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

  • Prenatal Sugar Intake May Increase Asthma Risk in Offspring

    Increased maternal prenatal and early childhood intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and fructose is associated with increased odds of developing childhood asthma, according to a study published online Dec. 8 in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society. More...

  • Smartphone Pics Help Docs ID Kids' Skin Condition

    Parents can get a reliable diagnosis for their child's skin condition simply by taking a smartphone photo and sending it to a dermatologist More...

  • Time Management for Busy Families

    You want your kids to enjoy many experiences, but between afterschool programs, music lessons and team sports, your schedule can go haywire. More...

  • Health Tip: Is Stress Interfering With Your Child's Sleep?

    Even young children have stress. If it's bad enough, it may interfere with your youngster's sleep. More...

  • Accurate Diagnosis Seen With Photographs of Skin Conditions

    Smartphone photographs of pediatric skin conditions taken by parents are of sufficient quality to allow accurate diagnosis, according to a study published online Nov. 15 in JAMA Dermatology. More...

  • 45 More
    • If Dad Has Depression, Kids Might Develop It, Too

      Having a father with depression may put teens at a heightened risk for the mental health problem More...

    • Childhood Spanking Could Heighten Adult Mental Health Woes

      The study found that those who were spanked were more likely to have abused drugs or attempted suicide. More...

    • Cooling Down Sibling Rivalries When They Heat Up

      TUESDAY, Nov. 7, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Sibling rivalry -- the jealousy and competition between your children -- can start even before baby number two is born, according to experts at the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital of Michigan Medicine. More...

    • Kids' Food Allergies, Especially to Peanuts, Are on the Rise

      FRIDAY, Oct. 27, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- The number of U.S. children allergic to peanuts has increased by 21 percent since 2010, with nearly 2.5 percent of youngsters now having this type of allergy, a new study has found. More...

    • ASA: Botox Injections Beneficial for Migraine in Children

      OnabotulinumtoxinA injections are beneficial for pediatric patients with chronic migraine, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, being held Oct. 21 to 25 in Boston. More...

    • Medical Marijuana Won't Help Most Sick Kids

      Helped with chemo-linked nausea, epilepsy, but no evidence for other conditions. More...

    • Scoliosis Screenings Can Help Catch Spine Problem Early

      Treatments vary, depending on severity of the condition. More...

    • Arthritis Can Strike Children

      In these young patients, joint inflammation caused by overactive immune system More...

    • Happier Mealtimes, Healthier Eating for Kids

      A positive atmosphere prompts preschoolers to eat more fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. More...

    • Health Tip: Learn Symptoms of Childhood Sinusitis

      Know the warning signs More...

    • More U.S. Measles Cases From No Vaccine vs. Imported Disease

      While measles incidence is extremely low in the United States, most cases that do occur happen in unvaccinated patients, according to a research letter published online Oct. 3 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. More...

    • Measles Making a Comeback in the United States

      Though the rate remains low, study shows it doubled between 2001 and 2015. More...

    • Girls' Sports-Related Concussions May Last Twice As Long

      Underlying conditions could prolong recovery, researcher says. More...

    • 'Off-Roading' Threat May Lurk in the Air

      Riders should think about toxic exposures, not just injuries: study. More...

    • Health Tip: Identifying Chicken Pox

      Virus may spread to unvaccinated babies, toddlers and adults More...

    • Could Pests, Dust Lower Kids' Odds for Asthma?

      Inner-city study found early exposure to cockroaches and mice droppings seemed protective. More...

    • Booze Often Glorified On YouTube Videos

      Kids typically see images that boost the drinking culture, study finds. More...

    • Inflammatory Bowel Disease May Raise Cancer Risk in Kids

      Researchers think chronic inflammation in gastrointestinal tract may be driving force. More...

    • Kids' Colds Linked to Asthma, Lung Problems Later

      But research is too early to confirm a cause-and-effect link. More...

