Lifespan Development

Lifespan Development

PSY 240

Julie Lazzara

Maricopa Community Colleges

Lifespan Development

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Lifespan Development by Julie Lazzara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

This text is a derivative of Lifespan Psychology, Noba Project, OpenStax Psychology, including contributions by the Lumen Learning team and Sarah Carte, Margaret Clark-Plaski, Daniel Dickma, Tera Jones, Julie Lazzara, Stephanie Loalada, John R. Mather, Sonja Ann Miller, Nancee Ott, and Jessica Traylor. Modification, adaptation, and original content Authored by: Prof. Julie Lazzara

Acknowledgements

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This text, based on Lifespan Psychology by Laura Overstreet, includes additional material from the Noba Project, OpenStax Psychology, and additional noteworthy contributions by the Lumen Learning team and Sarah Carte, Margaret Clark-Plaski, Daniel Dickma, Tera Jones, Julie Lazzara, Stephanie Loalada, John R. Mather, Sonja Ann Miller, Nancee Ott, and Jessica Traylor. Modification, adaptation, and original content Authored by: Julie Lazzara

A print version of this text can be purchased at cost (charges for printing and shippping).  However, this is not required.

The textbook can be downloaded in different formats on the homepage of the book at no cost.

Introduction to Lifespan Development

Lifespan Development examines the physical, cognitive, and socioemotional changes that occur throughout a lifetime. This course covers the essentials in understanding human development, psychological research, and theories of growth and development. Students will come to understand the lifespan perspective and to analyze growth through each of the major stages of development: prenatal development, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood (including emerging adulthood), middle adulthood, and late adulthood. The course covers key topics in each of these stages, including major developmental theories, genetics, attachment, education, learning, disabilities, parenting, family life, moral development, illnesses, aging, generativity, and attitudes towards death and dying.

 

Chapter 1: Intro to Lifespan Development

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Why study lifespan development?

Three generations of women in a family: young adult, middle-aged mother, and older grandmother.

Welcome to the study of lifespan development! This is the scientific study of how and why people change or remain the same over time.

Think about how you were five, ten, or even fifteen years ago. In what ways have you changed? In what ways have you remained the same? You have probably changed physically; perhaps you’ve grown taller and become heavier. But you may have also experienced changes in the way you think and solve problems. Cognitive change is noticeable when we compare how 6-year olds, 16-year olds, and 46-year olds think and reason, for example. Their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world are probably quite different. Consider friendship—a 6-year-old may think that a friend is someone with whom they can play and have fun. A 16-year old may seek friends who can help them gain status or popularity. And the 46-year old may have acquaintances, but rely more on family members to do things with and confide in. You may have also experienced psychosocial change. This refers to emotions and psychological issues as well as social roles and relationships. Psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that we struggle with issues of trust, independence, and intimacy at various points in our lives (we will explore this thoroughly throughout the course.)

This is a very interesting and meaningful course because it is about each of us and those with whom we live and work. One of the best ways to gain perspective on our own lives is to compare our experiences with those of others. In this course, we will strive to learn about each phase of human development and the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes, all the while making cross-cultural and historical comparisons and connections to the world around us.

In addition, we will take a lifespan developmental approach to learn about human development. That means that we won’t just learn about one particular age period by itself; we will learn about each age period, recognizing how it is related to both previous developments and later developments. For instance, it helps us to understand what’s happening with the 16-year old by knowing about development in the infant, toddler, early childhood, and middle childhood years. In turn, learning about all of that development and development during adolescence and early adulthood will help us to more fully understand the person at age 46 (and so on throughout midlife and later adulthood).

Development does not stop at a certain age; development is a lifelong process. We may find individual and group differences in patterns of development, so examining the influences of gender, cohort/generation, race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, education level, and time in history is also important. With the lifespan developmental perspective, we will gain a more comprehensive view of the individual within the context of their own developmental journey and within social, cultural, and historical contexts. In this way, this course covers and crosses multiple disciplines, such as psychology, biology, sociology, anthropology, education, nutrition, economics, and healthcare.

Think It Over

Wherever you are in your own lifespan developmental journey, imagine yourself as an elderly person about to turn 100 years old (becoming a “centenarian”). If researchers want to understand you and your development, would they get the full picture if they just took a snapshot (so to speak) of you at that point in time? What else would you want them to know about you, your development, and your experiences to really understand you?

What you’ll learn to do: define human development and identify the stages of human development

Graphic of stages of human growth from infancy to adulthood

What aspects of ourselves change and develop as we journey through life? We move through significant physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes throughout our lives—do these changes happen in a systematic way, and to everyone? How much is due to genetics and how much is due to environmental influences and experiences (both within our personal control and beyond)? Is there just one course of development or are there many different courses of development? In this module, we’ll examine these questions and learn about the major stages of development and what kind of developmental tasks and transitions we might expect along the way.

Learning Outcomes

Defining Human Development

Children running in a gym.
Figure 1. Human development encompasses the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes that occur throughout a lifetime.

Human development refers to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development of humans throughout the lifespan. What types of development are involved in each of these three domains, or areas, of life? Physical development involves growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive development involves learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships.

Physical Domain

Many of us are familiar with the height and weight charts that pediatricians consult to estimate if babies, children, and teens are growing within normative ranges of physical development. We may also be aware of changes in children’s fine and gross motor skills, as well as their increasing coordination, particularly in terms of playing sports. But we may not realize that physical development also involves brain development, which not only enables childhood motor coordination but also greater coordination between emotions and planning in adulthood, as our brains are not done developing in infancy or childhood. Physical development also includes puberty, sexual health, fertility, menopause, changes in our senses, and primary versus secondary aging. Healthy habits with nutrition and exercise are also important at every age and stage across the lifespan.

Cognitive Domain

If we watch and listen to infants and toddlers, we can’t help but wonder how they learn so much so fast, particularly when it comes to language development. Then as we compare young children to those in middle childhood, there appear to be huge differences in their ability to think logically about the concrete world around them. Cognitive development includes mental processes, thinking, learning, and understanding, and it doesn’t stop in childhood. Adolescents develop the ability to think logically about the abstract world (and may like to debate matters with adults as they exercise their new cognitive skills!). Moral reasoning develops further, as does practical intelligence—wisdom may develop with experience over time. Memory abilities and different forms of intelligence tend to change with age. Brain development and the brain’s ability to change and compensate for losses is significant to cognitive functions across the lifespan, too.

Psychosocial Domain

Development in this domain involves what’s going on both psychologically and socially. Early on, the focus is on infants and caregivers, as temperament and attachment are significant. As the social world expands and the child grows psychologically, different types of play, and interactions with other children and teachers become important. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, self-esteem, and relationships. Peers become more important for adolescents, who are exploring new roles and forming their own identities. Dating, romance, cohabitation, marriage, having children, and finding work or a career are all parts of the transition into adulthood. Psychosocial development continues across adulthood with similar (and some different) developmental issues of family, friends, parenting, romance, divorce, remarriage, blended families, caregiving for elders, becoming grandparents and great grandparents, retirement, new careers, coping with losses, and death and dying.

As you may have already noticed, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development are often interrelated, as with the example of brain development. We will be examining human development in these three domains in detail throughout the modules in this course, as we learn about infancy/toddlerhood, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood development, as well as death and dying.

Who Studies Human Development and Why?

Many academic disciplines contribute to the study of development and this type is offered in some schools as psychology (particularly as developmental psychology); in other schools, it is taught under sociology, human development, or family studies. This multidisciplinary course is made up of contributions from researchers in the areas of health care, anthropology, nutrition, child development, biology, gerontology, psychology, and sociology, among others. Consequently, the stories provided are rich and well-rounded and the theories and findings can be part of a collaborative effort to understand human lives.

The main goals of those involved in studying human development are to describe and explain changes. Throughout this course, we will describe observations during development, then examine how theories provide explanations for why these changes occur. For example, you may observe two-year-old children be particularly temperamental, and researchers offer theories to explain why that is. We’ll learn a lot more about theories, especially developmental theories, in the next module.

What you’ll learn to do: describe the theories of lifespan development

Graphic of a brain filled with emojis and random objects

Learning outcomes

  • Describe theories as they relate to lifespan development
  • Explain Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model
  • Contrast the main psychological theories that apply to human development

Understanding Theories

In lifespan development, we need to rely on a systematic approach to understanding behavior, based on observable events and the scientific method. There are so many different observations about childhood, adulthood, and development in general that we use theories to help organize all of the different observable events or variables. A theory is a simplified explanation of the world that attempts to explain how variables interact with each other. It can take complex, interconnected issues and narrow them down to the essentials. This enables developmental theorists and researchers to analyze the problem in greater depth.

flowchart showing that a theory is used to form a hypothesis, the hypothesis leads to research, research leads to observation, which leads to the creation or modification of a theory, then back around.
Figure 1. Theories are often revisited and tested through experiments and research.

Two key concepts in the scientific approach are theory and hypothesis. A theory is a well-developed set of ideas that propose an explanation for observed phenomena that can be used to make predictions about future observations. A hypothesis is a testable prediction that is arrived at logically from a theory. It is often worded as an if-then statement (e.g., if I study all night, I will get a passing grade on the test). The hypothesis is extremely important because it bridges the gap between the realm of ideas and the real world. As specific hypotheses are tested, theories are modified and refined to reflect and incorporate the result of these tests. In essence, lifespan theories explain observable events in a meaningful way. They are not as specific as hypotheses, which are so specific that we use them to make predictions in research. Theories offer more general explanations about behavior and events.

Think of theories are guidelines much like directions that come with an appliance or other object that required assembly. The instructions can help one piece together smaller parts more easily than if trial and error are used.

Theories can be developed using induction, in which a number of single cases are observed and after patterns or similarities are noted, the theorist develops ideas based on these examples. Established theories are then tested through research; however, not all theories are equally suited to scientific investigation.  Some theories are difficult to test but are still useful in stimulating debate or providing concepts that have practical application. Keep in mind that theories are not facts; they are guidelines for investigation and practice, and they gain credibility through research that fails to disprove them.

People who study lifespan development approach it from different perspectives. Each perspective encompasses one or more theories—the broad, organized explanations and predictions concerning phenomena of interest. Theories of development provide a framework for thinking about human growth, development, and learning. If you have ever wondered about what motivates human thought and behavior, understanding these theories can provide useful insight into individuals and society.

Throughout psychological history and still in the present day, three key issues remain among which developmental theorists often disagree. Particularly oft-disputed is the role of early experiences on later development in opposition to current behavior reflecting present experiences–namely the passive versus active issue. Likewise, whether or not development is best viewed as occurring in stages or rather as a gradual and cumulative process of change has traditionally been up for debate – a question of continuity versus discontinuity. Further, the role of heredity and the environment in shaping human development is a much-contested topic of discussion – also referred to as the nature/nurture debate

Is Development Continuous or Discontinuous?

Continuous development views development as a cumulative process, gradually improving on existing skills (Figure 2). With this type of development, there is a gradual change. Consider, for example, a child’s physical growth: adding inches to their height year by year. In contrast, theorists who view development as discontinuous believe that development takes place in unique stages and that it occurs at specific times or ages. With this type of development, the change is more sudden, such as an infant’s ability to demonstrate awareness of object permanence (which is a cognitive skill that develops toward the end of infancy, according to Piaget’s cognitive theory—more on that theory in the next module).

Continuous and Discontinuous development are shown side by side using two separate pictures. The first picture is a triangle labeled “Continuous Development” which slopes upward from Infancy to Adulthood in a straight line. The second picture is 4 bars side by side labeled “Discontinuous Development” which get higher from Infancy to Adulthood. These bars resemble a staircase.
Figure 2. The concept of continuous development can be visualized as a smooth slope of progression, whereas discontinuous development sees growth in more discrete stages.

Is There One Course of Development or Many?

Is development essentially the same, or universal, for all children (i.e., there is one course of development) or does development follow a different course for each child, depending on the child’s specific genetics and environment (i.e., there are many courses of development)? Do people across the world share more similarities or more differences in their development? How much do culture and genetics influence a child’s behavior?

Stage theories hold that the sequence of development is universal. For example, in cross-cultural studies of language development, children from around the world reach language milestones in a similar sequence (Gleitman & Newport, 1995). Infants in all cultures coo before they babble. They begin babbling at about the same age and utter their first word around 12 months old. Yet we live in diverse contexts that have a unique effect on each of us. For example, researchers once believed that motor development followed one course for all children regardless of culture. However, childcare practices vary by culture, and different practices have been found to accelerate or inhibit the achievement of developmental milestones such as sitting, crawling, and walking (Karasik, Adolph, Tamis-LeMonda, & Bornstein, 2010).

For instance, let’s look at the Aché society in Paraguay. They spend a significant amount of time foraging in forests. While foraging, Aché mothers carry their young children, rarely putting them down in order to protect them from getting hurt in the forest. Consequently, their children walk much later: They walk around 23–25 months old, in comparison to infants in Western cultures who begin to walk around 12 months old. However, as Aché children become older, they are allowed more freedom to move about, and by about age 9, their motor skills surpass those of U.S. children of the same age: Aché children are able to climb trees up to 25 feet tall and use machetes to chop their way through the forest (Kaplan & Dove, 1987). As you can see, our development is influenced by multiple contexts, so the timing of basic motor functions may vary across cultures. However, the functions are present in all societies.

Photograph A shows two children wearing inner tubes playing in the shallow water at the beach. Photograph B shows two children playing in the sand at a beach.
Figure 3. All children across the world love to play. Whether in (a) Florida or (b) South Africa, children enjoy exploring sand, sunshine, and the sea. (credit a: modification of work by “Visit St. Pete/Clearwater”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by “stringer_bel”/Flickr)

How Do Nature and Nurture Influence Development?

Are we who we are because of nature (biology and genetics), or are we who we are because of nurture (our environment and culture)? This longstanding question is known in psychology as the nature versus nurture debate. It seeks to understand how our personalities and traits are the product of our genetic makeup and biological factors, and how they are shaped by our environment, including our parents, peers, and culture. For instance, why do biological children sometimes act like their parents—is it because of genetics or because of early childhood environment and what the child has learned from their parents? What about children who are adopted—are they more like their biological families or more like their adoptive families? And how can siblings from the same family be so different?

We are all born with specific genetic traits inherited from our parents, such as eye color, height, and certain personality traits. Beyond our basic genotype, however, there is a deep interaction between our genes and our environment. Our unique experiences in our environment influence whether and how particular traits are expressed, and at the same time, our genes influence how we interact with our environment (Diamond, 2009; Lobo, 2008). There is a reciprocal interaction between nature and nurture as they both shape who we become, but the debate continues as to the relative contributions of each.

History of Developmental Psychology

Photograph of early psychologists, including Freud and Hall.
Figure 2. Some major players in the early development of psychology. Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi, at: Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Date: September 1909.

The scientific study of children began in the late nineteenth century and blossomed in the early twentieth century as pioneering psychologists sought to uncover the secrets of human behavior by studying its development. Developmental psychology made an early appearance in a more literary form, however. William Shakespeare had his melancholy character, “Jacques” (in As You Like It), articulate the “seven ages of man,” which included three stages of childhood and four of adulthood.

Three early scholars, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Charles Darwin proposed theories of human behavior that are the “direct ancestors of the three major theoretical traditions” of developmental psychology today(Vasta et al, 1998, p. 10). Locke, a British empiricist, adhered to a strict environmentalist position, that the mind of the newborn as a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) on which knowledge is written through experience and learning. Rousseau, a Swiss philosopher who spent much of his life in France, proposed a nativistic model in his famous novel Emile, in which development occurs according to innate processes progressing through three stages: Infans (infancy), puer (childhood), and adolescence. Rousseau detailed some of the necessary progression through these stages in order to develop into an ideal citizen. Although some aspects of his text were controversial, Rousseau’s ideas were strongly influential on educators at the time. Finally, the work of Darwin, the British biologist famous for his theory of evolution, led others to suggest that development proceeds through evolutionary recapitulation, with many human behaviors having their origins in successful adaptations in the past as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

John B. Watson

The 20th century marked the formation of qualitative distinctions between children and adults. When John Watson wrote the book Psychological Care of Infant and Child in 1928, he sought to add clarification surrounding behaviorists’ views on child care and development. Watson was the founder of the field of behaviorism, which emphasized the role of nurture, or the environment, in human development. He believed, based on Locke’s environmentalist position, that human behavior can be understood in terms of experiences and learning. He believed that all behaviors are learned, or conditioned, as evidenced by his famous “Little Albert” study, in which he conditioned an infant to fear a white rat. In Watson’s book on the care of the infant and child, Watson explained that children should be treated as a young adult—with respect, but also without emotional attachment. In the book, he warned against the inevitable dangers of a mother providing too much love and affection. Watson explained that love, along with everything else as the behaviorist saw the world, is conditioned. Watson supported his warnings by mentioning invalidism, saying that society does not overly comfort children as they become young adults in the real world, so parents should not set up these unrealistic expectations. His book became highly criticized but was still influential in promoting more research into early childhood behavior and development.

Sigmund Freud

Another name you are probably familiar with who was influential in the study of human development is Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud’s model of “psychosexual development” grew out of his psychoanalytic approach to human personality and psychopathology. In sharp contrast to the objective approach espoused by Watson, Freud based his model of child development on his own and his patients’ recollections of their childhood. He developed a stage model of development in which the libido, or sexual energy, of the child, focuses on different “zones” or areas of the body as the child grows to adulthood. Freud’s model is an “interactionist” one since he believed that although the sequence and timing of these stages are biologically determined, successful personality development depends on the experiences the child has during each stage. Although the details of Freud’s developmental theory have been widely criticized, his emphasis on the importance of early childhood experiences, prior to five years of age, has had a lasting impact.

Freud emphasized the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping our personality and behavior. In our natural state, we are biological beings. We are driven primarily by instincts. During childhood, however, we begin to become social beings as we learn how to manage our instincts and transform them into socially acceptable behaviors. The type of parenting the child receives has a very powerful impact on the child’s personality development. We will explore this idea further in our discussion of psychosexual development, but first, we must identify the parts of the “self” in Freud’s model, or in other words, what constitutes a person’s personality and makes us who we are.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and his stage theory of cognitive development revolutionized our view of children’s thinking and learning. His work inspired more research than any other theorist, and many of his concepts are still foundational to developmental psychology. His interest lay in children’s knowledge, their thinking, and the qualitative differences in their thinking as it develops. Although he called his field “genetic epistemology,” stressing the role of biological determinism, he also assigned great importance to experience. In his view, children “construct” their knowledge through processes of “assimilation,” in which they evaluate and try to understand new information, based on their existing knowledge of the world, and “accommodation,” in which they expand and modify their cognitive structures based on new experiences.

Modern developmental psychology generally focuses on how and why certain modifications throughout an individual’s life-cycle (cognitive, social, intellectual, personality) and human growth change over time. There are many theorists that have made, and continue to make, a profound contribution to this area of psychology, amongst whom is Erik Erikson who developed a model of eight stages of psychological development. He believed that humans developed in stages throughout their lifetimes and this would affect their behaviors. In this module, we’ll examine some of these major theories and contributions made by prominent psychologists.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory

Another psychologist who recognized the importance of the environment on development was American psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005), who formulated the ecological systems theory to explain how the inherent qualities of a child and their environment interact to influence how they will grow and develop. The term “ecological” refers to a natural environment; human development is understood through this model as a long-lasting transformation in the way one perceives and deals with the environment. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory stresses the importance of studying children in the context of multiple environments because children typically find themselves enmeshed simultaneously in different ecosystems. Each of these systems inevitably interact with and influence each other in every aspect of the child’s life, from the most intimate level to the broadest. Furthermore, he eventually renamed his theory the bioecological model in order to recognize the importance of biological processes in development. However, he only recognized biology as producing a person’s potential, with this potential being realized or not via environmental and social forces.

An individual is impacted by microsystems such as parents or siblings; those who have direct, significant contact with the person. The input of those people is modified by the cognitive and biological state of the individual as well. These influence the person’s actions, which in turn influence systems operating on them. The mesosystem includes larger organizational structures such as school, the family, or religion. These institutions impact the microsystems just described. For example, the religious teachings and traditions of a family may create a climate that makes the family feel stigmatized and this indirectly impacts the child’s view of themselves and others. The philosophy of the school system, daily routine, assessment methods, and other characteristics can affect the child’s self-image, growth, sense of accomplishment, and schedule, thereby impacting the child physically, cognitively, and emotionally. These mesosystems both influence and are influenced by the larger contexts of the community, referred to as the exosystem. A community’s values, history, and economy can impact the organizational structures it houses. And the community is influenced by macrosystems, which are cultural elements such as global economic conditions, war, technological trends, values, philosophies, and a society’s responses to the global community. In sum, a child’s experiences are shaped by larger forces such as the family, school, religion, and culture. All of this occurs within the relevant historical context and timeframe, or chronosystemThe chronosystem is made up of the environmental events and transitions that occur throughout a child’s life, including any socio-historical events. This system consists of all the experiences that a person has had during their lifetime.

Image of Brofenbrenner's system, displayed as a target. In the center circle is an individual, then the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, and the macrosystem.
Figure 5. Brofenbrenner’s ecological theory emphasizes the influence of microsystems, mesosystems, exosystems, and the macrosystems on an individual. Not pictured is the chronosystem, or the historical context and timeframe which provides the context for all the other systems. The chronosystem includes environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events.

Comparing and Evaluating Lifespan Theories

Developmental theories provide a set of guiding principles and concepts that describe and explain human development. Some developmental theories focus on the formation of a particular quality, such as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Other developmental theories focus on growth that happens throughout the lifespan, such as Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. It would be natural to wonder which of the perspectives provides the most accurate account of human development, but clearly, each perspective is based on its own premises and focuses on different aspects of development. Many lifespan developmentalists use an eclectic approach, drawing on several perspectives at the same time because the same developmental phenomenon can be looked at from a number of perspectives.

In the table below, we’ll review some of the major theories that you learned about in your introductory course and others that we will cover throughout this text. Recall that three key issues considered in human development examine if development is continuous or discontinuous, if it is the same for everyone or distinct for individuals (one course of development or many), and if development is more influenced by nature or by nurture. The table below reviews how each of these major theories approaches each of these issues.

Table 1. Major Theories in Human Development

Theory

Major ideas

Continuous or discontinuous development?

One course of development or many?

More influenced by nature or nurture?

Major Theorist(s) 

Psychosexual theory Behavior is motivated by inner forces, memories, and conflicts that are generally beyond people’s awareness and control. Emphasizes the unconscious, defense mechanisms, and influences of the id, ego, and superego. Discontinuous; there are distinct stages of development One course; stages are universal for everyone Both; natural impulses combined with early childhood experiences impact development Sigmund Freud
Psychosocial theory A person negotiates biological and sociocultural influences as they move through eight stages, each characterized by a psychosocial crisis:  trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame/doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority,  identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation, ego integrity vs. despair. Discontinuous; there are distinct stages of development One course; stages are universal for everyone Both; natural impulses combined with sociocultural experiences impact development Erik Erikson
Classical conditioning Learning by the association of a response with a stimulus; a person comes to respond in a particular way to a neutral stimulus that normally does not bring about that type of response. Continuous; learning is ongoing without distinct stages Many courses; learned behaviors vary by person Mostly nurture; behavior is conditioned Ivan Pavlov, John Watson
Operant conditioning Learning that occurs when a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened by its association with positive or negative consequences. Rewards and punishments can strengthen or discourage behaviors. Continuous; learning is ongoing without distinct stages Many courses; learned behaviors vary by person Mostly nurture; behavior is conditioned B.F. Skinner
Social cognitive theory (social learning theory) Learning occurs in a social context; considering the relationship between the environment and a person’s behavior. Learning can occur through observation. Continuous; learning is gradual and ongoing without distinct stages Many courses; learned behaviors vary by person Mostly nurture; behavior is observed and learned Albert Bandura
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development A theory about how people come to gradually acquire, construct, and use knowledge and information. It describes cognitive development through four distinct stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal. Discontinuous; there are distinct stages of development One course; stages are universal for everyone Both; natural impulses combined with experiences that challenge the existing schemas Jean Piaget
Information processing A theory that seeks to identify the ways individuals take in, use, and store information (sometimes compared to a computer). It is based on the idea that humans process the information they receive, rather than merely respond to stimuli. Continuous; cognitive development is gradual and ongoing without distinct stages One course; the model applies to everyone Both; natural cognitive development combined with experiences of processing information in new and different ways Richard Atkinson, Richard Shiffrin
Humanistic theories Theories that emphasizes an individual’s inherent drive towards self-actualization and contend that people have a natural capacity to make decisions about their lives and control their own behavior. Key terms and concepts include unconditional positive regard, striving for “the good life,” and the hierarchy of needs. Continuous; development is ongoing without distinct stages and can be multidirectional depending on environmental circumstances Mostly one course; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is universally applied, but there is an individual course for self-actualization Mostly nurture; development is influenced by environmental circumstances and social interactions Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow
Sociocultural theory Vygotsky’s theory that emphasizes how cognitive development proceeds as a result of social interactions between members of a culture. Key terms and concepts include the zone of proximal development and scaffolding. Both, but mostly continuous as an individual learns and progresses Many courses; there are variations between individuals and cultures Both; development is influenced by biological preparation and social experiences Lev Vygotsky
Bioecological systems model Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory stressing the importance of studying a child in the context of multiple environments, or ecological systems. It is organized into five levels of external influence: microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. Both; the influence of each system can be continuous or discontinuous depending on the system in question Many courses; the interaction of people and the environment varies Both; a person’s biological potential and the environment interact to impact development Urie Bronfenbrenner, Stephen Ceci
Evolutionary psychology theory A theory that seeks to identify behavior that is a result of our genetic inheritance from our ancestors. Continuous; current behaviors have been shaped over multiple generations based on successful survival and reproduction Both; behavioral genetics show similarities across the species, but our unique family history also plays a role in development Both; our genetic history and biological impulses interact with life experiences to produce individual development and development across the history and future of the species Charles Darwin, David Buss, Konrad Lorenz, Robert Sapolsky

 

Periods of Human Development

Think about the lifespan and make a list of what you would consider the basic periods of development. How many periods or stages are on your list? Perhaps you have three: childhood, adulthood, and old age. Or maybe four: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Developmentalists often break the lifespan into nine stages:

  1. Prenatal Development
  2. Infancy and Toddlerhood
  3. Early Childhood
  4. Middle Childhood
  5. Adolescence
  6. Emerging Adulthood
  7. Early Adulthood
  8. Middle Adulthood
  9. Late Adulthood

In addition, the topic of “Death and Dying” is usually addressed after late adulthood since overall, the likelihood of dying increases in later life (though individual and group variations exist). Death and dying will be the topic of our last module, though it is not necessarily a stage of development that occurs at a particular age.

The list of the periods of development reflects unique aspects of the various stages of childhood and adulthood that will be explored in this book, including physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes. So while both an 8-month-old and an 8-year-old are considered children, they have very different motor abilities, cognitive skills, and social relationships. Their nutritional needs are different, and their primary psychological concerns are also distinctive. The same is true of an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old, both considered adults. We will discover the distinctions between being 28 or 48 as well. But first, here is a brief overview of the stages.

 

Think It Over

Think about your own development. Which period or stage of development are you in right now? Are you dealing with similar issues and experiencing comparable physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development as described above? If not, why not? Are important aspects of development missing and if so, are they common for most of your cohort or unique to you?

What you’ll learn to do: explain the lifespan perspective

 Several people walking down a street shown from above

As we have learned, human development refers to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes and constancies in humans over time. There are various theories pertaining to each domain of development, and often theorists and researchers focus their attention on specific periods of development (with most traditionally focusing on infancy and childhood; some on adolescence). But isn’t it possible that development during one period affects development in other periods and that humans can grow and change across adulthood too? In this section, we’ll learn about development through the lifespan perspective, which emphasizes the multidimensional, interconnected, and ever-changing influences on development.

Learning outcomes

The Lifespan Perspective

Icon of a child, teenager, and adult.
Figure 1. Baltes’ lifespan perspective emphasizes that development is lifelong, multidimensional, multidirectional, plastic, contextual, and multidisciplinary. Think of ways your own development fits in with each of these concepts as you read about the terms in more detail.

Lifespan development involves the exploration of biological, cognitive, and psychosocial changes and constancies that occur throughout the entire course of life. It has been presented as a theoretical perspective, proposing several fundamental, theoretical, and methodological principles about the nature of human development. An attempt by researchers has been made to examine whether research on the nature of development suggests a specific metatheoretical worldview. Several beliefs, taken together, form the “family of perspectives” that contribute to this particular view.

German psychologist Paul Baltes, a leading expert on lifespan development and aging, developed one of the approaches to studying development called the lifespan perspective. This approach is based on several key principles:

Development is lifelong

Lifelong development means that development is not completed in infancy or childhood or at any specific age; it encompasses the entire lifespan, from conception to death. The study of development traditionally focused almost exclusively on the changes occurring from conception to adolescence and the gradual decline in old age; it was believed that the five or six decades after adolescence yielded little to no developmental change at all. The current view reflects the possibility that specific changes in development can occur later in life, without having been established at birth. The early events of one’s childhood can be transformed by later events in one’s life. This belief clearly emphasizes that all stages of the lifespan contribute to the regulation of the nature of human development.

Many diverse patterns of change, such as direction, timing, and order, can vary among individuals and affect the ways in which they develop. For example, the developmental timing of events can affect individuals in different ways because of their current level of maturity and understanding. As individuals move through life, they are faced with many challenges, opportunities, and situations that impact their development. Remembering that development is a lifelong process helps us gain a wider perspective on the meaning and impact of each event.

Development is multidimensional

By multidimensionality, Baltes is referring to the fact that a complex interplay of factors influence development across the lifespan, including biological, cognitive, and socioemotional changes. Baltes argues that a dynamic interaction of these factors is what influences an individual’s development.

For example, in adolescence, puberty consists of physiological and physical changes with changes in hormone levels, the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics, alterations in height and weight, and several other bodily changes. But these are not the only types of changes taking place; there are also cognitive changes, including the development of advanced cognitive faculties such as the ability to think abstractly. There are also emotional and social changes involving regulating emotions, interacting with peers, and possibly dating. The fact that the term puberty encompasses such a broad range of domains illustrates the multidimensionality component of development (think back to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial domains of human development we discussed earlier in this module).

Development is multidirectional

Baltes states that the development of a particular domain does not occur in a strictly linear fashion but that the development of certain traits can be characterized as having the capacity for both an increase and decrease in efficacy over the course of an individual’s life.

If we use the example of puberty again, we can see that certain domains may improve or decline in effectiveness during this time. For example, self-regulation is one domain of puberty that undergoes profound multidirectional changes during the adolescent period. During childhood, individuals have difficulty effectively regulating their actions and impulsive behaviors. Scholars have noted that this lack of effective regulation often results in children engaging in behaviors without fully considering the consequences of their actions. Over the course of puberty, neuronal changes modify this unregulated behavior by increasing the ability to regulate emotions and impulses. Inversely, the ability for adolescents to engage in spontaneous activity and creativity, both domains commonly associated with impulse behavior, decrease over the adolescent period in response to changes in cognition. Neuronal changes to the limbic system and prefrontal cortex of the brain, which begin in puberty lead to the development of self-regulation, and the ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions (though recent brain research reveals that this connection will continue to develop into early adulthood).

Extending on the premise of multidirectionality, Baltes also argued that development is influenced by the “joint expression of features of growth (gain) and decline (loss)”. This relation between developmental gains and losses occurs in a direction to selectively optimize particular capacities. This requires the sacrificing of other functions, a process known as selective optimization with compensation. According to the process of selective optimization, individuals prioritize particular functions above others, reducing the adaptive capacity of particulars for specialization and improved efficacy of other modalities.

The acquisition of effective self-regulation in adolescents illustrates this gain/loss concept. As adolescents gain the ability to effectively regulate their actions, they may be forced to sacrifice other features to selectively optimize their reactions. For example, individuals may sacrifice their capacity to be spontaneous or creative if they are constantly required to make thoughtful decisions and regulate their emotions. Adolescents may also be forced to sacrifice their fast reaction times toward processing stimuli in favor of being able to fully consider the consequences of their actions.

Development is plastic

Plasticity denotes intrapersonal variability and focuses heavily on the potentials and limits of the nature of human development. The notion of plasticity emphasizes that there are many possible developmental outcomes and that the nature of human development is much more open and pluralistic than originally implied by traditional views; there is no single pathway that must be taken in an individual’s development across the lifespan. Plasticity is imperative to current research because the potential for intervention is derived from the notion of plasticity in development. Undesired development or behaviors could potentially be prevented or changed.

As an example, recently researchers have been analyzing how other senses compensate for the loss of vision in blind individuals. Without visual input, blind humans have demonstrated that tactile and auditory functions still fully develop and they can use tactile and auditory cues to perceive the world around them. One experiment designed by Röder and colleagues (1999) compared the auditory localization skills of people who are blind with people who are sighted by having participants locate sounds presented either centrally or peripherally (lateral) to them. Both congenitally blind adults and sighted adults could locate a sound presented in front of them with precision but people who are blind were clearly superior in locating sounds presented laterally. Currently, brain-imaging studies have revealed that the sensory cortices in the brain are reorganized after visual deprivation. These findings suggest that when vision is absent in development, the auditory cortices in the brain recruit areas that are normally devoted to vision, thus becoming further refined.

A significant aspect of the aging process is cognitive decline. The dimensions of cognitive decline are partially reversible, however, because the brain retains the lifelong capacity for plasticity and reorganization of cortical tissue. Mahncke and colleagues developed a brain plasticity-based training program that induced learning in mature adults experiencing an age-related decline. This training program focused intensively on aural language reception accuracy and cognitively demanding exercises that have been proven to partially reverse the age-related losses in memory. It included highly rewarding novel tasks that required attention control and became progressively more difficult to perform. In comparison to the control group, who received no training and showed no significant change in memory function, the experimental training group displayed a marked enhancement in memory that was sustained at the 3-month follow-up period. These findings suggest that cognitive function, particularly memory, can be significantly improved in mature adults with age-related cognitive decline by using brain plasticity-based training methods.

Development is contextual

In Baltes’ theory, the paradigm of contextualism refers to the idea that three systems of biological and environmental influences work together to influence development. Development occurs in context and varies from person to person, depending on factors such as a person’s biology, family, school, church, profession, nationality, and ethnicity. Baltes identified three types of influences that operate throughout the life course: normative age-graded influences, normative history-graded influences, and nonnormative influences. Baltes wrote that these three influences operate throughout the life course, their effects accumulate with time, and, as a dynamic package, they are responsible for how lives develop.

Normative age-graded influences are those biological and environmental factors that have a strong correlation with chronological age, such as puberty or menopause, or age-based social practices such as beginning school or entering retirement. Normative history-graded influences are associated with a specific time period that defines the broader environmental and cultural context in which an individual develops. For example, development and identity are influenced by historical events of the people who experience them, such as the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the Cold War, the War on Terror, or advances in technology.

This has been exemplified in numerous studies, including Nesselroade and Baltes’, showing that the level and direction of change in adolescent personality development was influenced as strongly by the socio-cultural settings at the time (in this case, the Vietnam War) as age-related factors. The study involved individuals of four different adolescent age groups who all showed significant personality development in the same direction (a tendency to occupy themselves with ethical, moral, and political issues rather than cognitive achievement). Similarly, Elder showed that the Great Depression was a setting that significantly affected the development of adolescents and their corresponding adult personalities, by showing a similar common personality development across age groups. Baltes’ theory also states that the historical socio-cultural setting had an effect on the development of an individual’s intelligence. The areas of influence that Baltes thought most important to the development of intelligence were health, education, and work. The first two areas, health and education, significantly affect adolescent development because healthy children who are educated effectively will tend to develop a higher level of intelligence. The environmental factors, health and education, have been suggested by Neiss and Rowe to have as much effect on intelligence as inherited intelligence.

Nonnormative influences are unpredictable and not tied to a certain developmental time in a person’s development or to a historical period. They are the unique experiences of an individual, whether biological or environmental, that shape the development process. These could include milestones like earning a master’s degree or getting a certain job offer or other events like going through a divorce or coping with the death of a child.

The most important aspect of contextualism as a paradigm is that the three systems of influence work together to affect development. Concerning adolescent development, the age-graded influences would help to explain the similarities within a cohort, the history-graded influences would help to explain the differences between cohorts, and the nonnormative influences would explain the idiosyncrasies of each adolescent’s individual development. When all influences are considered together, it provides a broader explanation of an adolescent’s development.

Other Contextual Influences on Development: Cohort, Socioeconomic Status, and Culture

What is meant by the word “context”? It means that we are influenced by when and where we live. Our actions, beliefs, and values are a response to the circumstances surrounding us. Sternberg describes contextual intelligence as the ability to understand what is called for in a situation (Sternberg, 1996). The key here is to understand that behaviors, motivations, emotions, and choices are all part of a bigger picture. Our concerns are such because of who we are socially, where we live, and when we live; they are part of a social climate and set of realities that surround us. Important social factors include cohort, social class, gender, race, ethnicity, and age. Let’s begin by exploring two of these: cohort and social class. 

cohort is a group of people who are born at roughly the same time period in a particular society. Cohorts share histories and contexts for living. Members of a cohort have experienced the same historical events and cultural climates which have an impact on the values, priorities, and goals that may guide their lives.

