Child Development Theories

There are many aspects of child development and many theories that center around the stages in which encompass a child’s maturity. Of these theories, there are three great works that delve into the core of a child’s psychoanalytic and cognitive development. The great philosophers’ and psychologists’ Sigmund Freud, Eric Erikson, and Jean Piaget, developed stage centered milestones in which children should realize to ensure that they reach their full psychosexual, psychosocial, and cognitive development, development of the utmost importance to assured healthy maturation in adulthood.

Sigmund Freud, a physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist, and the founder of psychoanalysis, has been one of the most influential and authoritative philosophers of all time (Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2007 p. 662). Frued believed that children are born with biological drives (Papalia, Olds, & Feldman, 2008 p. 27). These biological drives are unconscious and instinctual and seek out pleasure (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p.24). This drive, also called the libido, forces one to pass through a sequence of universal psychosexual stages that are centered on a particular part of the body that provides pleasurable sensations (Wood et al., 2007 p.662). If these pleasures are not sustained, one will experience conflict or what Freud called fixations (Wood et al., 2007 p.662). However, to understand this theory, one must understand his views on personality.

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Frued theorized that there are three parts of the personality (Wood et al., 2007 p.662). He called them the id, ego, and superego (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 27). The id is present at birth and controls the physiological response to danger, operates on the pleasure principle, is responsible for biological instincts such as hunger and thirst, and is the source of the libido (Wood et al., 2007 p.662). The id’s job is to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and gain immediate fulfillment (Wood et al., 2007 p. 662). Although the id demands instant gratification, it cannot carry out those demands (Wood et al., 2007 p.662).

The ego, which is the logical, rational, and realistic part of one’s personality, develops in early childhood (Wood et al., 2007 p. 223). The ego is responsible for carrying out the id’s demands (Wood et al., 2007 p. 223). The superego is the moral element of a child’s personality (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 24). It develops throughout early childhood and is responsible for moral reasoning (Papalia, Olds, & Feldman, 2004 p. 31). The superego carries out demands by following social norms without violating moral constraints (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 24).

Frued believed that basic sexual instincts and feelings are important factors of a child’s development, thus creating the psychosexual stages of development (Wood et al., 2007 p.664). The first three stages of the psychosexual developmental theory are critical to the young child’s development (Papalia, et al., p. 30). Frued called the first stage the oral stage which takes place at birth to one year of age (Wood et al., 2007 p.666). For example, the mouth is the primary source of an infant’s corporeal pleasure (Wood et al., 2007 p.666). When an infant suckles a breast or bottle, there is an innate sense of pleasure; however, if the infant’s mouthing needs are not met during this stage, they may later develop oral fixations (Papalia, et al., p. 28). An infant who was born prematurely, who has been fed intravenously for the first month or so, or a child who has been nutritionally neglected at birth, not breast or bottle fed adequately, may develop habits of smoking or nail biting (both of which are classified as oral fixations) later on in life.

Stage two is the anal stage which centers on toilet training (Papalia, et al., 28). Toilet training is a transitional time when a child shifts from soiling pants to using a toilet. It is usually made a big deal to a child, however, if toilet training becomes stressful or rigid, the child may develop obsessive compulsive disorders (Wood et al., 2007 p.667). The phallic or genital stage is a stage in which children begin to explore their own sexuality (Wood et al., 2007 p.666). If children do not resolve conflicts during this stage, they could later develop sexual problems, relational problems, or explore homosexuality (Wood et al., 2007 p.667).

Eric Erikson, a German psychoanalyst, proposed a road map of developmental stages with a main purpose of resolving crisis’s to the best of one’s abilities while understanding the world in which they lived, understanding themselves, and understanding their relationships (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 61). This theory is a well respected theory of personality in psychology.

Erikson studied how children socialize and how it affects their sense of self (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 61). He created eight stages of development. If one successfully completes these stages, they will have a healthy personality and successful interactions with others (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 61). If one does not complete these stages successfully, one can hinder their ability to complete future stages at which can produce unhealthy personalities, an unhealthy sense of self, and an inability to form healthy relationships (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62).

The first stage of trust versus mistrust starts at birth and lasts for one year (Papalia, et al., 2004 p.32). This stage is where children start to develop a sense of whether the world is a safe place (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). They develop the ability to trust others based upon the consistency and stability of their caregiver (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 202). Children who successfully complete this stage begin to gain confidence and security in the world around them, even when threatened (Papalia, et al., 2004 p 202). They most likely will develop healthy interpersonal relationships and will form secure bonds and attachments (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62). Unsuccessful completion of this stage can result in an inability to trust, thus creating a sense of fear (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62). It may result in anxiety, mistrust, avoidance, insecurity, and perhaps a negative view on future relationships (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62).

The next important stage of child development according to Erikson is autonomy vs. shame and doubt (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 24). This stage starts around the age of one and lasts until three. Children begin to explore their independence during this stage (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). For example, children will begin to walk more independently, participate in independent play, feed themselves, and develop interpersonal relationships. In this stage, children are encouraged to increase their independence and self -eficiency (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 24). Furthermore, they will become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world, will have gained self-control, and have developed a sense of competence (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62). However, if children are overly controlled or not given appropriate independence, they begin to feel inadequate in their own abilities and may become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their own abilities (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 24).

Around ages three through take the initiative to try new activities (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). If successful completion is obtained, children will develop a sense of ascendancy which allows them to feel secure in their ability to lead others and make decisions (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). If this stage is not successful, the child may develop a sense of guilt (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62). They may develop insecurities with leadership, consequently, remaining followers, lacking in self-initiative or direction, and/or developing laziness (Nolan-Hoesksema, 2007 p. 62).

