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Additional Child Development Reading

Erikson's Stages of Development
Freuds Stages of Development
Jean Piaget
Piagets Theory of Development
Parenting Styles

 

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Theories of Development: An Overview
Child Developmental Psychology

• Erikson's Stages of Development • Freuds Stages of Development • Jean Piaget • Piagets Theory of Development • Parenting Styles •

Child Development Theories and
Understanding Mental Health

Historically, the changes that take place in a child's psyche between birth and adulthood were largely ignored. Child development first became a subject of serious inquiry at the beginning of this century but was mostly viewed from the perspective of mental disorders and from the cultural mainstream of Europe and white America. Some of the "grand theories" of child development, such as that propounded by Sigmund Freud, grew out of this focus, and they unquestionably drew attention to the importance of child development in laying the foundation for adult mental health. Even those theories that resulted from the observation of healthy children, such as Piaget's theory of cognitive development, paid little attention to the relationship between the development of the "inner self" and the environment into which the individual was placed. In contrast, the interaction of an individual with the environment was central to the school of thought known as behaviorism.

Theories of normal development form the basis of many current approaches to understanding and treating mental illness and mental health problems in children and adults. These theories have not achieved the broader objective of explaining how children grow into healthy adults. More study and perhaps new theories will be needed to improve our ability to guide healthy child-rearing with scientific evidence.

 

Child Development Viewed as a Series of Stages

Freud and the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson proposed a series of stages of development reflecting the attainment of biological objectives. The stages are expressed in terms of functioning as an individual and with others—within the family and the broader social environment (particularly in Erikson’s theories). Although criticized as unscientific and relevant primarily to the era and culture in which they were conceived, these theories introduced the importance of thinking developmentally, that is, of considering the ever-changing physical and psychological capacities and tasks faced by people as they age. They emphasized the concept of “maturation” and moving through the stages of life, adapting to changing physical capacities and new psychological and social challenges. And they described mental health problems associated with failure to achieve milestones and objectives in their developmental schemes.

These theories have guided generations of psychodynamic therapists and child development experts. They are important to understand as the underpinnings of many therapeutic approaches, such as interpersonal therapy, some of which have been evaluated and found to be efficacious for some conditions. By and large, however, these theories have rarely been tested empirically.

 More of this Feature

• John Bowlby: Attachment Theory
• Parent-Child Bonding
• Language Development
• Relationships With Other Children
• Development Theories

 

 Related Resources

• Psychology of Love
• Love as Attachment
• Developmental Psychology

John Bowlby: Attachment Theory

It is common knowledge that infants and, for the most part, their principal caretakers typically develop a close bond during the first year of life, and that in the second year of life children become distressed when they are forcibly separated from their mothers. However, the clinical importance of these bonds was not fully appreciated until John Bowlby introduced the concept of attachment in a report on the effects of maternal deprivation (Bowlby, 1951). Bowlby (1969) postulated that the pattern of an infant’s early attachment to parents would form the basis for all later social relationships. On the basis of his experience with disturbed children, he hypothesized that, when the mother was unavailable or only partially available during the first months of the child’s life, the attachment process would be interrupted, leaving enduring emotional scars and predisposing a child to behavioral problems.

Intellectual Development

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget also developed a stage-constructed theory of children’s intellectual development. Piaget’s theory, based on several decades’ observations of children (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958), was about how children gradually acquire the ability to understand the world around them through active engagement with it. He was the first to recognize that infants take an active role in getting to know their world and that children have a different understanding of the world than do adults. The principal limitations of Piaget’s theories are that they are descriptive rather than explanatory. Furthermore, he neglected variability in development and temperament and did not consider the crucial interplay between a child’s intellectual development and his or her social experiences (Bidell & Fischer, 1992).

Behavioral Development

Other approaches to understanding development are less focused on the stages of development. Behavioral psychology focused on observation and measurement, explaining development in terms of responses to stimuli, such as rewards. Not only did the theories of the early pioneers (e.g., Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner) generate a number of valuable treatments, but their focus on precise description set the stage for current programs of research based on direct observation. Social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) emphasized role models and their impact on children and adolescents as they develop. Several important clinical tools came out of behaviorism (e.g., reinforcement and behavior modification) and social learning theory (cognitive-behavioral therapy). Both treatment approaches are used effectively with children and adolescents.

 More of this Feature

• Child Development and Adult Mental Health
• Child Development in Stages
• Intellectual Development
• Behavioral Development
• Social & Language Development
• Temperament

 

 Related Resources

• Developmental Psychology
• Classic Development Theories
 

 

Child Development Theories and
Understanding Mental Health

Historically, the changes that take place in a child's psyche between birth and adulthood were largely ignored. Child development first became a subject of serious inquiry at the beginning of this century but was mostly viewed from the perspective of mental disorders and from the cultural mainstream of Europe and white America. Some of the "grand theories" of child development, such as that propounded by Sigmund Freud, grew out of this focus, and they unquestionably drew attention to the importance of child development in laying the foundation for adult mental health. Even those theories that resulted from the observation of healthy children, such as Piaget's theory of cognitive development, paid little attention to the relationship between the development of the "inner self" and the environment into which the individual was placed. In contrast, the interaction of an individual with the environment was central to the school of thought known as behaviorism.

Theories of normal development form the basis of many current approaches to understanding and treating mental illness and mental health problems in children and adults. These theories have not achieved the broader objective of explaining how children grow into healthy adults. More study and perhaps new theories will be needed to improve our ability to guide healthy child-rearing with scientific evidence.  

During the past two decades, as psychologists began to view the child less as a passive recipient of environmental input but rather as an active player in the process, the importance of temperament has become better appreciated (Plomin, 1986). Temperament is defined as the repertoire of traits with which each child is born; this repertoire determines how people react to the world around them. Such variations in characteristics were first described systematically by Anna Freud from her observations of children orphaned by the ravages of World War II. She noticed that some children were affectionate, some wanted to be close but were too shy to approach adults, and some were difficult because they were easily angered and frustrated (A. Freud, 1965).

The first major longitudinal observations on temperament were begun in the 1950s by Thomas and Chess (1977). They distinguished 10 aspects of temperament, but there appear to be many different ways to describe temperamental differences (Goldsmith et al., 1987). Although there is some continuity in temperamental qualities throughout the life span (Chess & Thomas, 1984; Mitchell, 1993), temperament is often modified during development, particularly by the interaction with the caregiver. For example, a timid child can become bolder with the help of parental encouragement (Kagan, 1984, 1989). Some traits of temperament, such as attention span, goal orientation, lack of distractibility, and curiosity, can affect cognitive functioning because the more pronounced these traits are, the better a child will learn (Campos et al., 1983). Of note, it is not always clear whether extremes of temperament should be considered within the spectrum of mental disorder (for example, shyness or anxiety) or whether certain forms of temperament might predispose a child to the development of certain mental disorders.

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