Understanding Developmental Psychology

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Change is inevitable. As humans, we constantly grow throughout our lifespans, from conception to death. The field of developmental psychology explores the behavioral, emotional, physical, and cognitive changes that happen as people age.

Psychologists strive to understand and explain how and why people change throughout life. While many of these changes are normal and expected, they can still pose challenges that people sometimes need extra assistance to manage.

The principles of normative development help professionals spot potential problems and provide early intervention for better outcomes. Developmental psychologists can work with people of all ages to address roadblocks and support growth, although some choose to specialize in a specific age group such as childhood, adulthood, or old age.

What Is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses on how people grow and change over the course of a lifetime.

Those who specialize in this field are not just concerned with the physical changes that occur as people grow; they also look at the social, emotional, and cognitive development that occurs throughout life.

Some of the many issues developmental psychologists assist with include:

These professionals spend a great deal of time investigating and observing how these processes occur under normal circumstances, but they are also interested in learning about things that can disrupt developmental processes.

By better understanding how and why people change and grow, developmental psychologists help people live up to their full potential. Understanding the course of normal human development and recognizing potential problems early on can prevent difficulties with depression, low self-esteem, frustration, and low achievement in school.

Developmental Psychology Theories

Developmental psychologists often utilize a number of theories to think about different aspects of human development. For example, a psychologist assessing intellectual development in a child might consider Piaget's theory of cognitive development, which outlined the key stages that children go through as they learn.

A psychologist working with a child might also want to consider how the child's relationships with caregivers influences his or her behaviors, and so turn to Bowlby's theory of attachment.

Psychologists are also interested in looking at how social relationships influence the development of both children and adults. Erikson's theory of psychosocial development and Vygotsky's theory of sociocultural development are two popular theoretical frameworks that address the social influences on the developmental process.

Each approach tends to stress different aspects of development such as mental, social, or parental influences on how children grow and progress.

When to See a Developmental Psychologist

While development tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern, there are times when things might go off course. Parents often focus on what are known as developmental milestones, which represent abilities that most children tend to display by a certain point in development. These typically focus on one of four different areas:

  1. Physical milestones
  2. Cognitive milestones
  3. Social/emotional milestones
  4. Communication milestones

For example, walking is one physical milestone that most children achieve sometime between the ages of 9 and 15 months. If a child is not walking or attempting to walk by 16 to 18 months, parents might consider consulting with their family physician to determine if a developmental issue might be present.

While all children develop at different rates, when a child fails to meet certain milestones by a certain age, there may be cause for concern.

By being aware of these milestones, parents can seek assistance, and healthcare professionals can offer interventions that can help kids overcome developmental delays.

These professionals often evaluate children to determine if a developmental delay might be present, or they might work with elderly patients who are facing health concerns associated with old age such as cognitive declines, physical struggles, emotional difficulties, or degenerative brain disorders.


Developmental psychologists can provide support to individuals at all points of life who may be facing developmental issues or problems related to aging.

Developmental Psychology Stages

As you might imagine, developmental psychologists often break down development according to various phases of life. Each of these periods of development represents a time when different milestones are typically achieved.

People may face particular challenges at each point, and developmental psychologists can often help people who might be struggling with problems to get back on track.

Prenatal Development

The prenatal period is of interest to developmental psychologists who seek to understand how the earliest influences on development can impact later growth during childhood. Psychologists may look at how primary reflexes emerge before birth, how fetuses respond to stimuli in the womb, and the sensations and perceptions that fetuses are capable of detecting prior to birth.

Developmental psychologists may also look at potential problems such as Down syndrome, maternal drug use, and inherited diseases that might have an impact on the course of future development.

Early Childhood Development

The period from infancy through early childhood is a time of remarkable growth and change. Developmental psychologists look at things such as the physical, cognitive, and emotional growth that takes place during this critical period of development.

In addition to providing interventions for potential developmental problems at this point, psychologists are also focused on helping kids achieve their full potential. Parents and healthcare experts are often on the lookout to ensure that kids are growing properly, receiving adequate nutrition, and achieving cognitive milestones appropriate for their age.

Middle Childhood Development

This period of development is marked by both physical maturation and the increased importance of social influences as children make their way through elementary school.

