How do people grow and change over the course of life? This is one of many questions that developmental psychology seeks to answer. Development is about much more than simply the physical changes that take place over the course of a lifetime. It also involves the cognitive, social, and emotional changes that take place at different ages.
Developmental Psychology: Then and Now
You might be surprised to learn that child development was once a topic of little concern. For much of human history, children were simply viewed as miniature versions of adults. It was not until after the Industrial Revolution that researchers began to recognize and investigate childhood as a unique, distinct, and important period of life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the major theories of development center on the development that occurs during childhood. This is, after all, the time when developmental changes occur most rapidly.
Early investigations into child development began during the late 1800s with the work of naturalist Charles Darwin and physiologist Wilhelm Preyer. It was not until the 20th century with the work of famed psychologist Jean Piaget that concentrated research into child development theories began in earnest. Other researchers who contributed a great deal of research during this period included Jean Bowlby, Lev Vygotsky, and Erik Erikson.
The Goals of Developmental Psychology
Like other areas of psychology, the goals of developmental psychology are not only to describe how development occurs but also to explain, predict, and even control the course of development. By better understanding the many influences that contribute to normative development, psychologists can recommend strategies, approaches, and interventions that lead to better outcomes and healthier, happier children.
In order to describe development, researchers must note both the normative patterns occur (i.e. how most kids develop) as well as individual differences that may take place (i.e. variations that may occur).
Explaining development often involves determining how much of an effect that nature and nurture have. The nature versus nurture debate is a classic question in psychology that centers on whether genetics or environment plays a greater role in different aspects of human development and behavior.
In the past, nativists have argued that development is controlled almost entirely by genetic inheritance. Due to our shared DNA, certain aspects of development tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern in terms of timing and outcome. The onset of puberty, for example, tends to occur roughly around the same age.
As you might have already guessed, however, environmental factors can also play a role in development. While empiricists may have argued that development was largely the result of environmental influences, experts today recognize that nature and nurture both have an important role to play and that the interaction between the two forces is also important. In the case of puberty, genetics plays an important role in determining when it begins, but environmental factors such as receiving adequate nutrition are also critical.
Predicting developmental events allows parents, teachers, psychologists, and healthcare providers to anticipate the needs of children and respond appropriately. This also applies to later stages of life. Adults realize that they may face certain health issues that result from the aging process, which allows them to make lifestyle and behavioral changes today that will have an influence on later health and development.
Finally, developmental psychology allows experts to have an influence in the lives of children, adults, and elderly individuals. Understanding the developmental challenges that people face at different points in life makes it possible to design educational programs, public health initiatives, and targeted interventions designed to maximize well-being and overcome potential problems. For example, developmental psychologists have found that social connections are important for cognitive and mental health during the later years of life. As a result, communities can encourage such social activity by creating senior citizens centers where older adults can find connectivity and social support networks.
Major Developmental Theories
The modern study of developmental psychology did not emerge until relatively recently in history to address various aspects of how people change and grow over time. Some of these theories focus on how personality develops while others are centered on the cognitive changes that occur over the course of childhood.
Freud’s theory of psychosexual development was an early theory that focused on how personality develops during early childhood. Freud believed that psychosexual energy became focused on various erogenous zones at different points of development. He also suggested that failing successfully to address the primary crisis of each stage could lead to a psychological fixation at that point of development.
Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development was similar to Freud’s in that it broke development down into stages and involved a type of developmental crisis during each stage. Erikson’s theory was different however in that it looked at development throughout the entire course of life, from birth up until death.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development suggested that there were fundamental differences in how children think versus how adults think. Piaget broke down this development into four distinct stages that typically occur at different stages of development. The earliest stage is centered on gaining awareness of the self and the world, while later stages build on this knowledge as kids gain an increasingly sophisticated understanding of themselves, others, and the world around them.
Bowlby’s attachment theory proposed that children are born predisposed to form attachments which aid in their protection, survival, nurturance, and development. Early patterns of attachment with caregivers can have an impact on how children fare as they age. Those who can form secure attachments as children tend to grow up to be happier and healthier as adults.
Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory stressed the importance of social influences and culture on child cognitive development. While other theories such as Piaget’s suggest that there are universal stages of development, Vygotsky’s approach suggested that how kids learn varies depending upon the culture of their upbringing.
Some of the Major Debates within Developmental Psychology
There have been a number of important debates and issues throughout the history of developmental psychology.
Some of the major questions posed by psychologists and researchers are centered on the relative contributions of genetics versus environment, the processes through which development occurs, and the overall importance of early experiences versus that of later events.
As mentioned earlier, the classic issue in child development research is the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate. Sometimes referred to as the nativism versus empiricism debate, it centers on the question of whether genetic inheritance play a larger role in influencing development and behavior or whether the environment has a stronger effect? Today, most psychologists recognize that both elements play an essential role, but the debate continues over many developmental questions about topics ranging from academic aptitude to sexual orientation.
Practical Applications for Developmental Psychology
Developmental psychology also plays a significant role in shaping how psychologists, educators, and health professionals approach a variety of real-world problems. Developmental psychology can improve the lives of children and families by looking at issues affecting social issues, parenting concerns, educational practices, and physical and mental health.
Parenting: Research on human development has made major contributions to our understanding of the parenting approaches that lead to the most successful child outcomes. For example, psychologist Diana Baumrind suggested that there were some essential dimensions of parenting marked by discipline approaches, warmth, communication styles, and parental expectations. Today, researchers often identify four distinct parenting styles that are characterized by how parents interact and nurture their children. It is the authoritative style, typified by high expectations, strong communication, warmth, and ample support, that experts believe is the best approach to parenting children. Kids raised by such parents tend to be happier, exhibit better self-regulation, and have stronger social skills.
Education: Developmental psychology has provided a wealth of research on children’s cognitive growth, which has had a clear impact on instructional practices and strategies. Theories of constructivism, for example, have help teachers and educational designers better understand how children actively construct meaning about the world around them.
Healthcare: Those working in health care fields are generally required to complete at least one course in developmental psychology as part of their education. By building a better understanding of the basics of human development, health care providers can be better equipped to help their patients and improve health outcomes. Neonatal nurses, for example, are able to use their understanding of infant health and safety to educate new parents about how to best care for their newborns. Those working with elderly patients are able to empathize with the psychological and physical concerns of their patients and provide services that contribute to the best possible palliative care as these individuals face serious health issues.
Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75(1), 43-88.
Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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