Another context that influences our lives is our social standing, socioeconomic status, or social class. Socioeconomic status is a way to identify families and households based on their shared levels of education, income, and occupation. While there is certainly individual variation, members of a social class tend to share similar lifestyles, patterns of consumption, parenting styles, stressors, religious preferences, and other aspects of daily life.

Culture is often referred to as a blueprint or guideline shared by a group of people that specifies how to live. It includes ideas about what is right and wrong, what to strive for, what to eat, how to speak, what is valued, as well as what kinds of emotions are called for in certain situations. Culture teaches us how to live in a society and allows us to advance because each new generation can benefit from the solutions found and passed down from previous generations.

Culture is learned from parents, schools, churches, media, friends, and others throughout a lifetime. The kinds of traditions and values that evolve in a particular culture serve to help members function in their own society and to value their own society. We tend to believe that our own culture’s practices and expectations are the right ones. This belief that our own culture is superior is called ethnocentrism and is a normal by-product of growing up in a culture. It becomes a roadblock, however, when it inhibits understanding of cultural practices from other societies. Cultural relativity is an appreciation for cultural differences and the understanding that cultural practices are best understood from the standpoint of that particular culture.

Culture is an extremely important context for human development and understanding development requires being able to identify which features of development are culturally based. This understanding is somewhat new and still being explored. So much of what developmental theorists have described in the past has been culturally bound and difficult to apply to various cultural contexts. For example, Erikson’s theory that teenagers struggle with identity assumes that all teenagers live in a society in which they have many options and must make an individual choice about their future. In many parts of the world, one’s identity is determined by family status or society’s dictates. In other words, there is no choice to make.

Even the most biological events can be viewed in cultural contexts that are extremely varied. Consider two very different cultural responses to menstruation in young girls. In the United States, girls in public school often receive information on menstruation around 5th grade, get a kit containing feminine hygiene products, and receive some sort of education about sexual health. Contrast this with some developing countries where menstruation is not publicly addressed, or where girls on their period are forced to miss school due to limited access to feminine products or unjust attitudes about menstruation.

Development is Multidisciplinary

Any single discipline’s account of development across the lifespan would not be able to express all aspects of this theoretical framework. That is why it is suggested explicitly by lifespan researchers that a combination of disciplines is necessary to understand development. Psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, educators, economists, historians, medical researchers, and others may all be interested and involved in research related to the normative age-graded, normative history-graded, and nonnormative influences that help shape development. Many disciplines are able to contribute important concepts that integrate knowledge, which may ultimately result in the formation of a new and enriched understanding of development across the lifespan.

Think It Over

What you’ll learn to do: examine how to do research in lifespan development

Desk shown from above, pair of hands seen gesturing towards a graph

How do we know what changes and stays the same (and when and why) in lifespan development? We rely on research that utilizes the scientific method so that we can have confidence in the findings. How data are collected may vary by age group and by the type of information sought. The developmental design (for example, following individuals as they age over time or comparing individuals of different ages at one point in time) will affect the data and the conclusions that can be drawn from them about actual age changes. What do you think are the particular challenges or issues in conducting developmental research, such as with infants and children? Read on to learn more.

Learning outcomes

Research in Lifespan Development

How do we know what we know?

question mark
Figure 1. Scientific inquiry and questioning are critical in drawing conclusions about human development.

An important part of learning any science is having a basic knowledge of the techniques used in gathering information. The hallmark of scientific investigation is that of following a set of procedures designed to keep questioning or skepticism alive while describing, explaining, or testing any phenomenon. Not long ago a friend said to me that he did not trust academicians or researchers because they always seem to change their story. That, however, is exactly what science is all about; it involves continuously renewing our understanding of the subjects in question and an ongoing investigation of how and why events occur. Science is a vehicle for going on a never-ending journey. In the area of development, we have seen changes in recommendations for nutrition, in explanations of psychological states as people age, and in parenting advice. So think of learning about human development as a lifelong endeavor.

Personal Knowledge

How do we know what we know? Take a moment to write down two things that you know about childhood. Okay. Now, how do you know? Chances are you know these things based on your own history (experiential reality), what others have told you, or cultural ideas (agreement reality) (Seccombe and Warner, 2004). There are several problems with personal inquiry or drawing conclusions based on our personal experiences.

Our assumptions very often guide our perceptions, consequently, when we believe something, we tend to see it even if it is not there. Have you heard the saying, “seeing is believing”? Well, the truth is just the opposite: believing is seeing. This problem may just be a result of cognitive ‘blinders’ or it may be part of a more conscious attempt to support our own views. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for evidence that we are right and in so doing, we ignore contradictory evidence.

Philosopher Karl Popper suggested that the distinction between that which is scientific and that which is unscientific is that science is falsifiable; scientific inquiry involves attempts to reject or refute a theory or set of assumptions (Thornton, 2005). A theory that cannot be falsified is not scientific. And much of what we do in personal inquiry involves drawing conclusions based on what we have personally experienced or validating our own experience by discussing what we think is true with others who share the same views.

Science offers a more systematic way to make comparisons and guard against bias. One technique used to avoid sampling bias is to select participants for a study in a random way. This means using a technique to ensure that all members have an equal chance of being selected. Simple random sampling may involve using a set of random numbers as a guide in determining who is to be selected. For example, if we have a list of 400 people and wish to randomly select a smaller group or sample to be studied, we use a list of random numbers and select the case that corresponds with that number (Case 39, 3, 217, etc.). This is preferable to asking only those individuals with whom we are familiar to participate in a study; if we conveniently chose only people we know, we know nothing about those who had no opportunity to be selected. There are many more elaborate techniques that can be used to obtain samples that represent the composition of the population we are studying. But even though a randomly selected representative sample is preferable, it is not always used because of costs and other limitations. As a consumer of research, however, you should know how the sample was obtained and keep this in mind when interpreting results. It is possible that what was found was limited to that sample or similar individuals and not generalizable to everyone else.

Scientific Methods

The particular method used to conduct research may vary by discipline and since lifespan development is multidisciplinary, more than one method may be used to study human development. One method of scientific investigation involves the following steps:

The findings of these scientific studies can then be used by others as they explore the area of interest. Through this process, a literature or knowledge base is established. This model of scientific investigation presents research as a linear process guided by a specific research question. And it typically involves quantitative research, which relies on numerical data or using statistics to understand and report what has been studied.

Another model of research, referred to as qualitative research, may involve steps such as these:

In this type of research, theoretical ideas are “grounded” in the experiences of the participants. The researcher is the student and the people in the setting are the teachers as they inform the researcher of their world (Glazer & Strauss, 1967). Researchers should be aware of their own biases and assumptions, acknowledge them, and bracket them in efforts to keep them from limiting accuracy in reporting. Sometimes qualitative studies are used initially to explore a topic and more quantitative studies are used to test or explain what was first described.

A good way to become more familiar with these scientific research methods, both quantitative and qualitative, is to look at journal articles, which are written in sections that follow these steps in the scientific process. Most psychological articles and many papers in the social sciences follow the writing guidelines and format dictated by the American Psychological Association (APA). In general, the structure follows: abstract (summary of the article), introduction or literature review, methods explaining how the study was conducted, results of the study, discussion and interpretation of findings, and references.

Link to Learning

Brené Brown is a bestselling author and social work professor at the University of Houston. She conducts grounded theory research by collecting qualitative data from large numbers of participants. In Brené Brown’s TED Talk The Power of Vulnerability, Brown refers to herself as a storyteller-researcher as she explains her research process and summarizes her results.

Research Methods and Objectives

The main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive, or qualitative, studies. These studies are used to describe general or specific behaviors and attributes that are observed and measured. In the early stages of research, it might be difficult to form a hypothesis, especially when there is not any existing literature in the area. In these situations designing an experiment would be premature, as the question of interest is not yet clearly defined as a hypothesis. Often a researcher will begin with a non-experimental approach, such as a descriptive study, to gather more information about the topic before designing an experiment or correlational study to address a specific hypothesis. Some examples of descriptive questions include:

The main types of descriptive studies include observation, case studies, surveys, and content analysis (which we’ll examine further in the module). Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research, in which psychologists formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about how these conditions affect behavior. Some experimental research includes explanatory studies, which are efforts to answer the question “why” such as:

Evaluation research is designed to assess the effectiveness of policies or programs. For instance, research might be designed to study the effectiveness of safety programs implemented in schools for installing car seats or fitting bicycle helmets. Do children who have been exposed to the safety programs wear their helmets? Do parents use car seats properly? If not, why not?

Research Methods

We have just learned about some of the various models and objectives of research in lifespan development. Now we’ll dig deeper to understand the methods and techniques used to describe, explain, or evaluate behavior.

All types of research methods have unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions. For example, studies that rely primarily on observation produce incredible amounts of information, but the ability to apply this information to the larger population is somewhat limited because of small sample sizes. Survey research, on the other hand, allows researchers to easily collect data from relatively large samples. While this allows for results to be generalized to the larger population more easily, the information that can be collected on any given survey is somewhat limited and subject to problems associated with any type of self-reported data. Some researchers conduct archival research by using existing records. While this can be a fairly inexpensive way to collect data that can provide insight into a number of research questions, researchers using this approach have no control over how or what kind of data was collected.

Types of Descriptive Research

Observation

Observational studies, also called naturalistic observation, involve watching and recording the actions of participants. This may take place in the natural setting, such as observing children at play in a park, or behind a one-way glass while children are at play in a laboratory playroom. The researcher may follow a checklist and record the frequency and duration of events (perhaps how many conflicts occur among 2-year-olds) or may observe and record as much as possible about an event as a participant (such as attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and recording the slogans on the walls, the structure of the meeting, the expressions commonly used, etc.). The researcher may be a participant or a non-participant. What would be the strengths of being a participant? What would be the weaknesses?

In general, observational studies have the strength of allowing the researcher to see how people behave rather than relying on self-report. One weakness of self-report studies is that what people do and what they say they do are often very different. A major weakness of observational studies is that they do not allow the researcher to explain causal relationships. Yet, observational studies are useful and widely used when studying children. It is important to remember that most people tend to change their behavior when they know they are being watched (known as the Hawthorne effect) and children may not survey well.

Case Studies

Case studies involve exploring a single case or situation in great detail. Information may be gathered with the use of observation, interviews, testing, or other methods to uncover as much as possible about a person or situation. Case studies are helpful when investigating unusual situations such as brain trauma or children reared in isolation. And they are often used by clinicians who conduct case studies as part of their normal practice when gathering information about a client or patient coming in for treatment. Case studies can be used to explore areas about which little is known and can provide rich detail about situations or conditions. However, the findings from case studies cannot be generalized or applied to larger populations; this is because cases are not randomly selected and no control group is used for comparison. (Read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Dr. Oliver Sacks as a good example of the case study approach.)

A person is checking off boxes on a paper survey
Figure 2. A survey is a common tool for collecting research data.

Surveys

Surveys are familiar to most people because they are so widely used. Surveys enhance accessibility to subjects because they can be conducted in person, over the phone, through the mail, or online. A survey involves asking a standard set of questions to a group of subjects. In a highly structured survey, subjects are forced to choose from a response set such as “strongly disagree, disagree, undecided, agree, strongly agree”; or “0, 1-5, 6-10, etc.” Surveys are commonly used by sociologists, marketing researchers, political scientists, therapists, and others to gather information on many variables in a relatively short period of time. Surveys typically yield surface information on a wide variety of factors, but may not allow for an in-depth understanding of human behavior.

Surveys are useful in examining stated values, attitudes, opinions, and reporting on practices. However, they are based on self-report, or what people say they do rather than on observation, and this can limit accuracy. Validity refers to accuracy and reliability refers to consistency in responses to tests and other measures; great care is taken to ensure the validity and reliability of surveys.

Content Analysis

Content analysis involves looking at media such as old texts, pictures, commercials, lyrics, or other materials to explore patterns or themes in culture. An example of content analysis is the classic history of childhood by Aries (1962) called “Centuries of Childhood” or the analysis of television commercials for sexual or violent content or for ageism. Passages in text or television programs can be randomly selected for analysis as well. Again, one advantage of analyzing work such as this is that the researcher does not have to go through the time and expense of finding respondents, but the researcher cannot know how accurately the media reflects the actions and sentiments of the population.

Secondary content analysis, or archival research, involves analyzing information that has already been collected or examining documents or media to uncover attitudes, practices, or preferences. There are a number of data sets available to those who wish to conduct this type of research. The researcher conducting secondary analysis does not have to recruit subjects but does need to know the quality of the information collected in the original study. And unfortunately, the researcher is limited to the questions asked and data collected originally.

Correlational and Experimental Research

Correlational Research

When scientists passively observe and measure phenomena it is called correlational research. Here, researchers do not intervene and change behavior, as they do in experiments. In correlational research, the goal is to identify patterns of relationships, but not cause and effect. Importantly, with correlational research, you can examine only two variables at a time, no more and no less.

So, what if you wanted to test whether spending money on others is related to happiness, but you don’t have $20 to give to each participant in order to have them spend it for your experiment? You could use a correlational design—which is exactly what Professor Elizabeth Dunn (2008) at the University of British Columbia did when she conducted research on spending and happiness. She asked people how much of their income they spent on others or donated to charity, and later she asked them how happy they were. Do you think these two variables were related? Yes, they were! The more money people reported spending on others, the happier they were.

Understanding Correlation

 

Scatterplot of the association between happiness and ratings of the past month, a positive correlation (r = .81)
Figure 3. Scatterplot of the association between happiness and ratings of the past month, a positive correlation (r = .81). Each dot represents an individual.

With a positive correlation, the two variables go up or down together. In a scatterplot, the dots form a pattern that extends from the bottom left to the upper right (just as they do in Figure 1). The r value for a positive correlation is indicated by a positive number (although, the positive sign is usually omitted). Here, the r value is .81. For the example above, the direction of the association is positive. This means that people who perceived the past month as being good reported feeling happier, whereas people who perceived the month as being bad reported feeling less happy.

A negative correlation is one in which the two variables move in opposite directions. That is, as one variable goes up, the other goes down. Figure 2 shows the association between the average height of males in a country (y-axis) and the pathogen prevalence (or commonness of disease; x-axis) of that country. In this scatterplot, each dot represents a country. Notice how the dots extend from the top left to the bottom right. What does this mean in real-world terms? It means that people are shorter in parts of the world where there is more disease. The r-value for a negative correlation is indicated by a negative number—that is, it has a minus (–) sign in front of it. Here, it is –.83.

Scatterplot showing the association between average male height and pathogen prevalence, a negative correlation (r = –.83).
Figure 4. Scatterplot showing the association between average male height and pathogen prevalence, a negative correlation (r = –.83). Each dot represents a country (Chiao, 2009).

Experimental Research

Experiments are designed to test hypotheses (or specific statements about the relationship between variables) in a controlled setting in an effort to explain how certain factors or events produce outcomes. A variable is anything that changes in value. Concepts are operationalized or transformed into variables in research which means that the researcher must specify exactly what is going to be measured in the study. For example, if we are interested in studying marital satisfaction, we have to specify what marital satisfaction really means or what we are going to use as an indicator of marital satisfaction. What is something measurable that would indicate some level of marital satisfaction? Would it be the amount of time couples spend together each day? Or eye contact during a discussion about money? Or maybe a subject’s score on a marital satisfaction scale? Each of these is measurable but these may not be equally valid or accurate indicators of marital satisfaction. What do you think? These are the kinds of considerations researchers must make when working through the design.

The experimental method is the only research method that can measure cause and effect relationships between variables. Three conditions must be met in order to establish cause and effect. Experimental designs are useful in meeting these conditions:

A basic experimental design involves beginning with a sample (or subset of a population) and randomly assigning subjects to one of two groups: the experimental group or the control group. Ideally, to prevent bias, the participants would be blind to their condition (not aware of which group they are in) and the researchers would also be blind to each participant’s condition (referred to as “double blind“). The experimental group is the group that is going to be exposed to an independent variable or condition the researcher is introducing as a potential cause of an event. The control group is going to be used for comparison and is going to have the same experience as the experimental group but will not be exposed to the independent variable. This helps address the placebo effect, which is that a group may expect changes to happen just by participating. After exposing the experimental group to the independent variable, the two groups are measured again to see if a change has occurred. If so, we are in a better position to suggest that the independent variable caused the change in the dependent variable. The basic experimental model looks like this:

Table 1. Variables and Experimental and Control Groups

Sample is randomly assigned to one of the groups below:

Measure DV

Introduce IV

Measure DV

Experimental Group X X X
Control Group X X

The major advantage of the experimental design is that of helping to establish cause and effect relationships. A disadvantage of this design is the difficulty of translating much of what concerns us about human behavior into a laboratory setting.

Developmental Research Designs

Now you know about some tools used to conduct research about human development. Remember, research methods are tools that are used to collect information. But it is easy to confuse research methods and research design. Research design is the strategy or blueprint for deciding how to collect and analyze information. Research design dictates which methods are used and how. Developmental research designs are techniques used particularly in lifespan development research. When we are trying to describe development and change, the research designs become especially important because we are interested in what changes and what stays the same with age. These techniques try to examine how age, cohort, gender, and social class impact development.

Cross-sectional designs

The majority of developmental studies use cross-sectional designs because they are less time-consuming and less expensive than other developmental designs. Cross-sectional research designs are used to examine behavior in participants of different ages who are tested at the same point in time. Let’s suppose that researchers are interested in the relationship between intelligence and aging. They might have a hypothesis (an educated guess, based on theory or observations) that intelligence declines as people get older. The researchers might choose to give a certain intelligence test to individuals who are 20 years old, individuals who are 50 years old, and individuals who are 80 years old at the same time and compare the data from each age group. This research is cross-sectional in design because the researchers plan to examine the intelligence scores of individuals of different ages within the same study at the same time; they are taking a “cross-section” of people at one point in time. Let’s say that the comparisons find that the 80-year-old adults score lower on the intelligence test than the 50-year-old adults, and the 50-year-old adults score lower on the intelligence test than the 20-year-old adults. Based on these data, the researchers might conclude that individuals become less intelligent as they get older. Would that be a valid (accurate) interpretation of the results?

Text stating that the year of study is 2010 and an experiment looks at cohort A with 20 year olds, cohort B of 50 year olds and cohort C with 80 year olds
Figure 6. Example of cross-sectional research design

No, that would not be a valid conclusion because the researchers did not follow individuals as they aged from 20 to 50 to 80 years old. One of the primary limitations of cross-sectional research is that the results yield information about age differences not necessarily changes with age or over time. That is, although the study described above can show that in 2010, the 80-year-olds scored lower on the intelligence test than the 50-year-olds, and the 50-year-olds scored lower on the intelligence test than the 20-year-olds, the data used to come up with this conclusion were collected from different individuals (or groups of individuals). It could be, for instance, that when these 20-year-olds get older (50 and eventually 80), they will still score just as high on the intelligence test as they did at age 20. In a similar way, maybe the 80-year-olds would have scored relatively low on the intelligence test even at ages 50 and 20; the researchers don’t know for certain because they did not follow the same individuals as they got older.

It is also possible that the differences found between the age groups are not due to age, per se, but due to cohort effects. The 80-year-olds in this 2010 research grew up during a particular time and experienced certain events as a group. They were born in 1930 and are part of the Traditional or Silent Generation. The 50-year-olds were born in 1960 and are members of the Baby Boomer cohort. The 20-year-olds were born in 1990 and are part of the Millennial or Gen Y Generation. What kinds of things did each of these cohorts experience that the others did not experience or at least not in the same ways?

You may have come up with many differences between these cohorts’ experiences, such as living through certain wars, political and social movements, economic conditions, advances in technology, changes in health and nutrition standards, etc. There may be particular cohort differences that could especially influence their performance on intelligence tests, such as education level and use of computers. That is, many of those born in 1930 probably did not complete high school; those born in 1960 may have high school degrees, on average, but the majority did not attain college degrees; the young adults are probably current college students. And this is not even considering additional factors such as gender, race, or socioeconomic status. The young adults are used to taking tests on computers, but the members of the other two cohorts did not grow up with computers and may not be as comfortable if the intelligence test is administered on computers. These factors could have been a factor in the research results.

Another disadvantage of cross-sectional research is that it is limited to one time of measurement. Data are collected at one point in time and it’s possible that something could have happened in that year in history that affected all of the participants, although possibly each cohort may have been affected differently. Just think about the mindsets of participants in research that was conducted in the United States right after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Longitudinal research designs

Middle aged woman holding own photograph of her younger self.
Figure 7. Longitudinal research studies the same person or group of people over an extended period of time.

Longitudinal research involves beginning with a group of people who may be of the same age and background (cohort) and measuring them repeatedly over a long period of time. One of the benefits of this type of research is that people can be followed through time and be compared with themselves when they were younger; therefore changes with age over time are measured. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of longitudinal research? Problems with this type of research include being expensive, taking a long time, and subjects dropping out over time. Think about the film, 63 Up, part of the Up Series mentioned earlier, which is an example of following individuals over time. In the videos, filmed every seven years, you see how people change physically, emotionally, and socially through time; and some remain the same in certain ways, too. But many of the participants really disliked being part of the project and repeatedly threatened to quit; one disappeared for several years; another died before her 63rd year. Would you want to be interviewed every seven years? Would you want to have it made public for all to watch?   

Longitudinal research designs are used to examine behavior in the same individuals over time. For instance, with our example of studying intelligence and aging, a researcher might conduct a longitudinal study to examine whether 20-year-olds become less intelligent with age over time. To this end, a researcher might give an intelligence test to individuals when they are 20 years old, again when they are 50 years old, and then again when they are 80 years old. This study is longitudinal in nature because the researcher plans to study the same individuals as they age. Based on these data, the pattern of intelligence and age might look different than from the cross-sectional research; it might be found that participants’ intelligence scores are higher at age 50 than at age 20 and then remain stable or decline a little by age 80. How can that be when cross-sectional research revealed declines in intelligence with age?

The same person, "Person A" is 20 years old in 2010, 50 years old in 2040, and 80 in 2070.
Figure 8. Example of a longitudinal research design

Since longitudinal research happens over a period of time (which could be short term, as in months, but is often longer, as in years), there is a risk of attrition. Attrition occurs when participants fail to complete all portions of a study. Participants may move, change their phone numbers, die, or simply become disinterested in participating over time. Researchers should account for the possibility of attrition by enrolling a larger sample into their study initially, as some participants will likely drop out over time. There is also something known as selective attrition—this means that certain groups of individuals may tend to drop out. It is often the least healthy, least educated, and lower socioeconomic participants who tend to drop out over time. That means that the remaining participants may no longer be representative of the whole population, as they are, in general, healthier, better educated, and have more money. This could be a factor in why our hypothetical research found a more optimistic picture of intelligence and aging as the years went by. What can researchers do about selective attrition? At each time of testing, they could randomly recruit more participants from the same cohort as the original members, to replace those who have dropped out.

The results from longitudinal studies may also be impacted by repeated assessments. Consider how well you would do on a math test if you were given the exact same exam every day for a week. Your performance would likely improve over time, not necessarily because you developed better math abilities, but because you were continuously practicing the same math problems. This phenomenon is known as a practice effect. Practice effects occur when participants become better at a task over time because they have done it again and again (not due to natural psychological development). So our participants may have become familiar with the intelligence test each time (and with the computerized testing administration). Another limitation of longitudinal research is that the data are limited to only one cohort.

Sequential research designs

Sequential research designs include elements of both longitudinal and cross-sectional research designs. Similar to longitudinal designs, sequential research features participants who are followed over time; similar to cross-sectional designs, sequential research includes participants of different ages. This research design is also distinct from those that have been discussed previously in that individuals of different ages are enrolled into a study at various points in time to examine age-related changes, development within the same individuals as they age, and to account for the possibility of cohort and/or time of measurement effects. In 1965, K. Warner Schaie described particular sequential designs: cross-sequential, cohort sequential, and time-sequential. The differences between them depended on which variables were focused on for analyses of the data (data could be viewed in terms of multiple cross-sectional designs or multiple longitudinal designs or multiple cohort designs). Ideally, by comparing results from the different types of analyses, the effects of age, cohort, and time in history could be separated out.

Challenges Conducting Developmental Research

The previous sections describe research tools to assess development across the lifespan, as well as the ways that research designs can be used to track age-related changes and development over time. Before you begin conducting developmental research, however, you must also be aware that testing individuals of certain ages (such as infants and children) or making comparisons across ages (such as children compared to teens) comes with its own unique set of challenges. In the final section of this module, let’s look at some of the main issues that are encountered when conducting developmental research, namely ethical concerns, recruitment issues, and participant attrition.

Ethical Concerns

You may already know that Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) must review and approve all research projects that are conducted at universities, hospitals, and other institutions (each broad discipline or field, such as psychology or social work, often has its own code of ethics that must also be followed, regardless of institutional affiliation). An IRB is typically a panel of experts who read and evaluate proposals for research. IRB members want to ensure that the proposed research will be carried out ethically and that the potential benefits of the research outweigh the risks and potential harm (psychological as well as physical harm) for participants.

What you may not know though, is that the IRB considers some groups of participants to be more vulnerable or at-risk than others. Whereas university students are generally not viewed as vulnerable or at-risk, infants and young children commonly fall into this category. What makes infants and young children more vulnerable during research than young adults? One reason infants and young children are perceived as being at increased risk is due to their limited cognitive capabilities, which makes them unable to state their willingness to participate in research or tell researchers when they would like to drop out of a study. For these reasons, infants and young children require special accommodations as they participate in the research process. Similar issues and accommodations would apply to adults who are deemed to be of limited cognitive capabilities.

When thinking about special accommodations in developmental research, consider the informed consent process. If you have ever participated in scientific research, you may know through your own experience that adults commonly sign an informed consent statement (a contract stating that they agree to participate in research) after learning about a study. As part of this process, participants are informed of the procedures to be used in the research, along with any expected risks or benefits. Infants and young children cannot verbally indicate their willingness to participate, much less understand the balance of potential risks and benefits. As such, researchers are oftentimes required to obtain written informed consent from the parent or legal guardian of the child participant, an adult who is almost always present as the study is conducted. In fact, children are not asked to indicate whether they would like to be involved in a study at all (a process known as assent) until they are approximately seven years old. Because infants and young children cannot easily indicate if they would like to discontinue their participation in a study, researchers must be sensitive to changes in the state of the participant (determining whether a child is too tired or upset to continue) as well as to parent desires (in some cases, parents might want to discontinue their involvement in the research). As in adult studies, researchers must always strive to protect the rights and well-being of the minor participants and their parents when conducting developmental research.

Recruitment

An additional challenge in developmental science is participant recruitment. Recruiting university students to participate in adult studies is typically easy.  Unfortunately, young children cannot be recruited in this way. Given these limitations, how do researchers go about finding infants and young children to be in their studies?

The answer to this question varies along multiple dimensions. Researchers must consider the number of participants they need and the financial resources available to them, among other things. Location may also be an important consideration. Researchers who need large numbers of infants and children may attempt to recruit them by obtaining infant birth records from the state, county, or province in which they reside. Researchers can choose to pay a recruitment agency to contact and recruit families for them.  More economical recruitment options include posting advertisements and fliers in locations frequented by families, such as mommy-and-me classes, local malls, and preschools or daycare centers. Researchers can also utilize online social media outlets like Facebook, which allows users to post recruitment advertisements for a small fee. Of course, each of these different recruitment techniques requires IRB approval. And if children are recruited and/or tested in school settings, permission would need to be obtained ahead of time from teachers, schools, and school districts (as well as informed consent from parents or guardians).

And what about the recruitment of adults? While it is easy to recruit young college students to participate in research, some would argue that it is too easy and that college students are samples of convenience. They are not randomly selected from the wider population, and they may not represent all young adults in our society (this was particularly true in the past with certain cohorts, as college students tended to be mainly white males of high socioeconomic status). In fact, in the early research on aging, this type of convenience sample was compared with another type of convenience sample—young college students tended to be compared with residents of nursing homes! Fortunately, it didn’t take long for researchers to realize that older adults in nursing homes are not representative of the older population; they tend to be the oldest and sickest (physically and/or psychologically). Those initial studies probably painted an overly negative view of aging, as young adults in college were being compared to older adults who were not healthy, had not been in school nor taken tests in many decades, and probably did not graduate high school, let alone college. As we can see, recruitment and random sampling can be significant issues in research with adults, as well as infants and children. For instance, how and where would you recruit middle-aged adults to participate in your research?

Attrition

A tired looking mother closes her eyes and rubs her forehead as her baby cries.
Figure 10. Participating in developmental research can sometimes be difficult for both children and their parents. This can contribute to a higher attrition rate than is typical in other types of research. [Image: Tina Franklin, https://goo.gl/bN19Gm, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/5YbMw6]

 

Another important consideration when conducting research with infants and young children is attrition. Although attrition is quite common in longitudinal research in particular (see the previous section on longitudinal designs for an example of high attrition rates and selective attrition in lifespan developmental research), it is also problematic in developmental science more generally, as studies with infants and young children tend to have higher attrition rates than studies with adults.  Infants and young children are more likely to tire easily, become fussy, and lose interest in the study procedures than are adults. For these reasons, research studies should be designed to be as short as possible – it is likely better to break up a large study into multiple short sessions rather than cram all of the tasks into one long visit to the lab. Researchers should also allow time for breaks in their study protocols so that infants can rest or have snacks as needed. Happy, comfortable participants provide the best data.

Conclusions

Lifespan development is a fascinating field of study – but care must be taken to ensure that researchers use appropriate methods to examine human behavior, use the correct experimental design to answer their questions, and be aware of the special challenges that are part-and-parcel of developmental research. After reading this module, you should have a solid understanding of these various issues and be ready to think more critically about research questions that interest you. For example, what types of questions do you have about lifespan development? What types of research would you like to conduct? Many interesting questions remain to be examined by future generations of developmental scientists – maybe you will make one of the next big discoveries!

Woman reading to two young children

Lifespan development is the scientific study of how and why people change or remain the same over time. As we are beginning to see, lifespan development involves multiple domains and many ages and stages that are important in and of themselves, but that are also interdependent and dynamic and need to be viewed holistically. There are many influences on lifespan development at individual and societal levels (including genetics); cultural, generational, economic, and historical contexts are often significant. And how developmental research is designed and data are collected, analyzed, and interpreted can affect what is discovered about human development across the lifespan.

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Chapter 2: Genetics and Prenatal Development

2

Why learn about prenatal development and genetics?

Graphic of a fetus with umbilical cord

People endure quite an incredible journey before they are born. Think about it—when the timing and conditions are just right, a tiny egg releases from ovulation and a single sperm out of hundreds of millions unite to begin the process of fertilization. Genetic material from the mother and father join together to form a completely new organism. This new organism has to continue to travel and implant in the uterine wall in order to continue to grow and thrive. It is not an easy feat. It still must grow and develop for approximately 268 days before it begins life outside of the womb.

Today we have more knowledge and technology than ever before that has an impact on this process. We are privy to tests that can give us a wealth of information even before we conceive. We have the ability to know the genetic make-up of an embryo before it is implanted in the womb. If you could choose all of the features of your future baby, would you? What would be the pros and cons of this? New parents also have the choice of the prenatal care that they receive and how they want to prepare for labor and delivery. As you can see, the choices that are made along the way and the unforeseen surprises make for a unique pregnancy and birth story.

This module explores this journey and the development process from the moment of conception to delivery.

What you’ll learn to do: explain the role of genetics in prenatal development

Graphic of person looking through magnifying glass at DNA

In this section, we will look at some of the ways in which heredity helps to shape the way we are. Heredity involves more than genetic information from our parents. According to evolutionary psychology, our genetic inheritance comes from the most adaptive genes of our ancestors. We will look at what happens genetically during conception and take a brief look at some genetic abnormalities. Before going into these topics, however, it is important to emphasize the interplay between heredity and the environment. Why are you the way you are? As you consider some of your features (height, weight, personality, health, etc.), ask yourself whether these features are a result of heredity, or environmental factors, or both. Chances are, you can see the ways in which both heredity and environmental factors (such as lifestyle, diet, and so on) have contributed to these features.

Learning outcomes

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology

smiling couple
Figure 1. Evolutionary psychology examines the connection between biological adaptation and preferences in mate selection.

Evolutionary psychology focuses on how universal patterns of behavior and cognitive processes have evolved over time. Variations in cognition and behavior would make individuals more or less successful in reproducing and passing those genes to their offspring. Evolutionary psychologists study a variety of psychological phenomena that may have evolved as adaptations, including the fear response, food preferences, mate selection, and cooperative behaviors (Confer et al., 2010).

Many think of evolution as the development of traits and behaviors that allow us to survive this “dog-eat-dog” world, like strong leg muscles to run fast, or fists to punch and defend ourselves. However, physical survival is only important if it eventually contributes to successful reproduction. That is, even if you live to be 100 years old if you fail to mate and produce children, your genes will die with your body. Thus, reproductive success, not survival success, is the engine of evolution by natural selection.

Charles Darwin describes this process in the theory of evolution by natural selection. In simple terms, the theory states that organisms that are better suited for their environment will survive and reproduce, while those that are poorly suited for their environment will die off. There is a growing interest in applying the principles of evolutionary psychology to better understand lifespan development in humans.

 

The Evolutionary Perspective: Genetic Inheritance from our Ancestors

The fundamentals of the evolutionary perspective

Portrait of Charles Darwin.
Figure 6.  A portrait of Charles Robert Darwin. In the distant future, I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. — Darwin, Charles (1859). The Origin of Species . p. 488 – via Wikisource
One very influential approach in understanding human development is the evolutionary perspective, the final developmental perspective that we will consider. This perspective seeks to identify behavior that is the result of our genetic inheritance from our ancestors. Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective. It seeks to identify which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations – that is, the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection in human evolution.
David M. Buss is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, theorizing and researching human sex differences in mate selection. The primary topics of his research include male mating strategies, conflict between the sexes, social status, social reputation, prestige, the emotion of jealousy, homicide, anti-homicide defenses, and—most recently—stalking. All of these are approached from an evolutionary perspective.

Evolutionary psychology has its historical roots in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In The Origin of Species, Darwin predicted that psychology would develop an evolutionary basis and that a process of natural selection creates traits in a species that is adaptive to its environment.

Using Darwin’s arguments, evolutionary approaches claim that one’s genetic inheritance not only determine such physical traits as skin and eye color, but also certain personality traits and social behaviors. For example, some evolutionary developmental psychologists suggest that behavior such as shyness and jealousy may be produced in part by genetic causes, presumably because they helped increase the survival rates of human’s ancient relatives.

There is a general acceptance that Darwin’s evolutionary theory provides an accurate description of basic genetic processes and that the evolutionary perspective is increasingly visible in the field of lifespan development. However, applications of the evolutionary perspective have been subjected to considerable criticism. Some developmental psychologists are concerned about too much emphasis on genetic and biological aspects of behavior and suggest that the evolutionary perspective places insufficient attention on environmental and social factors involved in producing children’s and adults’ behavior. Other critics argue that there is no good way to experimentally test theories derived from this approach because humans evolved so long ago. For example, we may admit that jealousy helps individuals to survive more effectively, but how do we prove it. All things considered, however, the evolutionary approach is continually stimulating research on how our biological inheritance at least partially influences our traits and behaviors.

Lifespan Development and Evolutionary Psychology

As we consider development from conception through the lifespan, there will be many opportunities to understand how evolutionary psychology enhances our understanding of development. For instance, women and men do differ in their preferences for a few key qualities in long-term mating, because of somewhat distinct adaptive concerns. Modern women have inherited the evolutionary trait to desire mates who possess resources, have qualities linked with acquiring resources (e.g., ambition, wealth, industriousness), and are willing to share those resources with them. On the other hand, men more strongly desire youth and health in women, as both are cues to fertility. These male and female differences have historically been universal in humans.

Just because a psychological adaptation was advantageous in our history, does not mean it’s still useful today. For example, even though women may have preferred men with resources in previous generations, our modern society has advanced such that these preferences are no longer necessary. Nonetheless, it’s important to consider how our evolutionary history has shaped our automatic or “instinctual” desires and reflexes of today so that we can better shape them for the future ahead.

As we follow the journey of life, from conception to death, think about how the theory of natural selection and the concepts of evolutionary psychology can enlighten our understanding of why some automatic reflexes or instinctual desires are more common than others. Remember that the end product of the theory of evolution by natural selection is successful survival and reproduction. Can you think of some ways that the ultimate goal of reproductive success affects our selection of a mate, how we parent young children, why we are motivated to achieve certain goals, or what differentiates families with traditionally longer lifespans? In order to achieve reproductive success, the theory of evolution by natural selection states that organisms should be suited to their environment. Think about how different environments or cultures require different traits for successful survival and reproduction. Can you think of some ways that we may be changing to be better suited to our changing culture?

Link to Learning

David Buss is one of the leading researchers in evolutionary psychology. In David Buss’s Ted Talk, he explains several theories related to the selection of sexual partners, mating preferences, and infidelity.

