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

  • In America's Poorest Communities, a Greater Risk of Child Abuse Deaths

    Study authors hope new national data will spur further research and targeted prevention efforts. More...

  • What's the Best Seasonal Allergy Med for Your Kid?

    Wealth of options may leave moms and dads wondering which kind and how much to give, survey finds. More...

  • Kids Can Pick Up Nicotine on Their Hands

    'Thirdhand' exposure from residue in their homes could prove health threat, study says. More...

  • Red Cell Distribution Width Predicts Surgical Complications

    In children undergoing adenotonsillectomy for sleep-disordered breathing, preoperative elevated red cell distribution width is associated with an increased risk of respiratory adverse events, according to research published online March 27 in Pediatric Anesthesia. More...

  • Common Post-Op Ear Drops Tied to Eardrum Perforations in Kids

    Rate of the injury rises with quinolones, but researchers say alternatives have their own hazards. More...

  • 45 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...

    • 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...

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

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

    • 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...

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

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

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

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

    • 8 Ways to Help Kids Dodge Germs

      Boosting your child's immune system lets them stay in cold- and flu-fighting shape. More...

    • For Kids, Regular Exercise Seems to Put Depression on the Run

      Finding could be significant because it suggests physical activity can be used to boost mental health. More...

    • Transverse Myelitis ID'd As Manifestation of Celiac Dx in Child

      Transverse myelitis can be a manifestation of celiac disease in young children, according to a case report published online Feb. 2 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Psoriasis Impacts QoL for Parents of Affected Children

      Childhood psoriasis impacts parents' quality of life in multiple domains, especially their emotional well-being, according to a study published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. More...

    • Increased Risk of Obesity for Children With Asthma

      The risk of developing obesity during childhood and adolescence is increased for children with asthma, according to a study published online Jan. 20 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. More...

    • Kids Born to Opioid-Addicted Moms Seem to Fare Poorly in School

      By 7th grade, 4 out of 10 failed to meet standards in at least one academic area, study finds. More...

    • For Kids With Kidney Disease, Race May Play Role in Outcomes

      Risk of death from kidney failure is 36 percent higher in black children than in whites, study finds. More...

    • Disabled Children Face Bullying Throughout School Years

      More must be done to teach them how to respond to aggression, researcher says. More...

    • Kids Landing in ERs After Drinking Parents' E-Cig Nicotine Liquid

      In one case, a 6-year-old wound up in intensive care. More...

    • Rest May Not Be Best for Kids After Concussion

      Study suggests light activity may help speed recovery. More...

    • The Impact of Child Abuse Can Last a Lifetime

      Victims often struggle emotionally, financially as adults, study finds. More...

    • Child Abuse Cases in Army Families May Be Under-Reported

      Some kids 'are falling through the cracks of a broken system,' researcher says. More...

    • NIAAA Two-Question Alcohol Screen Valid in Pediatric ERs

      The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism two-question alcohol screen is valid for use within pediatric emergency departments, according to a study published online Nov. 29 in Pediatrics. More...

    • More U.S. Kids Getting Drug-Resistant Infections

      Finding highlights growing problem of antibiotic resistance. More...

    • Doctors Use iPads to Treat 'Lazy Eye,' With Mixed Results

      New studies show no clear, long-term advantages to so-called binocular gaming over traditional eye patching. More...

    • Clean Home May Help Keep Kids' Asthma in Check

      Controlling allergens, household pollutants can reduce need for medication, pediatricians' group says. More...

    • Childhood PTSD May Leave Imprint on Brain

      MRI detects variations in neural connections of earthquake survivors, Chinese researchers say. More...

    • Many Adults Unaware That Using E-Cigarettes Can Hurt Kids

      Indoor use promotes harmful nicotine exposure, researchers say. More...

    • Prevalence of Allergic Sensitization Increases With Age

      The prevalence of allergic sensitization increases with age, according to a study published online Sept. 23 in Allergy. More...

    • Health Tip: Health Risks of Childhood Obesity

      Here's what it may cause More...

    • Suicide Can Strike Children as Young as 5: Study

      Overall numbers are low, but researchers say prevention efforts are needed. More...

    • Parents' Use of Outdated Advice May Slow Concussion Recovery

      Once-recommended practices such as waking sleeping youngster for periodic checks can slow healing, expert says. More...

    • Food Allergies Linked to Raised Risk of Asthma, Hay Fever

      Odds rise even higher when kids have more than one food allergy, researchers say. More...

    • Gel Antibiotic: An Easier Ear Infection Treatment Someday?

      One-time application was highly effective in animal trials, but more study needed, researchers say. More...

    • Heart Docs: Never Expose Kids to Cigarette Smoke

      Secondhand smoke can raise children's risk of heart disease, premature death. More...

    • New 'Superlice' Resist Most Over-the-Counter Remedies

      But prescription medications can still send the parasites packing. More...

    • Doctors' Decision-Making Tool Could Cut Unnecessary Antibiotic Use

      A drop of about 10 percent is possible, study authors suggest. More...

    • Chickenpox Cases Down 85 Percent Since 2-Dose Vaccine Started: CDC

      Kids 5 to 14 had the biggest drop in illness. More...

    • Parents' Psychiatric Issues May Adversely Affect Some Children

      History of antisocial disorder, suicide attempt or marijuana abuse showed the most effect, study authors say. More...

    • Combo Drug for Childhood Asthma Appears Safe in Study

      FDA to review findings, researcher says. More...

    • Best Practices Developed for Managing Peds Celiac Disease

      Best practices have been developed for managing children with celiac disease, according to a special article published online Aug. 26 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Early Virus Raises Asthma Risk in Certain Kids: Study

      Infants with a particular gene variant appear more vulnerable after infection. More...