what is developmental psychology

What is Developmental Psychology – A Beginner’s Guide!


The nature of human beings is designed in a way that, as we grow, we experience different changes in our minds and bodies. These changes often alter our life experiences, and some may require help adjusting to those changes.

Developmental psychology is the branch of psychology that can help explain and equip us with the knowledge and tools we need to manage the changes.

Here, we look at developmental psychology at length and see what it is about, its origins, how it works, developmental psychology theories, how it is applied, and frequently asked questions about it.

What is Developmental Psychology?

Also referred to as lifespan psychology, this is a branch of psychology that deals with human development and the change that comes with it throughout a lifetime (1).

It focuses on the change related to the physical, emotional, cognitive, biological, intellectual, personality, and perceptual aspects of human life as people advance in age (2).

Developmental psychologists often seek to learn, understand and explain the different ways in which we grow in feelings, thoughts, and behavior, and adapt as we grow.

You will often find them in clinical setups helping people with developmental disorders or in elderly (senior living homes) homes helping the older patients manage different aspects of their lives, or in schools teaching or labs researching.

These psychologists also aim to discover ways in which people can optimize their experiences and make the most of every stage of development, that is, from birth through adulthood.

History of Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology gained attention in the 1800s with its initial focus on child development. It aimed to understand a child’s mind and its link to learning.

During this period, Charles Darwin, a famous biologist in the 19th century, gave a keen eye to developmental psychology. He observed and experimented with various developmental aspects, including communication, in his firstborn son, William Erasmus Darwin (Doddy).

Soon after, William Preyer, a physiologist, published a book on a child’s abilities called “The Mind of The Child” in 1888.

More elaborate development theories were brought up in the early 1900s by different figures in psychology, including Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby, Erik Erikson, Lev Vygotsky, and the Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura.

About two decades later, developmental psychology broadened its scope of study from child and adolescent development to adult development and the psychology of aging.

In the recent past, this branch of psychology has further widened its study to the pregnancy period and the study of the development of human beings from birth through old age.

How Developmental Psychology Works

As earlier mentioned, developmental psychologists take up different responsibilities and handle various aspects of life.

Some can work in health care centers that deal with kids, adults, or even older adults. For instance, a developmental psychologist can provide recommendations and refer children with various developmental problems to a physical therapist or pathologist.

If your child is not doing what other children his age are doing, it might indicate a developmental problem. A developmental psychologist can help give proper direction on how to solve the problem. If the child is not walking and they are past the age of crawling, a psychologist can provide appropriate recommendations on which therapy to take to help solve the issue.

Other developmental psychologists dedicate their lives to researching communities at large over an extended period to figure out how different stages of life are perceived and approached.

Others focus on older adults in memory care and senior living homes. They help provide the care, help, and guidance needed by an older adult to enjoy their later years better without regrets or physical, mental, or emotional restrictions.

In essence, developmental psychologists can handle various stages of development, including emotional or social advancement, physical growth, and intellectual progress.

Let’s look closer at the different developmental phases and what psychologists are interested in as far as those areas are concerned:

1. The prenatal phase – This is the phase where the fetus begins developing in the womb. In this phase, developmental psychologists aim to establish how likely health conditions such as inherited health problems, Down syndrome, and a pregnant woman using drugs can affect the development of the fetus.

They can also look at how various environmental or nutritional-based factors affect the unborn baby’s health and lead to birth complications.

They also focus on the stimuli in the womb, how the fetus reacts to them, and the fetus’s detection abilities regarding perceptions and sensations. Moreover, they also pleasure themselves in understanding how reflexes come about before a child is born.

2. The early childhood phase – This phase is all about how a child makes some of the necessary developmental changes required for healthy growth. Some of the things that developmental psychologists lean towards are how the child is developing cognitively, emotionally, and physically. For instance, how good the coordination of a child’s body parts is or if they are talking or walking when the time comes.

Furthermore, they look at the possible health issues children at this phase may experience and how to work around them to ensure they make the most of this phase.