 

Heredity and Chromosomes

female reproductive system diagram showing the vagina, cervix, uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.
Figure 2. The Female Reproductive System.

Gametes

There are two types of sex cells or gametes involved in reproduction: the male gametes, or sperm, and female gametes, or ova. The male gametes are produced in the testes through a process called spermatogenesis, which begins at about 12 years of age. The female gametes, which are stored in the ovaries, are present at birth but are immature. Each ovary contains about 250,000 ova but only about 400 of these will become mature eggs (Mackon & Fauser, 2000; Rome, 1998). Beginning at puberty, one ovum ripens and is released about every 28 days, a process called oogenesis.

After the ovum or egg ripens and is released from the ovary, it is drawn into the fallopian tube and in 3 to 4 days, reaches the uterus. It is typically fertilized in the fallopian tube and continues its journey to the uterus. At ejaculation, millions of sperm are released into the vagina, but only a few reach the egg and typically, only one fertilizes the egg. Once a single sperm has entered the wall of the egg, the wall becomes hard and prevents other sperm from entering. After the sperm has entered the egg, the tail of the sperm breaks off and the head of the sperm, containing the genetic information from the father, unites with the nucleus of the egg. As a result, a new cell is formed. This cell, containing the combined genetic information from both parents, is referred to as a zygote.

Chromosomes

While other normal human cells have 46 chromosomes (or 23 pairs), gametes contain 23 chromosomes. Chromosomes are long threadlike structures found in a cell nucleus that contains genetic material known as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is a helix-shaped molecule made up of nucleotide base pairs [adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T)]. In each chromosome, sequences of DNA make up genes that control or partially control a number of visible characteristics, known as traits, such as eye color, hair color, and so on. A single gene may have multiple possible variations or alleles. An allele is a specific version of a gene. So, a given gene may code for the trait of hair color, and the different alleles of that gene affect which hair color an individual has.

DNA strand showing the double strands, with the base pairs adenine, thyamine, guanine, and cytonine between.
Figure 3. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a helix-shaped molecule made up of nucleotide base pairs. Sequences of DNA make up genes.

In a process called meiosis, segments of the chromosomes from each parent form pairs, and genetic segments are exchanged as determined by chance. Because of the unpredictability of this exchange, the likelihood of having offspring that are genetically identical (and not twins) is one in trillions (Gould & Keeton, 1997). Genetic variation is important because it allows a species to adapt so that those who are better suited to the environment will survive and reproduce, which is an important factor in natural selection.

Genotypes and Phenotypes

When a sperm and egg fuse, their 23 chromosomes pair up and create a zygote with 23 pairs of chromosomes. Therefore, each parent contributes half the genetic information carried by the offspring; the resulting physical characteristics of the offspring (called the phenotype) are determined by the interaction of genetic material supplied by the parents (called the genotype). A person’s genotype is the genetic makeup of that individual. Phenotype, on the other hand, refers to the individual’s inherited physical characteristics.

Look in the mirror. What do you see, your genotype or your phenotype? What determines whether or not genes are expressed? Actually, this is quite complicated. Some features follow the additive pattern which means that many different genes contribute to a final outcome. Height and skin tone are examples. In other cases, a gene might either be turned on or off depending on several factors, including the gene with which it is paired or the inherited epigenetic tags.

Link To learning

Visit the webpage “What are DNA and Genes?” from the University of Utah to better understand DNA and genes, then watch the video “What is Inheritance?” to learn how the genes from parents pass on genetic information to their children.

Determining the Sex of the Child

Twenty-two of those chromosomes from each parent are similar in length to a corresponding chromosome from the other parent. However, the remaining chromosome looks like an X or a Y. Half of the male’s sperm contains a Y chromosome and half contain an X. All of the ova contain X chromosomes. If the child receives the combination of XY, the child will be genetically male. If it receives the XX combination, the child will be genetically female.

Many potential parents have a clear preference for having a boy or a girl and would like to determine the sex of the child. Through the years, a number of tips have been offered for potential parents to maximize their chances of having either a son or daughter as they prefer. However, there is not much scientific evidence to back these claims. Today, however, there is new technology available called sperm sorting that makes it possible to isolate sperm containing either an X or a Y, depending on the preference, and use that sperm to fertilize a mother’s egg. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) could also be used to select only embryos of the desired sex to be implanted during in-vitro fertilization (IVF). However, these methods are controversial and both fertility centers and medical organizations discourage it if there is no real medical reason to select gender.

Genetic Variation and Inheritance

Genetic variation, the genetic difference between individuals, is what contributes to a species’ adaptation to its environment. In humans, genetic variation begins with an egg, several million sperm, and fertilization. The egg and the sperm each contain 23 chromosomes, which make up our genes. A single gene may have multiple possible variations or alleles (a specific version of a gene), resulting in a variety of combinations of inherited traits.

Genetic inheritance of traits for humans is based upon Gregor Mendel’s model of inheritance. For genes on an autosome (any chromosome other than a sex chromosome), the alleles and their associated traits are autosomal dominant or autosomal recessive. In this model, some genes are considered dominant because they will be expressed. Others, termed recessive, are only expressed in the absence of a dominant gene. Some characteristics which were once thought of as dominant-recessive, such as eye color, are now believed to be a result of the interaction between several genes (McKusick, 1998). Dominant traits include curly hair, facial dimples, normal vision, and dark hair. Recessive characteristics include red hair, pattern baldness, and nearsightedness.

Sickle cell anemia is an autosomal recessive disease; Huntington’s disease is an autosomal dominant disease. Other traits are a result of partial dominance or co-dominance in which both genes are influential. For example, if a person inherits both recessive genes for cystic fibrosis, the disease will occur. But if a person has only one recessive gene for the disease, the person would be a carrier of the disease.

In this example, we will call the normal gene “N,” and the gene for cystic fibrosis “c.” The normal gene is dominant, which means that having the dominant allele either from one parent (Nc) or both parents (NN) will always result in the phenotype associated with the dominant allele. When someone has two copies of the same allele, they are said to be homozygous for that allele. When someone has a combination of alleles for a given gene, they are said to be heterozygous. For example, cystic fibrosis is a recessive disease which means that an individual will only have the disease if they are homozygous for that recessive allele (cc).

Imagine that a woman who is a carrier of the cystic fibrosis gene has a child with a man who also is a carrier of the same disease. What are the odds that their child would inherit the disease? Both the woman and the man are heterozygous for this gene (Nc).  We can expect the offspring to have a 25% chance of having cystic fibrosis (cc), a 50% chance of being a carrier of the disease (Nc), and a 25% chance of receiving two normal copies of the gene (NN).

Punnett square showing traits from a mother and father. The mother is Nc and the Father is Nc, so there is a table with four combinations of NN, Nc, Nc, and cc
Figure 4. A Punnett square is a tool used to predict how genes will interact in the production of offspring. The capital N represents the dominant allele, and the lowercase c represents the recessive allele. In the example of cystic fibrosis, where N is the normal gene (dominant allele), wherever a pair contains the dominant allele, N, you can expect a phenotype that does not express the disease. You can expect a cystic fibrosis phenotype only when there are two copies of the c (recessive allele) which contains the gene mutation that causes the disease.

Where do harmful genes that contribute to diseases like cystic fibrosis come from? Gene mutations provide one source of harmful genes. A mutation is a sudden, permanent change in a gene. While many mutations can be harmful or lethal, once in a while a mutation benefits an individual by giving that person an advantage over those who do not have the mutation. Recall that the theory of evolution asserts that individuals best adapted to their particular environments are more likely to reproduce and pass on their genes to future generations. In order for this process to occur, there must be competition—more technically, there must be variability in genes (and resultant traits) that allow for variation in adaptability to the environment. If a population consisted of identical individuals, then any dramatic changes in the environment would affect everyone in the same way, and there would be no variation in selection. In contrast, diversity in genes and associated traits allow some individuals to perform slightly better than others when faced with environmental change. This creates a distinct advantage for individuals best suited for their environments in terms of successful reproduction and genetic transmission.

Link to Learning

Visit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to learn more about cystic fibrosis and learn how a mutation in DNA leads to the disease.

Chromosomal Abnormalities and Genetic Testing

Chromosomal Abnormalities

PIcture of chromosomes showing three possible mutations. The first image shows the chromosome on the left with removed chromosomes. The second shows chromosomes that get duplicated and appear twice on the right. The third shows portions of a chromosome that get switched into a different order.
Figure 5. The three major single chromosome mutations: deletion (1), duplication (2), and inversion (3).

A chromosomal abnormality occurs when a child inherits too many or too few chromosomes. The most common cause of chromosomal abnormalities is the age of the mother. A 20-year-old woman has a 1 in 800 chance of having a child with a common chromosomal abnormality. A woman of 44, however, has a one in 16 chance. It is believed that the problem occurs when the ovum is ripening prior to ovulation each month. As the mother ages, the ovum is more likely to suffer abnormalities at this time.

Another common cause of chromosomal abnormalities occurs because the gametes do not divide evenly when they are forming. Therefore, some cells have more than 46 chromosomes. In fact, it is believed that close to half of all zygotes have an odd number of chromosomes. Most of these zygotes fail to develop and are spontaneously aborted by the body. If the abnormal number occurs on pair # 21 or # 23, however, the individual may have certain physical or other abnormalities.

An altered chromosome structure may take several different forms, and result in various disorders or malignancies:

One of the most common chromosomal abnormalities is on pair # 21. Trisomy 21 occurs when there are three rather than two chromosomes on #21. A person with Down syndrome has distinct facial features, intellectual disability, and oftentimes heart and gastrointestinal disorders. Symptoms vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe. With early intervention, the life expectancy of persons with Down syndrome has increased in recent years. Keep in mind that there is as much variation in people with Down Syndrome as in most populations and those differences need to be recognized and appreciated.

When the chromosomal abnormality is on pair #23, the result is a sex-linked chromosomal abnormality. A person might have XXY, XYY, XXX, XO, or 45 or 47 chromosomes as a result. Two of the more common sex-linked chromosomal disorders are Turner syndrome and Klinefelter syndrome. Turner’s syndrome occurs in 1 of every 2,500 live female births  when an ovum that lacks a chromosome is fertilized by a sperm with an X chromosome (Carroll, 2007). The resulting zygote has an XO composition. Fertilization by a Y sperm is not viable. Turner syndrome affects cognitive functioning and sexual maturation. The external genitalia appear normal, but breasts and ovaries do not develop fully and the woman does not menstruate. Turner’s syndrome also results in short stature and other physical characteristics.  Klinefelter syndrome (XXY) occurs in 1 out of 700 live male births and results when an ovum containing an extra X chromosome is fertilized by a Y sperm. The Y chromosome stimulates the growth of male genitalia, but the additional X chromosome inhibits this development. An individual with Klinefelter syndrome has some breast development, infertility (this is the most common cause of infertility in males), and has low levels of testosterone.

Prenatal Testing

Prenatal testing consists of prenatal screening and prenatal diagnosis, which are aspects of prenatal care that focus on detecting problems with the pregnancy as early as possible. These may be anatomic and physiologic problems with the health of the zygote, embryo, or fetus, either before gestation even starts or as early in gestation as practical. Prenatal screening focuses on finding problems among a large population with affordable and noninvasive methods. The most common screening procedures are routine ultrasounds, blood tests, and blood pressure measurement. Prenatal diagnosis focuses on pursuing additional detailed information once a particular problem has been found, and can sometimes be more invasive.

Screening can detect problems such as neural tube defects, anatomical defects, chromosome abnormalities, and gene mutations that would lead to genetic disorders and birth defects, such as spina bifida, cleft palate, Downs Syndrome, Tay–Sachs disease, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and fragile X syndrome. Some tests are designed to discover problems that primarily affect the health of the mother, such as PAPP-A to detect pre-eclampsia or glucose tolerance tests to diagnose gestational diabetes. Screening can also detect anatomical defects such as hydrocephalus, anencephaly, heart defects, and amniotic band syndrome.

Common prenatal diagnosis procedures include amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling. Because of the miscarriage and fetal damage risks associated with amniocentesis and CVS procedures, many women prefer to first undergo screening so they can find out if the fetus’ risk of birth defects is high enough to justify the risks of invasive testing. Screening tests yield a risk score which represents the chance that the baby has the birth defect; the most common threshold for high-risk is 1:270. A risk score of 1:300 would, therefore, be considered low-risk by many physicians. However, the trade-off between the risk of birth defects and risk of complications from invasive testing is relative and subjective; some parents may decide that even a 1:1000 risk of birth defects warrant an invasive test while others wouldn’t opt for an invasive test even if they had a 1:10 risk score.

There are three main purposes of prenatal diagnosis: (1) to enable timely medical or surgical treatment of a condition before or after birth, (2) to give the parents the chance to abort a fetus with the diagnosed condition, and (3) to give parents the chance to prepare psychologically, socially, financially, and medically for a baby with a health problem or disability, or for the likelihood of stillbirth. Having this information in advance of birth means that healthcare staff, as well as parents, can better prepare themselves for the delivery of a child with a health problem. For example, Down Syndrome is associated with cardiac defects that may need intervention immediately upon birth.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) guidelines currently recommend that all pregnant women, regardless of age, be offered invasive testing to obtain a definitive diagnosis of certain birth defects. Therefore, most physicians offer diagnostic testing to all their patients, with or without prior screening, and let the patient decide.

Behavioral Genetics

Behavioral geneticists study how individual differences arise, in the present, through the interaction of genes and the environment. When studying human behavior, behavioral geneticists often employ twin and adoption studies to research questions of interest. Twin studies compare the rates that a given behavioral trait is shared among identical and fraternal twins; adoption studies compare those rates among biologically related relatives and adopted relatives. Both approaches provide some insight into the relative importance of genes and environment for the expression of a given trait.

The evolutionary perspective encompasses one of the fastest-growing areas within the field of lifespan development: behavioral genetics. Behavioral genetics is a field of scientific research that uses genetic methods to investigate the nature and origins of individual differences in behavior and studies the effects of heredity on behavior. Behavioral geneticists strive to understand how we might inherit certain behavioral traits and how the environment influences whether we actually displayed those traits. It also considers how genetic factors may influence psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and substance abuse.

Nature or Nurture?

For decades, scholars have carried on the “nature/nurture” debate. For any particular feature, those on the “nature” side would argue that heredity plays the most important role in bringing about that feature. Those on the “nurture” side would argue that one’s environment is most significant in shaping the way we are. This debate continues in questions about what makes us masculine or feminine (Lippa, 2002), concerns about vision (Mutti, Kadnik, & Adams, 1996), and many other developmental issues.

Most scholars agree that there is a constant interplay between the two forces. It is difficult to isolate the root of any single behavior as a result solely of nature or nurture, and most scholars believe that even determining the extent to which nature or nurture impacts a human feature is difficult to answer. In fact, almost all human features are polygenic (a result of many genes) and multifactorial (a result of many factors, both genetic and environmental). It is as if one’s genetic make-up sets up a range of possibilities, which may or may not be realized depending upon one’s environmental experiences. For instance, a person might be genetically predisposed to develop diabetes, but the person’s lifestyle may help bring about the disease.

When you think about your own family history, it is easy to see that there are certain personality traits, behavioral characteristics, and medical conditions that are more common than others. This is the reason that doctors ask you about your family medical history. While genetic predisposition is important to consider, there are some family members who, for a variety of reasons, seemed to defy the odds of developing these conditions. These differences can be explained in part by the effect of epigenetic (above the genome) changes.

The Epigenetic Framework

The term “epigenetic” has been used in developmental psychology to describe psychological development as the result of an ongoing, bi-directional interchange between heredity and the environment. Gottlieb (1998; 2000; 2002) suggests an analytic framework for the nature/nurture debate that recognizes the interplay between the environment, behavior, and genetic expression. This bidirectional interplay suggests that the environment can affect the expression of genes just as genetic predispositions can impact a person’s potentials. Likewise, environmental circumstances can trigger symptoms of a genetic disorder. For example, a person predisposed genetically for type 2 diabetes may trigger the disease through poor diet and little exercise.

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote of an epigenetic principle in his book Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968), encompassing the notion that we develop through an unfolding of our personality in predetermined stages, and that our environment and surrounding culture influence how we progress through these stages. This biological unfolding in relation to our socio-cultural settings is done in stages of psychosocial development, where “progress through each stage is in part determined by our success, or lack of success, in all the previous stages.”

In typical human families, children’s biological parents raise them, so it is very difficult to know whether children act like their parents due to genetic (nature) or environmental (nurture) reasons. Nevertheless, despite our restrictions on setting up human-based experiments, we do see real-world examples of nature-nurture at work in the human sphere—though they only provide partial answers to our many questions. The science of how genes and environments work together to influence behavior is called behavioral genetics. The easiest opportunity we have to observe this is the adoption study. When children are put up for adoption, the parents who give birth to them are no longer the parents who raise them. Children aren’t assigned to random adoptive parents in order to suit the particular interests of a scientist but adoption still tells us some interesting things, or at least confirms some basic expectations. For instance, if the biological child of tall parents were adopted into a family of short people, do you suppose the child’s growth would be affected? What about the biological child of a Spanish-speaking family adopted at birth into an English-speaking family? What language would you expect the child to speak? And what might these outcomes tell you about the difference between height and language in terms of nature-nurture?

Monozygotic and Dizygotic Twins

Another option for observing nature-nurture in humans involves twin studies. To analyze nature-nurture using twins, we compare the similarity of monozygotic and dizygotic pairs. Monozygotic twins occur when a single zygote or fertilized egg splits apart in the first two weeks of development. The result is the creation of two separate but genetically identical offspring. About one-third of twins are monozygotic twins. Monozygotic twins occur in birthing at a rate of about 3 in every 1000 deliveries worldwide (about 0.3% of the world population). Monozygotic twins are genetically nearly identical and they are always the same sex unless there has been a mutation during development. The children of monozygotic twins test genetically as half-siblings (or full siblings, if a pair of monozygotic twins reproduces with another pair of identical twins or with the same person), rather than first cousins.

Sometimes two eggs or ova are released and fertilized by two separate sperm. The result is dizygotic or fraternal twins. About two-thirds of twins are dizygotic. These two individuals share the same amount of genetic material as would any two children from the same mother and father. Older mothers are more likely to have dizygotic twins than are younger mothers and couples who use fertility drugs are also more likely to give birth to dizygotic twins. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of fraternal twins in recent years (Bortolus et al., 1999). In vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques are more likely to create dizygotic twins. For IVF deliveries, there are nearly 21 pairs of twins for every 1,000.

In the uterus, a majority of monozygotic twins (60–70%) share the same placenta but have separate amniotic sacs. The placenta is a temporary organ that connects the developing fetus via the umbilical cord to the uterine wall to allow nutrient uptake, thermo-regulation, waste elimination, and gas exchange via the mother’s blood supply.  The amniotic sac (also called the bag of waters or the membranes), is a thin but tough transparent pair of membranes that hold a developing embryo (and later fetus) until shortly before birth. In 18–30% of monozygotic twins each fetus has a separate placenta and a separate amniotic sac. A small number (1–2%) of monozygotic twins share the same placenta and amniotic sac. Fraternal twins each have their own placenta and own amniotic sac.

Diagram showing the identical twins come from one egg dividing, then having a shared placenta. Fraternal twins come from separate eggs and have their own placentas.
Figure 7. Monozygotic twins come from a single zygote and generally share the same placenta, although some (18-30%) have separate placentas. Dizygotic twins come from two separately fertilized eggs and have their own placentas and amniotic sacs.

Monozygotic (one egg/identical) twins can be categorized into four types depending on the timing of the separation and duplication of cells. Various types of chorionicity and amniosity (how the baby’s sac looks) in monozygotic twins are a result of when the fertilized egg divides. This is known as placentation.

Diagram showing ways that twins are formed.
Figure 8. Various types of chorionicity and amniosity (how the baby’s sac looks) in monozygotic (one egg/identical) twins as a result of when the fertilized egg divides (Author Kevin Dufenbach)

Conjoined twins

Conjoined twins are monozygotic twins whose bodies are joined together during pregnancy. This occurs when the zygote starts to split after day 12 following fertilization and fails to separate completely. This condition occurs in about 1 in 50,000 human pregnancies. Most conjoined twins are now evaluated for surgery to attempt to separate them into separate functional bodies. The degree of difficulty rises if a vital organ or structure is shared between twins, such as the brain, heart, or liver.

Vanishing twins

Researchers suspect that as many as 1 in 8 pregnancies start out as multiples, but only a single fetus is brought to full term because the other fetus has died very early in the pregnancy and has not been detected or recorded. Early obstetric ultrasonography exams sometimes reveal an “extra” fetus, which fails to develop and instead disintegrates and vanishes in the uterus. There are several reasons for the “vanishing” fetus, including it being embodied or absorbed by the other fetus, placenta or the mother. This is known as vanishing twin syndrome. Also, in an unknown proportion of cases, two zygotes may fuse soon after fertilization, resulting in a single chimeric embryo, and, later, fetus.

Twin Studies

Using the features of height and spoken language as examples, let’s take a look at how nature and nurture apply: identical twins, unsurprisingly, are almost perfectly similar for height. The heights of fraternal twins, however, are like any other sibling pairs: more similar to each other than to people from other families, but hardly identical. This contrast between twin types gives us a clue about the role genetics plays in determining height.

Identical twins Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, the Les Twins.
Figure 9. Identical twins Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, also known as the Les Twins, are internationally renowned dancers.

 

Now consider spoken language. If one identical twin speaks Spanish at home, the co-twin with whom she is raised almost certainly does too. But the same would be true for a pair of fraternal twins raised together. In terms of spoken language, fraternal twins are just as similar as identical twins, so it appears that the genetic match of identical twins doesn’t make much difference.

Twin and adoption studies are two instances of a much broader class of methods for observing nature-nurture called quantitative genetics, the scientific discipline in which similarities among individuals are analyzed based on how biologically related they are. We can do these studies with siblings and half-siblings, cousins, and twins who have been separated at birth and raised separately (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, & Segal, 1990). Such twins are very rare and play a smaller role than is commonly believed in the science of nature-nurture, or with entire extended families (Plomin, DeFries, Knopik, & Neiderhiser, 2012).

It would be satisfying to be able to say that nature-nurture studies have given us conclusive and complete evidence about where traits come from, with some traits clearly resulting from genetics and others almost entirely from environmental factors, such as child-rearing practices and personal will; but that is not the case. Instead, everything has turned out to have some footing in genetics. The more genetically-related people are, the more similar they are—for everything: height, weight, intelligence, personality, mental illness, etc. Sure, it seems like common sense that some traits have a genetic bias. For example, adopted children resemble their biological parents even if they have never met them, and identical twins are more similar to each other than are fraternal twins. And while certain psychological traits, such as personality or mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia), seem reasonably influenced by genetics, it turns out that the same is true for political attitudes, how much television people watch (Plomin, Corley, DeFries, & Fulker, 1990), and whether or not they get divorced (McGue & Lykken, 1992).

What you’ll learn to do: explain the main stages of prenatal development

Graphic of stages of pregnancy from conception to birth

How did you come to be who you are? From beginning as a one-cell structure to your birth, your prenatal development occurred in an orderly and delicate sequence. There are three stages of prenatal development: germinal, embryonic, and fetal. Keep in mind that this is different than the three trimesters of pregnancy. Let’s take a look at what happens to the developing baby in each of these stages.

Learning outcomes

Prenatal Development

“The body of the unborn baby is more complex than ours. The preborn baby has several extra parts to his body which he needs only so long as he lives inside his mother. He has his own space capsule, the amniotic sac. He has his own lifeline, the umbilical cord, and he has his own root system, the placenta. These all belong to the baby himself, not to his mother. They are all developed from his original cell.”

 

WATCH IT: TED-ED: The Surprising Effects of Pregnancy on the Mother: Muscles and joints shift and jostle. The heart’s pounding rhythm speeds up. Blood roars through arteries and veins. Over the course of a pregnancy, every organ in the body changes. Initiated by a range of hormones, these changes begin as soon as pregnancy begins. Explore what we know— and don’t know— about pregnancy’s effects on the body and brain.

Periods of Prenatal Development

Let’s take a look at some of the changes that take place during each of the three periods of prenatal development: the germinal period, the embryonic period, and the fetal period.

The Germinal Period (Weeks 1-2)

magnified photo of sperm approaching ovum.
Figure 1. Sperm and Ovum at Conception

Conception occurs when a sperm fertilizes an egg and forms a zygote, which begins as a one-cell structure. The mother and father’s DNA is passed on to the child at the moment of conception. The genetic makeup and sex of the baby are set at this point. The germinal period (about 14 days in length) lasts from conception to implantation of the zygote (fertilized egg) in the lining of the uterus.

During the first week after conception, the zygote divides and multiplies, going from a one-cell structure to two cells, then four cells, then eight cells, and so on. The process of cell division is called mitosis. After the fourth division, differentiation of the cells begins to occur as well. Differentiated cells become more specialized, forming different organs and body parts.  After 5 days of mitosis, there are 100 cells, and after 9 months there are billions of cells. Mitosis is a fragile process, and fewer than one-half of all zygotes survive beyond the first two weeks (Hall, 2004).

After the zygote divides for about 7–10 days and has 150 cells, it travels down the fallopian tubes and implants itself in the lining of the uterus. It’s estimated that about 60 percent of natural conceptions fail to implant in the uterus. The rate is higher for in vitro conceptions. Once the zygote attaches to the uterus, the next stage begins.

The Embryonic Period (Weeks 3-8)

Photograph of -Week Human Embryo from Ectopic Pregnancy
Figure 2. Human Embryo

The embryonic period begins once the zygote is implanted in the uterine wall. It lasts from the third through the eighth week after conception. Upon implantation, this multi-cellular organism is called an embryo. Now blood vessels grow, forming the placenta. The placenta is a structure connected to the uterus that provides nourishment and oxygen from the mother to the developing embryo via the umbilical cord.

During this period, cells continue to differentiate. Basic structures of the embryo start to develop into areas that will become the head, chest, and abdomen. During the embryonic stage, the heart begins to beat and organs form and begin to function. At 22 days after conception, the neural tube forms along the back of the embryo, developing into the spinal cord and brain. 

Growth during prenatal development occurs in two major directions: from head to tail (cephalocaudal development) and from the midline outward (proximodistal development). This means that those structures nearest the head develop before those nearest the feet and those structures nearest the torso develop before those away from the center of the body (such as hands and fingers).

The head develops in the fourth week and the precursor to the heart begins to pulse. In the early stages of the embryonic period, gills and a tail are apparent. But by the end of this stage, they disappear and the organism takes on a more human appearance. The embryo is approximately 1 inch in length and weighs about 4 grams at the end of this period. The embryo can move and respond to touch at this time.

About 20 percent of organisms fail during the embryonic period, usually due to gross chromosomal abnormalities. As in the case of the germinal period, often the mother does not yet know that she is pregnant. It is during this stage that the major structures of the body are taking form making the embryonic period the time when the organism is most vulnerable to the greatest amount of damage if exposed to harmful substances. Potential mothers are not often aware of the risks they introduce to the developing child during this time.

The Fetal Period (Weeks 9-40)

44-year-old pregnant person with 6 previous children was diagnosed with carcinoma in situ of cervix (early-stage cancer of the uterus). The uterus (womb) was completely removed, including the fetus, to protect the health of the patient.
Figure 3. A fetus at 10 weeks of development.

When the organism is about nine weeks old, the embryo is called a fetus. At this stage, the fetus is about the size of a kidney bean and begins to take on the recognizable form of a human being as the “tail” begins to disappear.

From 9–12 weeks, the sex organs begin to differentiate. By the 12th week, the fetus has all its body parts including external genitalia. In the following weeks, the fetus will develop hair, nails, teeth and the excretory and digestive systems will continue to develop. At the end of the 12th week, the fetus is about 3 inches long and weighs about 28 grams.

At about 16 weeks, the fetus is approximately 4.5 inches long. Fingers and toes are fully developed, and fingerprints are visible. During the 4-6th months, the eyes become more sensitive to light and hearing develops. The respiratory system continues to develop. Reflexes such as sucking, swallowing, and hiccuping develop during the 5th month. Cycles of sleep and wakefulness are present at that time as well. Throughout the fetal stage, the brain continues to grow and develop, nearly doubling in size from weeks 16 to 28. The majority of the neurons in the brain have developed by 24 weeks although they are still rudimentary and the glial or nurse cells that support neurons continue to grow. At 24 weeks the fetus can feel pain (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1997).

The first chance of survival outside the womb, known as the age of viability is reached at about 22 to 26 weeks (Moore & Persaud, 1998). By the time the fetus reaches the sixth month of development (24 weeks), it weighs up to 1.4 pounds. The hearing has developed, so the fetus can respond to sounds. The internal organs, such as the lungs, heart, stomach, and intestines, have formed enough that a fetus born prematurely at this point has a chance to survive outside of the mother’s womb.

Between the 7th and 9th months, the fetus is primarily preparing for birth. It is exercising its muscles, its lungs begin to expand and contract. It is developing fat layers under the skin. The fetus gains about 5 pounds and 7 inches during this last trimester of pregnancy which includes a layer of fat gained during the 8th month. This layer of fat serves as insulation and helps the baby regulate body temperature after birth.

Around 36 weeks, the fetus is almost ready for birth. It weighs about 6 pounds and is about 18.5 inches long, and by week 37 all of the fetus’s organ systems are developed enough that it could survive outside the mother’s uterus without many of the risks associated with premature birth. The fetus continues to gain weight and grow in length until approximately 40 weeks. By then, the fetus has very little room to move around and birth becomes imminent. 

Images of fetal development from 9 weeks through 40 weeks.
Figure 4. During the fetal stage, the baby’s brain develops and the body adds size and weight until the fetus reaches full-term development.

Environmental Risks

Teratology

Good prenatal care is essential. The developing child is most at risk for some of the most severe problems during the first three months of development. Unfortunately, this is a time at which most mothers are unaware that they are pregnant. It is estimated that 10% of all birth defects are caused by prenatal exposure or teratogen. Teratogens are factors that can contribute to birth defects which include some maternal diseases, drugs, alcohol, and stress. These exposures can also include environmental and occupational exposures. Today, we know many of the factors that can jeopardize the health of the developing child. Teratogen-caused birth defects are potentially preventable.

The study of factors that contribute to birth defects is called teratology. Teratogens are usually discovered after an increased prevalence of a particular birth defect. For example, in the early 1960s, a drug known as thalidomide was used to treat morning sickness. Exposure of the fetus during this early stage of development resulted in cases of phocomelia, a congenital malformation in which the hands and feet are attached to abbreviated arms and legs.

A Look at Some Teratogens

Alcohol

Image of a baby boy with FAS facial characteristics of small eye openings, a smooth philtrum, and a thin upper lip.
Figure 5. Some distinguishing characteristics of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include more narrow eye openings, A smooth philtrum, meaning a smooth area between the upper lip and the nose, and a thin upper lip.

One of the most commonly used teratogens is alcohol. Because half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, it is recommended that women of child-bearing age take great caution against drinking alcohol when not using birth control and when pregnant (Surgeon General’s Advisory on Alcohol Use During Pregnancy, 2005). Alcohol consumption, particularly during the second month of prenatal development, but at any point during pregnancy, may lead to neurocognitive and behavioral difficulties that can last a lifetime.

There is no acceptable safe limit for alcohol use during pregnancy, but binge drinking (5 or more drinks on a single occasion) or having 7 or more drinks during a single week places a child at particularly high risk. In extreme cases, alcohol consumption can lead to fetal death, but more frequently it can result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). This terminology is now used when looking at the effects of exposure and replaces the term fetal alcohol syndrome. It is preferred because it recognizes that symptoms occur on a spectrum and that all individuals do not have the same characteristics. Children with FASD share certain physical features such as flattened noses, small eye openings, small heads, intellectual developmental delays, and behavioral problems. Those with FASD are more at risk for lifelong problems such as criminal behavior, psychiatric problems, and unemployment (CDC, 2006).

The terms alcohol-related neurological disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD) have replaced the term Fetal Alcohol Effects to refer to those with less extreme symptoms of FASD. ARBD includes kidney, bone, and heart problems.

Tobacco

Smoking is also considered a teratogen because nicotine travels through the placenta to the fetus. When the mother smokes, the developing baby experiences a reduction in blood oxygen levels. Tobacco use during pregnancy has been associated with low birth weight, placenta previa, birth defects, preterm delivery, fetal growth restriction, and sudden infant death syndrome. Smoking in the month before getting pregnant and throughout pregnancy increases the chances of these risks. Quitting smoking before getting pregnant is best. However, for women who are already pregnant, quitting as early as possible can still help protect against some health problems for the mother and baby.

Drugs

Prescription, over-the-counter, or recreational drugs can have serious teratogenic effects. In general, if medication is required, the lowest dose possible should be used. Combination drug therapies and first trimester exposures should be avoided. Almost three percent of pregnant women use illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, and other amphetamines, and heroin. These drugs can cause low birth-weight, withdrawal symptoms, birth defects, or learning or behavioral problems. Babies born with a heroin addiction need heroin just like an adult addict. The child will need to be gradually weaned from the heroin under medical supervision; otherwise, the child could have seizures and die.

Environmental Chemicals

Environmental chemicals can include exposure to a wide array of agents including pollution, organic mercury compounds, herbicides, and industrial solvents. Some environmental pollutants of major concern include lead poisoning, which is connected with low birth weight and slowed neurological development. Children who live in older housing in which lead-based paints have been used have been known to eat peeling paint chips thus being exposed to lead. The chemicals in certain herbicides are also potentially damaging. Radiation is another environmental hazard that a pregnant woman must be aware of. If a mother is exposed to radiation, particularly during the first three months of pregnancy, the child may suffer some congenital deformities. There is also an increased risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Mercury leads to physical deformities and intellectual disabilities (Dietrich, 1999).

Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can complicate pregnancy and may have serious effects on both the mother and the developing baby. Most prenatal care today includes testing for STIs, and early detection is important. STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, trichomoniasis, and bacterial vaginosis can all be treated and cured with antibiotics that are safe to take during pregnancy. STIs that are caused by viruses, like genital herpes, hepatitis B, or HIV cannot be cured. However, in some cases these infections can be treated with antiviral medications or other preventive measures can be taken to reduce the risk of passing the infection to the baby.

Maternal Diseases

Maternal illnesses increase the chance that a baby will be born with a birth defect or have a chronic health problem. Some of the diseases that are known to potentially have an adverse effect on the fetus include diabetes, cytomegalovirus, toxoplasmosis, Rubella, varicella, hypothyroidism, and Strep B. If the mother contracts Rubella during the first three months of pregnancy, damage can occur in the eyes, ears, heart, or brain of the unborn child. On a positive note, Rubella has been nearly eliminated in the industrial world due to the vaccine created in 1969. Diagnosing these diseases early and receiving appropriate medical care can help improve the outcomes. Routine prenatal care now includes screening for gestational diabetes and Strep B.

Maternal Stress

Stress represents the effects of any factor able to threaten the homeostasis of an organism; these either real or perceived threats are referred to as the “stressors” and comprise a long list of potential adverse factors, which can be emotional or physical. Because of a link in blood supply between a mother and fetus, it has been found that stress can leave lasting effects on a developing fetus, even before a child is born. The best-studied outcomes of fetal exposure to maternal prenatal stress are preterm birth and low birth weight. Maternal prenatal stress is also considered responsible for a variety of changes of the child’s brain, and a risk factor for conditions such as behavioral problems, learning disorders, high levels of anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and schizophrenia. Furthermore, maternal prenatal stress has been associated with a higher risk for a variety of immune and metabolic changes in the child such as asthma, allergic disorders, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, and obesity (Konstantinos et al., 2017).

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Should Women Who Use Drugs During Pregnancy Be Arrested and Jailed?

As you now know, women who use drugs or alcohol during pregnancy can cause serious lifelong harm to their child. Some people have advocated mandatory screenings for women who are pregnant and have a history of drug abuse, and if the women continue using, to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate them (Figdor & Kaeser, 1998). This policy was tried in Charleston, South Carolina, as recently as 20 years ago. The policy was called the Interagency Policy on Management of Substance Abuse During Pregnancy and had disastrous results.

The Interagency Policy applied to patients attending the obstetrics clinic at MUSC, which primarily serves patients who are indigent or on Medicaid. It did not apply to private obstetrical patients. The policy required patient education about the harmful effects of substance abuse during pregnancy. . . . [A] statement also warned patients that protection of unborn and newborn children from the harms of illegal drug abuse could involve the Charleston police, the Solicitor of the Ninth Judicial Court, and the Protective Services Division of the Department of Social Services (DSS). (Jos, Marshall, & Perlmutter, 1995, pp. 120–121)

This policy seemed to deter women from seeking prenatal care, deterred them from seeking other social services, and was applied solely to low-income women, resulting in lawsuits. The program was canceled after 5 years, during which 42 women were arrested. A federal agency later determined that the program involved human experimentation without the approval and oversight of an institutional review board (IRB). What were the flaws in the program and how would you correct them? What are the ethical implications of charging pregnant women with child abuse?

