Skip 
Navigation Link

Crisis Hotline & Intake Screening 1-800-772-5987

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

  • Are All Those 'Fidget Spinners' Really Helping Kids?

    Hot toy is probably more of a distraction than a help in the classroom, experts say. More...

  • 1 in 5 U.S. Kids Killed in Crashes Not Restrained Properly

    Finding highlights importance of car seats, seat belts for young passengers. More...

  • Helping Ease Kids' Fears After Manchester Terror Attack

    Mental health experts say it's important for parents to encourage teens to follow through with their plans. More...

  • Health Tip: Limit a Young Child's Media Time

    Here are potential benefits More...

  • Many Parents Underestimate Drowning Risks

    More than one-third surveyed would let child swim unsupervised in neighborhood or hotel pool. More...

  • 45 More
    • Children Express Positive Views of Digital Tracking by Strangers

      Both children and adults view object tracking as acceptable for owners, but only children express positive evaluations of tracking another person's possessions, according to a study published online May 7 in Child Development. More...

    • Too Many Parents Say No to Helmets for Kids on Wheels

      Use of safety gear lags despite thousands of visits to U.S. hospitals each week, survey finds. More...

    • Hear This! Keep Cotton Swabs Out of Kids' Ears

      An estimated 12,500 U.S. children are injured every year after cleaning mishaps, researchers say. More...

    • Health Tip: Be a Safe Driver for Your Kids

      Suggestions to follow More...

    • 'Dr. Google' May Undermine Parents' Trust in Their Pediatrician

      Tell the doctor what info you saw online so your concerns can be addressed, study suggests. More...

    • PAS: Hospitalizations Up for Suicidal Thoughts, Actions in Kids

      The number of children and adolescents hospitalized for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last 10 years, according to research scheduled to be presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, held from May 6 to 9 in San Francisco. More...

    • Guns Send About 16 U.S. Kids to the Hospital Every Day

      Many of those injuries are accidental, study finds. More...

    • When Grandparents Raise Grandkids, Are They Up to Date on Child Safety?

      Study found some lacked info on baby sleep positioning, proper fever relief. More...

    • More Starring Roles for Booze in Kids' Movies, Study Finds

      Drinking figured in 85 percent of the top children's films over 2 decades. More...

    • The Family That Eats Together, Benefits

      Fun alternatives can also strengthen family ties. More...

    • Are Smartphones Helping or Harming Kids' Mental Health?

      More use is linked to attention and behavior problems, but also less anxiety, study finds. More...

    • More Active Kids Could Save U.S. Billions in Health Costs: Study

      Starting young would pay big dividends as children grow up, researcher says. More...

    • Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama-Era School Lunch Rules

      Schools will now have more leeway when it comes to salt, whole grains and milk, USDA says. More...

    • Are Bullies Getting Run Out of U.S. Schools?

      Abuse rates dropped about 2 percent a year over a decade, survey finds. More...

    • Health Tip: Turn Off Those Screens

      Suggestions to limit TV and PC time More...

    • Kids' Sun Safety Means 'Slip, Slap, Slop'

      Skin cancer expert offers advice for protection against summer rays. More...

    • Pediatricians Missing Elevated Blood Lead Levels in U.S.

      Many children with a blood lead level ≥10 µg/dL are being missed by pediatric care providers, according to a study published online April 27 in Pediatrics. More...

    • AAP Stresses Medical Home Best for Acute Health Concerns

      The medical home is the ideal location for children to receive care for acute, nonemergency health concerns, according to a policy statement published online April 24 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Are Kids' Vaccines a Victim of Their Own Success?

      The shots have cut disease rates so low that some parents underestimate the threat, doctors say. More...

    • Checklist for Family-Centered Rounds Deemed Beneficial

      Implementation of a family-centered rounds (FCR) checklist and associated provider training is associated with an increase in the number of FCR elements performed, according to a study published online April 25 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Children With Suspected Child Abuse Present to Hospital Late

      Children with suspected child abuse present late to the hospital, and most arrive at hospitals that are not designated pediatric-capable major trauma centers, according to a study published online April 24 in the Emergency Medicine Journal. More...

    • Cancer Risk Rises After Childhood Organ Transplant: Study

      Yet overall chances to any one child remain low, researchers stressed. More...

    • Model Predicts Which Pediatric ER Patients Likely to Be Admitted

      A new model can accurately predict pediatric patient hospitalization early in the emergency department encounter by using data commonly available in electronic medical records, according to a study published online April 25 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Obesity Quadruples Kids' Type 2 Diabetes Risk: Study

      About 415 million people worldwide have the disease, which is costly to treat but can be prevented. More...

    • Are You Raising an 'Emotional Eater'?

      Calming kids with food can start a vicious, fattening cycle, study says. More...

    • Kids Face Their Own Death Risks When a Sibling Dies

      Chance of death is greatest in year after the loss of a brother or sister, researchers report. More...

    • 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...

    • FDA Warns Against Children Taking Codeine, Tramadol

      Children should not be given any medications containing codeine or tramadol due to risk of life-threatening breathing difficulties, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Thursday. More...

    • Next Seven Great Achievements in Pediatric Research Predicted

      The next seven great achievements in pediatric research are presented in an article published online April 21 in Pediatrics. More...

    • Don't Give Kids Medicines With Codeine, Tramadol: FDA

      Agency strengthens warning labels on these medications to address dangers. More...

    • Many Kids Still Being Injured on ATVs

      Bigger, more powerful machines seem to cause more severe traumas, researchers report. More...

    • Hypnosis Doesn't Improve Post-Op Anxiety, Pain in Children

      A short hypnosis session performed in the operating room prior to major surgery does not improve postoperative anxiety and pain levels among pediatric patients, according to a study published online April 12 in the Journal of Clinical Nursing. More...

    • Health Tip: Minimizing Violence During Screen Time

      Here's what parents can do More...

    • Health Tip: Concerned About Your Child's Weight?

      How to discuss with your doctor 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...

    • Health Tip: Checking Your Child's Moles

      Characteristics you should watch for More...

    • Could a Clinical Trial Help Your Child?

      FDA outlines what to ask before enrollment. More...

    • Direct-Acting Antivirals Approved for Children 12+ With HCV

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two drugs to treat hepatitis C virus infection in children aged 12 and older. More...

    • When Families Lack Insurance, Kids' Dental Woes Rise

      Toothaches twice as common for U.S. kids without coverage, poll finds. More...

    • 10 Minutes of Sweat a Day Helps Kids' Hearts

      Replacing light exercise with vigorous activity could greatly benefit some kids and teens, study finds. More...

    • Outdoor Play May Foster Little Environmentalists

      Adults who grew up amid natural world are more concerned about the planet, research shows. More...

    • Health Tip: Is Your Child Sleeping Enough?

      Signs of insufficient shuteye More...

    • Far Fewer Kids Are Dying Worldwide, but Gains Are Uneven

      While most places saw great progress, problems persist in South Asia and parts of Africa. More...

    • Vaccinating Pregnant Moms Protects Babies From Whooping Cough

      Benefit is dramatic for newborns who are too young to be vaccinated, researchers say. More...

Resources