Kids begin to make their mark on the world as they form friendships, gain competency through schoolwork, and continue to build their unique sense of self. Parents may seek the assistance of a developmental psychologist to help kids deal with potential problems that might arise at this age including social, emotional, and mental health issues.

Adolescent Development

The teenage years are often the subject of considerable interest as children experience the psychological turmoil and transition that often accompanies this period of development. Psychologists such as Erik Erikson were especially interested in looking at how navigating this period leads to identity formation.

At this age, kids often test limits and explore new identities as they explore the question of who they are and who they want to be. Developmental psychologists can help support teens as they deal with some of the challenging issues unique to the adolescent period including puberty, emotional turmoil, and social pressure.

Early Adult Development

This period of life is often marked by forming and maintaining relationships. Critical milestones during early adulthood may include forming bonds, intimacy, close friendships, and starting a family.

Those who can build and sustain such relationships tend to experience connectedness and social support while those who struggle with such relationships may be left feeling alienated and lonely.

People facing such issues might seek the assistance of a developmental psychologist in order to build healthier relationships and combat emotional difficulties.

Middle Adult Development

This stage of life tends to center on developing a sense of purpose and contributing to society. Erikson described this as the conflict between generativity and stagnation.

Those who engage in the world, contribute things that will outlast them, and leave a mark on the next generation emerge with a sense of purpose. Activities such as careers, families, group memberships, and community involvement are all things that can contribute to this feeling of generativity.

Older Adult Development

The senior years are often viewed as a period of poor health, yet many older adults are capable of remaining active and busy well into their 80s and 90s. Increased health concerns mark this period of development, and some individuals may experience mental declines related to dementia.

Theorist Erik Erikson also viewed the elder years as a time of reflection back on life. Those who are able to look back and see a life well-lived emerge with a sense of wisdom and readiness to face the end of their lives, while those who look back with regret may be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.

Developmental psychologists may work with elderly patients to help them cope with issues related to the aging process.

Diagnosing Developmental Issues

To determine if a developmental problem is present, a psychologist or other highly trained professional may administer either a developmental screening or evaluation.

For children, such an evaluation typically involves interviews with parents and other caregivers to learn about behaviors they may have observed, a review of a child's medical history, and standardized testing to measure functioning in terms of communication, social/emotional skills, physical/motor development, and cognitive skills.

If a problem is found to be present, the patient may then be referred to a specialist such as a speech-language pathologist, physical therapist, or occupational therapist.

A Word From Verywell

Receiving a diagnosis of a developmental issue can often feel both confusing and frightening, particularly when it is your child who is affected. Once you or your loved one has received a diagnosis of a developmental issue, spend some time learning as much as you can about the diagnosis and available treatments.

Prepare a list of questions and concerns you may have and discuss these issues with your doctor, developmental psychologist, and other healthcare professionals who may be part of the treatment team. By taking an active role in the process, you will feel better informed and equipped to tackle the next steps in the treatment process.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are 3 major developmental psychology issues?

    The three major developmental psychology issues are focused on physical development, cognitive development, and emotional development.

  • What are the 7 stages of development in psychology?

    The seven major stages of development are:

    1. Infant development
    2. Toddler development
    3. Preschool development
    4. Middle childhood development
    5. Adolescent development
    6. Early adult development
    7. Older adult development
  • What are the basic principles of developmental psychology?

    The principles of developmental psychology outlined by Paul Baltes suggest that development is (1) lifelong, (2) multidimensional, (3) multidirectional, (4) involves gains and losses, (5) plastic, and that developmental psychology is (6) multidisciplinary. 

  • What are the 4 basic issues of developmental psychology?

    Four developmental issues that psychologists explore are focused on the relative contributions of:

    • Nature vs. nurture: Is development primarily influenced by genetics or environmental factors?
    • Early vs. later experience: Do early childhood events matter more than events that happen later in life?
    • Continuity vs discontinuity: Is developmental change a gradual process or do changes happen suddenly and follow a specific course?
    • Abnormal behavior vs. individual differences: What represents abnormal development and what can be considered individual variations in development?
1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Keenan T, Evans S. An Introduction to Child Development. 2nd ed. SAGE; 2009.

Additional Reading
  • Erikson EH. (1963).Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.
  • Erikson EH. (1968).Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."