Factors influencing prenatal risks 

There are several considerations in determining the type and amount of damage that might result from exposure to a particular teratogen (Berger, 2004). These include:

Chart showing stages of prenatal development, beginning with the dividing zygote and implantation within the first two weeks, then the CNS and heart formation in week 3, then eyes, the heart, limbs, and ears between weeks 3 and 8, then genitals and increase brain development after week 9.
Figure 6. Critical Periods of Prenatal Development. This image summarizes the three developmental periods in prenatal development. The blue images indicate where major development is happening and the aqua indicate where refinement is happening. As shown, the majority of organs are particularly susceptible during the embryonic period. The central nervous system still continues to develop in major ways through the fetal period as well.

Complications of Pregnancy and Delivery

Pregnant Woman
Figure 7. Pregnancy affects women in different ways; some notice few adverse side effects, while others feel high levels of discomfort, or develop more serious complications.

There are a number of common side effects of pregnancy. Not everyone experiences all of these nor do women experience them to the same degree. And although they are considered “minor” these problems are potentially very uncomfortable. These side effects include nausea (particularly during the first 3-4 months of pregnancy as a result of higher levels of estrogen in the system), heartburn, gas, hemorrhoids, backache, leg cramps, insomnia, constipation, shortness of breath or varicose veins (as a result of carrying a heavy load on the abdomen). What is the cure? Delivery!

Major Complications 

The following are some serious complications of pregnancy that can pose health risks to mother and child and that often require special care.

Maternal Mortality

Maternal mortality is unacceptably high. About 295,000 women died during and following pregnancy and childbirth in 2017. The vast majority of these deaths (94%) occurred in low-resource settings, and most could have been prevented. The high number of maternal deaths in some areas of the world reflects inequalities in access to quality health services and highlights the gap between rich and poor. The MMR in low-income countries in 2017 is 462 per 100,000 live births versus 11 per 100,000 live births in high-income countries. The high number of maternal deaths in some areas of the world reflects inequities in access to health services and highlights the gap between rich and poor. 

Women in less developed countries have, on average, many more pregnancies than women in developed countries, and their lifetime risk of death due to pregnancy is higher. A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is the probability that a 15-year-old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause. In high-income countries, this is 1 in 5400, versus 1 in 45 in low-income countries. Every day in 2017, approximately 810 women died from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

 

maternal mortality graph

Figure 8. The number of women and girls who died each year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth declined from 451,000 in 2000 to 295,000 in 2017. These improvements are particularly remarkable in light of rapid population growth in many of the countries where maternal deaths are highest. Still, over 800 women are dying each day from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. And for every woman who dies, approximately 20 others suffer serious injuries, infections or disabilities. Source: UNICEF, https://data.unicef.org/topic/maternal-health/maternal-mortality/.Even though maternal mortality in the United States is relatively rare today because of advances in medical care, it is still an issue that needs to be addressed. Sadly, about 700 women die each year in the United States as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define a pregnancy-related death as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 1 year of the end of a pregnancy–regardless of the outcome, duration, or site of the pregnancy–from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes.

Since the Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System was implemented, the number of reported pregnancy-related deaths in the United States steadily increased from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2017. The graph above shows trends in pregnancy-related mortality ratios between 1987 and 2017 (the latest available year of data).

The reasons for the overall increase in pregnancy-related mortality are unclear. What do you think are some reasons for this surprising increase in the United States? What can be done to change this statistic?

Watch It: Maternal Mortality in the United States

In the United States, black women are disproportionately more likely to die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth than any other race; they are three or four times more likely than white women to die due to pregnancy-related death and are more likely to receive worse maternal care. Black women from higher income groups and with advanced education levels also have heightened risks—even tennis superstar Serena Williams had near-deadly complications during the birth of her daughter, Olympia. Why is this the case in our modern world? Watch this video to learn more.

Considerable racial/ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related mortality exist.2,3 During 2014–2017, the pregnancy-related mortality ratios were:

Variability in the risk of death by race/ethnicity may be due to several factors including access to care, quality of care, prevalence of chronic diseases, structural racism, and implicit biases.

Why do women die in Pregnancy and Childbirth Worldwide?

Women die as a result of complications during and following pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these complications develop during pregnancy and most are preventable or treatable. Other complications may exist before pregnancy but are worsened during pregnancy, especially if not managed as part of the woman’s care. The major complications that account for nearly 75% of all maternal deaths are:

The remainder are caused by or associated with infections such as malaria or related to chronic conditions like cardiac diseases or diabetes.

Why do women die in Pregnancy and Childbirth in the United States?

Compare the data that you learned about above with percentages of pregnancy-related deaths in the United States during 2014–2017.

The cause of death is unknown for 6.7% of all 2014–2017 pregnancy-related deaths.

While the contributions of hemorrhage, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (i.e., preeclampsia, eclampsia), and anesthesia complications to pregnancy-related deaths have declined, the contributions of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular accidents, and other medical conditions have increased.12 Studies show that an increasing number of pregnant women in the United States have chronic health conditions such as hypertension,13,14 diabetes,14-17 and chronic heart disease.12,18 These conditions may put a woman at higher risk of complications during pregnancy or in the year postpartum.

Miscarriage

Pregnancy loss is experienced in an estimated 20-40 percent of undiagnosed pregnancies and in another 10 percent of diagnosed pregnancies. Usually, the body aborts due to chromosomal abnormalities and this typically happens before the 12th week of pregnancy. Cramping and bleeding result and normal periods should return after several months. Or it may be necessary to have a surgical procedure called D&E (dilation and evacuation). Some women are more likely to have repeated miscarriages due to chromosomal, amniotic, or hormonal problems; but miscarriage can also be a result of defective sperm (Carroll et al., 2003).

In the U.S., a pregnancy loss before the 20th week of pregnancy is referred to as a miscarriage, while the term stillbirth refers to the loss of a baby after 20 weeks’ gestation. A woman must still go through labor or a c-section to deliver her baby. Stillbirth affects about 1 in 160 births, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States. That is about the same number of babies that die during the first year of life and it is more than 10 times as many deaths as the number that occur from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

As you can see, what may seem like a simple process is in fact a beautiful and delicate journey. Each pregnancy and birth story is unique and comes with surprises and sometimes challenges. As medical technology has rapidly improved, women are empowered with more information and more choices when it comes to their pregnancy and birth. However, just because interventions are available does not mean that this is the path for all mothers. As we learned in the case with Serena Williams, even in the U.S. sometimes medical care can go awry. Each mother needs to be an active advocate for herself and her baby during her pregnancy and delivery.

Where do you think we are headed with how medical advances are used in pregnancy and delivery? More women are able to get pregnant with reproductive assistance, oftentimes past the age that they would naturally conceive. At the beginning of the module, the topic of “designer babies” was introduced. After completing this module, do you think that we are headed towards this in the near future? What are the ethical ramifications?

Additional Supplemental Resources

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Chapter 3: Birth and the Newborn Child

3

What you’ll learn to do: describe approaches to childbirth and the labor and delivery process

A mother lying in a hospital bed looking at her newborn baby

What comes to your mind when you think about a woman giving birth? Some may describe it as beautiful, a miracle, and a rite of passage. Others may think of pain, fear, and discomfort. Labor and delivery is not an easy feat. It is called labor after all because it is a lot of work! In this section, you’ll learn more about the various approaches to childbirth as well as the actual process.

Learning outcomes

Childbirth

Approaches to Childbirth

Couple practicing swaddling a baby with a doll.
Figure 1. This couple prepares for their baby by attending a class where they learn useful skills related to childbirth and infant care, including swaddling.

Prepared childbirth refers to being not only physically in good condition to help provide a healthy environment for the baby to develop, but also helping a couple to prepare to accept their new roles as parents and to get information and training that will assist them for delivery and life with the baby as much as possible. The more a couple can learn about childbirth and the newborn, the better prepared they will be for the adjustment they must make to a new life. Nothing can prepare a couple for this completely. Once a couple finds that they are to have a child, they begin to conjure up images of what they think the experience will involve. Once the child is born, they must reconcile those images with reality (Galinsky, 1987). Knowing more of what to expect does help them in forming more realistic images thus making the adjustment easier. Let’s explore some of the methods of prepared childbirth.

HypnoBirthing

Grantley Dick-Read was an English obstetrician and pioneer of prepared childbirth in the 1930s. In his book Childbirth Without Fear, he suggests that the fear of childbirth increases tension and makes the process of childbearing more painful. He believed that if mothers were educated, the fear and tension would be reduced and the need for medication could frequently be eliminated. The Dick-Read method emphasized the use of relaxation and proper breathing with contractions as well as family support and education. Today this method is known as the Mongan Method or HypnoBirthing. Women using this method report feeling like they are lost in a daydream, but focused and in control.

The Lamaze Method

This method originated in Russia and was brought to the United States in the 1950s by Fernand Lamaze. The emphasis of this method is on teaching the woman to be in control in the process of delivery. It includes learning muscle relaxation, breathing through contractions, having a focal point (usually a picture to look at) during contractions and having a support person who goes through the training process with the mother and serves as a coach during delivery. The Lamaze Method is still the most commonly taught method in the U.S. today.

The Bradley Method

This method originated in the late 1940’s and helps women deliver naturally, with few or no drugs. There are a series of courses that emphasize excellent nutrition and exercise, relaxation techniques to manage pain, and the involvement of the partner as a coach. Parents-to-be are taught to be knowledgeable consumers of birth services and to take responsibility in making informed decisions regarding procedures, attendants and the birthplace. In turn, this will lead to keeping mothers healthy and low-risk in order to avoid complications that may lead to medical intervention.

Nurse Midwives

Historically in the United States, most babies were born under the care of lay midwives. In the 1920s, middle-class women were increasingly using doctors to assist with childbirth but rural women were still being assisted by lay midwives. The nursing profession began educating nurse-midwives to assist these women. Nurse-midwives continued to assist most rural women with delivery until the 1970s and 1980s when their growth is thought to have posed a threat to the medical profession (Weitz, 2007). Women who are at low risk for birth complications can successfully deliver under the care of nurse-midwives. Some hospitals give privileges to nurse-midwives to deliver there. They may also deliver babies at home or in birthing centers.

Home Birth

Because one out of every 20 births involves a complication, most medical professionals recommend that delivery take place in a hospital. However, some couples choose to have their baby at home. About 1 percent of births occur outside of a hospital in the United States. Two-thirds of these are home births and more than half of these are assisted by midwives. In the United States, women who have had previous children, who are over 25 and who are white are most likely to not give birth in a hospital (MacDorman et al., 2010).

Birthing Centers

A birthing center presents a more home-like environment than a hospital labor ward, typically with more options during labor: food/drink, music, and the attendance of family and friends if desired. Other characteristics can also include non-institutional furniture such as queen-sized beds, large enough for both mother and father and perhaps birthing tubs or showers for water births. The decor is meant to emphasize the normality of birth. In a birth center, women are free to act more spontaneously during their birth, such as squatting, walking or performing other postures that assist in labor. Active birth is encouraged. The length of stay after a birth is shorter at a birth center; sometimes just 6 hours after birth the mother and infant can go home. One-third of out-of-hospital births occur in freestanding clinics, birthing centers, or in physicians offices or other locations.

Water Birth

Laboring and/or giving birth in a warm tub of water can help a woman relax. The buoyancy of the water can help alleviate discomfort and pressure for the mother. Many hospitals have birthing tubs that allow women to labor in them. However, only some hospitals allow for the birth to take place in the water. Some believe that water birth gives a more calm and tranquil transition for the baby from the womb. Water births are more common to occur at home or in birthing centers.

Hospital Birth

Most births in the U.S. occur in hospitals. Mothers have the choice to have a medicated or unmedicated delivery. Some women do fine with “natural methods” of pain relief alone. Many women blend “natural methods” with medications and medical interventions that relieve pain. Building a positive outlook on childbirth and managing fear may also help some women cope with the pain. Labor pain is not like pain due to illness or injury. Instead, it is caused by contractions of the uterus that are pushing the baby down and out of the birth canal. In other words, labor pain has a purpose.

The most common pain relief method used during labor and delivery is an epidural. An epidural is a procedure that involves placing a tube into the lower back, into a small space outside the spinal cord. Small doses of medicine can be given through the tube as needed throughout labor. With an epidural, pain relief starts 10 to 20 minutes after the medicine has been given. The degree of numbness felt can be adjusted. An epidural can prolong the first and second stages of labor. If given late in labor or if too much medicine is used, it might be hard to push when the time comes.

Another form of pharmacologic pain relief available for laboring mothers is inhaled nitrous oxide. This is typically a 50/50 mixture of nitrous oxide with air that is an inhaled analgesic and anesthetic. Nitrous oxide has been used for pain management in childbirth since the late 1800’s. The use of inhaled analgesia is commonly used in the UK, Finland, Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand, and is gaining in popularity in the United States.

Making A Birth Plan

As you can see, women have many choices when it comes to the approach they want to take in preparing for childbirth. What decisions would you make? Learn how to create a birth plan.

The Process of Delivery

Diagram showing the three stages of childbirth: dilation, birth, and the afterbirth delivery.
Figure 2. The stages of childbirth.

The first stage of labor is typically the longest. The First Stage of labor begins with uterine contractions that may initially last about 30 seconds and be spaced 15 to 20 minutes apart. These increase in duration and frequency to more than a minute in length and about 3 to 4 minutes apart. Typically, doctors advise that they should be called when contractions are coming about every 5 minutes. Some women experience false labor or Braxton-Hicks contractions, especially with the first child. These may come and go. They tend to diminish when the mother begins walking around. Real labor pains tend to increase with walking.

During this stage, the cervix or opening to the uterus dilates to 10 centimeters or just under 4 inches. This may take around 12-16 hours for first children or about 6-9 hours for women who have previously given birth. It takes one woman in 9 over 24 hours to dilate completely. Labor may also begin with a discharge of blood or amniotic fluid. If the amniotic sack breaks, which happens for one out of eight pregnancies, labor will be induced if necessary to reduce the risk of infection.

The second stage involves the passage of the baby through the birth canal. This stage takes about 10-40 minutes. Contractions usually come about every 2-3 minutes. The mother pushes and relaxes as directed by the medical staff. Normally the head is delivered first. The baby is then rotated so that one shoulder can come through and then the other shoulder. The rest of the baby quickly passes through. The baby’s mouth and nose are suctioned out. The umbilical cord is clamped and cut.

The third stage is relatively painless in comparison to the other stages. During this stage, the placenta or afterbirth is delivered. This typically occurs within 20 minutes after delivery of the baby. If tearing of the vagina occurred during birth, the tear may be stitched at this time.

 

Think About It: The Placenta

The placenta often plays an important role in various cultures, with many societies conducting rituals regarding its disposal. In the Western world, the placenta is most often incinerated.

Some cultures bury the placenta for various reasons. The Māori of New Zealand traditionally bury the placenta from a newborn child to emphasize the relationship between humans and the earth. Likewise, the Navajo bury the placenta and umbilical cord at a specially chosen site,particularly if the baby dies during birth. In Cambodia and Costa Rica, burial of the placenta is believed to protect and ensure the health of the baby and the mother. If a mother dies in childbirth, the Aymara of Bolivia bury the placenta in a secret place so that the mother’s spirit will not return to claim her baby’s life.

The placenta is believed by some communities to have power over the lives of the baby or its parents. The Kwakiutl of British Columbia bury girls’ placentas to give the girl skill in digging clams, and expose boys’ placentas to ravens to encourage future prophetic visions. In Turkey, the proper disposal of the placenta and umbilical cord is believed to promote devoutness in the child later in life. In Transylvania, and Japan, interaction with a disposed placenta is thought to influence the parents’ future fertility.

Several cultures believe the placenta to be or have been alive, often a relative of the baby. Nepalese think of the placenta as a friend of the baby; Malaysian Orang Asli regard it as the baby’s older sibling. Native Hawaiians believe that the placenta is a part of the baby, and traditionally plant it with a tree that can then grow alongside the child. Various cultures in Indonesia, such as Javanese, believe that the placenta has a spirit and needs to be buried outside the family house.

In some cultures, the placenta is eaten, a practice known as placentophagy. In some eastern cultures, such as China, the dried placenta (ziheche, literally “purple river car”) is thought to be a healthful restorative and is sometimes used in preparations of traditional Chinese medicine and various health products. The practice of human placentophagy has become a more recent trend in western cultures and is not without controversy. Some cultures have alternative uses for placenta that include the manufacturing of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food.

 

Cesarean Section

Cesarean section, also known as C-section, or cesarean delivery, is the use of surgery to deliver babies. A cesarean section is often necessary when a vaginal delivery would put the baby or mother at risk. This may include obstructed labor, twin pregnancy, high blood pressure in the mother, breech birth, or problems with the placenta or umbilical cord. Cesarean delivery may be performed based upon the shape of the mother’s pelvis or history of a previous C-section. A trial of vaginal birth after C-section may be possible. The World Health Organization recommends that cesarean section be performed only when medically necessary. Some C-sections are performed without a medical reason, upon request by someone, usually the mother.

Watch it: Vaginal and Cesarean Birth

Learning Objectives

  • Examine risks and complications with newborns
  • Explain the postpartum recovery period

The Newborn

The average newborn weighs approximately 7.5 pounds, although a healthy birth weight for a full-term baby is considered to be between 5 pounds, 8 ounces and 8 pounds, 13 ounces. The average length of a newborn is 19.5 inches, increasing to 29.5 inches by 12 months and 34.4 inches by 2 years old (WHO Multicentre Growth Reference Study Group, 2006).

For the first few days of life, infants typically lose about 5 percent of their body weight as they eliminate waste and get used to feeding. This often goes unnoticed by most parents, but can be cause for concern for those who have a smaller infant. This weight loss is temporary, however, and is followed by a rapid period of growth.

Newborn Assessment and Risks

Complications of the Newborn

Assessing the Neonate

There are several ways to assess the condition of the newborn. The most widely used tool is the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) developed by T. Berry Brazelton. This tool has been used around the world to help parents get to know their infants and to make comparisons of infants in different cultures (Brazelton & Nugent, 1995). The baby’s motor development, muscle tone, and stress response are assessed.

The APGAR is conducted one minute and five minutes after birth. This is a very quick way to assess the newborn’s overall condition. Five measures are assessed: the heart rate, respiration, muscle tone (quickly assessed by a skilled nurse when the baby is handed to them or by touching the baby’s palm), reflex response (the Babinski reflex is tested), and color. A score of 0 to 2 is given on each feature examined. An APGAR of 5 or less is cause for concern. The second APGAR should indicate improvement with a higher score.

Low Birth Weight

We have been discussing a number of teratogens associated with a low birth weight such as cocaine, tobacco, etc. A child is considered to have a low birth weight if they weigh less than 5.8 pounds. In 2016, about 8.17 percent of babies born in the United States were of low birth weight and 1.4 percent were born with very low birth weight. A low birth weight baby has difficulty maintaining adequate body temperature because it lacks the fat that would otherwise provide insulation. Such a baby is also at more risk of infection. And 67 percent of these babies are also preterm which can make them more at risk for a respiratory infection. Very low birth weight babies (2 pounds or less) have an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy. Many causes of low birth weight are preventable with proper prenatal care.

Premature Birth

A child might also have a low birth weight if it is born at less than 37 weeks gestation (which qualifies it as a preterm baby). In 2016, 9.85 percent of babies born in the U.S. were preterm. Early birth can be triggered by anything that disrupts the mother’s system. For instance, vaginal infections or gum disease can actually lead to premature birth because such infection causes the mother to release anti-inflammatory chemicals which, in turn, can trigger contractions. Smoking and the use of other teratogens can also lead to preterm birth.

Anoxia and Hypoxia

One of leading causes of infant brain damage is lack of oxygen shortly after birth. Hypoxia occurs when the infant is deprived of the adequate amount of oxygen, leading to mild to moderate brain damage. Apoxia occurs when the infant undergoes a total lack of oxygen, which can lead to severe brain damage. This lack of oxygen is typically caused by umbilical cord problems, birth canal problems, blocked airways, and placenta abruption. Both hypoxia and anoxia can lead to cerebral palsy and a host of other medical disorders.

Postpartum Period

The postpartum (or postnatal) period begins immediately after childbirth as the mother’s body, including hormone levels and uterus size, returns to a non-pregnant state. The terms puerperium, puerperal period, or immediate postpartum period are commonly used to refer to the first six weeks following childbirth. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the postnatal period as the most critical and yet the most neglected phase in the lives of mothers and babies; most maternal and newborn deaths occur during this period.

A woman giving birth in a hospital may leave as soon as she is medically stable, which can be as early as a few hours postpartum, though the average for a vaginal birth is one to two days. The average caesarean section postnatal stay is three to four days. During this time, the mother is monitored for bleeding, bowel and bladder function, and baby care. The infant’s health is also monitored. Early postnatal hospital discharge is typically defined as discharge of the mother and newborn from the hospital within 48 hours of birth.

The postpartum period can be divided into three distinct stages; the initial or acute phase, 6–12 hours after childbirth; subacute postpartum period, which lasts two to six weeks, and the delayed postpartum period, which can last up to six months. In the subacute postpartum period, 87% to 94% of women report at least one health problem. Long-term health problems (persisting after the delayed postpartum period) are reported by 31% of women. Various organizations recommend routine postpartum evaluation at certain time intervals in the postpartum period.

Acute phase

Infant placed directly on the chest following childbirth

Postpartum uterine massage helps the uterus to contract after the placenta has been expelled in the acute phase. The first 6 to 12 hours after childbirth is the initial or acute phase of the postpartum period. During this time the mother is typically monitored by nurses or midwives as complications can arise.

The greatest health risk in the acute phase is postpartum bleeding. Following delivery the area where the placenta was attached to the uterine wall bleeds, and the uterus must contract to prevent blood loss. After contraction takes place the fundus (top) of the uterus can be palpated as a firm mass at the level of the navel. It is important that the uterus remains firm and the nurse or midwife will make frequent assessments of both the fundus and the amount of bleeding. Uterine massage is commonly used to help the uterus contract.

Following delivery if the mother had an episiotomy or tearing at the opening of the vagina, it is stitched. In the past, an episiotomy was routine. However, more recent research shows that routine episiotomy, when a normal delivery without complications or instrumentation is anticipated, does not offer benefits in terms of reducing perineal or vaginal trauma. Selective use of episiotomy results in less perineal trauma. A healthcare professional can recommend comfort measures to help to ease perineal pain.

Physical recovery in the subacute postpartum period

In the first few days following childbirth, the risk of DVT is relatively high as hypercoagulability increases during pregnancy and is maximal in the postpartum period, particularly for women with C-section with reduced mobility. Anti-coagulants or physical methods such as compression may be used in the hospital, particularly if the woman has risk factors, such as obesity, prolonged immobility, recent C-section, or first-degree relative with a history of thrombotic episode. For women with a history of thrombotic event in pregnancy or prior to pregnancy, anticoagulation is generally recommended.

The increased vascularity (blood flow) and edema (swelling) of the woman’s vagina gradually resolves in about three weeks. The cervix gradually narrows and lengths over a few weeks. Postpartum infections can lead to sepsis and if untreated, death. Postpartum urinary incontinence is experienced by about 33% of all women; women who deliver vaginally are about twice as likely to have urinary incontinence as women who give birth via a cesarean. Urinary incontinence in this period increases the risk of long term incontinence. Kegel exercises are recommended to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles and control urinary incontinence. Discharge from the uterus, called lochia, will gradually decrease and turn from bright red, to brownish, to yellow and cease at around five or six weeks.  An increase in lochia between 7–14 days postpartum may indicate delayed postpartum hemorrhage. In the subacute postpartum period, 87% to 94% of women report at least one health problem.

Infant caring in the subacute period

At two to four days postpartum, a woman’s breastmilk will generally come in. Historically, women who were not breastfeeding (nursing their babies) were given drugs to suppress lactation, but this is no longer medically indicated. In this period, difficulties with breastfeeding may arise. Maternal sleep is often disturbed as night waking is normal in the newborn, and newborns need to be fed every two to three hours, including during the night. The lactation consultant, health visitor, or postnatal doula,  may be of assistance at this time.

Psychological disorders

During the subacute postpartum period, psychological disorders may emerge. Among these are postpartum depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and in rare cases, postpartum psychosis. Postpartum mental illness can affect both mothers and fathers, and is not uncommon. Early detection and adequate treatment is required. Approximately 70-80% of postpartum women will experience the “baby blues” for a few days. Between 10 and 20 percent may experience clinical depression, with a higher risk among those women with a history of postpartum depression, clinical depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders. Prevalence of PTSD following normal childbirth (excluding stillbirth or major complications) is estimated to be between 2.8% and 5.6% at six weeks postpartum.

Another subtype, peripartum onset (commonly referred to as postpartum depression), applies to women who experience major depression during pregnancy or in the four weeks following the birth of their child (APA, 2013). These women often feel very anxious and may even have panic attacks. They may feel guilty, agitated, and be weepy. They may not want to hold or care for their newborn, even in cases in which the pregnancy was desired and intended. In extreme cases, the mother may have feelings of wanting to harm her child or herself. Most women with peripartum-onset depression do not physically harm their children, but some do have difficulty being adequate caregivers (Fields, 2010). A surprisingly high number of women experience symptoms of peripartum-onset depression. A study of 10,000 women who had recently given birth found that 14% screened positive for peripartum-onset depression, and that nearly 20% reported having thoughts of wanting to harm themselves (Wisner et al., 2013).

Maternal-infant postpartum evaluation

Various organizations across the world recommend routine postpartum evaluation in the postpartum period. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recognizes the postpartum period (the “fourth trimester”) as critical for women and infants. Instead of the traditional single four- to six-week postpartum visit, ACOG, as of 2018, recommends that postpartum care be an ongoing process. They recommend that all women have contact (either in person or by phone) with their obstetric provider within the first three weeks postpartum to address acute issues, with subsequent care as needed. A more comprehensive postpartum visit should be done at four to twelve weeks postpartum to address the mother’s mood and emotional well-being, physical recovery after birth, infant feeding, pregnancy spacing and contraception, chronic disease management, and preventive health care and health maintenance. Women with hypertensive disorders should have a blood pressure check within three to ten days postpartum. More than one half of postpartum strokes occur within ten days of discharge after delivery. Women with chronic medical (e.g., hypertensive disorders, diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid disease) and psychiatric conditions should continue to follow with their obstetric or primary care provider for ongoing disease management. Women with pregnancies complicated by hypertension, gestational diabetes, or preterm birth should undergo counseling and evaluation for cardiometabolic disease, as lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease is higher in these women. Similarly, the World Health Organization recommends postpartum evaluation of the mother and infant at three days, one to two weeks, and six weeks postpartum.

Delayed postpartum period

The delayed postpartum period starts after the subacute postpartum period and lasts up to six months. During this time, muscles and connective tissue returns to a pre-pregnancy state. Recovery from childbirth complications in this period, such as urinary and fecal incontinence, painful intercourse, and pelvic prolapse, are typically very slow and in some cases may not resolve. Symptoms of PTSD often subside in this period, dropping from 2.8% and 5.6% at six weeks postpartum to 1.5% at six months postpartum.

Approximately three months after giving birth (typically between two and five months), estrogen levels drop and large amounts of hair loss is common, particularly in the temple area (postpartum alopecia). Hair typically grows back normally and treatment is not indicated. Other conditions that may arise in this period include postpartum thyroiditis. During this period, infant sleep during the night gradually increases and maternal sleep generally improves. Long-term health problems (persisting after the delayed postpartum period) are reported by 31% of women. Ongoing physical and mental health evaluation, risk factor identification, and preventive health care should be provided.

Cultures

Postpartum confinement refers to a system for recovery following childbirth. It begins immediately after the birth and lasts for a culturally variable length: typically for one month or 30 days, up to 40 days, two months, or 100 days. This postnatal recuperation can include “traditional health beliefs, taboos, rituals, and proscriptions.”The practice used to be known as “lying-in”, which, as the term suggests, centers around bed rest. (Maternity hospitals used to use this phrase, as in the General Lying-in Hospital.) Postpartum confinement customs are well-documented in China, where it is known as “Sitting the month”, and similar customs manifest all over the world. A modern version of this rest period has evolved, to give maximum support to the new mother, especially if she is recovering from a difficult labor and delivery.

In other cultures like in South Korea, a great level of importance is placed on postnatal care. Sanhujori is the term for traditional postnatal care in Korea and is a practice followed by the majority of women for the purpose of proper recovery after giving birth. Deeply rooted in Korean culture, sanhujori has similarly evolved with today’s society from being heavily reliant on the mothers’ family members to include services that encompass its principles, which is apparent with the over 500 sanhujori centers (maternity hotels) in operation around Korea.

 

Learning Objectives

  • Describe temperament and the goodness-of-fit model
  • Describe nutrition for the newborn
  • Describe sleep for the newborn
  • Describe psychosocial development of the newborn

 

Newborn Communication

Do newborns communicate? Certainly, they do. They do not, however, communicate with the use of language. Instead, they communicate their thoughts and needs with body posture (being relaxed or still), gestures, cries, and facial expressions. A person who spends adequate time with an infant can learn which cries indicate pain and which ones indicate hunger, discomfort, or frustration

Sensory Development

As infants and children grow, their senses play a vital role in encouraging and stimulating the mind and in helping them observe their surroundings. Two terms are important to understand when learning about the senses. The first is sensation, or the interaction of information with the sensory receptors. The second is perception, or the process of interpreting what is sensed. It is possible for someone to sense something without perceiving it. Gradually, infants become more adept at perceiving with their senses, making them more aware of their environment and presenting more affordances or opportunities to interact with objects.

Vision

What can young infants see, hear, and smell? Newborn infants’ sensory abilities are significant, but their senses are not yet fully developed. Many of a newborn’s innate preferences facilitate interaction with caregivers and other humans. The womb is a dark environment void of visual stimulation. Consequently, vision is the most poorly developed sense at birth. Newborns typically cannot see further than 8 to 16 inches away from their faces, have difficulty keeping a moving object within their gaze, and can detect contrast more than color differences. If you have ever seen a newborn struggle to see, you can appreciate the cognitive efforts being made to take in visual stimulation and build those neural pathways between the eye and the brain.

Although vision is their least developed sense, newborns already show a preference for faces. When you glance at a person, where do you look? Chances are you look into their eyes. If so, why? It is probably because there is more information there than in other parts of the face. Newborns do not scan objects this way; rather, they tend to look at the chin or another less detailed part of the face. However, by 2 or 3 months, they will seek more detail when visually exploring an object and begin showing preferences for unusual images over familiar ones, for patterns over solids, faces over patterns, and three-dimensional objects over flat images. Newborns have difficulty distinguishing between colors, but within a few months are able to discrimination between colors as well as adults. Infants can also sense depth as binocular vision develops at about 2 months of age. By 6 months, the infant can perceive depth perception in pictures as well (Sen, Yonas, & Knill, 2001). Infants who have experience crawling and exploring will pay greater attention to visual cues of depth and modify their actions accordingly (Berk, 2007).

Hearing

The infant’s sense of hearing is very keen at birth. If you remember from an earlier module, this ability to hear is evidenced as soon as the 5th month of prenatal development. In fact, an infant can distinguish between very similar sounds as early as one month after birth and can distinguish between a familiar and non-familiar voice even earlier. Babies who are just a few days old prefer human voices, they will listen to voices longer than sounds that do not involve speech (Vouloumanos & Werker, 2004), and they seem to prefer their mother’s voice over a stranger’s voice (Mills & Melhuish, 1974). In an interesting experiment, 3-week-old babies were given pacifiers that played a recording of the infant’s mother’s voice and of a stranger’s voice. When the infants heard their mother’s voice, they sucked more strongly at the pacifier (Mills & Melhuish, 1974). Some of this ability will be lost by 7 or 8 months as a child becomes familiar with the sounds of a particular language and less sensitive to sounds that are part of an unfamiliar language.

Pain and Touch

Immediately after birth, a newborn is sensitive to touch and temperature, and is also sensitive to pain, responding with crying and cardiovascular responses. Newborns who are circumcised (the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis) without anesthesia experience pain, as demonstrated by increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, decreased oxygen in the blood, and a surge of stress hormones (United States National Library of Medicine, 2016). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there are medical benefits and risks to circumcision. They do not recommend routine circumcision, however, they stated that because of the possible benefits (including prevention from urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and some STDs) parents should have the option to circumcise their sons if they want to (AAP, 2012).

The sense of touch is acute in infants and is essential to a baby’s growth of physical abilities, language and cognitive skills, and socio-emotional competency. Touch not only impacts short-term development during infancy and early childhood but also has long-term effects, suggesting the power of positive gentle touch from birth. Through touch, infants learn about their world, bond with their caregiver, and communicate their needs and wants. Research emphasizes the great benefits of touch for premature babies, but the presence of such contact has been shown to benefit all children (Stack, 2010). In an extreme example, some children in Romania were reared in orphanages in which a single care worker may have had as many as 10 infants to care for at one time. These infants were not often helped or given toys with which to play. As a result, many of them were developmentally delayed (Nelson, Fox, & Zeanah, 2014). When we discuss emotional and social development later in this module, you will also see the important role that touch plays in helping infants feel safe and protected, which builds trust and secure attachments between the child and their caregiver.

Taste and Smell

Not only are infants sensitive to touch, but newborns can also distinguish between sour, bitter, sweet, and salty flavors and show a preference for sweet flavors. They can distinguish between their mother’s scent and that of others, and prefer the smell of their mothers. A newborn placed on the mother’s chest will inch up to the mother’s breast, as it is a potent source of the maternal odor. Even on the first day of life, infants orient to their mother’s odor and are soothed, when crying, by their mother’s odor (Sullivan et al., 2011).

Bringing Baby Home

Benefits of Breastfeeding

Image showing the aging process of colostrum into breastmilk over 3, 5, 6 and 25 days
Figure 5. Breastmilk changes in composition with a newborn’s development and needs.

Breast milk is considered the ideal diet for newborns due to the nutrition makeup of colostrum and subsequent breastmilk production. Colostrum, the milk produced during pregnancy and just after birth, has been described as “liquid gold. Colostrum is packed with nutrients and other important substances that help the infant build up his or her immune system. Most babies will get all the nutrition they need through colostrum during the first few days of life (CDC, 2018).Breast milk  changes by the third to fifth day after birth, becoming much thinner, but containing just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, and proteins to support overall physical and neurological development. It provides a source of iron more easily absorbed in the body than the iron found in dietary supplements, it provides resistance against many diseases, it is more easily digested by infants than formula, and it helps babies make a transition to solid foods more easily than if bottle-fed.

The reason infants need such a high fat content is the process of myelination which requires fat to insulate the neurons. Therefore, there has been some research, including meta-analyses, to show that breastfeeding is connected to advantages with cognitive development (Anderson, Johnstone, & Remley, 1999)Low birth weight infants had the greatest benefits from breastfeeding than did normal-weight infants in a meta-analysis that of twenty controlled studies examining the overall impact of breastfeeding (Anderson et al., 1999). This meta-analysis showed that breastfeeding may provide nutrients required for rapid development of the immature brain and be connected to more rapid or better development of neurologic function. The studies also showed that a longer duration of breastfeeding was accompanied by greater differences in cognitive development between breastfed and formula-fed children. Whereas normal-weight infants showed a 2.66-point difference, low-birth-weight infants showed a 5.18-point difference in IQ compared with weight-matched, formula-fed infants (Anderson et al, 1999). These studies suggest that nutrients present in breast milk may have a significant effect on neurologic development in both premature and full-term infants.

For most babies, breast milk is also easier to digest than formula. Formula-fed infants experience more diarrhea and upset stomachs. The absence of antibodies in formula often results in a higher rate of ear infections and respiratory infections. Children who are breastfed have lower rates of childhood leukemia, asthma, obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, and a lower risk of SIDS. For all of these reasons, it is recommended that mothers breastfeed their infants until at least 6 months of age and that breast milk be used in the diet throughout the first year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2004a in Berk, 2007).

Several recent studies have reported that it is not just babies that benefit from breastfeeding. Breastfeeding stimulates contractions in the uterus to help it regain its normal size, and women who breastfeed are more likely to space their pregnancies farther apart. Mothers who breastfeed are at lower risk of developing breast cancer, especially among higher-risk racial and ethnic groups (Islami et al., 2015). Other studies suggest that women who breastfeed have lower rates of ovarian cancer (Titus-Ernstoff, Rees, Terry, & Cramer, 2010), and reduced risk for developing Type 2 diabetes (Gunderson, et al., 2015).

A historic look at breastfeeding

The use of wet nurses, or lactating women, hired to nurse others’ infants, during the middle ages eventually declined, and mothers increasingly breastfed their own infants in the late 1800s. In the early part of the 20th century, breastfeeding began to go through another decline, and by the 1950s it was practiced less frequently by middle class, more affluent mothers as formula began to be viewed as superior to breast milk. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there was again a greater emphasis placed on natural childbirth and breastfeeding and the benefits of breastfeeding were more widely publicized. Gradually, rates of breastfeeding began to climb, particularly among middle-class educated mothers who received the strongest messages to breastfeed.

Today, new mothers receive consultation from lactation specialists before being discharged from the hospital to ensure that they are informed of the benefits of breastfeeding and given support and encouragement to get their infants accustomed to taking the breast. This does not always happen immediately, and first-time mothers, especially, can become upset or discouraged. In this case, lactation specialists and nursing staff can encourage the mother to keep trying until the baby and mother are comfortable with the feeding.

