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Major Theories in the Field of Child Development

Major Theories in the Field of Child Development

A child goes through many changes as they grow up. Being able to hold up their head, talking, and playing with others are just some of the milestones that show whether or not your child is developing at the right pace. These milestones are one of the main concerns of child psychology. These help doctors, parents, and psychologists understand certain stages of human development psychology, most notably in children.

Researchers in the field of child psychology divide a child’s development into different categories and phases. Through these, researchers can make sense of why these changes take place. These also shed light on how a child’s environment and culture influence their development.

What are some major theories in the field of child development?

There are many studies about children’s developmental stages. However, only a few significant theories have withstood the test of time. Below are a few of the most recognized in child development.

Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Sigmund Freud is famous in the field of psychology because of his notable works on psychoanalysis. His theory dealt with how children’s “sexual” and aggressive desires determine whether or not they will become well-adjusted adults.

In his theory, “desires” refer to instincts or appetites, which are considered motivators of human behavior. His approach also revolves around the erogenous zones like the mouth, bowel, bladder, and genitalia. According to this theory, a child’s development goes through five stages:

Oral phase (0-2 years of age) Desires at this age are all derived from sucking or biting things.

Anal phase (2-4 years of age) Children at this age are potty-trained. Here, they learn to control their bladder and bowel movements.

Phallic stage (4-7 years of age) Children at this age are concerned about their penis or clitoris.

Period of latency (7-12 years of age) At this stage, sexual developments are on hold.

Genital phase (13 years of age and older) The individual begins developing an attraction to another.

Freud’s psychosexual theory proposed that early experiences had the most significant power to mold a child’s development.

Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson based his theory of psychosocial development on Freud’s. However, Erikson’s theory involved crisis or conflict between a person’s psychological and societal needs. The outcome of these conflicts affected a person’s personality development.

This theory has eight stages, namely:

  1. Mistrust vs. trust
  2. Doubt/ Shame vs. Autonomy
  3. Guilt vs. Initiative
  4. Inferiority vs. Industry
  5. Role confusion vs. Identity
  6. Isolation vs. Intimacy
  7. Stagnation vs. Generativity
  8. Despair vs. Ego Integrity

Erikson’s theory also went into detail about what stimulation a child needed in each respective stage to become a well-adjusted adult.

Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

Many highly regard Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory in the study of stages of human development psychology. According to Piaget, intelligence develops over time through a child’s interaction with their environment.

Piaget’s theory identified four stages in a child’s cognitive development. These are:

  1. Sensorimotor stage (infancy) In this stage of cognitive development, an infant gains knowledge and acquires intelligence through movement. A child also learns about “object permanence,” which is the ability to distinguish that an object exists even if it is not seen.
  2. Pre-operational stage (toddler age to early childhood) At this stage, a child is unable to think about others and can only focus on themselves. Memory and imagination develop during this age as children learn how to think of things symbolically.
  3. Concrete operational stage (school age to early adolescence) This stage is a milestone in cognitive development because this is when a child learns how to think logically through symbols. At this stage, a child learns how to think about others.
  4. Formal operational stage (adolescence to adulthood) During this stage, a person learns how to think about abstract concepts.

Piaget’s theory offers insight into how a child slowly creates a model of the world in their minds. The theory also provides insight into how parents and adults should communicate with a child depending on their stage of cognitive development.

Santrock’s Developmental Stages

Recent development theories in the field of psychology include John Santrock’s stages of development, which chart out the entirety of a person’s life. Santrock’s theory divides the human lifespan into eight periods, namely:

  1. Prenatal period (infancy to birth)
  2. Infancy (birth to 18-24 months)
  3. Early childhood (2-5 years)
  4. Middle and late childhood (6-11 years)
  5. Adolescence
  6. Early adulthood
  7. Middle adulthood
  8. Late adulthood

Havighurst’s Developmental Tasks Theory

Santrock and Havighurst’s developmental stages are similar because both consider development as a continuous process that spans a person’s life. Both theories also propose that these developments occur in stages.

Havighurst’s theory proposes that individuals need to achieve developmental tasks before proceeding to the next stage of their lives. Developmental tasks win the approval of the people around them and also spark satisfaction and pride in the person doing them. The stages of Havighurst’s theory, together with their corresponding developmental tasks, are the following:

  1. Infancy and Early Childhood (0-5 years old) Children learn to walk, talk, and interact with others.
  2. Middle Childhood (6-12 years old) Kids learn to read, write, and become more independent.
  3. Adolescence (13-17 years old). Children learn about gender-based roles.
  4. Early Adulthood (18-35 years old) At this stage, they learn to establish a career and a family.
  5. Middle Age (36-60 years old). As adults, they learn to adjust to physiological changes.
  6. Later Maturity (over 60 years old). Individuals learn to adjust to old age and retirement.


Understanding the different theories about stages of human development psychology can offer a more in-depth insight into how the human body and mind changes over the years. These theories also provide insight into how parents, guardians, and teachers can communicate with young children in a way that they can truly learn.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Introduction to child psychology, https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education-development/childhood-youth/introduction-child-psychology/content-section-1, 4 June 2020

Modules on Freud: on psychosexual development, https://cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/theory/psychoanalysis/freud.html, 4 June 2020

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosexual Development, https://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html, 4 June 2020

Jean Piaget’s Theory and Stages of Cognitive Development, https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html, 4 June 2020

Am I an emerging adult…? What are the developmental tasks that I am facing…? https://www.miuc.org/emerging-adult-developmental-tasks-facing/, 4 June 2020

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Written by Den Alibudbud on Jun 05, 2020
Medically reviewed by Hello Doctor Medical Panel