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: Adolescen...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

  • CDC Warns of Polio-Like Virus Striking More U.S. Kids

    A rare but devastating polio-like virus appears to have made itself at home in the United States, partially paralyzing hundreds of children. More...

  • Countries That Ban Spanking See Less Teen Violence: Study

    In countries that have a complete ban on corporal punishment (spanking and slapping), the rates of physical fighting among teens are as much as 69 percent lower than in countries without such a ban, the study found. More...

  • Health Tip: Know the Risks of Chicken Pox

    Chicken pox used to be a rite of passage for young children. But with the development of the chicken pox vaccine, the vast majority of kids avoid this itchy and painful illness. More...

  • Kids' Concussion Symptoms May Persist for a Year

    A year after a concussion, up to one-third of kids still have symptoms such as headache and irritability that may affect school performance, a new study finds. More...

  • Health Tip: Teach Your Kids Tolerance

    As the world becomes more diverse, parents should teach their children how to be open and respect the differences between people, the Nemours Foundation says. More...

  • 45 More
    • Health Tip: Treat Your Child's Allergies

      If your child has seasonal allergies, you may be overwhelmed by the process of deciding on a treatment plan. More...

    • More Evidence Video Games May Trigger Aggression in Kids

      Can violent video games push some kids to act violently in real life? A new research review suggests the answer is "yes." More...

    • Death Rates for Young Americans Drop, But Still Too High

      While death rates among infants, teens and young adults in the United States have dropped in recent decades, they're still higher than in other developed countries, a new study finds. More...

    • Just Witnessing School Violence Can Leave Psychic Scars

      For middle school students, witnessing school violence can be as bad as being bullied, new research suggests. More...

    • Fast Foods' Healthier Options Might Not Help Kids Eat Better

      Promises of healthier kids' meals have drawn increasing numbers of families back to fast food restaurants, but most kids are still being served unhealthy options, a new survey finds. More...

    • Brief Exercise Breaks During Class Help Bodies, Brains

      Two-minute exercise breaks in the classroom may help school children meet physical activity goals without disrupting learning, new research suggests. More...

    • Can Too Much Screen Time Dumb Down Your Kid?

      If you're worried that too much "screen time" could be sapping your child's intelligence, new research suggests you might be right. More...

    • Booster Shots Safe for Most Kids Who Have Vaccine Reaction: Study

      Most children who have mild to moderate reactions to a vaccine can safely receive booster shots, new research suggests. More...

    • 5 Tips to Manage Your Child's Asthma

      For many children with asthma, coughing is an early warning sign of a flare-up, an expert says. More...

    • Mom-to-Be's High-Gluten Diet Linked to Type 1 Diabetes in Baby

      If a pregnant woman eats a lot of high-gluten foods, the odds that her child will have type 1 diabetes rise significantly, new research suggests. More...

    • Health Tip: Protect Your Child's Hearing

      Schools are chock-full of loud and potentially destructive sounds, including crowded hallways, buses, band practices and sporting events. More...

    • Could Household Cleaners Make Your Kid Fat?

      The research can't prove cause-and-effect, but suggests that household disinfectants might be promoting childhood obesity by altering the gut bacteria of infants. More...

    • Picky Eating May Mask Larger Issues

      Many children are picky eaters, making every meal a challenge. But for some, the problem goes deeper than not liking vegetables or whole-wheat bread. More...

    • More Water, Mom? H2O Is Top Kids' Beverage in U.S.

      U.S. kids are drinking far more water than sodas and fruit drinks, health officials say. More...

    • How to Reassure Kids When Florence Strikes

      Adults have spent a lifetime hearing about or experiencing natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence, which is targeting the Carolinas this week. More...

    • New Drug Could Help Kids With MS

      Researchers say the first drug for children with multiple sclerosis vastly outperformed another common MS medication in a new clinical trial. More...

    • AHA: Get Your (Exer)game On to Make Screen Time Pay Off

      Parents, can't seem to tear the kids away from their screens? There are ways you won't have to -- and still get them off the couch. More...

    • Health Tip: Connect With Your Child

      By being sensitive and responsive to your child's needs, you can forge a positive, healthy relationship, the National Institutes of Health says. More...

    • Kids Without Access to Good Food Face High Blood Pressure Risk

      Poor nutrition increases a child's risk of high blood pressure, a new study finds. More...