Most mothers who breastfeed in the United States stop breastfeeding at about 6-8 weeks, often in order to return to work outside the home (United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), 2011). Mothers can certainly continue to provide breast milk to their babies by expressing and freezing the milk to be bottle fed at a later time or by being available to their infants at feeding time, but some mothers find that after the initial encouragement they receive in the hospital to breastfeed, the outside world is less supportive of such efforts. Some workplaces support breastfeeding mothers by providing flexible schedules and welcoming infants, but many do not. And the public support of breastfeeding is sometimes lacking. Women in Canada are more likely to breastfeed than are those in the United States, and the Canadian health recommendation is for breastfeeding to continue until 2 years of age. Facilities in public places in Canada such as malls, ferries, and workplaces provide more support and comfort for the breastfeeding mother and child than found in the United States.

In addition to the nutritional and health benefits of breastfeeding, breast milk is free! Anyone who has priced formula recently can appreciate this added incentive to breastfeeding. Prices for a month’s worth of formula can easily range from $130-$200. Prices for a year’s worth of formula and feeding supplies can cost well over $1,500 (USDHHS, 2011).

Links to Learning

When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Work

There are occasions where mothers may be unable to breastfeed babies, often for a variety of health, social, and emotional reasons. For example, breastfeeding generally does not work: 

One early argument given to promote the practice of breastfeeding (when health issues are not the case) is that it promotes bonding and healthy emotional development for infants. However, this does not seem to be a unique case. Breastfed and bottle-fed infants adjust equally well emotionally (Ferguson & Woodward, 1999). This is good news for mothers who may be unable to breastfeed for a variety of reasons and for fathers who might feel left out as a result.

Global Considerations and Malnutrition

White woman standing with malnutritioned African children, many who display kwashiorkor, or the swollen bellies.
Figure 6. These children are showing the extended abdomen characteristic of kwashiorkor (Photo Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

In the 1960s, formula companies led campaigns in developing countries to encourage mothers to feed their babies on infant formula. Many mothers felt that formula would be superior to breast milk and began using formula. The use of formula can certainly be healthy under conditions in which there is adequate, clean water with which to mix the formula and adequate means to sanitize bottles and nipples. However, in many of these countries, such conditions were not available and babies often were given diluted, contaminated formula which made them become sick with diarrhea and become dehydrated. These conditions continue today and now many hospitals prohibit the distribution of formula samples to new mothers in efforts to get them to rely on breastfeeding. Many of these mothers do not understand the benefits of breastfeeding and have to be encouraged and supported in order to promote this practice.

The World Health Organization (2018) recommends:

Link to Learning

Breastfeeding could save the lives of millions of infants each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), yet fewer than 40 percent of infants are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life. Most women can breastfeed unless they are receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy, have HIV, are dependent on illicit drugs, or have active untreated tuberculosis. Because of the great benefits of breastfeeding, WHO, UNICEF and other national organizations are working together with the government to step up support for breastfeeding globally.

Find out more statistics and recommendations for breastfeeding at the WHO’s 10 facts on breastfeeding. You can also learn more about efforts to promote breastfeeding in Peru: “Protecting Breastfeeding in Peru”.

Sleep and Health

Infant Sleep

Infants 0 to 2 years of age sleep an average of 12.8 hours a day, although this changes and develops gradually throughout an infant’s life. For the first three months, newborns sleep between 14 and 17 hours a day, then they become increasingly alert for longer periods of time. About one-half of an infant’s sleep is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and infants often begin their sleep cycle with REM rather than non-REM sleep. They also move through the sleep cycle more quickly than adults. Parents spend a significant amount of time worrying about and losing even more sleep over their infant’s sleep schedule when there remains a great deal of variation in sleep patterns and habits for individual children. A 2018 study showed that at 6 months of age, 62% of infants slept at least six hours during the night, 43% of infants slept at least 8 hours through the night, and 38% of infants were not sleeping at least six continual hours through the night. At 12 months, 28% of children were still not sleeping at least 6 uninterrupted hours through the night, while 78% were sleeping at least 6 hours, and 56% were sleeping at least 8 hours.

The most common infant sleep-related problem reported by parents is nighttime waking. Studies of new parents and sleep patterns show that parents lose the most sleep during the first three months with a new baby, with mothers losing about an hour of sleep each night, and fathers losing a disproportionate 13 minutes. This decline in sleep quality and quantity for adults persists until the child is about six years old.

While this shows there is no precise science as to when and how an infant will sleep, there are general trends in sleep patterns. Around six months, babies typically sleep between 14-15 hours a day, with 3-4 of those hours happening during daytime naps. As they get older, these naps decrease from several to typically two naps a day between ages 9-18 months. Often, periods of rapid weight gain or changes in developmental abilities such as crawling or walking will cause changes to sleep habits as well. Infants generally move towards one 2-4 hour nap a day by around 18 months, and many children will continue to nap until around four or five years old.

Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUID)

Each year in the United States, there are about 3,500 Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths (SUID). These deaths occur among infants less than one-year-old and have no immediately obvious cause (CDC, 2015). The three commonly reported types of SUID are:

The combined SUID rate declined considerably following the release of the American Academy of Pediatrics safe sleep recommendations in 1992, which advocated that infants be placed on their backs for sleep (non-prone position). These recommendations were followed by a major Back to Sleep Campaign in 1994. According to the CDC, the SIDS death rate is now less than one-fourth of what is was (130 per 100,000 live birth in 1990 versus 40 in 2015). However, accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed mortality rates remained unchanged until the late 1990s. Some parents were still putting newborns to sleep on their stomachs partly because of past tradition. Most SIDS victims experience several risks, an interaction of biological and social circumstances. But thanks to research, the major risk, stomach sleeping, has been highly publicized. Other causes of death during infancy include congenital birth defects and homicide.

Co-Sleeping

The location of sleep depends primarily on the baby’s age and culture. Bed-sharing (in the parents’ bed) or co-sleeping (in the parents’ room) is the norm in some cultures, but not in others (Esposito et al., 2015). Colvin, Collie-Akers, Schunn, and Moon (2014) analyzed a total of 8,207 deaths from 24 states during 2004–2012. The deaths were documented in the National Center for the Review and Prevention of Child Deaths Case Reporting System, a database of death reports from state child death review teams. The results indicated that younger victims (0-3 months) were more likely to die by bed-sharing and sleeping in an adult’s bed or on a person. A higher percentage of older victims (4 months to 364 days) rolled into objects in the sleep environment and changed position from side/back to prone. Carpenter et al. (2013) compared infants who died of SIDS with a matched control and found that infants younger than three months old who slept in bed with a parent were five times more likely to die of SIDS compared to babies who slept separately from the parents, but were still in the same room. They concluded that bed-sharing, even when the parents do not smoke or take alcohol or drugs, increases the risk of SIDS. However, when combined with parental smoking and maternal alcohol consumption and/or drug use, the risks associated with bed-sharing greatly increased.

Despite the risks noted above, the controversy about where babies should sleep has been ongoing. Co-sleeping has been recommended for those who advocate attachment parenting (Sears & Sears, 2001), and other research suggests that bed-sharing and co-sleeping is becoming more popular in the United States (Colson et al., 2013). So, what are the latest recommendations?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) actually updated their recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment in 2016. The most recent AAP recommendations on creating a safe sleep environment include:

As you can see, there is a recommendation to now “share a bedroom with parents,” but not the same sleeping surface. Breastfeeding is also recommended as adding protection against SIDS, but after feeding, the AAP encourages parents to move the baby to his or her separate sleeping space, preferably a crib or bassinet in the parents’ bedroom. Finally, the report included new evidence that supports skin-to-skin care for newborn infants.

smiling baby in a swing
Figure 3. Babies are born with different temperaments. Some are slow-to-warm-up while others are easy-going.

Temperament

Perhaps you have spent time with a number of infants. How were they alike? How did they differ? Or compare yourself with your siblings or other children you have known well. You may have noticed that some seemed to be in a better mood than others and that some were more sensitive to noise or more easily distracted than others. These differences may be attributed to temperament. Temperament is an inborn quality noticeable soon after birth. Temperament is not the same as personality but may lead to personality differences. Generally, personality traits are learned, whereas temperament is genetic. Of course, for every trait, nature and nurture interact.

According to Chess and Thomas (1996), children vary on nine dimensions of temperament. These include activity level, regularity (or predictability), sensitivity thresholds, mood, persistence or distractibility, among others. These categories include the following:[foodnote]Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Brunner/Mazel[/footnote].

  1. Activity level. Does the child display mostly active or inactive states?
  2. Rhythmicity or Regularity. Is the child predictable or unpredictable regarding sleeping, eating, and elimination patterns?
  3. Approach-Withdrawal. Does the child react or respond positively or negatively to a newly encountered situation?
  4. Adaptability. Does the child adjust to unfamiliar circumstances easily or with difficulty
  5. Responsiveness. Does it take a small or large amount of stimulation to elicit a response (e.g., laughter, fear, pain) from the child?
  6. Reaction Intensity. Does the child show low or high energy when reacting to stimuli?
  7. Mood Quality. Is the child normally happy and pleasant, or unhappy and unpleasant?
  8. Distractibility. Is the child’s attention easily diverted from a task by external stimuli?
  9. Persistence and Attention Span. Persistence – How long will the child continue at an activity despite difficulty or interruptions? Attention span – For how long a period of time can the child maintain interest in an activity?

The New York Longitudinal Study was a long term study of infants, on these dimensions, which began in the 1950s. Most children do not have their temperament clinically measured, but categories of temperament have been developed and are seen as useful in understanding and working with children. Based on this study, babies can be described according to one of several profiles: easy or flexible (40%), slow to warm up or cautious (15%), difficult or feisty (10%), and undifferentiated, or those who can’t easily be categorized (35%).

Easy babies (40% of infants) have a positive disposition. Their body functions operate regularly and they are adaptable. They are generally positive, showing curiosity about new situations and their emotions are moderate or low in intensity. Difficult babies (10% of infants) have more negative moods and are slow to adapt to new situations. When confronted with a new situation, they tend to withdraw. Slow-to-warm babies (15% of infants) are inactive, showing relatively calm reactions to their environment. Their moods are generally negative, and they withdraw from new situations, adapting slowly. The undifferentiated (35%) could not be consistently categorized. These children show a variety of combinations of characteristics. For example, an infant may have an overall positive mood but react negatively to new situations.

No single type of temperament is invariably good or bad, however, infants with difficult temperaments are more likely than other babies to develop emotional problems, especially if their mothers were depressed or anxious caregivers (Garthus-Niegel et al., 2017). Children’s long-term adjustment actually depends on the goodness-of-fit of their particular temperament to the nature and demands of the environment in which they find themselves. Therefore, what appears to be more important than child temperament is how caregivers respond to it.

Think about how you might approach each type of child in order to improve your interactions with them. An easy or flexible child will not need much extra attention unless you want to find out whether they are having difficulties that have gone unmentioned. A slow to warm up child may need to be given advance warning if new people or situations are going to be introduced. A difficult or feisty child may need to be given extra time to burn off their energy. A caregiver’s ability to accurately read and work well with the child will enjoy this goodness-of-fit, meaning their styles match and communication and interaction can flow. The temperamentally active children can do well with parents who support their curiosity but could have problems in a more rigid family.

It is this goodness-of-fit between child temperament and parental demands and expectations that can cause struggles. Rather than believing that discipline alone will bring about improvements in children’s behavior, our knowledge of temperament may help a parent, teacher or other caregiver gain insight to work more effectively with a child. Viewing temperamental differences as varying styles that can be responded to accordingly, as opposed to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behavior. For example, a persistent child may be difficult to distract from forbidden things such as electrical cords, but this persistence may serve her well in other areas such as problem-solving.  Positive traits can be enhanced and negative traits can be subdued. The child’s style of reaction, however, is unlikely to change. Temperament doesn’t change dramatically as we grow up, but we may learn how to work around and manage our temperamental qualities. Temperament may be one of the things about us that stays the same throughout development.

Psychosocial Development

Theory of Psychosexual Development

Freud believed that personality develops during early childhood and that childhood experiences shape our personalities as well as our behavior as adults. He asserted that we develop via a series of stages during childhood. Each of us must pass through these childhood stages, and if we do not have the proper nurturing and parenting during a stage, we will be stuck, or fixated, in that stage even as adults.

In each psychosexual stage of development, the child’s pleasure-seeking urges, coming from the id, are focused on a different area of the body, called an erogenous zone. The stages are oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital (Table 1).

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

For about the first year of life, the infant is in the oral stage of psychosexual development. The infant meets needs primarily through oral gratification. A baby wishes to suck or chew on any object that comes close to the mouth. Babies explore the world through the mouth and find comfort and stimulation as well. Psychologically, the infant is all id. The infant seeks immediate gratification of needs such as comfort, warmth, food, and stimulation. If the caregiver meets oral needs consistently, the child will move away from this stage and progress further. However, if the caregiver is inconsistent or neglectful, the person may stay stuck in the oral stage. As an adult, the person might not feel good unless involved in some oral activity such as eating, drinking, smoking, nail-biting, or compulsive talking. These actions bring comfort and security when the person feels insecure, afraid, or bored.

Assessing the Psychodynamic Perspective

Originating in the work of Sigmund Freud, the psychodynamic perspective emphasizes unconscious psychological processes (for example, wishes and fears of which we’re not fully aware), and contends that childhood experiences are crucial in shaping adult personality. When reading Freud’s theories, it is important to remember that he was a medical doctor, not a psychologist. There was no such thing as a degree in psychology at the time that he received his education, which can help us understand some of the controversies over his theories today. However, Freud was the first to systematically study and theorize the workings of the unconscious mind in the manner that we associate with modern psychology. The psychodynamic perspective has evolved considerably since Freud’s time, encompassing all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of conscious and unconscious drives and forces within the person, and between the different structures of the personality (id, ego, superego).

Freud’s theory has been heavily criticized for several reasons. One is that it is very difficult to test scientifically. How can parenting in infancy be traced to personality in adulthood? Are there other variables that might better explain development? Because psychodynamic theories are difficult to prove wrong, evaluating those theories, in general, is difficult in that we cannot make definite predictions about a given individual’s behavior using the theories. The theory is also considered to be sexist in suggesting that women who do not accept an inferior position in society are somehow psychologically flawed. Freud focused on the darker side of human nature and suggested that much of what determines our actions is unknown to us. Others make the criticism that the psychodynamic approach is too deterministic, relating to the idea that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will, thereby leaving little room for the idea of free will.

Freud’s work has been extremely influential, and its impact extends far beyond psychology (several years ago Time magazine selected Freud as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century). Freud’s work has been not only influential but quite controversial as well. As you might imagine, when Freud suggested in 1900 that much of our behavior is determined by psychological forces of which we’re largely unaware—that we literally don’t know what’s going on in our own minds—people were (to put it mildly) displeased (Freud, 1900/1953a). When he suggested in 1905 that we humans have strong sexual feelings from a very early age and that some of these sexual feelings are directed toward our parents, people were more than displeased—they were outraged (Freud, 1905/1953b). Few theories in psychology have evoked such strong reactions from other professionals and members of the public.

Freud’s psychosexual development theory is quite controversial. To understand the origins of the theory, it is helpful to be familiar with the political, social, and cultural influences of Freud’s day in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. During this era, a climate of sexual repression, combined with limited understanding and education surrounding human sexuality heavily influenced Freud’s perspective. Given that sex was a taboo topic, Freud assumed that negative emotional states (neuroses) stemmed from the suppression of unconscious sexual and aggressive urges. For Freud, his own recollections and interpretations of patients’ experiences and dreams were sufficient proof that psychosexual stages were universal events in early childhood.

So why do we study Freud? As mentioned above, despite the criticisms, Freud’s assumptions about the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping our psychological selves have found their way into child development, education, and parenting practices. Freud’s theory has heuristic value in providing a framework from which to elaborate and modify subsequent theories of development. Many later theories, particularly behaviorism and humanism, were challenges to Freud’s views. Controversy notwithstanding, no competent psychologist, or student of psychology, can ignore psychodynamic theory. It is simply too important for psychological science and practice and continues to play an important role in a wide variety of disciplines within and outside psychology (for example, developmental psychology, social psychology, sociology, and neuroscience; see Bornstein, 2005, 2006; Solms & Turnbull, 2011).

Psychosocial Theory

Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

Now, let’s turn to a less controversial psychodynamic theorist, the father of developmental psychology, Erik Erikson (1902-1994). Erikson was a student of Freud’s and expanded on his theory of psychosexual development by emphasizing the importance of culture in parenting practices and motivations and adding three stages of adult development (Erikson, 1950; 1968).

Background

As an art school dropout with an uncertain future, young Erik Erikson met Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, while he was tutoring the children of an American couple undergoing psychoanalysis in Vienna. It was Anna Freud who encouraged Erikson to study psychoanalysis. Erikson received his diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933, and as Nazism spread across Europe, he fled the country and immigrated to the United States that same year. Erikson later proposed a psychosocial theory of development, suggesting that an individual’s personality develops throughout the lifespan—a departure from Freud’s view that personality is fixed in early life. In his theory, Erikson emphasized the social relationships that are important at each stage of personality development, in contrast to Freud’s emphasis on erogenous zones. Erikson identified eight stages, each of which includes a conflict or developmental task. The development of a healthy personality and a sense of competence depend on the successful completion of each task.

Psychosocial Stages of Development

Erikson believed that we are aware of what motivates us throughout life and that the ego has greater importance in guiding our actions than does the id. We make conscious choices in life, and these choices focus on meeting certain social and cultural needs rather than purely biological ones. Humans are motivated, for instance, by the need to feel that the world is a trustworthy place, that we are capable individuals, that we can make a contribution to society, and that we have lived a meaningful life. These are all psychosocial problems.

Erikson’s theory is based on what he calls the epigenetic principle, encompassing the notion that we develop through an unfolding of our personality in predetermined stages, and that our environment and surrounding culture influence how we progress through these stages. This biological unfolding in relation to our socio-cultural settings is done in stages of psychosocial development, where “progress through each stage is in part determined by our success, or lack of success, in all the previous stages.”

Erikson described eight stages, each with a major psychosocial task to accomplish or crisis to overcome. Erikson believed that our personality continues to take shape throughout our life span as we face these challenges. We will discuss each of these stages in greater detail when we discuss each of these life stages throughout the course. Here is an overview of each stage:

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions
Table

Trust vs. mistrust

Erikson maintained that the first year to year and a half of life involves the establishment of a sense of trust. Infants are dependent and must rely on others to meet their basic physical needs as well as their needs for stimulation and comfort. A caregiver who consistently meets these needs instills a sense of trust or the belief that the world is a safe and trustworthy place. The caregiver should not worry about overindulging a child’s need for comfort, contact, or stimulation. This view is in sharp contrast with the Freudian view that a parent who overindulges the infant by allowing them to suck too long or be picked up too frequently will be spoiled or become fixated at the oral stage of development.

Trust vs. Mistrust (Hope)—From birth to 12 months of age, infants must learn that adults can be trusted. This occurs when adults meet a child’s basic needs for survival. Infants are dependent upon their caregivers, so caregivers who are responsive and sensitive to their infant’s needs help their baby to develop a sense of trust; their baby will see the world as a safe, predictable place. Unresponsive caregivers who do not meet their baby’s needs can engender feelings of anxiety, fear, and mistrust; their baby may see the world as unpredictable. If infants are treated cruelly or their needs are not met appropriately, they will likely grow up with a sense of mistrust for people in the world.

Strengths and weaknesses of Erikson’s theory

Erikson’s eight stages form a foundation for discussions on emotional and social development during the lifespan. Keep in mind, however, that these stages or crises can occur more than once or at different times of life. For instance, a person may struggle with a lack of trust beyond infancy. Erikson’s theory has been criticized for focusing so heavily on stages and assuming that the completion of one stage is prerequisite for the next crisis of development. His theory also focuses on the social expectations that are found in certain cultures, but not in all. For instance, the idea that adolescence is a time of searching for identity might translate well in the middle-class culture of the United States, but not as well in cultures where the transition into adulthood coincides with puberty through rites of passage and where adult roles offer fewer choices.

By and large, Erikson’s view that development continues throughout the lifespan is very significant and has received great recognition. However, like Freud’s theory, it has been criticized for focusing on more men than women and also for its vagueness, making it difficult to test rigorously.

Additional Supplemental Resources

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Chapter 4: Infancy and Toddlerhood

4

Why understand human development during infancy?

An infant laying in a blanket smiling

Welcome to the story of development from infancy through toddlerhood; from birth until about two years of age. Did you ever wonder how babies grow from tiny, helpless infants into well-developed and independent adults? It doesn’t happen overnight, but the process begins right from day one. Infancy is a time when tremendous growth, coordination, and mental development occur. Most infants learn to walk, manipulate objects, and can form basic words by the end of infancy. By 5 months a baby will have doubled its birth weight and tripled its birth weight by the first year. By the age of 2, a baby’s weight will have quadrupled!

Researchers have given this part of the life span more attention than any other period, perhaps because changes during this time are so dramatic and so noticeable. We know that much of what happens during these years provide a foundation for one’s life to come, however, it has been argued that the significance of development during these years has been overstated (Bruer, 1999). Nevertheless, this is a period of life that contemporary educators, healthcare providers, and parents have focused on quite heavily. It is also a time period that can be tricky to study—how do we learn about infant speech when they cannot articulate their thoughts or feelings? For example, through research we know that infants understand speech much earlier than their bodies have matured enough to physically perform it; thus it is evident that their speech patterns develop before the physical growth of their vocal cords is adequate to facilitate speech.

In this module, we will examine the rapid physical growth and development of infants, look at the influences on physical growth and cognitive development, then turn our attention toward emotional and social development in the early years of life. The early years are a time of rapid physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, which have a direct effect on a baby’s overall development and the adult they will become.

What you’ll learn to do: describe physical growth and development in infants and toddlers

A closeup of an infant's feet

We’ll begin this section by reviewing the physical development that occurs during infancy, a period that starts at birth and continues until the second birthday. We’ll see how this time involves rapid growth, not only in observable changes like height and weight but also in brain development.

Next, we will explore reflexes. At birth, infants are equipped with a number of reflexes, which are involuntary movements in response to stimulation. We will explore these innate reflexes and then consider how these involuntary reflexes are eventually modified through experiences to become voluntary movements and the basis for motor development as skills emerge that allow an infant to grasp food, rollover, and take the first step.

Third, we will explore the baby’s senses. Every sense functions at birth—newborns use all of their senses to attend to everything and every person. We will explore how infants’ senses develop and how sensory systems like hearing and vision operate, and how infants take in information through their senses and transform it into meaningful information.

Finally, since growth during infancy is so rapid and the consequence of neglect can be severe, we will consider some of the influences on early physical growth, particularly the importance of nutrition.

Learning outcomes

Physical Growth and Brain Development in Infancy

Overall Physical Growth

By the time an infant is 4 months old, it usually doubles in weight, and by one year has tripled its birth weight. By age 2, the weight has quadrupled. The average length at 12 months (one-year-old) typically ranges from 28.5-30.5 inches. The average length at 24 months (two years old) is around 33.2-35.4 inches (CDC, 2010).

A collage of four photographs depicting babies is shown. From left to right they get progressively older. The far left photograph is a bundled up sleeping newborn. To the right is a picture of a toddler next to a toy giraffe. To the right is a baby blowing out a single candle. To the far right is a child on a swing set.
Figure 1. Children experience rapid physical changes through infancy and early childhood. (credit “left”: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk; credit “middle-left”: modification of work by Kristi Fausel; credit “middle-right”: modification of work by “devinf”/Flickr; credit “right”: modification of work by Rose Spielman)

Monitoring Physical Growth

As mentioned earlier, growth is so rapid in infancy that the consequences of neglect can be severe. For this reason, gains are closely monitored. At each well-baby check-up, a baby’s growth is compared to that baby’s previous numbers. Often, measurements are expressed as a percentile from 0 to 100, which compares each baby to other babies the same age. For example, weight at the 40th percentile means that 40 percent of all babies weigh less, and 60 percent weigh more. For any baby, pediatricians and parents can be alerted early just by watching percentile changes. If an average baby moves from the 50th percentile to the 20th, this could be a sign of failure to thrive, which could be caused by various medical conditions or factors in the child’s environment. The earlier the concern is detected, the earlier intervention and support can be provided for the infant and caregiver.

Body Proportions

Another dramatic physical change that takes place in the first several years of life is a change in body proportions. The head initially makes up about 50 percent of a person’s entire length when developing in the womb. At birth, the head makes up about 25 percent of a person’s length (just imagine how big your head would be if the proportions remained the same throughout your life!). In adulthood, the head comprises about 15 percent of a person’s length. Imagine how difficult it must be to raise one’s head during the first year of life! And indeed, if you have ever seen a 2- to 4-month-old infant lying on their stomach trying to raise the head, you know how much of a challenge this is.

The Brain in the First Two Years

Some of the most dramatic physical change that occurs during this period is in the brain. At birth, the brain is about 25 percent of its adult weight, and this is not true for any other part of the body. By age 2, it is at 75 percent of its adult weight, at 95 percent by age 6, and at 100 percent by age 7 years.

Brain MRIs that show similar regions activated by adult brains and infant brains while looking at either scenes of faces.
Figure 2. Research shows that as early as 4-6 months, infants utilize similar areas of the brain as adults to process information. Image from research article conducted by Ben Deen, Hilary Richardson, Daniel D. Dilks, Atsushi Takahashi, Boris Keil, Lawrence L. Wald, Nancy Kanwisher & Rebecca Saxe.”Article OPEN Published: 10 January 2017
Organization of high-level visual cortex in human infants”. Image retrieved from https://www.quantamagazine.org/infant-brains-reveal-how-the-mind-gets-built-20170110/.

Communication within the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord, begins with nerve cells called neurons. Neurons connect to other neurons via networks of nerve fibers called axons and dendrites. Each neuron typically has a single axon and numerous dendrites which are spread out like branches of a tree (some will say it looks like a hand with fingers). The axon of each neuron reaches toward the dendrites of other neurons at intersections called synapses, which are critical communication links within the brain. Axons and dendrites do not touch, instead, electrical impulses in the axons cause the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters which carry information from the axon of the sending neuron to the dendrites of the receiving neuron. 

While most of the brain’s 100 to 200 billion neurons are present at birth, they are not fully mature. Each neural pathway forms thousands of new connections during infancy and toddlerhood. During the next several years, dendrites, or connections between neurons, will undergo a period of transient exuberance or temporary dramatic growth (exuberant because it is so rapid and transient because some of it is temporary). There is a proliferation of these dendrites during the first two years so that by age 2, a single neuron might have thousands of dendrites. After this dramatic increase, the neural pathways that are not used will be eliminated through a process called pruning, thereby making those that are used much stronger. It is thought that pruning causes the brain to function more efficiently, allowing for mastery of more complex skills (Hutchinson, 2011). Transient exuberance occurs during the first few years of life, and pruning continues through childhood and into adolescence in various areas of the brain. This activity is occurring primarily in the cortex or the thin outer covering of the brain involved in voluntary activity and thinking. 

Parts of a neuron, showing the cell body with extended branches called dendrites, then a long extended axon which is covered by myelin sheath that extends to the synapses.
Figure 3. Parts of a neuron.

The prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, continues to grow and mature throughout childhood and experiences an additional growth spurt during adolescence. It is the last part of the brain to mature and will eventually comprise 85 percent of the brain’s weight. Experience will shape which of these connections are maintained and which of these are lost. Ultimately, about 40 percent of these connections will be lost (Webb, Monk, & Nelson, 2001). As the prefrontal cortex matures, the child is increasingly able to regulate or control emotions, to plan activity, to strategize, and have better judgment. Of course, this is not fully accomplished in infancy and toddlerhood but continues throughout childhood and adolescence.

Another major change occurring in the central nervous system is the development of myelin, a coating of fatty tissues around the axon of the neuron. Myelin helps insulate the nerve cell and speed the rate of transmission of impulses from one cell to another. This enhances the building of neural pathways and improves coordination and control of movement and thought processes. The development of myelin continues into adolescence but is most dramatic during the first several years of life.

Motor and Sensory Development

From Reflexes to Voluntary Movements

Every basic motor skill (any movement ability) develops over the first two years of life. The sequence of motor skills first begins with reflexes. Infants are equipped with a number of reflexes, or involuntary movements in response to stimulation, and some are necessary for survival. These include the breathing reflex, or the need to maintain an oxygen supply (this includes hiccups, sneezing, and thrashing reflexes), reflexes that maintain body temperature (crying, shivering, tucking the legs close, and pushing away blankets), the sucking reflex, or automatically sucking on objects that touch their lips, and the rooting reflex, which involves turning toward any object that touches the cheek (which manages feeding, including the search for a nipple). Other reflexes are not necessary for survival, but signify the state of brain and body functions. Some of these include the Babinski reflex (toes fan upward when feet are stroked), the stepping reflex (babies move their legs as if to walk when feet touch a flat surface), the palmar grasp (the infant will tightly grasp any object placed in its palm), and the Moro reflex (babies will fling arms out and then bring to the chest if they hear a loud noise). These movements occur automatically and are signals that the infant is functioning well neurologically. Within the first several weeks of life, these reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements or motor skills.

Motor development

Motor development occurs in an orderly sequence as infants move from reflexive reactions (e.g., sucking and rooting) to more advanced motor functioning. This development proceeds in a cephalocaudal (from head-down) and proximodistal (from center-out) direction. For instance, babies first learn to hold their heads up, then sit with assistance, then sit unassisted, followed later by crawling, pulling up, cruising, and then walking. As motor skills develop, there are certain developmental milestones that young children should achieve. For each milestone, there is an average age, as well as a range of ages in which the milestone should be reached. An example of a developmental milestone is a baby holding up its head. Babies on average are able to hold up their head at 6 weeks old, and 90% of babies achieve this between 3 weeks and 4 months old. If a baby is not holding up his head by 4 months old, he is showing a delay. On average, most babies sit alone at 7 months old. Sitting involves both coordination and muscle strength, and 90% of babies achieve this milestone between 5 and 9 months old (CDC, 2018). If the child is displaying delays on several milestones, that is a reason for concern, and the parent or caregiver should discuss this with the child’s pediatrician. Some developmental delays can be identified and addressed through early intervention.

Link to Learning

It is important to understand that there is a range of normal for reaching developmental milestones.  It should not be a competition between parents whose child reached which milestones first. Each child will develop at their own pace based on many different factors. However, if a delay is diagnosed there are early invention services that are available in most states.  Review the services that are available in Arizona.

Gross Motor Skills

Baby grabbing a leaf
Figure 4. This baby is working on his pincer grasp.

Gross motor skills are voluntary movements that involve the use of large muscle groups and are typically large movements of the arms, legs, head, and torso. These skills begin to develop first. Examples include moving to bring the chin up when lying on the stomach, moving the chest up, rocking back and forth on hands and knees. But it also includes exploring an object with one’s feet as many babies do, as early as 8 weeks of age, if seated in a carrier or other device that frees the hips. This may be easier than reaching for an object with the hands, which requires much more practice (Berk, 2007). And sometimes an infant will try to move toward an object while crawling and surprisingly move backward because of the greater amount of strength in the arms than in the legs!

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are more exact movements of the hands and fingers and include the ability to reach and grasp an object. These skills focus on the muscles in the fingers, toes, and eyes, and enable coordination of small actions (e.g., grasping a toy, writing with a pencil, and using a spoon). Newborns cannot grasp objects voluntarily but do wave their arms toward objects of interest. At about 4 months of age, the infant is able to reach for an object, first with both arms and within a few weeks, with only one arm. Grasping an object involves the use of the fingers and palm, but no thumbs. Stop reading for a moment and try to grasp an object using the fingers and the palm. How does that feel? How much control do you have over the object? If it is a pen or pencil, are you able to write with it? Can you draw a picture? The answer is, probably not. Use of the thumb comes at about 9 months of age when the infant is able to grasp an object using the forefinger and thumb (the pincer grasp). This ability greatly enhances the ability to control and manipulate an object, and infants take great delight in this newfound ability. They may spend hours picking up small objects from the floor and placing them in containers. By 9 months, an infant can also watch a moving object, reach for it as it approaches, and grab it. This is quite a complicated set of actions if we remember how difficult this would have been just a few months earlier.

Table 1. Timeline of Developmental Milestones.
~2 months
  • Can hold head upright on own
  • Smiles at sound of familiar voices and follows movement with eyes
~3 months
  • Can raise head and chest from prone position
  • Smiles at others
  • Grasps objects
  • Rolls from side to back
~4-5 months
  • Babbles, laughs, and tries to imitate sounds
  • Begins to roll from back to side
~6 months
  • Moves objects from hand to hand
~7-8 months
  • Can sit without support
  • May begin to crawl
  • Responds to own name
  • Finds partially hidden objects
~8-9 months
  • Walks while holding on
  • Babbles “mama” and “dada”
  • Claps
~11-12 months
  • Stands alone
  • Begins to walk
  • Says at least one word
  • Can stack two blocks
~18 months
  • Walks independently
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Says at least 15 words
  • Points to body parts
~2 years
  • Runs and jumps
  • Uses two-word sentences
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Begins make-believe play
~3 years
  • Speaks in multi-word sentences
  • Sorts objects by shape and color
~4 years
  • Draws circles and squares
  • Rides a tricycle
  • Gets along with people outside of the family
  • Gets dressed
~5 years
  • Can jump, hop, and skip
  • Knows name and address
  • Counts ten or more objects

 

Link to Learning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the developmental milestones for children from 2 months through 5 years old. After reviewing the information, take the CDC’s Developmental Milestones quiz to see how well you recall what you’ve learned. If you are a parent with concerns about your child’s development, contact your pediatrician.

Nutrition

Good nutrition in a supportive environment is vital for an infant’s healthy growth and development. Remember, from birth to 1 year, infants triple their weight and increase their height by half, and this growth requires good nutrition. For the first 6 months, babies are fed breast milk or formula. Starting good nutrition practices early can help children develop healthy dietary patterns. Infants need to receive nutrients to fuel their rapid physical growth. Malnutrition during infancy can result in not only physical but also cognitive and social consequences. Without proper nutrition, infants cannot reach their physical potential.

Introducing Solid Foods

Breast milk or formula is the only food a newborn needs, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after birth. Solid foods can be introduced from around six months onward when babies develop stable sitting and oral feeding skills but should be used only as a supplement to breast milk or formula. By six months, the gastrointestinal tract has matured, solids can be digested more easily, and allergic responses are less likely. The infant is also likely to develop teeth around this time, which aids in chewing solid food. Iron-fortified infant cereal, made of rice, barley, or oatmeal, is typically the first solid introduced due to its high iron content. Cereals can be made of rice, barley, or oatmeal. Generally, salt, sugar, processed meat, juices, and canned foods should be avoided.

Though infants usually start eating solid foods between 4 and 6 months of age, more and more solid foods are consumed by a growing toddler. Pediatricians recommended introducing foods one at a time, and for a few days, in order to identify any potential food allergies. Toddlers may be picky at times, but it remains important to introduce a variety of foods and offer food with essential vitamins and nutrients, including iron, calcium, and vitamin D.

Malnutrition

About 9 million children in the United States are malnourished (Children’s Welfare, 1998). More still suffer from milk anemia, a condition in which milk consumption leads to a lack of iron in the diet. The prevalence of iron deficiency anemia in 1- to 3-year-old children seems to be increasing (Kazal, 2002). The body gets iron through certain foods. Toddlers who drink too much cow’s milk may also become anemic if they are not eating other healthy foods that have iron. This can be due to the practice of giving toddlers milk as a pacifier when resting, riding, walking, and so on. Appetite declines somewhat during toddlerhood and a small amount of milk (especially with added chocolate syrup) can easily satisfy a child’s appetite for many hours. The calcium in milk interferes with the absorption of iron in the diet as well. There is also a link between iron deficiency anemia and diminished mental, motor, and behavioral development. In the second year of life, iron deficiency can be prevented by the use of a diversified diet that is rich in sources of iron and vitamin C, limiting cow’s milk consumption to less than 24 ounces per day, and providing a daily iron-fortified vitamin. 

Children in developing countries and countries experiencing the harsh conditions of war are at risk for two major types of malnutrition. Infantile marasmus refers to starvation due to a lack of calories and protein. Children who do not receive adequate nutrition lose fat and muscle until their bodies can no longer function. Babies who are breastfed are much less at risk of malnutrition than those who are bottle-fed. After weaning, children who have diets deficient in protein may experience kwashiorkor or the “disease of the displaced child,” often occurring after another child has been born and taken over breastfeeding. This results in a loss of appetite and swelling of the abdomen as the body begins to break down the vital organs as a source of protein

 

Link to Learning

The website Zero to Three has more information on infant sleep patterns and habits. Feel free to explore their multiple topics on the subject.

Immunizations

Preventing communicable diseases from early infancy is one of the major tasks of the Public Health System in the USA. Infants mouth every single object they find as one of their typical developmental tasks. They learn through their senses and tasting objects stimulates their brain and provides a sensory experience as well as learning.