The last stage in early child development is industry verses inferiority (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 24). This stage begins around the age of six years and lasts to puberty (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). Children will start to develop a sense of pride and competence in their achievements (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). While in school, a teacher will play an important role during this stage of a child’s development as children spend an adequate amount of time in school (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they will feel a sense of pride and confidence in their ability to achieve goals (Papalia, et al., 2004 p. 32). If children are not encouraged or too restricted, then they could feel inferior or incompetent, doubting their own ability to succeed (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 25). Not being successful in this stage could also hinder them from reaching their full potential (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p.25).

Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmentalist, biologist, philosopher, and psychologist, is best known for his theories in developmental psychology (Wood et al., 2007 p.441). Piaget also developed his theory around different stages of maturation. Piaget’s theory focuses on cognitive development and the logical thinking of children, especially pertaining to the way in which their minds process information (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 34).

Cognitive development is defined as how one perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of their world. Piaget was interested in how children adapt to their environment in which he later defined as intelligence (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 34). He developed several stages of cognitive development in children (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 34). Within these patterns of development, Piaget studied how children organized information in accordance to their behaviors (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 34). These organized patterns of behaviors are lumped into what he defined as schemes (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 34). Piaget also studied how children handled the information they received, such as how they adapted to their environment (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p 34). According to Piaget, adaptation starts with assimilation, the process of using schemes to make sense of new information, and accommodation, the changing of these schemes as a result of new information gained through assimilation (Boyd, & Bee, 2006 p. 34).

The sensorimotor stage develops from birth to two years of age (Wood et al., 2007 p.441). This stage begins the process of understanding the world through physical interactions and experiences (Wood et al., 2007 p.441). During the sensorimotor stage, an infant’s knowledge of the world is limited to their sensory perceptions and motor activities. Behaviors are limited to simple motor responses caused by sensory stimuli. Children utilize skills and abilities they were born with, such as looking, sucking, grasping, and listening, to learn more about the environment. This stage also centers on object permanence. Object permanence is the realization that objects continue to exist regardless of whether it is in sight or hidden (Wood et al., 2007 p.442). Children will have achieved this stage when objects are represented mentally whether present or absent (Wood et al., 2007 p.442).

The next stage is the preoperational stage. This stage was described by Piaget as the level of human development in which the use of language, numbers, and symbols are realized (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 269). This stage extends from the age of two to the age of six (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 269). Although children at this age begin to advance in their thought processes, children will continue to be very self-centered during this time and will still have trouble using logic as of yet (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 269).

Ages seven through twelve would start what Piaget defined as the concrete operations stage of cognitive development (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 351). Children will finally show an ability to use logic and coherency for thinking and solving problems (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). They begin to understand the concepts of permanence and conservation by learning that volume, weight, and numbers may remain constant despite changes in outward appearance (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). A great example of this would be the glass half full concept. During this stage, children will also be able to build on past experiences, using them to explain why some things happen (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). They will be able to categorize using seriation, or the ability to arrange objects in a series employing the use of length or color (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). They also use transitive inference which is the understanding of the relationship between two objects by knowing the relationship of the third object (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). Class inclusion, the understanding of the relationship between a whole and its parts, is also used (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). Children begin to have an understanding of inductive reasoning which is the logical reasoning that assumes observations about members of a class to reach a general conclusion about that class (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 352). They begin to work through problems in their head without having to measure or weigh the objects (Papalia, et al., 2008 p. 353).

The fourth stage is the formal operational stage and is described as the level of child development characterized by conceptual and logical thought. This stage begins around age twelve. During this time, children begin to develop the ability to think about abstract concepts such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and organized planning. Deductive logic implements the use of general concepts to determine specific outcomes, in other words, children will take into account possible outcomes and consequences of actions. This stage also implements the ability to systematically solve problems logically. Their approach to solving a problem will also be organized and defined.

There are many similarities and differences amongst these great psychologists and their theories. Amid these three theories we are able to distinguish if the development is continuous or discontinuous and if they follow stages in a life cycle. We can characterize whether biological or environmental factors have a more significant impact on the experiences and outcomes of childhood development. We can differentiate whether it is critical for children to accomplish specific developmental tasks and if childhood development is encompassed with turmoil and stress or is relatively uneventful.

Erikson and Freud both have psychoanalytic and developmental theories. Psychoanalytic theories generally focus upon abnormal behaviors. For example, in both Freud and Erikson’s theories, stages not fully completed resulted in the possibility of deficits in behaviors later on in life. Erikson’s theory focused on conflicts that arise at different stages of development but unlike Freud’s theory, Erikson’s developmental theory expands throughout the human lifespan. However, Freud’s theory centers on psychosexual stages whereas Erikson’s and Piaget’s theories are not sexually based.

Cognitive theories define the development of mental processes, skills, and abilities. Piaget closely studied children’s abilities and senses. His theories were similar to Freud’s and Erikson’s theories in that they also sequenced life time developmental into stages. However, Piaget developed four stages of cognitive development that lays the foundation for which an adult’s personality would be formed, as opposed to Freud’s psychosexual theory that renders the successful advancement or fixation in any stage would result in normal or abnormal characteristics into adulthood.


Wood, S.E., Wood, E.G., & Boyd, D. (2007). The World of psychology. The United States of America: Pearson Education, Inc.

Papalia, D.E., Olds, S.W., & Feldman, R.D. (2008). A Child’s world: infancy through adolescence 11th edition. United States of America: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Boyd, D., & Bee, H. (2006). Adult development. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing. Nolan-Hoesksema, S. (2007). Abnormal psychology 4th edition. New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Papalia, D.E., Olds, S.W., & Feldman, R.D. (2004). Human development 9th edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

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