    • Doctors Eye the Danger From 'Nerf' Guns

      'Bullets' bought online may be contributing to ocular injuries. More...

    • Parents Say Schools Don't Help Kids With Mental Health, Chronic Disease

      Only 38 percent believed schools could assist a student suspected of having a mental health problem. More...

    • It's a Food Allergy! Where's the School Nurse?

      Of 482 cases of epinephrine use, about 16 percent were by unlicensed school staff or students, the researchers said. More...

    • AAP: Opioid Dependence/Abuse Public Health Issue for Children

      Opioid dependence/abuse is a critical public health issue among children in the United States, according to a study scheduled to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held from Sept. 16 to 19 in Chicago. More...

    • 'Microbiomes' May Hold Key to Kids' Ear Infections

      Germ communities in the middle ear differ greatly between affected, unaffected people, study shows. More...

    • Heath Tip: Getting Rid of Head Lice

      Here's what you can do More...

    • Guinea Pigs Harbor a Hidden Health Hazard

      Three Europeans were hospitalized due to infections from these pets. More...

    • For City Kids With Asthma, Nearby Green Space Is Key

      The farther kids lived from a park, the more symptoms they had over 2 weeks, study found. More...

    • Early Respiratory Infections Tied to Celiac in High-Risk Children

      A higher frequency of respiratory infections during the first two years of life is associated with an increased risk of celiac disease in genetically predisposed infants, according to a study published online Sept. 6 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Smoking Bans Help Kids Breathe Easier

      Analysis found anti-smoking policies were linked to drops in childhood chest infections, asthma attacks. More...

    • Throat Bacteria Linked to Bone and Joint Infection in Kids

      Study found one particular germ in 70 percent of children with additional infections. More...

    • Back to School, Back to Planning for Kids With Autism, ADHD

      Thinking ahead and keeping a calendar with important dates can help make transition smoother. More...

    • FDA Approves 1st Treatment for 'Kissing Bug' Illness in Children

      Benznidazole becomes the nation's only drug for Chagas disease. More...

    • Health Tip: Back to School for Kids with Asthma

      Develop an action plan More...

    • Decline in Kids' Ear Infections Linked to Pneumococcal Vaccine

      The shots are effective in killing the main bacterial cause, but other germs are growing, researchers find. More...

    • Know the Signs of Concussion

      This serious health threat affects kids as well as adults. More...

    • Does Your Child Really Have a Food Allergy?

      Food sensitivity and intolerance may be mistaken for allergic reaction, even by doctors. More...

    • Health Tip: Check the Water Before Swimming

      How to avoid getting sick More...

    • Link for Maternal Antidepressant, Kids' Brain Health Questioned

      There is an increased risk of intellectual disability in children whose mothers take antidepressants while pregnant, but the association appears to be related to factors other than the medication use itself, according to a study published online July 12 in JAMA Psychiatry. More...

    • Too Few Children Get EpiPen When Needed: Study

      First-line treatment for severe allergic reaction is often neglected. More...

    • Smoking On the Rise in Movies Aimed at Young: Study

      Rise prompts call for R rating on movies that show or imply tobacco use. More...

    • Researchers Target Zolmitriptan Dosing for Pediatric Migraine

      In a report published online June 5 in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, recommended dosing regimens of zolmitriptan are suggested for children with migraine. More...

    • Migraine Warning Signs May Differ in Kids, Adults

      Treating before a headache starts might lead to more effective pain relief, specialist says. More...

    • Health Tip: Keep Germs Out of Pool Water

      Suggestions to help you swim safer More...

    • Overweight in Childhood May Up Lifetime Risk of Depression

      Overweight or obesity in youth may have long-lasting repercussions for psychological health, according to a study presented at the European Congress on Obesity, held from May 17 to 20 in Porto, Portugal. More...

    • Heavy Kids Face Triple the Odds for Depression in Adulthood

      Risk was 4 times greater if they were also overweight as adults, study finds. More...