Infants have much contact with dirty surfaces. They lay on a carpet that most likely has been contaminated by adults walking on it; they mouth keys, rattles, toys, and books; they crawl on the floor; they hold on to furniture to walk, and much more. How do we prevent infants from getting sick? One possible answer is immunizations.

Many decades ago, our society struggled to find vaccines and cures for illnesses such as Polio, whooping cough, and many other medical conditions. A few decades ago parents started changing their minds on the need to vaccinate children. Some children are not vaccinated for valid medical reasons, but some states allow a child to be unvaccinated because of a parent’s personal or religious beliefs. At least 1 in 14 children is not vaccinated. What is the outcome of not vaccinating children? Some of the preventable illnesses are returning. Fortunately, each vaccinated child stops the transmission of the disease, a phenomenon called herd immunity. Usually, if 90% of the people in a community (a herd) are immunized, no one dies of that disease.

In 2017, Community Care Licensing in California, the agency that regulates childcare centers, changed regulations. Before it was possible for parents to opt-out of vaccinations due to personal beliefs, but this changed after Governor Brown signed a Bill in 2016 to only exclude children from being vaccinated if there were medical reasons. Furthermore, all personnel working with children must be immunized.

Link to Learning

Read more information about vaccinations at the website Shots for School.

What you’ll learn to do: explain cognitive development in infants and toddlers

A toddler building a tower out of colorful blocks

In addition to rapid physical growth, young children also exhibit significant development of their cognitive abilities, particularly in language acquisition and in the ability to think and reason. You already learned a little bit about Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in this section, we’ll apply that model to cognitive tasks during infancy and toddlerhood. Piaget described intelligence in infancy as sensorimotor or based on direct, physical contact where infants use senses and motor skills to taste, feel, pound, push, hear, and move in order to experience the world. These basic motor and sensory abilities provide the foundation for the cognitive skills that will emerge during the subsequent stages of cognitive development.

Learning outcomes

Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development in Children

In order to adapt to the evolving environment around us, humans rely on cognition, both adapting to the environment and also transforming it. In general, all theorists studying cognitive development address three main issues:

  1. The typical course of cognitive development
  2. The unique differences between individuals
  3. The mechanisms of cognitive development (the way genetics and environment combine to generate patterns of change)

The Cognitive Perspective: The Roots of Understanding

Cognitive theories focus on how our mental processes or cognitions change over time. The theory of cognitive development is a comprehensive theory about the nature and development of human intelligence first developed by Jean Piaget. It is primarily known as a developmental stage theory, but in fact, it deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans come gradually to acquire it, construct it, and use it. Moreover, Piaget claims that cognitive development is at the center of the human organism and language is contingent on cognitive development. Let’s learn more about Piaget’s views about the nature of intelligence and then dive deeper into the stages that he identified as critical in the developmental process.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Like Freud and Erikson, Piaget thought development unfolded in a series of stages approximately associated with age ranges. He proposed a theory of cognitive development that unfolds in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Table 1. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Age (years) Stage Description Developmental issues
0–2 Sensorimotor World experienced through senses and actions Object permanence
Stranger anxiety
2–7 Preoperational Use words and images to represent things but lack logical reasoning Pretend play
Egocentrism
Language development
7–11 Concrete operational Understand concrete events and logical analogies; perform arithmetical operations Conservation
Mathematical transformations
11– Formal operational Utilize abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking Abstract logic
Moral reasoning

Piaget and Sensorimotor Intelligence

Adorable smiling toddler boy.
Figure 1. Toddlers happily explore the world, engaged in purposeful goal-directed behavior.

How do infants connect and make sense of what they are learning? Remember that Piaget believed that we are continuously trying to maintain cognitive equilibrium, or balance, between what we see and what we know (Piaget, 1954). Children have much more of a challenge in maintaining this balance because they are constantly being confronted with new situations, new words, new objects, etc. All this new information needs to be organized, and a framework for organizing information is referred to as a schema. Children develop schemas through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

For example, 2-year-old Deja learned the schema for dogs because her family has a Poodle. When Deja sees other dogs in her picture books, she says, “Look mommy, dog!” Thus, she has assimilated them into her schema for dogs. One day, Deja sees a sheep for the first time and says, “Look mommy, dog!” Having a basic schema that a dog is an animal with four legs and fur, Deja thinks all furry, four-legged creatures are dogs. When Deja’s mom tells her that the animal she sees is a sheep, not a dog, Deja must accommodate her schema for dogs to include more information based on her new experiences. Deja’s schema for dog was too broad since not all furry, four-legged creatures are dogs. She now modifies her schema for dogs and forms a new one for sheep.

Let’s examine the transition that infants make from responding to the external world reflexively as newborns, to solving problems using mental strategies as two-year-olds. Piaget called this first stage of cognitive development sensorimotor intelligence (the sensorimotor period) because infants learn through their senses and motor skills. He subdivided this period into six substages:

Table 1. Sensorimotor substages.
Stage Age
Stage 1 – Reflexes Birth to 6 weeks
Stage 2 – Primary Circular Reactions 6 weeks to 4 months
Stage 3 – Secondary Circular Reactions 4 months to 8 months
Stage 4 – Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions 8 months to 12 months
Stage 5 – Tertiary Circular Reactions 12 months to 18 months
Stage 6 – Mental Representation 18 months to 24 months

Substages of Sensorimotor Intelligence

For an overview of the substages of sensorimotor thought, it helps to group the six substages into pairs. The first two substages involve the infant’s responses to its own body, call primary circular reactions. During the first month first (substage one), the infant’s senses, as well as motor reflexes are the foundation of thought.

Substage One: Reflexive Action (Birth through 1st month)

This active learning begins with automatic movements or reflexes (sucking, grasping, staring, listening). A ball comes into contact with an infant’s cheek and is automatically sucked on and licked. But this is also what happens with a sour lemon, much to the infant’s surprise! The baby’s first challenge is to learn to adapt the sucking reflex to bottles or breasts, pacifiers or fingers, each acquiring specific types of tongue movements to latch, suck, breath, and repeat. This adaptation demonstrates that infants have begun to make sense of sensations. Eventually, the use of these reflexes becomes more deliberate and purposeful as they move onto substage two.

Substage Two: First Adaptations to the Environment (1st through 4th months)

Fortunately, within a few days or weeks, the infant begins to discriminate between objects and adjust responses accordingly as reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements. An infant may accidentally engage in a behavior and find it interesting, such as making a vocalization. This interest motivates trying to do it again and helps the infant learn a new behavior that originally occurred by chance. The behavior is identified as circular and primary because it centers on the infant’s own body. At first, most actions have to do with the body, but in months to come, will be directed more toward objects. For example, the infant may have different sucking motions for hunger and others for comfort (i.e. sucking a pacifier differently from a nipple or attempting to hold a bottle to suck it).

The next two substages (3 and 4), involve the infant’s responses to objects and people, called secondary circular reactions. Reactions are no longer confined to the infant’s body and are now interactions between the baby and something else.

Substage Three: Repetition (4th through 8th months)

During the next few months, the infant becomes more and more actively engaged in the outside world and takes delight in being able to make things happen by responding to people and objects. Babies try to continue any pleasing event. Repeated motion brings particular interest as the infant is able to bang two lids together or shake a rattle and laugh. Another example might be to clap their hands when a caregiver says “patty-cake.” Any sight of something delightful will trigger efforts for interaction.

Substage Four: New Adaptations and Goal-Directed Behavior (8th through 12th months)

Now the infant becomes more deliberate and purposeful in responding to people and objects and can engage in behaviors that others perform and anticipate upcoming events. Babies may ask for help by fussing, pointing, or reaching up to accomplish tasks, and work hard to get what they want. Perhaps because of continued maturation of the prefrontal cortex, the infant becomes capable of having a thought and carrying out a planned, goal-directed activity such as seeking a toy that has rolled under the couch or indicating that they are hungry. The infant is coordinating both internal and external activities to achieve a planned goal and begins to get a sense of social understanding. Piaget believed that at about 8 months (during substage 4), babies first understood the concept of object permanence, which is the realization that objects or people continue to exist when they are no longer in sight.

The last two stages (5 and 6), called tertiary circular reactions, consist of actions (stage 5) and ideas (stage 6) where infants become more creative in their thinking.

Substage Five: Active Experimentation of “Little Scientists” (12th through 18th months)

The toddler is considered a “little scientist” and begins exploring the world in a trial-and-error manner, using motor skills and planning abilities. For example, the child might throw their ball down the stairs to see what happens or delight in squeezing all of the toothpaste out of the tube. The toddler’s active engagement in experimentation helps them learn about their world. Gravity is learned by pouring water from a cup or pushing bowls from high chairs. The caregiver tries to help the child by picking it up again and placing it on the tray. And what happens? Another experiment! The child pushes it off the tray again causing it to fall and the caregiver to pick it up again! A closer examination of this stage causes us to really appreciate how much learning is going on at this time and how many things we come to take for granted must actually be learned. This is a wonderful and messy time of experimentation and most learning occurs by trial and error.

Substage Six: Mental Representations (18th month to 2 years of age)

The child is now able to solve problems using mental strategies, to remember something heard days before and repeat it, to engage in pretend play, and to find objects that have been moved even when out of sight. Take, for instance, the child who is upstairs in a room with the door closed, supposedly taking a nap. The doorknob has a safety device on it that makes it impossible for the child to turn the knob. After trying several times to push the door or turn the doorknob, the child carries out a mental strategy to get the door opened – he knocks on the door! Obviously, this is a technique learned from the past experience of hearing a knock on the door and observing someone opening the door. The child is now better equipped with mental strategies for problem-solving. Part of this stage also involves learning to use language. This initial movement from the “hands-on” approach to knowing about the world to the more mental world of stage six marked the transition to preoperational thinking, which you’ll learn more about in a later module.

Development of Object Permanence

A critical milestone during the sensorimotor period is the development of object permanence. Introduced during substage 4 above, object permanence is the understanding that even if something is out of sight, it continues to exist. The infant is now capable of making attempts to retrieve the object. Piaget thought that, at about 8 months, babies first understand the concept of objective permanence, but some research has suggested that infants seem to be able to recognize that objects have permanence at much younger ages (even as young as 4 months of age). Other researchers, however, are not convinced (Mareschal & Kaufman, 2012). It may be a matter of “grasping vs. mastering” the concept of objective permanence. Overall, we can expect children to grasp the concept that objects continue to exist even when they are not in sight by around 8 months old, but memory may play a factor in their consistency. Because toddlers (i.e., 12–24 months old) have mastered object permanence, they enjoy games like hide-and-seek, and they realize that when someone leaves the room they will come back (Loop, 2013). Toddlers also point to pictures in books and look in the appropriate places when you ask them to find objects.

Learning and Memory Abilities in Infants

Memory is central to cognitive development. Our memories form the basis for our sense of self, guide our thoughts and decisions, influence our emotional reactions, and allow us to learn (Bauer, 2008).

It is thought that Piaget underestimated memory ability in infants (Schneider, 2015). This belief came in part from findings that adults rarely recall personal events from before the age of 3 years (a phenomenon that is known as infantile or childhood amnesia). However, research with infants and young children has made it clear that they can and do form memories of events. 

As mentioned when discussing the development of infant senses, within the first few weeks of birth, infants recognize their caregivers by face, voice, and smell. Sensory and caregiver memories are apparent in the first month, motor memories by 3 months, and then, at about 9 months, more complex memories including language (Mullally & Maguire, 2014). There is an agreement that memory is fragile in the first months of life, but that improves with age. Repeated sensations and brain maturation are required in order to process and recall events (Bauer, 2008). Infants remember things that happened weeks and months ago (Mullally & Maguire, 2014), although they most likely will not remember it decades later. From the cognitive perspective, this has been explained by the idea that the lack of linguistic skills of babies and toddlers limit their ability to mentally represent events; thereby, reducing their ability to encode memory. Moreover, even if infants do form such early memories, older children and adults may not be able to access them because they may be employing very different, more linguistically based, retrieval cues than infants used when forming the memory. 

Language Development

Given the remarkable complexity of a language, one might expect that mastering a language would be an especially arduous task; indeed, for those of us trying to learn a second language as adults, this might seem to be true. However, young children master language very quickly with relative ease. B. F. Skinner (1957) proposed that language is learned through reinforcement. Noam Chomsky (1965) criticized this behaviorist approach, asserting instead that the mechanisms underlying language acquisition are biologically determined. The use of language develops in the absence of formal instruction and appears to follow a very similar pattern in children from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. It would seem, therefore, that we are born with a biological predisposition to acquire a language (Chomsky, 1965; Fernández & Cairns, 2011). Moreover, it appears that there is a critical period for language acquisition, such that this proficiency at acquiring language is maximal early in life; generally, as people age, the ease with which they acquire and master new languages diminishes (Johnson & Newport, 1989; Lenneberg, 1967; Singleton, 1995).

Children begin to learn about language from a very early age (Table 1). In fact, it appears that this is occurring even before we are born. Newborns show a preference for their mother’s voice and appear to be able to discriminate between the language spoken by their mother and other languages. Babies are also attuned to the languages being used around them and show preferences for videos of faces that are moving in synchrony with the audio of spoken language versus videos that do not synchronize with the audio (Blossom & Morgan, 2006; Pickens, 1994; Spelke & Cortelyou, 1981).

Table 2. Stages of Language and Communication Development
Stage Age Developmental Language and Communication
1 0–3 months Reflexive communication
2 3–8 months Reflexive communication; interest in others
3 8–12 months Intentional communication; sociability
4 12–18 months First words
5 18–24 months Simple sentences of two words
6 2–3 years Sentences of three or more words
7 3–5 years Complex sentences; has conversations

Each language has its own set of phonemes that are used to generate morphemes, words, and so on. Babies can discriminate among the sounds that make up a language (for example, they can tell the difference between the “s” in vision and the “ss” in fission); early on, they can differentiate between the sounds of all human languages, even those that do not occur in the languages that are used in their environments. However, by the time that they are about 1 year old, they can only discriminate among those phonemes that are used in the language or languages in their environments (Jensen, 2011; Werker & Lalonde, 1988; Werker & Tees, 1984).

HOW DOES SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT?

The achievement gap refers to the persistent difference in grades, test scores, and graduation rates that exist among students of different ethnicities, races, and—in certain subjects—sexes (Winerman, 2011). Research suggests that these achievement gaps are strongly influenced by differences in socioeconomic factors that exist among the families of these children. While the researchers acknowledge that programs aimed at reducing such socioeconomic discrepancies would likely aid in equalizing the aptitude and performance of children from different backgrounds, they recognize that such large-scale interventions would be difficult to achieve. Therefore, it is recommended that programs aimed at fostering aptitude and achievement among disadvantaged children may be the best option for dealing with issues related to academic achievement gaps (Duncan & Magnuson, 2005).

Low-income children perform significantly more poorly than their middle- and high-income peers on a number of educational variables: They have significantly lower standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college entrance rates, and they have much higher school dropout rates. There have been attempts to correct the achievement gap through state and federal legislation, but what if the problems start before the children even enter school?

Psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley (2006) spent their careers looking at the early language ability and progression of children in various income levels. In one longitudinal study, they found that although all the parents in the study engaged and interacted with their children, middle- and high-income parents interacted with their children differently than low-income parents. After analyzing 1,300 hours of parent-child interactions, the researchers found that middle- and high-income parents talk to their children significantly more, starting when the children are infants. By 3 years old, high-income children knew almost double the number of words known by their low-income counterparts, and they had heard an estimated total of 30 million more words than the low-income counterparts (Hart & Risley, 2003). And the gaps only become more pronounced. Before entering kindergarten, high-income children score 60% higher on achievement tests than their low-income peers (Lee & Burkam, 2002).

There are solutions to this problem. At the University of Chicago, experts are working with low-income families, visiting them at their homes, and encouraging them to speak more to their children on a daily and hourly basis. Other experts are designing preschools in which students from diverse economic backgrounds are placed in the same classroom. In this research, low-income children made significant gains in their language development, likely as a result of attending the specialized preschool (Schechter & Byeb, 2007). What other methods or interventions could be used to decrease the achievement gap? What types of activities could be implemented to help the children of your community or a neighboring community?

Infant Communication

Wide-eyed baby boy.
Figure 2. Before they develop language, infants communicate using facial expressions.

Intentional Vocalizations

Infants begin to vocalize and repeat vocalizations within the first couple of months of life. That gurgling, musical vocalization called cooing can serve as a source of entertainment to an infant who has been laid down for a nap or seated in a carrier on a car ride. Cooing serves as practice for vocalization. It also allows the infant to hear the sound of their own voice and try to repeat sounds that are entertaining. Infants also begin to learn the pace and pause of conversation as they alternate their vocalization with that of someone else and then take their turn again when the other person’s vocalization has stopped. Cooing initially involves making vowel sounds like “oooo.” Later, as the baby moves into babbling (see below), consonants are added to vocalizations such as “nananananana.”

Babbling and Gesturing

Between 6 and 9 months, infants begin making even more elaborate vocalizations that include the sounds required for any language. Guttural sounds, clicks, consonants, and vowel sounds stand ready to equip the child with the ability to repeat whatever sounds are characteristic of the language heard. These babies repeat certain syllables (ma-ma-ma, da-da-da, ba-ba-ba), a vocalization called babbling because of the way it sounds. Eventually, these sounds will no longer be used as the infant grows more accustomed to a particular language. Deaf babies also use gestures to communicate wants, reactions, and feelings. Because gesturing seems to be easier than vocalization for some toddlers, sign language is sometimes taught to enhance one’s ability to communicate by making use of the ease of gesturing. The rhythm and pattern of language are used when deaf babies sign just as when hearing babies babble.

At around ten months of age, infants can understand more than they can say. You may have experienced this phenomenon as well if you have ever tried to learn a second language. You may have been able to follow a conversation more easily than to contribute to it.

Holophrastic Speech

Children begin using their first words at about 12 or 13 months of age and may use partial words to convey thoughts at even younger ages. These one-word expressions are referred to as holophrastic speech (holophrase). For example, the child may say “ju” for the word “juice” and use this sound when referring to a bottle. The listener must interpret the meaning of the holophrase. When this is someone who has spent time with the child, interpretation is not too difficult. They know that “ju” means “juice” which means the baby wants some milk! But, someone who has not been around the child will have trouble knowing what is meant. Imagine the parent who exclaims to a friend, “Ezra’s talking all the time now!” The friend hears only “ju da ga” which, the parent explains, means “I want some milk when I go with Daddy.”

Underextension

A child who learns that a word stands for an object may initially think that the word can be used for only that particular object. Only the family’s Irish Setter is a “doggie.” This is referred to as underextension. More often, however, a child may think that a label applies to all objects that are similar to the original object. In overextension, all animals become “doggies,” for example.

First words and cultural influences

The first words for English-speaking children tend to be nouns. The child labels objects such as a cup or a ball. In a verb-friendly language such as Chinese, however, children may learn more verbs. This may also be due to the different emphasis given to objects based on culture. Chinese children may be taught to notice action and relationships between objects while children from the United States may be taught to name an object and its qualities (color, texture, size, etc.). These differences can be seen when comparing interpretations of art by older students from China and the United States.

Vocabulary growth spurt

One-year-olds typically have a vocabulary of about 50 words. But by the time they become toddlers, they have a vocabulary of about 200 words and begin putting those words together in telegraphic speech (short phrases). This language growth spurt is called the naming explosion because many early words are nouns (persons, places, or things).

Two-word sentences and telegraphic speech

Words are soon combined and 18-month-old toddlers can express themselves further by using phrases such as “baby bye-bye” or “doggie pretty.” Words needed to convey messages are used, but the articles and other parts of speech necessary for grammatical correctness are not yet included. These expressions sound like a telegraph (or perhaps a better analogy today would be that they read like a text message) where unnecessary words are not used. “Give baby ball” is used rather than “Give the baby the ball.” Or a text message of “Send money now!” rather than “Dear Mother. I really need some money to take care of my expenses.” You get the idea.

Child-directed speech

Why is a horse a “horsie”? Have you ever wondered why adults tend to use “baby talk” or that sing-song type of intonation and exaggeration used when talking to children? This represents a universal tendency and is known as child-directed speech or motherese or parentese. It involves exaggerating the vowel and consonant sounds, using a high-pitched voice, and delivering the phrase with great facial expression. Why is this done? It may be in order to clearly articulate the sounds of a word so that the child can hear the sounds involved. Or it may be because when this type of speech is used, the infant pays more attention to the speaker and this sets up a pattern of interaction in which the speaker and listener are in tune with one another. When I demonstrate this in class, the students certainly pay attention and look my way. Amazing! It also works in the college classroom!

Theories of Language Development

How is language learned? Each major theory of language development emphasizes different aspects of language learning: that infants’ brains are genetically attuned to language, that infants must be taught and that infants’ social impulses foster language learning. The first two theories of language development represent two extremes in the level of interaction required for language to occur (Berk, 2007).

Chomsky and the language acquisition device

This theory posits that infants teach themselves and that language learning is genetically programmed. The view is known as nativism and was advocated by Noam Chomsky, who suggested that infants are equipped with a neurological construct referred to as the language acquisition device (LAD), which makes infants ready for language. The LAD allows children, as their brains develop, to derive the rules of grammar quickly and effectively from the speech they hear every day. Therefore, language develops as long as the infant is exposed to it. No teaching, training, or reinforcement is required for language to develop. Instead, language learning comes from a particular gene, brain maturation, and the overall human impulse to imitate.

Skinner and reinforcement

This theory is the opposite of Chomsky’s theory because it suggests that infants need to be taught language. This idea arises from behaviorism. Learning theorist, B. F. Skinner, suggested that language develops through the use of reinforcement. Sounds, words, gestures, and phrases are encouraged by following the behavior with attention, words of praise, treats, or anything that increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. This repetition strengthens associations, so infants learn the language faster as parents speak to them often. For example, when a baby says “ma-ma,” the mother smiles and repeats the sound while showing the baby attention. So, “ma-ma” is repeated due to this reinforcement.

Social pragmatics

Another language theory emphasizes the child’s active engagement in learning the language out of a need to communicate. Social impulses foster infant language because humans are social beings and we must communicate because we are dependent on each other for survival. The child seeks information, memorizes terms, imitates the speech heard from others and learns to conceptualize using words as language is acquired. Tomasello &  Herrmann (2010) argue that all human infants, as opposed to chimpanzees, seek to master words and grammar in order to join the social world. Many would argue that all three of these theories (Chomsky’s argument for nativism, conditioning, and social pragmatics) are important for fostering the acquisition of language (Berger, 2004).

Moral Reasoning in Infants

The Foundation of Moral Reasoning in Infants

Young baby, around 6 months old, doing tummy time and looking happily at the camera.
Figure 3. Maybe babies know more than we think they do!

The work of Lawrence Kohlberg was an important start to modern research on moral development and reasoning. However, Kohlberg relied on a specific method: he presented moral dilemmas and asked children and adults to explain what they would do and—more importantly—why they would act in that particular way. Kohlberg found that children tended to make choices based on avoiding punishment and gaining praise. But children are at a disadvantage compared to adults when they must rely on language to convey their inner thoughts and emotional reactions, so what they say may not adequately capture the complexity of their thinking.

Starting in the 1980s, developmental psychologists created new methods for studying the thought processes of children and infants long before they acquire language. One particularly effective method is to present children with puppet shows to grab their attention and then record nonverbal behaviors, such as looking and choosing, to identify children’s preferences or interests.

A research group at Yale University has been using the puppet show technique to study the moral thinking of children for much of the past decade. What they have discovered has given us a glimpse of surprisingly complex thought processes that may serve as the foundation of moral reasoning.

Remember that Lawrence Kohlberg thought that children at this age—and, in fact, through 9 years of age—are primarily motivated to avoid punishment and seek rewards. Neither Kohlberg nor Carol Gilligan nor Jean Piaget was likely to predict that infants would develop preferences based on the type of behavior shown by other individuals.

What you’ll learn to do: explain emotional and social development during infancy

Two infants lying on their stomachs looking at each other

Psychosocial development occurs as children form relationships, interact with others, and understand and manage their feelings. In emotional and social development, forming healthy attachments is very important and is the major social milestone of infancy. Attachment is a long-standing connection or bond with others. Developmental psychologists are interested in how infants reach this milestone. They ask questions such as: how do parent and infant attachment bonds form? How does neglect affect these bonds? What accounts for children’s attachment differences?

Learning outcomes

Emotional Development and Attachment

Emotional Development

At birth, infants exhibit two emotional responses: attraction and withdrawal. They show attraction to pleasant situations that bring comfort, stimulation, and pleasure. And they withdraw from unpleasant stimulation such as bitter flavors or physical discomfort. At around two months, infants exhibit social engagement in the form of social smiling as they respond with smiles to those who engage their positive attention. Pleasure is expressed as laughter at 3 to 5 months of age, and displeasure becomes more specific to fear, sadness, or anger (usually triggered by frustration) between ages 6 and 8 months. Where anger is a healthy response to frustration, sadness, which appears in the first months as well, usually indicates withdrawal (Thiam et al., 2017).

As reviewed above, infants progress from reactive pain and pleasure to complex patterns of socioemotional awareness, which is a transition from basic instincts to learned responses. Fear is not always focused on things and events; it can also involve social responses and relationships. The fear is often associated with the presence of strangers or the departure of significant others known respectively as stranger wariness and separation anxiety, which appear sometime between 6 and 15 months. And there is even some indication that infants may experience jealousy as young as 6 months of age (Hart & Carrington, 2002).

Stranger wariness actually indicates that brain development and increased cognitive abilities have taken place. As an infant’s memory develops, they are able to separate the people that they know from the people that they do not. The same cognitive advances allow infants to respond positively to familiar people and recognize those that are not familiar. Separation anxiety also indicates cognitive advances and is universal across cultures. Due to the infant’s increased cognitive skills, they are able to ask reasonable questions like “Where is my caregiver going?” “Why are they leaving?” or “Will they come back?” Separation anxiety usually begins around 7-8 months and peaks around 14 months, and then decreases. Both stranger wariness and separation anxiety represent important social progress because they not only reflect cognitive advances but also growing social and emotional bonds between infants and their caregivers.

As we will learn through the rest of this module, caregiving does matter in terms of infant emotional development and emotional regulation. Emotional regulation can be defined by two components: emotions as regulating and emotions as regulated. The first, “emotions as regulating,” refers to changes that are elicited by activated emotions (e.g., a child’s sadness eliciting a change in parent response). The second component is labeled “emotions as regulated,” which refers to the process through which the activated emotion is itself changed by deliberate actions taken by the self (e.g., self-soothing, distraction) or others (e.g., comfort).

Throughout infancy, children rely heavily on their caregivers for emotional regulation; this reliance is labeled co-regulation, as parents and children both modify their reactions to the other based on the cues from the other. Caregivers use strategies such as distraction and sensory input (e.g., rocking, stroking) to regulate infants’ emotions. Despite their reliance on caregivers to change the intensity, duration, and frequency of emotions, infants are capable of engaging in self-regulation strategies as young as 4 months old. At this age, infants intentionally avert their gaze from overstimulating stimuli. By 12 months, infants use their mobility in walking and crawling to intentionally approach or withdraw from stimuli.

Throughout toddlerhood, caregivers remain important for the emotional development and socialization of their children, through behaviors such as labeling their child’s emotions, prompting thought about emotion (e.g., “why is the turtle sad?”), continuing to provide alternative activities/distractions, suggesting coping strategies, and modeling coping strategies. Caregivers who use such strategies and respond sensitively to children’s emotions tend to have children who are more effective at emotion regulation, are less fearful and fussy, more likely to express positive emotions, easier to soothe, more engaged in environmental exploration, and have enhanced social skills in the toddler and preschool years.

Self-awareness

During the second year of life, children begin to recognize themselves as they gain a sense of the self as an object. The realization that one’s body, mind, and activities are distinct from those of other people is known as self-awareness (Kopp, 2011). The most common technique used in research for testing self-awareness in infants is a mirror test known as the “Rouge Test.” The rouge test works by applying a dot of rouge (colored makeup) on an infant’s face and then placing them in front of the mirror. If the infant investigates the dot on their nose by touching it, they are thought to realize their own existence and have achieved self-awareness. A number of research studies have used this technique and shown self-awareness to develop between 15 and 24 months of age. Some researchers also take language such as “I, me, my, etc.” as an indicator of self-awareness.

Cognitive psychologist Philippe Rochat (2003) described a more in-depth developmental path in acquiring self-awareness through various stages. He described self-awareness as occurring in five stages beginning from birth.

Table 1. Stages of acquiring self-awareness
Stage Description
Stage 1 – Differentiation (from birth) Right from birth infants are able to differentiate the self from the non-self. A study using the infant rooting reflex found that infants rooted significantly less from self-stimulation, contrary to when the stimulation came from the experimenter.
Stage 2 – Situation (by 2 months) In addition to differentiation, infants at this stage can also situate themselves in relation to a model. In one experiment infants were able to imitate tongue orientation from an adult model. Additionally, another sign of differentiation is when infants bring themselves into contact with objects by reaching for them.
Stage 3 – Identification (by 2 years) At this stage, the more common definition of “self-awareness” comes into play, where infants can identify themselves in a mirror through the “rouge test” as well as begin to use language to refer to themselves.
Stage 4 – Permanence This stage occurs after infancy when children are aware that their sense of self continues to exist across both time and space.
Stage 5 – Self-consciousness or meta-self-awareness This also occurs after infancy. This is the final stage when children can see themselves in 3rd person, or how they are perceived by others.

Once a child has achieved self-awareness, the child is moving toward understanding social emotions such as guilt, shame or embarrassment, and pride, as well as sympathy and empathy. These will require an understanding of the mental state of others which is acquired around age 3 to 5 and will be explored in the next module (Berk, 2007).

Attachment

Psychosocial development occurs as children form relationships, interact with others, and understand and manage their feelings. In social and emotional development, forming healthy attachments is very important and is the major social milestone of infancy. Attachment is a long-standing connection or bond with others. Developmental psychologists are interested in how infants reach this milestone. They ask questions such as: How do parent and infant attachment bonds form? How does neglect affect these bonds? What accounts for children’s attachment differences?

Researchers Harry Harlow, John Bowlby, and Mary Ainsworth conducted studies designed to answer these questions. In the 1950s, Harlow conducted a series of experiments on monkeys. He separated newborn monkeys from their mothers. Each monkey was presented with two surrogate mothers. One surrogate mother was made out of wire mesh, and she could dispense milk. The other surrogate mother was softer and made from cloth: This monkey did not dispense milk. Research shows that the monkeys preferred the soft, cuddly cloth monkey, even though she did not provide any nourishment. The baby monkeys spent their time clinging to the cloth monkey and only went to the wire monkey when they needed to be feed. Prior to this study, the medical and scientific communities generally thought that babies become attached to the people who provide their nourishment. However, Harlow (1958) concluded that there was more to the mother-child bond than nourishment. Feelings of comfort and security are the critical components of maternal-infant bonding, which leads to healthy psychosocial development.

Building on the work of Harlow and others, John Bowlby developed the concept of attachment theory. He defined attachment as the affectional bond or tie that an infant forms with the mother (Bowlby, 1969). He believed that an infant must form this bond with a primary caregiver in order to have normal social and emotional development. In addition, Bowlby proposed that this attachment bond is very powerful and continues throughout life. He used the concept of a secure base to define a healthy attachment between parent and child (1988). A secure base is a parental presence that gives children a sense of safety as they explore their surroundings. Bowlby said that two things are needed for a healthy attachment: The caregiver must be responsive to the child’s physical, social, and emotional needs; and the caregiver and child must engage in mutually enjoyable interactions (Bowlby, 1969).

A person is shown holding an infant.
Figure 1. Mutually enjoyable interactions promote the mother-infant bond. (credit: Peter Shanks)

While Bowlby thought attachment was an all-or-nothing process, Mary Ainsworth’s (1970) research showed otherwise. Ainsworth wanted to know if children differ in the ways they bond, and if so, how. To find the answers, she used the Strange Situation procedure to study attachment between mothers and their infants (1970). In the Strange Situation, the mother (or primary caregiver) and the infant (age 12-18 months) are placed in a room together.  There are toys in the room, and the caregiver and child spend some time alone in the room. After the child has had time to explore their surroundings, a stranger enters the room. The mother then leaves her baby with the stranger. After a few minutes, she returns to comfort her child.

Based on how the toddlers responded to the separation and reunion, Ainsworth identified three types of parent-child attachments: secure, avoidant, and resistant (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). A fourth style, known as disorganized attachment, was later described (Main & Solomon, 1990).

The most common type of attachment—also considered the healthiest—is called secure attachment. In this type of attachment, the toddler prefers their parent over a stranger. The attachment figure is used as a secure base to explore the environment and is sought out in times of stress. Securely attached children were distressed when their caregivers left the room in the Strange Situation experiment, but when their caregivers returned, the securely attached children were happy to see them. Securely attached children have caregivers who are sensitive and responsive to their needs.

A photograph shows a person squatting down next to a small child who is standing up.
Figure 2. In a secure attachment, the parent provides a secure base for the toddler, allowing him to securely explore his environment. (credit: Kerry Ceszyk)

With avoidant attachment, the child is unresponsive to the parent, does not use the parent as a secure base, and does not care if the parent leaves. The toddler reacts to the parent the same way they react to a stranger. When the parent does return, the child is slow to show a positive reaction. Ainsworth theorized that these children were most likely to have a caregiver who was insensitive and inattentive to their needs (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978).

In cases of resistant attachment, children tend to show clingy behavior, but then they reject the attachment figure’s attempts to interact with them (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). These children do not explore the toys in the room, appearing too fearful. During separation in the Strange Situation, they become extremely disturbed and angry with the parent. When the parent returns, the children are difficult to comfort. Resistant attachment is thought to be the result of the caregivers’ inconsistent level of response to their child.

Finally, children with disorganized attachment behaved oddly in the Strange Situation. They freeze, run around the room in an erratic manner, or try to run away when the caregiver returns (Main & Solomon, 1990). This type of attachment is seen most often in kids who have been abused or severely neglected. Research has shown that abuse disrupts a child’s ability to regulate their emotions.

While Ainsworth’s research has found support in subsequent studies, it has also met criticism. Some researchers have pointed out that a child’s temperament (which we discuss next) may have a strong influence on attachment (Gervai, 2009; Harris, 2009), and others have noted that attachment varies from culture to culture, a factor that was not accounted for in Ainsworth’s research (Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000; van Ijzendoorn & Sagi-Schwartz, 2008).

Attachment styles vary in the amount of security and closeness felt in the relationship and they can change with new experiences. The type of attachment fostered in parenting styles varies by culture as well. For example, German parents value independence and Japanese mothers are typically by their children’s sides. As a result, the rate of insecure-avoidant attachments is higher in Germany and insecure-resistant attachments are higher in Japan. These differences reflect cultural variation rather than true insecurity, however (van Ijzendoorn and Sagi, 1999).  Keep in mind that methods for measuring attachment styles have been based on a model that reflects middle-class, US values and interpretation. Newer methods for assessing attachment styles involve using a Q-sort technique in which a large number of behaviors are recorded on cards and the observer sorts the cards in a way that reflects the type of behavior that occurs within the situation.

Attachment is classified into four types: A, B, C, and D. Ainsworth’s original schema differentiated only three types of attachment (types A, B, and C), but, as mentioned above, later researchers discovered a fourth category (type D). As we explore styles of attachment below, consider how these may also be evidenced in adult relationships. We’ll come back to this idea in later modules.

Types of Attachments

Secure

A secure attachment (type B) is one in which the child feels confident that their needs will be met in a timely and consistent way. The caregiver is the base for exploration, providing assurance, and enabling discovery. In North America, this interaction may include an emotional connection in addition to adequate care. However, even in cultures where mothers do not talk, cuddle, and play with their infants, secure attachments can develop (LeVine et. al., 1994). Secure attachments can form provided the child has consistent contact and care from one or more caregivers. Consistency of contacts may be jeopardized if the infant is cared for in a daycare with a high turn-over of caregivers or if institutionalized and given little more than basic physical care. And while infants who, perhaps because of being in orphanages with inadequate care, have not had the opportunity to attach in infancy can form initial secure attachments several years later, they may have more emotional problems of depression or anger, or be overly friendly as they make adjustments (O’Connor et. al., 2003).

Insecure Resistant/Ambivalent

Insecure-resistant/ambivalent (type C) attachment style is marked by insecurity and resistance to engaging in activities or play away from the caregiver. It is as if the child fears that the caregiver will abandon them and clings accordingly. (Keep in mind that clingy behavior can also just be part of a child’s natural disposition or temperament and does not necessarily reflect some kind of parental neglect.) The child may cry if separated from the caregiver and also cry upon their return. They seek constant reassurance that never seems to satisfy their doubt. This type of insecure attachment might be a result of not having their needs met in a consistent or timely way. Consequently, the infant is never sure that the world is a trustworthy place or that he or she can rely on others without some anxiety. A caregiver who is unavailable, perhaps because of marital tension, substance abuse, or preoccupation with work, may send a message to the infant they cannot rely on having their needs met. A caregiver who attends to a child’s frustration can help teach them to be calm and to relax. But an infant who receives only sporadic attention when experiencing discomfort may not learn how to calm down.

