in Children

      Children exposed to a widely-used group of insecticides (pyrethroids) may be at increased risk for behavioral problems, according to a study published online March 1 in Occupational & Environmental Medicine. More...

    • Could Common Insecticides Be Tied to Behavior Issues in Kids?

      Study can't prove cause-and-effect, but children exposed in utero to pyrethroids had more problems. More...

    • Complication Rates Often Higher in Youth With T2DM Versus T1DM

      Young people with type 2 diabetes are much more likely to show signs of complications from the disease than those who have type 1 diabetes, according to a study published in the Feb. 28 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. More...

    • Childhood Cancer Survivors Living Longer

      Decline parallels reduced use of radiation, at lower doses, researchers say. More...

    • Youth With Type 2 Diabetes Often Face Complications

      This growing group has double the problems as peers with type 1 disease, study finds. More...

    • Kids Mean Less Shuteye for Mom, While Dad Slumbers On

      Study finds big differences in how youngsters affect parents' sleep. More...

    • 'Superbug' Infections Striking More U.S. Kids

      Antibiotic-resistant germs no longer confined to hospitals, study warns. More...

    • Headaches Often Strike Before Strokes in Kids: Study

      But, brain attacks are still very rare in children. More...

    • ACL Tears on the Rise Among Kids, Especially Girls

      Sports that involve cutting or pivoting are the riskiest, doctors say. More...

    • Learning Issues Common in Kids With Heart Defects: Study

      Many fall behind before fourth grade, tests show. More...

    • AAP Policy Statement Focuses on Child Witness Well-Being

      In two policy statements published online Feb. 20 in Pediatrics, guidance is provided for safeguarding the well-being of child witnesses, and recommendations are given for pediatricians relating to expert testimony. More...

    • Kids Born to Older Moms Score Higher on Thinking Tests

      Children with younger moms once had the advantage, but that trend has reversed, study finds. More...

    • There's Fun and Fitness in the Pool for Asthmatic Kids

      High humidity in indoor pools can also help keep airways open and prevent attacks, doctor says. More...

    • Most Parents Don't Think They're Meeting Kids' Nutritional Needs

      In national survey, only 1 of 3 respondents felt they're teaching healthy eating habits. More...

    • Kids' OD Risk Rises When Opioids Left Out at Home

      Odds of overdose more than double if parent takes powerful narcotic instead of milder pain med, study finds. More...

    • Antibiotics Could Be Alternative to Surgery for Appendicitis

      Avoiding surgery and treating appendicitis with antibiotics alone may be a safe approach for many children, according to a review published online Feb. 17 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Is Surgery Always Needed for Kids' Appendicitis?

      Review found many with inflamed appendix were fine with antibiotics alone, but more research needed. More...

    • Health Tip: Give Your Kids Bone-Building Food

      Suggestions for stronger bodies More...

    • Low-Income Kids More Likely to Have ADHD, Asthma

      Autism more often diagnosed among children in higher-income families, study finds. More...

    • Tougher Alcohol Laws Mean Fewer Young People Killed on the Road

      9 percent drop in deaths where policies to discourage drinking and driving among all motorists were most stringent. More...

    • Health Tip: Protect Kids in Cold Weather

      Tips to preserve winter fun More...

    • Needed: An 'Action Plan' for Kids Prone to Severe Allergic Reactions

      First line of defense is an epinephrine auto-injector, pediatricians say. More...

Share This

Resources