3. The middle childhood phase – This is the phase where children begin developing a mature lifestyle, with social interactions being the highlight of the stage. They get acquainted with people outside their family as they go to school and play in the neighborhood. With time, developmental psychologists may be needed to help them overcome the mental health, emotional and behavioral challenges they experience as they explore this phase.

4. The adolescence phase – This is among the demanding phases of life. Here an individual explores the self, who they are, what they desire, and who they would like to be in the future in terms of personality and career. They begin crafting their self-identity at this point and understanding the world in a sense.

This transition comes with several challenges, including peer pressure, limiting social behaviors, and emotional upheavals. A developmental psychologist can help the adolescent discover, understand, and have clarity on the right direction for them to take in life by guiding them through the obstacles they face.

5. The early adulthood phase – This phase includes the age of early twenties to late thirties. It is the period where people establish long-lasting relationships and family too. They also focus on career and financial independence. Strong social bonds and career establishment are the two main aspects of this phase.

Some people who are lucky to have them both in a balanced way often have an easy time flowing with life and feeling fulfilled. However, those who struggle with any of these tend to suffer from loneliness and other issues that a developmental psychologist can help them through.

6. The middle adulthood phase – This phase includes people who are in their late thirties to early sixties. Here, people are more focused on giving back rather than taking things for themselves or improving themselves for the most part. They give back to the world by preparing, motivating, and equipping the next generation to take on the planet.

This could be their children or grandchildren. The second way is by participating in projects that contribute to the community’s welfare.

7. The older adulthood phase – This phase includes people in their sixties to their nineties and beyond. Here people look back at how they lived their lives and find fulfillment. Some become bitter with regrets for things they did or didn’t do, which they feel would have helped their lives improve.

Some of the problems faced in this phase are mental decline, physical limitations, and emotional issues. Developmental psychologists often help people in this phase manage the changes in their lives and live a reasonably comfortable life.

Developmental Psychology Theories

Theories have been created to help explain development in different areas of human development. Here are some typical views in developmental psychology:

* Theory of cognitive development (by Jean Piaget) – This is a theory that explains a child’s intellectual development and gives an idea of the critical stages of development in children as they grow and learn.

* Theory of Social learning (by Albert Bandura) – This theory explains how children learn through simple observations of other people performing different actions and receiving instructions on how to approach different situations.

* Theory of psychosocial development (by Erik Erikson) – This theory explains the various stages every person has to pass from infancy through adulthood and how each step presents a unique problem that helps build positive virtues (3).

* Theory of attachment (by John Bowlby) – This theory explains how children form relationships with people who care for them and how those relationships impact their behaviors.

* Theory or sociocultural development (by Lev Vygotsky) – This theory explains how society contributes to a person’s growth in terms of self-identity and social relations.

* Theory of psychosexual development (by Sigmund Freud) – This theory explains how a person’s experiences in various childhood stages contribute to their personality and behaviors when they become adults.

Benefits of Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology helps with various areas, including language acquisition, self-awareness, emotional development, personality development, moral reasoning, developmental obstacles, motor skill development, and all-inclusive cognitive development.

Psychologists in this field aim to comprehend the progress of growth and change in the areas mentioned above, why they occur, the common challenges experienced, the negative impacts of the difficulties in the long run, and how to solve them.

Some widespread health conditions that developmental psychologists can help with are developmental delays, dementia, learning disabilities, motor skill delays, depression and anxiety that come with every developmental stage, speech and language delays, social and emotional development problems, autism spectrum disorder, and auditory processing disorder (hearing issues).

Application of Developmental Psychology

In education, developmental psychology goes a long way for the teacher and students in promoting and maintaining a favorable learning environment where students can develop with an open mind and self-confidence.

It allows the teacher to understand the common perceptions about life helped by the students that may limit their growth and know-how to maneuver through them to ensure the students benefit from education and the learning process.

Developmental psychology makes it easy for the student to progress and get to the next developmental stage without problems.