Insecure-Avoidant

Insecure-avoidant (type A) is an attachment style marked by insecurity. This style is also characterized by a tendency to avoid contact with the caregiver and with others. This child may have learned that needs typically go unmet and learns that the caregiver does not provide care and cannot be relied upon for comfort, even sporadically. An insecure-avoidant child learns to be more independent and disengaged. Such a child might sit passively in a room filled with toys until it is time to go.

Disorganized

Disorganized attachment (type D) represents the most insecure style of attachment and occurs when the child is given mixed, confused, and inappropriate responses from the caregiver. For example, a mother who suffers from schizophrenia may laugh when a child is hurting or cry when a child exhibits joy. The child does not learn how to interpret emotions or to connect with the unpredictable caregiver.

How common are the attachment styles among children in the United States? It is estimated that about 65 percent of children in the United States are securely attached. Twenty percent exhibit avoidant styles and 10 to 15 percent are resistant. Another 5 to 10 percent may be characterized as disorganized.

Erikson’s Stages for Infants and Toddlers

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions
Table

 

messy toddler girl covered with fingerpaint.
Figure 4. Exploring the environment allows the toddler to develop a sense of autonomy and independence

Autonomy vs. shame and doubt (Will)

Autonomy vs. Shame (Will)—As toddlers (ages 1–3 years) begin to explore their world, they learn that they can control their actions and act on their environment to get results. They begin to show clear preferences for certain elements of the environment, such as food, toys, and clothing. A toddler’s main task is to resolve the issue of autonomy vs. shame and doubt by working to establish independence. This is the “me do it” stage. For example, we might observe a budding sense of autonomy in a 2-year-old child who wants to choose her clothes and dress herself. Although her outfits might not be appropriate for the situation, her input in such basic decisions has an effect on her sense of independence. If denied the opportunity to act on her environment, she may begin to doubt her abilities, which could lead to low self-esteem and feelings of shame.

As the child begins to walk and talk, an interest in independence or autonomy replaces their concern for trust. The toddler tests the limits of what can be touched, said, and explored. Erikson believed that toddlers should be allowed to explore their environment as freely as safety allows and, in doing so, will develop a sense of independence that will later grow to self-esteem, initiative, and overall confidence. If a caregiver is overly anxious about the toddler’s actions for fear that the child will get hurt or violate others’ expectations, the caregiver can give the child the message that they should be ashamed of their behavior and instill a sense of doubt in their abilities. Parenting advice based on these ideas would be to keep your toddler safe, but let them learn by doing. A sense of pride seems to rely on doing rather than being told how capable one is (Berger, 2005).

 

 

Theory of Psychosexual Development

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

During the anal stage, which coincides with toddlerhood and potty-training, the child is taught that some urges must be contained and some actions postponed. There are rules about certain functions and when and where they are to be carried out. The child is learning a sense of self-control. The ego is being developed. If the caregiver is extremely controlling about potty training (stands over the child waiting for the smallest indication that the child might need to go to the potty and immediately scoops the child up and places him on the potty chair, for example), the child may grow up fearing losing control. He may become fixated in this stage or “anally retentive”—fearful of letting go. Such a person might be extremely neat and clean, organized, reliable, and controlling of others. If the caregiver neglects to teach the child to control urges, he may grow up to be “anal expulsive” or an adult who is messy, irresponsible, and disorganized.

Link to Learning: Toilet Training

To the relief of most parents, there is very little evidence to suggest that Freud was right about fixations caused during the anal stage, mainly because the theory itself would be very difficult to test. Nevertheless, parents worry about toilet training, and whether they will be able to guide their children through the process unscathed. Kidshealth.org has a good web page on to potty training that may help parents worried about toilet training.

 

A woman shown from behind walking and carrying an infant

We have explored the dramatic story of the first two years of life. Rapid physical growth, neurological development, language acquisition, the movement from hands-on to mental learning, an expanding emotional repertoire, and the initial conceptions of self and others make this period of life very exciting. These abilities are shaped into more sophisticated mental processes, self-concepts, and social relationships during the years of early childhood.

Babies begin to learn about the world around them from a very early age. Children’s early experiences, meaning the bonds they form with their parents and their first learning experiences, affect their future physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Various organizations and agencies are dedicated to helping parents (and other caregivers), educators, and health care providers understand the importance of early healthy development. Healthy development means that children of all abilities, including those with special health care needs, are able to grow up where their social, emotional, and educational needs are met. Having a safe and loving home and spending time with family―playing, singing, reading, and talking―are very important. Proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep can also make a big difference; and effective parenting practices are key to supporting healthy development (CDC, 2019). The need to invest in very young children is important to maximize their future well-being.

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Chapter 5: Early Childhood

5

Why learn about development during early childhood?

Two girls playing with a stream of water

The time between a child’s second and sixth birthday is a time of rich development in many ways. Children are growing rapidly physically, cognitively, and socially. Children are developing language skills that will help them navigate their world as they prepare to enter school. In fact, a child will go from being able to produce approximately 50 words at age 2 to producing over 2000 words at age 6! The number of words these children understand is even greater!

Children in this stage are changing from intuitive problem-solvers into more sophisticated logical problem solvers. Their cognitive skills are increasing at a rapid rate, even though their brain is beginning to lose neurons through the process of synaptic pruning.

Children are also learning to navigate the social world around them. They are learning about themselves and begin to develop their own self-concept, while at the same time they are becoming aware that other people have feelings, too. The development that happens in these four years impacts the rest of the child’s life in many ways for years to come.

What you’ll learn to do: describe physical changes in early childhood

A girl with outstretched hands painted with different bright colors

Children in early childhood are physically growing at a rapid pace. If you want to have fun with a child at the beginning of the period, ask them to take their left hand and use it to go over their head to touch their right ear. They cannot do it. Their body proportions are such that they are still built very much like an infant with a very large head and short appendages. By the time the child is five years old though, their arms will have stretched, and their head is becoming smaller in proportion to the rest of their growing bodies. They can accomplish the task easily because of these physical changes.

Learning outcomes

Growth and Nutrition in Early Childhood

Growth in early childhood

Children between the ages of 2 and 6 years tend to grow about 3 inches in height each year and gain about 4 to 5 pounds in weight each year. The average 6-year-old weighs about 46 pounds and is about 46 inches in height. The 3-year-old is very similar to a toddler with a large head, large stomach, short arms, and short legs. During early childhood, children start to lose some of their baby fat, making them less like a baby, and more like a child as they progress through this stage. By around age 3, children will have all 20 of their primary teeth, and by around age 4, may have 20/20 vision. Many children take a daytime nap until around age 4 or 5, then sleep between 11 and 13 hours at night.

By the time the child reaches age 6, the torso has lengthened and body proportions have become more like those of adults. It should be noted that these growth patterns are seen where children receive adequate nutrition. Studies from many countries support the assertion that children tend to grow more slowly in low SES areas, and thus they are smaller.

This growth rate is slower than that of infancy and is accompanied by a reduced appetite between the ages of 2 and 6. This change can sometimes be surprising to parents and lead to the development of poor eating habits.

Nutritional concerns

toddler girl sits behind her grapes and hotdog with a grumpy face.
Figure 1. While young children can be picky eaters, it is important to expose them to a variety of healthy foods and avoid too many high-fat or low-nutritional foods, such as corndogs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 American children between the ages of 2 and 5 are overweight or obese. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a number of steps to take to help reduce the chances of obesity in young children. Removing high-calorie low-nutrition foods from the diet, offering whole fruits and vegetables instead of just juices, and getting kids active are just some of the recommendations that they make. Muckelbauer and colleagues (2009) found that increasing water consumption in school-aged children by just 220ml (just under 8 oz) per day decreased the risk of obesity by 31%. Finally, the AAP suggests that parents can begin offering milk with a lower fat percentage (2%, 1%, or skim milk) to 2-year-olds. The switch to lower fat milk may help avoid some of the obesity issues discussed above. Parents should avoid giving the child too much milk as calcium interferes with the absorption of iron in the diet as well.

Caregivers (whether parents or non-parents) need to keep in mind that they are setting up taste preferences at this age. Young children who grow accustomed to high-fat, very sweet, and salty flavors may have trouble eating foods that have more subtle flavors such as fruits and vegetables. Lack of a healthy diet may lead to obesity during this and future stages. Offering a diet of diverse food options, limiting foods with high calories but low nutritional value, and limiting high-calorie drink options can all contribute greatly to a child’s health during this stage of life.

Caregivers who have established a feeding routine with their child can find the normal reduction in appetite a bit frustrating and become concerned that the child is going to starve. However, by providing adequate, sound nutrition, and limiting sugary snacks and drinks, the caregiver can be assured that 1) the child will not starve, and 2) the child will receive adequate nutrition. Preschoolers can experience iron deficiencies if not given well-balanced nutrition.

Tips for Establishing Healthy Eating Patterns

Consider the following advice about establishing eating patterns for years to come (Rice, 1997). Notice that keeping mealtime pleasant, providing sound nutrition, and not engaging in power struggles over food are the main goals.

1. Don’t try to force your child to eat or fight over food. Of course, it is impossible to force someone to eat. But the real advice here is to avoid turning food into some kind of ammunition during a fight. Do not teach your child to eat to or refuse to eat in order to gain favor or express anger toward someone else.

2. Recognize that appetite varies. Children may eat well at one meal and have no appetite at another. Rather than seeing this as a problem, it may help to realize that appetites do vary. Continue to provide good nutrition, but do not worry excessively if the child does not eat.

3. Keep it pleasant. This tip is designed to help caregivers create a positive atmosphere during mealtime. Mealtimes should not be the time for arguments or expressing tensions. You do not want the child to have painful memories of mealtimes together or have nervous stomachs and problems eating and digesting food due to stress.

4. No short-order chefs. While it is fine to prepare foods that children enjoy, preparing a different meal for each child or family member sets up an unrealistic expectation from others. Children probably do best when they are hungry and a meal is ready. Limiting snacks rather than allowing children to “graze” continuously can help create an appetite for whatever is being served.

5. Limit choices. If you give your preschool-aged child choices, make sure that you give them one or two specific choices rather than asking “What would you like for lunch?” If given an open choice, children may change their minds or choose whatever their sibling does not choose!

6. Serve balanced meals. This tip encourages caregivers to serve balanced meals. A box of macaroni and cheese is not a balanced meal. Meals prepared at home tend to have better nutritional value than fast food or frozen dinners. Prepared foods tend to be higher in fat and sugar content as these ingredients enhance taste and profit margin because fresh food is often more costly and less profitable. However, preparing fresh food at home is not costly. It does, however, require more activity. Preparing meals and including the children in kitchen chores can provide a fun and memorable experience.

7. Don’t bribe. Bribing a child to eat vegetables by promising dessert is not a good idea. For one reason, the child will likely find a way to get the desert without eating the vegetables (by whining or fidgeting, perhaps, until the caregiver gives in), and for another reason, because it teaches the child that some foods are better than others. Children tend to naturally enjoy a variety of foods until they are taught that some are considered less desirable than others. A child, for example, may learn the broccoli they have enjoyed is seen as yucky by others unless it’s smothered in cheese sauce!

 To what extent do these tips address cultural practices? How might these tips vary by culture?

 Physical Development in Early Childhood

Brain Maturation

If you recall, the brain is about 75 percent of its adult weight by two years of age. By age 6, it is at 95 percent of its adult weight. The development of myelin (myelination) and the development of new synapses (through the process of synaptic pruning) continues to occur in the cortex and as it does we see a corresponding change in what the child is capable of doing. Remember that myelin is the coating around the axon that facilitates neural transmission. Synaptic pruning refers to the loss of synapses that are unused. As myelination and pruning increase during this stage of development, neural processes become quicker and more complex.

Greater development in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain behind the forehead that helps us to think, strategize, and control emotions, makes it increasingly possible to control emotional outbursts and to understand how to play games. Consider 4- or 5-year-old children and how they might approach a game of soccer. Chances are every move would be a response to the commands of a coach standing nearby calling out, “Run this way! Now, stop. Look at the ball. Kick the ball!” And when the child is not being told what to do, he or she is likely to be looking at the clover on the ground or a dog on the other side of the fence! Understanding the game, thinking ahead, and coordinating movement improves with practice and myelination. Demonstrating resilience and recovering from a loss, hopefully, does as well.

Growth in the hemispheres and corpus callosum

Between ages 3 and 6, the left hemisphere of the brain, which tends to lag behind in terms of activity during the first 3 years of life, increases in activity, which correlates with the burst in language skills during this time period. Activity in the right hemisphere grows steadily throughout early childhood and is especially involved in tasks that require spatial skills such as recognizing shapes and patterns. Both sides of the brain work together, however, and there is no such thing as a person being either left-brained or right-brained. The corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, undergoes a growth spurt between ages 3 and 6 as well resulting in improved coordination between right and left hemisphere tasks.

I once saw a 5-year-old hopping on one foot, rubbing his stomach, and patting his head all at the same time. I asked him what he was doing and he replied, “My teacher said this would help my corpus callosum!” Apparently, his kindergarten teacher had explained the process!

Visual Pathways

Have you ever examined the drawings of young children? If you look closely, you can almost see the development of visual pathways reflected in the way these images change as pathways become more mature. Early scribbles and dots illustrate the use of simple motor skills. No real connection is made between an image being visualized and what is created on paper.

At age 3, the child begins to draw wispy creatures with heads and not much other detail. Gradually pictures begin to have more detail and incorporate more parts of the body. Arm buds become arms and faces take on noses, lips, and eventually eyelashes. Look for drawings that you or your child has created to see this fascinating trend. Here are some examples of pictures drawn by girls from ages 2 to 7 years.

Four images drawn by young girls. The top left image shows lots of scribbles and lines, drawn by a 2 year old. The next image shows a stick-figure type drawing with a large head, rectangular body, and lines for legs. Next comes a stick-figure with more detail, like eyelashes, teeth, and fingers. Lastly, the drawing of a girl shows the full detail of a face with hair, freckles, red lips, and neatly-colored clothing.
Figure 2. These drawings demonstrate the progression in both drawing skill and visual processing during early childhood. The top left drawing is done by a 2-year old, and the bottom right image is drawn by a 7-year old.   

Motor Skill Development 

Remember that gross motor skills are voluntary movements involving the use of large muscle groups while fine motor skills are more exact movements of the hands and fingers and include the ability to reach and grasp an object. Early childhood is a time of development of both gross and fine motor skills.

Early childhood is a time when children are especially attracted to motion and song. Days are filled with moving, jumping, running, swinging, and clapping, and every place becomes a playground. Even the booth at a restaurant affords the opportunity to slide around in the seat or disappear underneath and imagine being a sea creature in a cave! Of course, this can be frustrating to a caregiver, but it’s the business of early childhood. Children may frequently ask their caregivers to “look at me” while they hop or roll down a hill. Children’s songs are often accompanied by arm and leg movements or cues to turn around or move from left to right. Running, jumping, dancing movements, etc. all afford children the ability to improve their gross motor skills.

Fine motor skills are also being refined in activities such as pouring water into a container, drawing, coloring, and using scissors. Some children’s songs promote fine motor skills as well (have you ever heard of the song “itsy, bitsy, spider”?). Mastering the fine art of cutting one’s own fingernails or tying their shoes will take a lot of practice and maturation. Fine motor skills continue to develop in middle childhood, but for preschoolers, the type of play that deliberately involves these skills is emphasized.

Sexual Development in Early Childhood

Historically, children have been thought of as innocent or incapable of sexual arousal (Aries, 1962). A more modern approach to sexuality suggests that the physical dimension of sexual arousal is present from birth. That said, it seems to be the case that the elements of seduction, power, love, or lust that are part of the adult meanings of sexuality are not present in sexual arousal at this stage. In contrast, sexuality begins in childhood as a response to physical states and sensations and cannot be interpreted as similar to that of adults in any way (Carroll, 2007).

Infancy

Boys and girls are capable of erections and vaginal lubrication even before birth (Martinson, 1981). Arousal can signal overall physical contentment and stimulation that accompanies feeding or warmth. Infants begin to explore their bodies and touch their genitals as soon as they have sufficient motor skills. This stimulation is for comfort or to relieve tension rather than to reach orgasm (Carroll, 2007).

Early Childhood

Self-stimulation is common in early childhood for both boys and girls. Curiosity about the body and about others’ bodies is a natural part of early childhood as well. Consider this example. A mother is asked by her young daughter: “So it’s okay to see a boy’s privates as long as it’s the boy’s mother or a doctor?” The mother hesitates a bit and then responds, “Yes. I think that’s alright.” “Hmmm,” the girl begins, “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor!” Hopefully, this subject is approached in a way that teaches children to be safe and know what is appropriate without frightening them or causing shame.

As children grow, they are more likely to show their genitals to siblings or peers, and to take off their clothes and touch each other (Okami et al., 1997). Masturbation is common for both boys and girls. Boys are often shown by other boys how to masturbate, but girls tend to find out accidentally. Boys masturbate more often and touch themselves more openly than do girls (Schwartz, 1999).

Hopefully, parents respond to this without an undue alarm and without making the children feel guilty about their bodies. Instead, messages about what is going on and the appropriate time and place for such activities help the child learn what is appropriate.

Parents should take the time to speak with their children about when it is appropriate for other people to see or touch them. Many experts suggest that this should occur as early as age 3, and of course the discussion should be appropriate for the child’s age.  One way to help a young child understand inappropriate touching is to discuss “bathing suit areas.” Kids First, Inc. suggests discussing the following: “No one should touch you anywhere your bathing suit covers. No one should ask you to touch them somewhere that their bathing suit covers. No one should show you a part of their or someone else’s bodies that their bathing suit covers.” Further, instead of talking about good or bad touching, talk about safe and unsafe touching. This way children will not feel guilty later on when that sort of touching is appropriate in a relationship.

What you’ll learn to do: explain cognitive changes in early childhood

A young girl writing with her father at a table

Early childhood is a time of pretending, blending fact and fiction, and learning to think of the world using language. As young children move away from needing to touch, feel, and hear about the world toward learning basic principles about how the world works, they hold some pretty interesting initial ideas. For example, how many of you are afraid that you are going to go down the bathtub drain? Hopefully, none of you! But a child of three might really worry about this as they sit at the front of the bathtub. A child might protest if told that something will happen “tomorrow” but be willing to accept an explanation that an event will occur “today after we sleep.” Or the young child may ask, “How long are we staying? From here to here?” while pointing to two points on a table. Concepts such as tomorrow, time, size and distance are not easy to grasp at this young age. Understanding size, time, distance, fact, and fiction are all tasks that are part of cognitive development in the preschool years.

Learning outcomes

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

 

Table 1. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Age (years) Stage Description Developmental issues
0–2 Sensorimotor World experienced through senses and actions Object permanence
Stranger anxiety
2–7 Preoperational Use words and images to represent things but lack logical reasoning Pretend play
Egocentrism
Language development
7–11 Concrete operational Understand concrete events and logical analogies; perform arithmetical operations Conservation
Mathematical transformations
11– Formal operational Utilize abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking Abstract logic
Moral reasoning

Piaget’s Second Stage: The Preoperational Stage

Approximately 4 and 7 year old children holding books.
Figure 1. Young children enjoy pretending to “play school.”

Remember that Piaget believed that we are continuously trying to maintain balance in how we understand the world. With rapid increases in motor skill and language development, young children are constantly encountering new experiences, objects, and words. In the module covering main developmental theories, you learned that when faced with something new, a child may either assimilate it into an existing schema by matching it with something they already know or expand their knowledge structure to accommodate the new situation. During the preoperational stage, many of the child’s existing schemas will be challenged, expanded, and rearranged. Their whole view of the world may shift.

Piaget’s second stage of cognitive development is called the preoperational stage and coincides with ages 2-7 (following the sensorimotor stage). The word operation refers to the use of logical rules, so sometimes this stage is misinterpreted as implying that children are illogical. While it is true that children at the beginning of the preoperational stage tend to answer questions intuitively as opposed to logically, children in this stage are learning to use language and how to think about the world symbolically. These skills help children develop the foundations they will need to consistently use operations in the next stage. Let’s examine some of Piaget’s assertions about children’s cognitive abilities at this age.

Pretend Play

Pretending is a favorite activity at this time. For a child in the preoperational stage, a toy has qualities beyond the way it was designed to function and can now be used to stand for a character or object unlike anything originally intended. A teddy bear, for example, can be a baby or the queen of a faraway land!

Piaget believed that children’s pretend play and experimentation helped them solidify the new schemas they were developing cognitively. This involves both assimilation and accommodation, which results in changes in their conceptions or thoughts. As children progress through the preoperational stage, they are developing the knowledge they will need to begin to use logical operations in the next stage.

Egocentrism

Egocentrism in early childhood refers to the tendency of young children to think that everyone sees things in the same way as the child. Piaget’s classic experiment on egocentrism involved showing children a three-dimensional model of a mountain and asking them to describe what a doll that is looking at the mountain from a different angle might see. Children tend to choose a picture that represents their own, rather than the doll’s view. However, when children are speaking to others, they tend to use different sentence structures and vocabulary when addressing a younger child or an older adult. Consider why this difference might be observed. Do you think this indicates some awareness of the views of others? Or do you think they are simply modeling adult speech patterns?

Precausal Thinking

Similar to preoperational children’s egocentric thinking is their structuring of cause-and-effect relationships based on their limited view of the world. Piaget coined the term “precausal thinking” to describe the way in which preoperational children use their own existing ideas or views, like in egocentrism, to explain cause-and-effect relationships. Three main concepts of causality, as displayed by children in the preoperational stage, include animism, artificialism, and transductive reasoning.

Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of actions and have lifelike qualities. An example could be a child believing that the sidewalk was mad and made them fall down, or that the stars twinkle in the sky because they are happy. To an imaginative child, the cup may be alive, the chair that falls down and hits the child’s ankle is mean, and the toys need to stay home because they are tired. Young children do seem to think that objects that move may be alive, but after age three, they seldom refer to objects as being alive (Berk, 2007). Many children’s stories and movies capitalize on animistic thinking. Do you remember some of the classic stories that make use of the idea of objects being alive and engaging in lifelike actions?

Artificialism refers to the belief that environmental characteristics can be attributed to human actions or interventions. For example, a child might say that it is windy outside because someone is blowing very hard, or the clouds are white because someone painted them that color.

Finally, precausal thinking is categorized by transductive reasoning. Transductive reasoning is when a child fails to understand the true relationships between cause and effect. Unlike deductive or inductive reasoning (general to specific, or specific to general), transductive reasoning refers to when a child reasons from specific to specific, drawing a relationship between two separate events that are otherwise unrelated. For example, if a child hears a dog bark and then a balloon pop, the child would conclude that because the dog barked, the balloon popped. Related to this is syncretism, which refers to a tendency to think that if two events occur simultaneously, one caused the other. An example of this might be a child asking the question, “if I put on my bathing suit will it turn to summer?”

Cognition Errors

Between the ages of four and seven, children tend to become very curious and ask many questions, beginning the use of primitive reasoning. There is an increase in curiosity in the interest of reasoning and wanting to know why things are the way they are. Piaget called it the “intuitive substage” because children realize they have a vast amount of knowledge, but they are unaware of how they acquired it.

Centration and conservation are characteristic of preoperative thought. Centration is the act of focusing all attention on one characteristic or dimension of a situation while disregarding all others. An example of centration is a child focusing on the number of pieces of cake that each person has, regardless of the size of the pieces. Centration is one of the reasons that young children have difficulty understanding the concept of conservation. Conservation is the awareness that altering a substance’s appearance does not change its basic properties. Children at this stage are unaware of conservation and exhibit centration. Imagine a 2-year-old and 4-year-old eating lunch. The 4-year-old has a whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He notices, however, that his younger sister’s sandwich is cut in half and protests, “She has more!” He is exhibiting centration by focusing on the number of pieces, which results in a conservation error.

beakers of different dimensions showing beakers with various dimensions.
Figure 2. A demonstration of the conservation of liquid. Does pouring liquid in a tall, narrow container make it have more?

In Piaget’s famous conservation task, a child is presented with two identical beakers containing the same amount of liquid. The child usually notes that the beakers do contain the same amount of liquid. When one of the beakers is poured into a taller and thinner container, children who are younger than seven or eight years old typically say that the two beakers no longer contain the same amount of liquid and that the taller container holds the larger quantity (centration), without taking into consideration the fact that both beakers were previously noted to contain the same amount of liquid.

Irreversibility is also demonstrated during this stage and is closely related to the ideas of centration and conservation. Irreversibility refers to the young child’s difficulty mentally reversing a sequence of events. In the same beaker situation, the child does not realize that, if the sequence of events was reversed and the water from the tall beaker was poured back into its original beaker, then the same amount of water would exist.

Centration, conservation errors, and irreversibility are indications that young children are reliant on visual representations. Another example of children’s reliance on visual representations is their misunderstanding of “less than” or “more than”. When two rows containing equal amounts of blocks are placed in front of a child with one row spread farther apart than the other, the child will think that the row spread farther contains more blocks.

Class inclusion refers to a kind of conceptual thinking that children in the preoperational stage cannot yet grasp. Children’s inability to focus on two aspects of a situation at once (centration) inhibits them from understanding the principle that one category or class can contain several different subcategories or classes. Preoperational children also have difficulty understanding that an object can be classified in more than one way. For example, a four-year-old girl may be shown a picture of eight dogs and three cats. The girl knows what cats and dogs are, and she is aware that they are both animals. However, when asked, “Are there more dogs or more animals?” she is likely to answer “more dogs.” This is due to her difficulty focusing on the two subclasses and the larger class all at the same time. She may have been able to view the dogs as dogs or animals, but struggled when trying to classify them as both, simultaneously. Similar to this is a concept relating to intuitive thought, known as “transitive inference.”

Transitive inference is using previous knowledge to determine the missing piece, using basic logic. Children in the preoperational stage lack this logic. An example of transitive inference would be when a child is presented with the information “A” is greater than “B” and “B” is greater than “C.” The young child may have difficulty understanding that “A” is also greater than “C.”

As the child’s vocabulary improves and more schemes are developed, they are more able to think logically, demonstrate an understanding of conservation, and classify objects.

Was Piaget Right?

It certainly seems that children in the preoperational stage make the mistakes in logic that Piaget suggests that they will make. That said, it is important to remember that there is variability in terms of the ages at which children reach and exit each stage. Further, there is some evidence that children can be taught to think in more logical ways far before the end of the preoperational period. For example, as soon as a child can reliably count they may be able to learn conservation of number. For many children, this is around age five. More complex conservation tasks, however, may not be mastered until closer to the end of the stage around age seven.

Theory of Mind

boy thinking
Figure 3. Around age four, most children begin to understand that thoughts and realities do not always match.

Theory of Mind

How do we come to understand how our mind works? The theory of mind is the understanding that the mind holds people’s beliefs, desires, emotions, and intentions. One component of this is understanding that the mind can be tricked or that the mind is not always accurate.

A two-year-old child does not understand very much about how their mind works. They can learn by imitating others, they are starting to understand that people do not always agree on things they like, and they have a rudimentary understanding of cause and effect (although they often fall prey to transitive reasoning). By the time a child is four, their theory of the mind allows them to understand that people think differently, have different preferences, and even mask their true feelings by putting on a different face that differs from how they truly feel inside.

To think about what this might look like in the real world, imagine showing a three-year-old child a bandaid box and asking the child what is in the box. Chances are, the child will reply, “bandaids.” Now imagine that you open the box and pour out crayons. If you now ask the child what they thought was in the box before it was opened, they may respond, “crayons.” If you ask what a friend would have thought was in the box, the response would still be “crayons.” Why?

Before about four years of age, a child does not recognize that the mind can hold ideas that are not accurate, so this three-year-old changes their response once they are shown that the box contains crayons. The child’s response can also be explained in terms of egocentrism and irreversibility. The child’s response is based on their current view rather than seeing the situation from another person’s perspective (egocentrism) or thinking about how they arrived at their conclusion (irreversibility). At around age four, the child would likely reply, “bandaids” when asked after seeing the crayons because by this age a child is beginning to understand that thoughts and realities do not always match.

Theory of Mind and Social Intelligence

This awareness of the existence of the mind is part of social intelligence and the ability to recognize that others can think differently about situations. It helps us to be self-conscious or aware that others can think of us in different ways, and it helps us to be able to be understanding or empathetic toward others. This developing social intelligence helps us to anticipate and predict the actions of others (even though these predictions are sometimes inaccurate). The awareness of the mental states of others is important for communication and social skills. A child who demonstrates this skill is able to anticipate the needs of others.

Language Development

A man reads a book to a toddler sitting next to him
Figure 4. Reading to young children helps them develop language skills by hearing and using new vocabulary words.

A child’s vocabulary expands between the ages of two to six from about 200 words to over 10,000 words through a process called fast-mapping. Words are easily learned by making connections between new words and concepts already known. The parts of speech that are learned depend on the language and what is emphasized. Children speaking verb-friendly languages such as Chinese and Japanese tend to learn verbs more readily, but those learning less verb-friendly languages such as English seem to need assistance in grammar to master the use of verbs (Imai, et als, 2008). Children are also very creative in creating their own words to use as labels such as a “take-care-of” when referring to John, the character on the cartoon Garfield, who takes care of the cat.

Children can repeat words and phrases after having heard them only once or twice, but they do not always understand the meaning of the words or phrases. This is especially true of expressions or figures of speech that are taken literally. For example, two preschool-aged girls began to laugh loudly while listening to a tape-recording of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” when the narrator reports, “Prince Phillip lost his head!” They imagine his head popping off and rolling down the hill as he runs and searches for it. Or a classroom full of preschoolers hears the teacher say, “Wow! That was a piece of cake!” The children began asking “Cake? Where is my cake? I want cake!”

Overregularization

Children learn the rules of grammar as they learn the language. Some of these rules are not taught explicitly, and others are. Often when learning language intuitively children apply rules inappropriately at first. But even after successfully navigating the rule for a while, at times, explicitly teaching a child a grammar rule may cause them to make mistakes they had previously not been making. For instance, two- to three-year-old children may say “I goed there” or “I doed that” as they understand intuitively that adding “ed” to a word makes it mean “something I did in the past.” As the child hears the correct grammar rule applied by the people around them, they correctly begin to say “I went there” and “I did that.” It would seem that the child has solidly learned the grammar rule, but it is actually common for the developing child to revert back to their original mistake. This happens as they overregulate the rule. This can happen because they intuitively discover the rule and overgeneralize it or because they are explicitly taught to add “ed” to the end of a word to indicate past tense in school. A child who had previously produced correct sentences may start to form incorrect sentences such as, “I goed there. I doed that.” These children are able to quickly re-learn the correct exceptions to the -ed rule.

Vygotsky and Language Development 

Vygotsky differed with Piaget in that he believed that a person not only has a set of abilities, but also a set of potential abilities that can be realized if given the proper guidance from others. He believed that through guided participation known as scaffolding, with a teacher or capable peer, a child can learn cognitive skills within a certain range known as the zone of proximal development. While Piaget’s ideas of cognitive development assume that development through certain stages is biologically determined, originates in the individual, and precedes cognitive complexity, Vygotsky presents a different view in which learning drives development. The idea of learning driving development, rather than being determined by the developmental level of the learner, fundamentally changes our understanding of the learning process and has significant instructional and educational implications (Miller, 2011).

Have you ever taught a child to perform a task? Maybe it was brushing their teeth or preparing food. Chances are you spoke to them and described what you were doing while you demonstrated the skill and let them work along with you throughout the process. You gave them assistance when they seemed to need it, but once they knew what to do-you stood back and let them go. This is scaffolding. This approach to teaching has also been adopted by educators. Rather than assessing students on what they are doing, they should be understood in terms of what they are capable of doing with the proper guidance.

This difference in assumptions has significant implications for the design and development of learning experiences. If we believe as Piaget did that development precedes learning, then we will make sure that new concepts and problems are not introduced until learners have developed innate capabilities to understand them. On the other hand, if we believe as Vygotsky did that learning drives development and that development occurs as we learn a variety of concepts and principles, recognizing their applicability to new tasks and new situations, then our instructional design will look very different

Children can be assisted in learning language by others who listen attentively, model more accurate pronunciations, and encourage elaboration. For example, if the child exclaims, “I’m goed there!” then the adult responds, “You went there?” Children may be hard-wired for language development, as Noam Chomsky suggested in his theory of universal grammar, but active participation is also important for language development. The process of scaffolding is one in which the guide provides needed assistance to the child as a new skill is learned. Repeating what a child has said, but in a grammatically correct way, is scaffolding for a child who is struggling with the rules of language production.

Private Speech

Do you ever talk to yourself? Why? Chances are, this occurs when you are struggling with a problem, trying to remember something, or feel very emotional about a situation. Children talk to themselves too. Piaget interpreted this as egocentric speech or a practice engaged in because of a child’s inability to see things from other points of view. Vygotsky, however, believed that children talk to themselves in order to solve problems or clarify thoughts. As children learn to think in words, they do so aloud before eventually closing their lips and engaging in private speech or inner speech. Thinking out loud eventually becomes thought accompanied by internal speech, and talking to oneself becomes a practice only engaged in when we are trying to learn something or remember something, etc. This inner speech is not as elaborate as the speech we use when communicating with others (Vygotsky, 1962).

Vygotsky and education

Target showing the center circle as what a learner can do, the next circle as the zone of proximal development, or what the learner can do with guidance, and the outer ring showing what the learner cannot do.
Figure 5. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development represents what a student can learn with the proper support.

Vygotsky’s theories do not just apply to language development but have been extremely influential for education in general. Although Vygotsky himself never mentioned the term scaffolding, it is often credited to him as a continuation of his ideas pertaining to the way adults or other children can use guidance in order for a child to work within their ZPD. (The term scaffolding was first developed by Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross while applying Vygotsky’s concept of ZPD to various educational contexts.)

Educators often apply these concepts by assigning tasks that students cannot do on their own, but which they can do with assistance; they should provide just enough assistance so that students learn to complete the tasks independently and then provide an environment that enables students to do harder tasks than would otherwise be possible. Teachers can also allow students with more knowledge to assist students who need more guidance. Especially in the context of collaborative learning, group members who have higher levels of understanding can help the less advanced members learn within their zone of proximal development.

30 Million Word Gap

To accomplish the tremendous rate of word learning that needs to occur during early childhood, it is important that children are learning new words each day. Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the late 1990s and early 2000s indicated that children from less advantaged backgrounds are exposed to millions of fewer words in their first three years of life than children who come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds. In their research, families were classified by socioeconomic status, (SES) into “high” (professional), “middle” (working class), and “low” (welfare) SES. They found that the average child in a professional family hears 2,153 words per waking hour, the average child in a working-class family hears 1,251 words per hour, and an average child in a welfare family only 616 words per hour. Extrapolating, they stated that, “in four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.” The line of thinking following their study is that children from more affluent households would enter school knowing more words, which would give them an advantage in school.

Hart and Risley’s research has been criticized by scholars. Critics theorize that the language and achievement gaps are not a result of the number of words a child is exposed to, but rather alternative theories suggest it could reflect the disconnect of linguistic practices between home and school. Thus, judging academic success and linguistic capabilities from socioeconomic status may ignore bigger societal issues. A recent replication of Hart and Risley’s study with more participants has found that the “word gap” may be closer to 4 million words, not the oft-cited 30 million words previously proposed. The ongoing word gap research is evidence of the importance of language development in early childhood.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? The Meaning of Language

Think about what you know of other languages; perhaps you even speak multiple languages. Imagine for a moment that your closest friend fluently speaks more than one language. Do you think that friend thinks differently, depending on which language is being spoken? You may know a few words that are not translatable from their original language into English. For example, the Portuguese word saudade originated during the 15th century, when Portuguese sailors left home to explore the seas and travel to Africa or Asia. Those left behind described the emptiness and fondness they felt as saudade (Figure 7.6). The word came to express many meanings, including loss, nostalgia, yearning, warm memories, and hope. There is no single word in English that includes all of those emotions in a single description. Do words such as saudade indicate that different languages produce different patterns of thought in people? What do you think??

Photograph A shows a painting of a person leaning against a ledge, slumped sideways over a box. Photograph B shows a painting of a person reading by a window.
Figure 7.6 These two works of art depict saudade. (a) Saudade de Nápoles, which is translated into “missing Naples,” was painted by Bertha Worms in 1895. (b) Almeida Júnior painted Saudade in 1899.

Language may indeed influence the way that we think, an idea known as linguistic determinism. One recent demonstration of this phenomenon involved differences in the way that English and Mandarin Chinese speakers talk and think about time. English speakers tend to talk about time using terms that describe changes along a horizontal dimension, for example, saying something like “I’m running behind schedule” or “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” While Mandarin Chinese speakers also describe time in horizontal terms, it is not uncommon to also use terms associated with a vertical arrangement. For example, the past might be described as being “up” and the future as being “down.” It turns out that these differences in language translate into differences in performance on cognitive tests designed to measure how quickly an individual can recognize temporal relationships. Specifically, when given a series of tasks with vertical priming, Mandarin Chinese speakers were faster at recognizing temporal relationships between months. Indeed, Boroditsky (2001) sees these results as suggesting that “habits in language encourage habits in thought” (p. 12).

