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Major Theories in Child Development: What Parents Should Know

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Aug 02, 2023

    Major Theories in Child Development: What Parents Should Know

    From birth to adulthood, a child goes through several stages of human development. Changes like being able to hold up their head, talking, and playing are just some of the milestones that can tell you whether or not your child is growing up at the right pace. However, note that milestones are NOT set in stone. They are only used as a guide to check if a child is at par, delayed or advanced compared to other infants or children of the same age.

    These milestones are one of the primary concerns of Developmental Psychology. Researchers in the field of child psychology often divide developments in a child’s growth in different categories. Through these milestones, they’re able to make sense of why these changes take place, and how a child’s environment and culture affect these changes. 

    Numerous researchers devised theories about developmental stages, but only a few major theories have withstood the test of time. Below are a few of the recognized theories in child development which are still relevant today to further enrich the scope of Developmental Psychology.

    Popular Theories on the Stages of Human Development Psychology

    Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory

    Sigmund Freud is a big name in the field of psychology because of his notable work in psychoanalysis. His theory proposed that the way parents dealt with their children’s “sexual” and aggressive drives will determine whether or not they would become well-adjusted adults.

    Take note, “drives” refers to instincts or appetites that motivated human behavior that need to be satiated. Freud’s psychosexual theory revolved around erogenous zones like the mouth, bowel, bladder, and genitalia, and how our desires at that age often revolved around a specific erogenous zone. According to this theory, Freud’s Psychosexual Stages, a child’s development goes through five stages namely:

    • 0-2 years of age: This stage is referred to as the “oral phase” because your desires at this age were all derived from sucking or biting things. 
    • 2-4 years of age: This stage is referred to as the “anal phase” because children at this age are being potty trained, thus learning to control their bladder and bowel movements.
    • 4-7 years of age: This stage is called the “phallic stage” because children at this age were concerned about their penis or clitoris. 
    • 7-12 years of age: This stage of development is what Freud refers to as “period of latency” where sexual developments are placed on hold.
    • 13 years of age and onward: This stage is called the “genital phase” because of how attraction to the opposite sex starts during this age.

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

    Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

    Erik Erikson based his theory of psychosocial development on Freud’s previous psychosexual theory of development. His theory involved crisis or conflict between a person’s psychological and societal needs. The outcome of these conflicts would then contribute to the person’s personality development.

    This theory has 8 chronological stages, with corresponding CRISES, that need to be resolved in order for the individual to gain corresponding strengths, per developmental stage.

    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 strengths a child would develop if each stage’s  psychosocial crisis is resolved.

    Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

    Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory is widely known in the field of Developmental Psychology. According to Piaget, intelligence develops over time, both physically and through changes that are a result of one’s interaction with their environment.

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

    The Sensorimotor Stage

    Occurs during infancy. This stage of cognitive development is characterized by an infant acquiring intelligence by using sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. By 8 to 12 months, children also develop “object permanence“. This is the ability to distinguish that an object exists even if it can’t be seen. For example, when playing peek-a-boo a child will understand that you are just covered and not actually disappearing.

    The Preoperational Stage

    Starts during toddler age and lasts up throughout early childhood. Use of symbols, language use, and egocentrism make up the key characteristics of this stage.

    Children who are egocentric can only see the world from their point of view and assume what they see is what everyone else sees. For example, if two children sit at opposite ends of a table with the number “6″ printed on it, one will say it says “6″ while the other will insist it is “9″. Technically, both can be correct, however, the children will not be able to “see” the solution from another person’s perspective.

    The Concrete Operational Stage

    Happens during school age to early adolescence. This stage is a milestone in cognitive development because this is when a child learns how to use logic and reasoning. Here, they are able to understand the concept of conservation. For example, a volume of water does not change when poured from a tall glass to a different glass with the same volume. Additionally, children in this stage can arrange objects into two or more groups at a time, based on length, weight, and other characteristics.

    The Formal Operational Stage

    During this stage, a person learns how to think about abstract (intangible) concepts. They prove or disprove theories through experimentation or trial and error. Propositional thought or verbal reasoning also develops during this stage. The Formal Operational Stage begins during adolescence and typically lasts throughout a person’s life.

    Piaget’s theory offers insight on how a child slowly creates a model of the world in their minds. The theory also offers insight on how you should communicate with a child depending on what stage in cognitive development they’re currently in.

    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’s and Havighurst’s stages of human development are similar. Both consider development as a continuous process that lasts throughout a person’s entire life.  

    Havighurst’s theory proposes that individuals need to achieve one developmental phase before moving onto the next. Peers and supportive groups encourage an individual to develop along with an increase sense of accomplishment. The stages of Havighurst’s theory together with their corresponding developmental tasks are the following:

    1. Infancy and Early Childhood (0-5 years old): Learning to walk, talk, and interact with others
    2. Middle Childhood (6-12 years old): Learning to read, write and be more independent
    3. Adolescence (13-17 years old): Learning about gender-based roles
    4. Early Adulthood (18-35 years old): Learning to establish a career and a family
    5. Middle Age (36-60 years old): Learning to adjust to physiological changes
    6. Later Maturity (over 60 years old): Learning to adjust to old age and retirement.

    Key Takeaways

    Development may include physical, psychological, and social changes during the life span. Understanding the different theories that discuss the stages of human development can offer a deeper insight on how the human body and mind changes over the years. These theories can also offer insight as to how parents, guardians, or teachers can communicate and teach young children in a way that they would truly learn from.

    Learn more about Parenting here.


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

    Medically reviewed by

    John Paul Abrina, MD

    Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

    Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Aug 02, 2023

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