In hospitals, this branch of psychology also helps health care providers understand various health conditions patients struggle with. It allows the nurses and doctors to know the causes and impacts of the health issues patients experience and how they can help the patients navigate through them and live healthier lives.

Developmental psychology can also help encourage the members of society to uphold better cultural and social beliefs. These beliefs will shape a child’s mind and behaviors to become an upstanding members later on in their lives.

By using the theories and discoveries from various psychologists, a society can become better and promote and instill good values that improve the nation at large.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS) on Developmental Psychology

Question: Which are the popular debatable questions in developmental psychology?

Answer: Here are the most common questions in developmental psychology that have different insightful views and often cause disagreements in this field:

– Nurture versus Nature – This question asks if the environment shapes human development or if they are inherited from parents and genes make up the inherited attributes. Nature takes the inherited approach, while nurture is based on environmental influence.

– Continuity versus Discontinuity – This question looks into how human development happens. Does it happen through small, subtle, and unhurried changes or in a sudden and unexpected manner? Normative development promotes the idea of continuity which involves a gradual process. Discontinuity upholds the concept of developmental stages that come with a sudden change of behavior.

– Stability versus Change – This question asks which approach an infant takes in terms of personality when they become adults. Do they hold onto the personality noticed when they were infants, or do the environments they find themselves in change them over time?

Question: When should you see a developmental psychologist?

Answer: As children develop, there are certain expectations called developmental milestones placed on them when they hit a certain age. They are expected to have grown and gained particular abilities at a given age. For instance, children are expected to make verbal communication attempts when they get to 12 to 18 months.

If your child is not talking around that period, it is time to consider visiting a developmental psychologist to determine if they are having developmental issues and how they can overcome them.

Although, it is essential to remember that children develop at varying degrees and speeds. Some grow faster, while others take a more extended period. If they don’t hit the developmental milestones at the expected age and a few more months after that, there is still no sign of development, that is an excellent time to seek a psychologist’s help.

Also, if you have an older relative who is experiencing mental decline and physical restrictions due to age, you can work closely with a developmental psychologist to help them manage their mental, emotional and physical health status.

Question: How is developmental diagnosis administered?

Answer: When you take your child to a developmental psychologist, they are tested to confirm if the child is, in fact, having a developmental problem. Developmental evaluation and screening are done by a developmental psychologist or other trained, qualified, and experienced health experts.

A typical evaluation involves looking through the patient’s medical history, performing different tests on the suspected area, speaking to people close to the patient, and interacting with them consistently to understand their behavioral patterns.

After the diagnosis shows the presence of a developmental issue, a recommendation to a pathologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or therapist is presented to the patient depending on the nature of the problem.

Question: Are psychology and mental health-related?

Answer: Psychological issues can cause mental health problems. For instance, external and internal factors such as environment and genes can make a child develop mental health conditions when they age. Some of these factors can be avoided, while others are inevitable.

Giving children time and letting them develop at their own pace while providing better environmental conditions can help promote proper development and avoidance of challenges that can threaten their normal smooth development. However, in case they still develop the problems even after having suitable conditions, a developmental psychologist can help with the challenges.

Question: What is positive developmental psychology?

Answer: This is a more positive approach to developmental psychology and human development that promotes positive education, positive parenting, positive aging, and positive youth development.

Question: How do you train to become a developmental psychologist?

Answer: You become a developmental psychologist by getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology or another related field. From there, you can progress to a master’s degree or Ph.D. Although, there are certificate and diploma courses on developmental psychology that deal with a specific aspect of a person’s development, like adult aging or child development. Psychology graduates can also attain a license as a therapist.

Question: What are the limitations of developmental psychology?

Answer: Critics of developmental psychology feel this field is quite deterministic, and their beliefs often overlook the considerable impact of choice and free will. In development, more focus is placed on how experiences contribute to character formation and the development of the self and doesn’t consider how choice and free will influence the same areas too.


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