    • IVF May Put Children at Risk for High Blood Pressure

      In vitro fertilization gives couples struggling to conceive the chance to have children, but a new study suggests these kids are at increased risk for high blood pressure. More...

    • Health Tip: Protect Your Child After Pet Exposure

      Schools often have classroom pets, such as hamsters, fish or frogs. Caring for those animals can be a great learning experience for kids. More...

    • Homelessness Takes Toll on Kids' Health Even Before They're Born

      Homelessness threatens young children's health, even if it occurs while they're still in the womb, a new study shows. More...

    • All Children Should Receive Flu Vaccine ASAP, Doctors Advise

      All children 6 months of age and older should have a flu shot, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says. More...

    • Early Eye Checks for Kids a Smart Move

      The earlier the better when it comes to having your child's vision checked, eye experts say. More...

    • Health Tip: Buy the Right Backpack for Your Child

      Doctors recommend that kids keep backpacks filled to no more than 15 percent of their body weight, the foundation says. Both straps should be used to help distribute weight evenly. More...

    • Teaching Your Kids Online Safety

      Limiting online access used to be the main parenting strategy to protect kids from internet hazards like cyberbullying and sexual predators. But research suggests that teaching them how to avoid these risks in the first place is a smarter and safer approach. More...

    • Expert Advice for a Safe Trip Back to School

      Whether your kids walk to school, take the bus or ride in a carpool, teaching them some common-sense practices will make for a safer trip, the American Academy of Pediatrics says. More...

    • Health Tip: Pack a Healthy Lunch for Your Child

      Children need nutritious lunches to help them stay healthier, concentrate in school and play sports. More...

    • As U.S. Kids Take More Meds, Dangerous Drug Mixes Could Rise

      Everyone worries about drug abuse among children, but a hidden danger for some kids rests in prescription medicines intended to help them, a new study warns. More...

    • Here's Food for Thought -- and School Success

      Want to help your kids succeed at school? Watch what they eat. More...

    • Put Good Health on Your Child's Back-to-School Checklist

      Parents should include medical checkups, updated health records and safety training on kids' back-to-school checklists, a group of emergency physicians advises. More...

    • Health Tip: Prevent Childhood Obesity

      Cases of childhood obesity have risen steadily over the past two decades, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. More...

    • How to Prevent Your Child From Getting Bullied -- or Being a Bully

      With the start of a new school year, bullying will become an issue for many children and their parents. More...

    • When Kids Focus on 1 Sport, Overuse Injuries Rise

      Young athletes specializing in one sport may hope it's a ticket to an athletic scholarship in college, but a new analysis suggests the practice might also doom them to overuse injuries. More...

    • Getting Kids Ready for the New School Year

      There are a number of things you can do to ensure your kids have a smooth start to the new school year. More...

    • 4 Ways to Protect Your Child From Allergic Reactions at School

      If your child has a food allergy, safety prevention belongs at the top of your back-to-school checklist. More...

    • A Weak Grip May Signal Future Health Trouble -- Even in Kids

      Weak grip strength in children may point to a higher risk of such health problems as diabetes and heart disease, new research suggests. More...

    • No Link Between Tdap Vaccine, Autism: Study

      Children born to women who got the Tdap vaccine during pregnancy have no greater risk of autism than other kids, a new study finds. More...

    • School Prep Includes Planning Allergy, Asthma Management

      Allergies and asthma can make the start of the new school year a challenge for kids who aren't prepared to deal with flare-ups, an allergist warns. More...

    • Health Tip: How Often Do Kids Need to Bathe?

      Some children love taking a shower, while others find it just another chore to struggle with. More...

    • For School Kids, Vaccines Are Key

      Be sure to put vaccinations on your children's back-to-school lists, whether they're just starting school or heading off to college, experts say. More...

    • Signs Your Child Might Have Hearing Loss

      "Put your listening ears on!" frustrated parents often say. But some kids aren't deliberately tuning out Mom and Dad -- they really can't hear them. More...

    • Too Much Screen Time May Pile on the Pounds

      Kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens, making it more likely they'll become overweight or obese, a new review claims. More...

    • Recognizing Early Childhood Speech Problems

      You eagerly await baby's first words and delight at his growing vocabulary. But that excitement may cause you to miss speech problems that should be corrected quickly. More...

    • How to Get Your Kids to Eat Better

      If you want to keep your kids at a healthy weight, show them, don't tell them. More...