One group of researchers who wanted to investigate how language influences thought compared how English speakers and the Dani people of Papua New Guinea think and speak about color. The Dani have two words for color: one word for light and one word for dark. In contrast, the English language has 11 color words. Researchers hypothesized that the number of color terms could limit the ways that the Dani people conceptualized color. However, the Dani were able to distinguish colors with the same ability as English speakers, despite having fewer words at their disposal (Berlin & Kay, 1969). A recent review of research aimed at determining how language might affect something like color perception suggests that language can influence perceptual phenomena, especially in the left hemisphere of the brain. You may recall from earlier chapters that the left hemisphere is associated with language for most people. However, the right (less linguistic hemisphere) of the brain is less affected by linguistic influences on perception (Regier & Kay, 2009)

What you’ll learn to do: describe key emotional and social developments of early childhood

Two boys squatting and playing by a pond

The time between a child’s second and sixth birthday is full of new social experiences. At the beginning of this stage, a child selfishly engages in the world—the goal is to please the self. As the child gets older, they realize that relationships built on give-and-take. They start to learn to empathize with others. They learn to make friends. Learning to navigate the social sphere is not easy, but children do it readily.

While the child is learning about their place in various relationships, they are also developing an understanding of emotion. A two-year-old does not have a good grasp on their emotions, but by the time a child is six, they understand their emotions better. They also understand how to control their emotions—even to the point that they may put on a different emotion than they are actually feeling. Further, by the time a child is six years old, they understand that other people have emotions and that all of the emotions involved in a situation (theirs and other people’s) should be taken into consideration. That said, although the six-year-old understands these things, they are not always good at putting the knowledge into action. We’ll examine some of these issues in this section.

Learning outcomes

Developing a Concept of Self

Self-Concept

Early childhood is a time of forming an initial sense of self. A self-concept or idea of who we are, what we are capable of doing, and how we think and feel is a social process that involves taking into consideration how others view us. It might be said, then, that in order to develop a sense of self, you must have interaction with others. Interactionist theorists, Cooley and Mead offer two interesting explanations of how a sense of self develops.

Cooley’s Looking-Glass Self

Charles Horton Cooley (1964) suggested that our self-concept comes from looking at how others respond to us. This process, known as the looking-glass self involves looking at how others seem to view us and interpreting this as we make judgments about whether we are good or bad, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, and so on. Of course, we do not always interpret their responses accurately so our self-concept is not simply a mirror reflection of the views of others. After forming an initial self-concept, we may use our existing self-concept as a mental filter screening out those responses that do not seem to fit our ideas of who we are. So compliments may be negated, for example.

Think of times in your life when you felt more self-conscious. The process of the looking-glass self is pronounced when we are preschoolers. Later in life, we also experience this process when we are in a new school, new job, or are taking on a new role in our personal lives and are trying to gauge our own performance. When we feel more sure of who we are we focus less on how we appear to others.

Mead’s I and Me

George Herbert Mead (1967) offered an explanation of how we develop a social sense of self by being able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. There are two parts of the self: the “I” which is the part of the self that is spontaneous, creative, innate, and is not concerned with how others view us, and the “me” or the social definition of who we are.

When we are born, we are all “I” and act without concern about how others view us. But the socialized self begins when we are able to consider how one important person views us. This initial stage is called “taking the role of the significant other.” For example, a child may pull a cat’s tail and be told by his mother, “No! Don’t do that, that’s bad” while receiving a slight slap on the hand. Later, the child may mimic the same behavior toward the self and say aloud, “No, that’s bad” while patting his own hand. What has happened? The child is able to see himself through the eyes of the mother. As the child grows and is exposed to many situations and rules of culture, he begins to view the self in the eyes of many others through these cultural norms or rules. This is referred to as “taking the role of the generalized other” and results in a sense of self with many dimensions. The child comes to have a sense of self as a student, as a friend, as a son, and so on.

Exaggerated Sense of Self

One of the ways to gain a clearer sense of self is to exaggerate those qualities that are to be incorporated into the self. Preschoolers often like to exaggerate their own qualities or to seek validation as the biggest or smartest or child who can jump the highest. Much of this may be due to the simple fact that the child does not understand their own limits. Young children may really believe that they can beat their parents to the mailbox, or pick up the refrigerator.

This exaggeration tends to be replaced by a more realistic sense of self in middle childhood as children realize that they do have limitations. Part of this process includes having parents who allow children to explore their capabilities and give the child authentic feedback. Another important part of this process involves the child learning that other people have capabilities, too…and that the child’s capabilities may differ from those of other people. Children learn to compare themselves to others to understand what they are “good at” and what they are not as good at.

Self-Control

One important aspect of self-concept is how we understand our ability to exhibit self-control and delay gratification. Self-control involves both response inhibition and delayed gratification. Response inhibition involves the ability to recognize a potential behavior before it occurs and stop the initiation of behaviors that could result in undesired consequences. Delayed gratification refers to the process of forgoing immediate or short-term rewards to achieve more valuable goals in the longer term. The ability to delay gratification was traditionally assessed in young children with the “Marshmallow Test.” During this experiment, participants were presented with a marshmallow (or another small treat) and were given a choice to eat it or wait for a certain period of time without eating it, so that they could have two marshmallows eventually (Mischel et al., 2011).

While self-control takes many years to develop, we see the beginnings of this skill during early childhood. This ability to delay gratification in young children has been shown to predict many positive outcomes. For instance, preschoolers who were able to delay gratification for a longer period of time had higher levels of resilience, better academic and social competence, and greater planning ability in their adolescence (Mischel et al., 1988). Recent research has linked poor delayed gratification in young children to poor eating self-regulation, specifically regarding eating when not hungry (Hughes et al., 2015) and behavioral problems (Willoughby et al., 2011; Kim et al., 2012).

Psychodynamic and Psychosocial Theories of Early Childhood

Freud’s Theory 

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

The phallic stage occurs during the preschool years (ages 3-5) when the child has a new biological challenge to face. The child will experience the Oedipus complex which refers to a child’s unconscious sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent and hatred for the same-sex parent. For example, boys experiencing the Oedipus complex will unconsciously want to replace their father as a companion to their mother but then realize that the father is much more powerful. For a while, the boy fears that if he pursues his mother, his father may castrate him (castration anxiety). So rather than risk losing his penis, he gives up his affections for his mother and instead learns to become more like his father, imitating his actions and mannerisms, thereby learning the role of males in his society. From this experience, the boy learns a sense of masculinity. He also learns what society thinks he should do and experiences guilt if he does not comply. In this way, the superego develops. If he does not resolve this successfully, he may become a “phallic male” or a man who constantly tries to prove his masculinity (about which he is insecure), by seducing women and beating up men.

Girls experience a comparable conflict in the phallic stage—the Electra complex. The Electra complex, while often attributed to Freud, was actually proposed by Freud’s contemporary, Carl Jung (Jung & Kerenyi, 1963). A little girl experiences the Electra complex in which she develops an attraction for her father but realizes that she cannot compete with her mother and so gives up that affection and learns to become more like her mother. This is not without some regret, however. Freud believed that the girl feels inferior because she does not have a penis (experiences “penis envy”). But she must resign herself to the fact that she is female and will just have to learn her inferior role in society as a female.  However, if she does not resolve this conflict successfully, she may have a weak sense of femininity and grow up to be a “castrating female” who tries to compete with men in the workplace or in other areas of life. The formation of the superego takes place during the dissolution of the Oedipus and Electra complex.

Chodorow, a neo-Freudian, believed that mothering promotes gender stereotypic behavior. Mothers push their sons away too soon and direct their attention toward problem-solving and independence. As a result, sons grow up confident in their own abilities but uncomfortable with intimacy. Girls are kept dependent too long and are given unnecessary and even unwelcome assistance from their mothers. Girls learn to underestimate their abilities and lack assertiveness but feel comfortable with intimacy.

Both of these models assume that early childhood experiences result in lifelong gender self-concepts. However, gender socialization is a process that continues throughout life. Children, teens, and adults refine and can modify their sense of self, based on gender.

Another important part of Freud’s phallic stage is that during this time the child is learning right from wrong through the process of introjection. Remember that according to Kohlberg, the child during this time is developing a sense of morality. According to Freud, this is occurring through the process of introjection which occurs as children incorporate values from others into their value set. Freud theorized about parental introjection, where children learn that parents seem pleased by certain behaviors (and so want to do those behaviors more to get rewards and love) and displeased by other behaviors (and so want to do those behaviors less to avoid punishment and loss of love). Today, modern psychoanalytic theorists recognize the place of others and society in introjection. Societal introjection is becoming more and more important as more children go to daycare, as we are more surrounded by technology and advertising, and as we travel more.

Social Development: The Importance of Play

The development of play is an important milestone in early childhood. Play holds a crucial role in providing a safe, caring, protective, confidential, and containing space where children can recreate themselves and their experiences through an exploratory process (Winnicott, 1942; Erikson, 1963). During this stage, pretend play is a great way for children to express their thoughts, emotions, fears, and anxieties. Early childhood play can be understood by observing the elements of fantasy, organization, and comfort. Fantasy, the process of make-believe, is an essential behavior the child engages in during pretend play; organization helps the child to structure pretend play into a story and to utilize cause-and-effect thinking, and comfort is used to assess the ease and pleasure in the engagement in play.

As children progress through the stage of early childhood, they also progress through several stages of non-social and social play. Stages of play is a theory and classification of participation in play developed by Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. Parten observed American children at free play. She recognized six different types of play:

  • Unoccupied play – when the child is not playing, just observing. A child may be standing in one spot or performing random movements.
  • Solitary (independent) play – when the child is alone and maintains focus on their activity. Such a child is uninterested in or is unaware of what others are doing. More common in young children (age 2–3) as opposed to older ones.
  • Onlooker play  – when the child watches others at play but does not engage in it. The child may engage in forms of social interaction, such as a conversation about the play, without actually joining in the activity. This type of activity is also more common in younger children.
  • Parallel play (adjacent play) – when the child plays separately from others but close to them and mimicking their actions. This type of play is seen as a transitory stage from a socially immature solitary and onlooker type of play, to a more socially mature associative and cooperative type of play.
  • Associative play – when the child is interested in the people playing but not in coordinating their activities with those people, or when there is no organized activity at all. There is a substantial amount of interaction involved, but the activities are not in sync.
  • Cooperative play – when a child is interested both in the people playing and in the activity they are doing. In cooperative play, the activity is organized, and participants have assigned roles. There is also increased self-identification with a group, and a group identity may emerge. This is more common toward the end of the early childhood stage. Examples would be dramatic play activities with roles, like playing school, or a game with rules, such as freeze tag.

EVERYDAY CONNECTION: The Importance of Play and Recess

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2007), unstructured play is an integral part of a child’s development. It builds creativity, problem-solving skills, and social relationships. Play also allows children to develop a theory-of-mind as they imaginatively take on the perspective of others.

Outdoor play allows children the opportunity to directly experience and sense the world around them. While doing so, they may collect objects that they come across and develop lifelong interests and hobbies. They also benefit from increased exercise, and engaging in outdoor play can actually increase how much they enjoy physical activity. This helps support the development of a healthy heart and brain. Unfortunately, research suggests that today’s children are engaging in less and less outdoor play (Clements, 2004). Perhaps, it is no surprise to learn that lowered levels of physical activity in conjunction with easy access to calorie-dense foods with little nutritional value are contributing to alarming levels of childhood obesity (Karnik & Kanekar, 2012).

Despite the adverse consequences associated with reduced play, some children are over-scheduled and have little free time to engage in unstructured play. In addition, some schools have taken away recess time for children in a push for students to do better on standardized tests, and many schools commonly use the loss of recess as a form of punishment. Do you agree with these practices? Why or why not?

Erikson: Initiative vs. Guilt (Purpose)

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions
Table

The trust and autonomy of previous stages develop into a desire to take initiative or to think of ideas and initiate action. Children are curious at this age and start to ask questions so that they can learn about the world. Parents should try to answer those questions without making the child feel like a burden or implying that the child’s question is not worth asking.

Once children reach the preschool stage (ages 3–6 years), they are capable of initiating activities and asserting control over their world through social interactions and play. According to Erikson, preschool children must resolve the task of initiative vs. guilt. By learning to plan and achieve goals while interacting with others, preschool children can master this task. Initiative, a sense of ambition and responsibility, occurs when parents allow a child to explore within limits and then support the child’s choice. These children will develop self-confidence and feel a sense of purpose. Those who are unsuccessful at this stage—with their initiative misfiring or stifled by over-controlling parents—may develop feelings of guilt.

These children are also beginning to use their imagination (remember what we learned when we discussed Piaget). Children may want to build a fort with the cushions from the living room couch, open a lemonade stand in the driveway, or make a zoo with their stuffed animals and issue tickets to those who want to come. Another way that children may express autonomy is in wanting to get themselves ready for bed without any assistance. To reinforce taking initiative, caregivers should offer praise for the child’s efforts and avoid being overly critical of messes or mistakes. Soggy washrags and toothpaste left in the sink pale in comparison to the smiling face of a five-year-old emerging from the bathroom with clean teeth and pajamas!

That said, it is important that the parent does their best to kindly guide the child to the right actions. Remember that according to Freud and Kohlberg, children are developing a sense of morality during this time. Erikson agrees. If the child does leave those soggy washrags in the sink, have the child help clean them up. It is possible that the child will not be happy with helping to clean, and the child may even become aggressive or angry, but it is important to remember that the child is still learning how to navigate their world. They are trying to build a sense of autonomy, and they may not react well when they are asked to do something that they had not planned. Parents should be aware of this, and try to be understanding, but also firm. Guilt for a situation where a child did not do their best allows a child to understand their responsibilities and helps the child learn to exercise self-control (remember the marshmallow test). The goal is to find a balance between initiative and guilt, not a free-for-all where the parent allows the child to do anything they want to. The parent must guide the child if they are to have a successful resolution in this stage.

Gender and Early Childhood

Gender Identity, Gender Constancy, and Gender Roles

A boy and girl are seen playing in the dirt
Figure 1. Young children are interested in exploring the differences between what activities are acceptable for boys and girls.

Another important dimension of the self is the sense of self as male or female. Preschool-aged children become increasingly interested in finding out the differences between boys and girls both physically and in terms of what activities are acceptable for each. While two-year-olds can identify some differences and learn whether they are boys or girls, preschoolers become more interested in what it means to be male or female. This self-identification, or gender identity, is followed sometime later with gender constancy, or the understanding that superficial changes do not mean that gender has actually changed. For example, if you are playing with a two-year-old boy and put barrettes in his hair, he may protest saying that he doesn’t want to be a girl. By the time a child is four-years-old, they have a solid understanding that putting barrettes in their hair does not change their gender.

Children learn at a young age that there are distinct expectations for boys and girls. Cross-cultural studies reveal that children are aware of gender roles by age two or three. At four or five, most children are firmly entrenched in culturally appropriate gender roles (Kane 1996). Children acquire these roles through socialization, a process in which people learn to behave in a particular way as dictated by societal values, beliefs, and attitudes.

Children may also use gender stereotyping readily. Gender stereotyping involves overgeneralizing about the attitudes, traits, or behavior patterns of women or men. A recent research study examined four- and five-year-old children’s predictions concerning the sex of the persons carrying out a variety of common activities and occupations on television. The children’s responses revealed strong gender-stereotyped expectations. They also found that children’s estimates of their own future competence indicated stereotypical beliefs, with the females more likely to reject masculine activities.

Children who are allowed to explore different toys, who are exposed to non-traditional gender roles, and whose parents and caregivers are open to allowing the child to take part in non-traditional play (allowing a boy to nurture a doll, or allowing a girl to play doctor) tend to have broader definitions of what is gender appropriate and may do less gender stereotyping.

Dig Deeper: Gender Identity Development

The National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement identified several stages of gender identity development, as outlined below. You can see more of their resources and tips for healthy gender development by reading Healthy Gender Development and Young Children.

It is important to understand these typical and normal attempts for children to understand the world around them. It is helpful to encourage children and support them as individuals, instead of emphasizing or playing into gender roles and expectations. You can foster self-esteem in children of any gender by giving all children positive feedback about their unique skills and qualities. For example, you might say to a child, “I noticed how kind you were to your friend when she fell down” or “You were very helpful with clean-up today—you are such a great helper” or “You were such a strong runner on the playground today.”

Learning Through Reinforcement and Modeling

Learning theorists suggest that gender role socialization is a result of the ways in which parents, teachers, friends, schools, religious institutions, media, and others send messages about what is acceptable or desirable behavior for males or females. This socialization begins early—in fact, it may even begin the moment a parent learns that a child is on the way. Knowing the sex of the child can conjure up images of the child’s behavior, appearance, and potential on the part of a parent. And this stereotyping continues to guide perception through life. Consider parents of newborns. Shown a 7-pound, 20-inch baby, wrapped in blue (a color designating males) describe the child as tough, strong, and angry when crying. Shown the same infant in pink (a color used in the United States for baby girls), these parents are likely to describe the baby as pretty, delicate, and frustrated when crying (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1987). Female infants are held more, talked to more frequently, and given direct eye contact, while male infants’ play is often mediated through a toy or activity.

One way children learn gender roles is through play. Parents typically supply boys with trucks, toy guns, and superhero paraphernalia, which are active toys that promote motor skills, aggression, and solitary play. Daughters are often given dolls and dress-up apparel that foster nurturing, social proximity, and role play. Studies have shown that children will most likely choose to play with “gender appropriate” toys (or same-gender toys) even when cross-gender toys are available because parents give children positive feedback (in the form of praise, involvement, and physical closeness) for gender normative behavior (Caldera, Huston, & O’Brien 1998).

A girl is seen playing with a doll and stroller
Figure 2. Little girls are often encouraged to play with toys that support female stereotypes of being nurturing.

Sons are given tasks that take them outside the house and that have to be performed only on occasion, while girls are more likely to be given chores inside the home, such as cleaning or cooking, that are performed daily. Sons are encouraged to think for themselves when they encounter problems, and daughters are more likely to be given assistance even when they are working on an answer. This impatience is reflected in teachers waiting less time when asking a female student for an answer than when asking for a reply from a male student (Sadker and Sadker, 1994). Girls are given the message from teachers that they must try harder and endure in order to succeed while boys’ successes are attributed to their intelligence. Of course, the stereotypes of advisors can also influence which kinds of courses or vocational choices girls and boys are encouraged to make.

Friends discuss what is acceptable for boys and girls, and popularity may be based on modeling what is considered ideal behavior or appearance for the sexes. Girls tend to tell one another secrets to validate others as best friends, while boys compete for position by emphasizing their knowledge, strength, or accomplishments. This focus on accomplishments can even give rise to exaggerating accomplishments in boys, but girls are discouraged from showing off and may learn to minimize their accomplishments as a result.

Gender messages abound in our environment. But does this mean that each of us receives and interprets these messages in the same way? Probably not. In addition to being recipients of these cultural expectations, we are individuals who also modify these roles (Kimmel, 2008).

One interesting recent finding is that girls may have an easier time breaking gender norms than boys. Girls who play with masculine toys often do not face the same ridicule from adults or peers that boys face when they want to play with feminine toys. Girls also face less ridicule when playing a masculine role (like doctor) as opposed to a boy who wants to take a feminine role (like caregiver).

The Impact of Gender Discrimination

How much does gender matter? In the United States, gender differences are found in school experiences. Even into college and professional school, girls are less vocal in class and much more at risk for sexual harassment from teachers, coaches, classmates, and professors. These gender differences are also found in social interactions and in media messages. The stereotypes that boys should be strong, forceful, active, dominant, and rational, and that girls should be pretty, subordinate, unintelligent, emotional, and talkative are portrayed in children’s toys, books, commercials, video games, movies, television shows, and music. In adulthood, these differences are reflected in income gaps between men and women (women working full-time earn about 74 percent the income of men), in higher rates of women suffering rape and domestic violence, higher rates of eating disorders for females, and in higher rates of violent death for men in young adulthood.

Gender differences in India can be a matter of life and death as preferences for male children have been historically strong and are still held, especially in rural areas (WHO, 2010). Male children are given preference for receiving food, breast milk, medical care, and other resources. In some countries, it is no longer legal to give parents information on the sex of their developing child for fear that they will abort a female fetus. Clearly, gender socialization and discrimination still impact development in a variety of ways across the globe. Gender discrimination generally persists throughout the lifespan in the form of obstacles to education, or lack of access to political, financial, and social power.

DIG DEEPER: The Case of David Reimer

In August of 1965, Janet and Ronald Reimer of Winnipeg, Canada, welcomed the birth of their twin sons, Bruce and Brian. Within a few months, the twins were experiencing urinary problems; doctors recommended the problems could be alleviated by having the boys circumcised. A malfunction of the medical equipment used to perform the circumcision resulted in Bruce’s penis being irreparably damaged. Distraught, Janet, and Ronald looked to expert advice on what to do with their baby boy. By happenstance, the couple became aware of Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins University and his theory of psychosexual neutrality (Colapinto, 2000).

Dr. Money had spent a considerable amount of time researching transgender individuals and individuals born with ambiguous genitalia. As a result of this work, he developed a theory of psychosexual neutrality. His theory asserted that we are essentially neutral at birth with regard to our gender identity and that we don’t assume a concrete gender identity until we begin to master language. Furthermore, Dr. Money believed that the way in which we are socialized in early life is ultimately much more important than our biology in determining our gender identity (Money, 1962).

Dr. Money encouraged Janet and Ronald to bring the twins to Johns Hopkins University, and he convinced them that they should raise Bruce as a girl. Left with few other options at the time, Janet and Ronald agreed to have Bruce’s testicles removed and to raise him as a girl. When they returned home to Canada, they brought with them Brian and his “sister,” Brenda, along with specific instructions to never reveal to Brenda that she had been born a boy (Colapinto, 2000).

Early on, Dr. Money shared with the scientific community the great success of this natural experiment that seemed to fully support his theory of psychosexual neutrality (Money, 1975). Indeed, in early interviews with the children, it appeared that Brenda was a typical little girl who liked to play with “girly” toys and do “girly” things.

However, Dr. Money was less than forthcoming with information that seemed to argue against the success of the case. In reality, Brenda’s parents were constantly concerned that their little girl wasn’t really behaving as most girls did, and by the time Brenda was nearing adolescence, it was painfully obvious to the family that she was really having a hard time identifying as a female. In addition, Brenda was becoming increasingly reluctant to continue her visits with Dr. Money to the point that she threatened suicide if her parents made her go back to see him again.

At that point, Janet and Ronald disclosed the true nature of Brenda’s early childhood to their daughter. While initially shocked, Brenda reported that things made sense to her now, and ultimately, by the time she was an adolescent, Brenda had decided to identify as a male. Thus, she became David Reimer.

David was quite comfortable in his masculine role. He made new friends and began to think about his future. Although his castration had left him infertile, he still wanted to be a father. In 1990, David married a single mother and loved his new role as a husband and father. In 1997, David was made aware that Dr. Money was continuing to publicize his case as a success supporting his theory of psychosexual neutrality. This prompted David and his brother to go public with their experiences in an attempt to discredit the doctor’s publications. While this revelation created a firestorm in the scientific community for Dr. Money, it also triggered a series of unfortunate events that ultimately led to David committing suicide in 2004 (O’Connell, 2004).

This sad story speaks to the complexities involved in gender identity. While the Reimer case had earlier been paraded as a hallmark of how socialization trumped biology in terms of gender identity, the truth of the story made the scientific and medical communities more cautious in dealing with cases that involve intersex children and how to deal with their unique circumstances. In fact, stories like this one have prompted measures to prevent unnecessary harm and suffering to children who might have issues with gender identity. For example, in 2013, a law took effect in Germany allowing parents of intersex children to classify their children as indeterminate so that children can self-assign the appropriate gender once they have fully developed their own gender identities (Paramaguru, 2013).

Childhood Stress and Development

Stress in Early Childhood

homeless boy looking reflectively at the camera for his picture, while he sits with his arms crossed in front of him on his knees.
Figure 7. Young children exposed to toxic stress are at risk of developing physical, emotional, and social symptoms.

What is the impact of stress on child development? The answer to that question is complex and depends on several factors including the number of stressors, the duration of stress, and the child’s ability to cope with stress.

Children experience different types of stressors that could be manifest in various ways. Normal, everyday stress can provide an opportunity for young children to build coping skills and poses little risk to development. Even long-lasting stressful events, such as changing schools or losing a loved one, can be managed fairly well.

Some experts have theorized that there is a point where prolonged or excessive stress becomes harmful and can lead to serious health effects. When stress builds up in early childhood, neurobiological factors are affected; in turn, levels of the stress hormone cortisol exceed normal ranges. Due in part to the biological consequences of excessive cortisol, children can develop physical, emotional, and social symptoms. Physical conditions include cardiovascular problems, skin conditions, susceptibility to viruses, headaches, or stomach aches in young children. Emotionally, children may become anxious or depressed, violent, or feel overwhelmed. Socially, they may become withdrawn and act out towards others, or develop new behavioral ticks such as biting nails or picking at skin.

Types of Stress

Researchers have proposed three distinct types of responses to stress in young children: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Positive stress (also called eustress) is necessary and promotes resilience, or the ability to function competently under threat. Such stress arises from brief, mild to moderate stressful experiences, buffered by the presence of a caring adult who can help the child cope with the stressor. This type of stress causes minor, temporary physiological, and hormonal changes in the young child such as an increase in heart rate and a change in hormone cortisol levels. The first day of school, a family wedding, or making new friends are all examples of positive stressors. Tolerable stress comes from adverse experiences that are more intense in nature but short-lived and can usually be overcome. Some examples of tolerable stressors are family disruptions, accidents, or the death of a loved one. The body’s stress response is more intensely activated due to severe stressors; however, the response is still adaptive and temporary.

Toxic stress is a term coined by pediatrician Jack P. Shonkoff of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University to refer to chronic, excessive stress that exceeds a child’s ability to cope, especially in the absence of supportive caregiving from adults. Extreme, long-lasting stress in the absence of supportive relationships to buffer the effects of a heightened stress response can produce damage and weakening of bodily and brain systems, which can lead to diminished physical and mental health throughout a person’s lifetime. Exposure to such toxic stress can result in the stress response system becoming more highly sensitized to stressful events, producing increased wear and tear on physical systems through over-activation of the body’s stress response. This wear and tear increase the later risk of various physical and mental illnesses.

Consequences of Toxic Stress

Children who experience toxic stress or who live in extremely stressful situations of abuse over long periods of time can suffer long-lasting effects. The structures in the midbrain or limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, can be vulnerable to prolonged stress (Middlebrooks and Audage, 2008). High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can reduce the size of the hippocampus and affect a child’s memory abilities. Stress hormones can also reduce immunity to disease. If the brain is exposed to long periods of severe stress, it can develop a low threshold, making a child hypersensitive to stress in the future.

With chronic toxic stress, children undergo long term hyper-arousal of brain stem activity. This includes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and arousal states. These children may experience a change in brain chemistry, which leads to hyperactivity and anxiety. Therefore, it is evident that chronic stress in a young child’s life can create significant physical, emotional, psychological, social, and behavioral changes; however, the effects of stress can be minimized if the child has the support of caring adults.

Coping with Stress

Stress is encountered in four different stages. In the first stage, stress usually causes alarm. Next, in the second or appraisal stage, the child attempts to find meaning from the event. Stage three consists of children seeking out coping strategies. Lastly, in stage four, children execute one or more of the coping strategies. However, children with a lower tolerance for stressors are more susceptible to alarm and find a broader array of events to be stressful. These children often experience chronic or toxic stress.

Managing Stress

Some recommendations to help children manage stressful situations include:

Trauma in Childhood

Childhood trauma is referred to in academic literature as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Children may go through a range of experiences that classify as psychological trauma, these might include neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, physical abuse, parent or sibling treated violently, separation or incarceration of parents, or having a parent with a mental illness. These events have profound psychological, physiological, and sociological impacts and can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being.

Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1998 study on adverse childhood experiences determined that traumatic experiences during childhood are a root cause of many social, emotional, and cognitive impairments that lead to increased risk of unhealthy self-destructive behaviors, risk of violence or re-victimization, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and premature mortality. As the number of adverse experiences increases, the risk of problems from childhood through adulthood also rises. Nearly 30 years of study following the initial study has confirmed this. Many states, health providers, and other groups now routinely screen parents and children for ACEs.

Young girls happily playing with ribbon wants at an early childhood event.

Usually, sometime at the beginning of early childhood, a parent will suddenly realize that their child is no longer a baby. This may happen because the child has physically grown and no longer has baby-like features, but more often it is because all of a sudden the parent realizes that this child is becoming independent. The child might be choosing their outfit for the day, or trying to learn to tie their shoelaces. It usually happens when the child is around two years old, right as early childhood is beginning. This realization that a baby is no longer a baby, that they are a child, is just the beginning.

As you have learned in this module, early childhood is a time of great change for children. While the child is still obviously a child physically, in the 4-year span of early childhood they make great strides in development—by the end of this period, a child’s brain is nearly adult-sized! At the same time, that nearly adult-sized brain is not ready to perform many adult tasks—there is much learning still to be done in terms of building relationships, moral decision making, and in other cognitive realms. Children go from knowing around 200 words at age two to being able to communicate in adult-like ways with a vocabulary recognizing over 10,000 words by age five, but think about how many new words you have had to learn just to succeed in this class! Ten thousand words may sound like a lot, but there are over 170,000 words in the English Language, and the average adult knows over 40,000 words.

Parents caring for children in early childhood contribute greatly to development in direct and in indirect ways. Teaching new words, laying-down expectations for behavior in different contexts, choosing daycare centers, helping to build self-confidence, and providing general care for the child all contribute to the child’s healthy development through early childhood. Parents and other caretakers should encourage healthy habits in their young children, including making healthy food choices and exercising the body and the brain. They should challenge children to think in new ways and create opportunities for children to learn about themselves so that they can develop a healthy and realistic self-concept.

The learning that happens for children in early childhood is the stepping stone for the next stage, middle childhood. Many of the advances that began in early childhood will continue to be refined in the next stage.

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Chapter 6: Middle Childhood

6

Why learn about development during middle childhood?

Four girls shown from behind jumping and holding hands

When Raekwon first started school, he wasn’t sure that he would like it. The thought of going to one place for a long time every day seemed sort of boring. Raekwon found that school was actually really exciting, though. He made friends, he got to learn about new things, he got to play at recess, and the food was good! He found that the days actually went by quickly! Now in fourth grade, Raekwon cannot wait for summer to be over so that he can go to school and meet-up with his friends regularly again.

Middle childhood is the period of life that begins when children enter school and lasts until they reach adolescence. Think for a moment about children at this age that you may know. What are their lives like? What kinds of concerns do they express and with what kinds of activities are their days filled? If it were possible, would you want to return to this period of life? Why or why not?

Early childhood and adolescence seem to get much more attention than middle childhood. Perhaps this is because growth patterns slow at this time, the id becomes hidden during the latent stage, according to Freud, and children spend much more time in schools, with friends, and in structured activities. It may be easy for parents to lose track of their children’s development unless they stay directly involved in these worlds. It is important to stop and give full attention to middle childhood to stay in touch with these children and to take notice of the varied influences on their lives in a larger world. After all, they are developing in many incredible ways.

What you’ll learn to do: describe physical development during middle childhood

Children enter middle childhood still looking very young, and end the stage on the cusp of adolescence. Most children have gone through a growth spurt that makes them look rather grown-up. The obvious physical changes are accompanied by changes in the brain. While we don’t see the actual brain changing, we can see the effects of the brain changes in the way that children in middle childhood play sports, write, and play games.

Learning Outcomes

Growth Rates and Motor Skills

Rates of growth generally slow during middle childhood. Typically, a child will gain about 5-7 pounds a year and grow about 2 inches per year. Many girls and boys experience a prepubescent growth spurt, but this growth spurt tends to happen earlier in girls (around age 9-10) than it does in boys (around age 11-12). Because of this, girls are often taller than boys at the end of middle childhood. Children in middle childhood tend to slim down and gain muscle strength and lung capacity making it possible to engage in strenuous physical activity for long periods of time.

The brain reaches its adult size at about age 7. That is not to say, however, that the brain is fully developed by age 7. The brain continues to develop for many years after it has attained its adult size. The school-aged child is better able to plan, coordinate activity using both left and right hemispheres of the brain, and to control emotional outbursts. Paying attention is also improved as the prefrontal cortex matures. As the myelin continues to develop throughout middle childhood, the child’s reaction time improves as well.

During middle childhood, physical growth slows down. One result of the slower rate of growth is an improvement in motor skills. Children of this age tend to sharpen their abilities to perform both gross motor skills such as riding a bike and fine motor skills such as cutting their fingernails.

Losing Primary Teeth

smiling boy on a swing with gap in teeth
Figure 1. A toothless smile is typical of middle childhood.

Deciduous teeth, commonly known as milk teeth, baby teeth, primary teeth, and temporary teeth, are the first set of teeth in the growth development of humans. The primary teeth are important for the development of the mouth, development of the child’s speech, for the child’s smile, and play a role in chewing of food, Most children lose their first tooth around age 6, then continue to lose teeth for the next 6 years. In general, children lose the teeth in the middle of the mouth first and then lose the teeth next to those in sequence over the 6-year span. By age 12, generally, all of the teeth are permanent teeth, however, it is not extremely rare for one or more primary teeth to be retained beyond this age, sometimes well into adulthood, often because the secondary tooth fails to develop.

Health Risks: Childhood Obesity

Nearly 20 percent of school-aged American children are obese. The percentage of obesity in school-aged children has increased substantially since the 1960s, and it continues to increase. This is true in part because of the introduction of a steady diet of television and other sedentary activities. In addition, we have come to emphasize high fat, fast foods as a culture. Pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and “Lunchables” with soda have replaced more nutritious foods as staples.

School Lunches

School lunches must meet the applicable recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines state that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories should come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. Regulations also state that school lunches must provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. School lunches must meet federal nutrition requirements over the course of one week’s worth of lunches. However, local school food authorities may make decisions about which specific foods to serve and how they are prepared.

Many children in the United States buy their lunches in the school cafeteria, so it might be worthwhile to look at the nutritional content of school lunches. You can obtain this information through your local school district’s website. An example of a school menu and nutritional analysis from a school district in north-central Texas is a meal consisting of pasta alfredo, breadstick, peach cup, tomato soup, and a brownie, and 2% milk. Students may also purchase chips, cookies, or ice cream along with their meals. Many school districts rely on the sale of dessert and other items in the lunchrooms to make additional revenues and many children purchase these additional items so our look at their nutritional intake should also take this into consideration.

Consider another menu from an elementary school in the state of Washington. This sample meal consists of a chicken burger, tater tots, fruit and veggies, and 1% or nonfat milk. This meal is also in compliance with Federal Nutrition Guidelines but has about 300 fewer calories. And, children are not allowed to purchase additional desserts such as cookies or ice cream.

Michelle Obama has been a recent advocate for nutritional school lunches. Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010, she has worked diligently to defend the importance of healthy school lunches but has largely not been successful in her efforts. Schools in the United States are having difficulty enforcing nutrition values in fear of being wasteful because some of the new standards such as whole grains, more vegetables, and reduced sodium levels initially resulted in fewer children eating their lunches. Children are eating 16% more vegetables and 23% more fruit during lunches, and over 90% of schools report that they are meeting the new nutritional guidelines.

One consequence of childhood obesity is that children who are overweight tend to be ridiculed and teased by others. This can certainly be damaging to their self-image and popularity. In addition, obese children run the risk of suffering orthopedic problems such as knee injuries, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood. It may be difficult for a child who is obese to become a non-obese adult. In addition, the number of cases of pediatric diabetes has risen dramatically in recent years.

Dieting is not really the solution to childhood obesity. If you diet, your basal metabolic rate tends to decrease thereby making the body burn even fewer calories in order to maintain the weight. Increased activity is much more effective in lowering the weight and improving the child’s health and psychological well-being. Exercise reduces stress and being an overweight child, subjected to the ridicule of others can certainly be stressful. Parents should take caution against emphasizing diet alone to avoid the development of any obsession about dieting that can lead to eating disorders as teens. Again, increasing a child’s activity level is most helpful.

Organized Sports: Pros and Cons

Children playing soccer. A green team and a yellow team, both boys and girls, run towards the ball.
Figure 2. Organized sports like soccer are especially popular during middle childhood.

Middle childhood seems to be a great time to introduce children to organized sports. And in fact, many parents do. Nearly 3 million children play soccer in the United States. This activity promises to help children build social skills, improve athletically, and learn a sense of competition. It has been suggested, however, that the emphasis on competition and athletic skill can be counterproductive and lead children to grow tired of the game and want to quit. In many respects, it appears that children’s activities are no longer children’s activities once adults become involved and approach the games as adults rather than children. The U.S. Soccer Federation recently advised coaches to reduce the amount of drilling engaged in during practice and to allow children to play more freely and to choose their own positions. The hope is that this will build on their love of the game and foster their natural talents.

What you’ll learn to do: explain changes and advances in cognitive development during middle childhood

A boy shown deep in thought

Children in middle childhood are beginning a new experience—that of formal education. In the United States, formal education begins at a time when children are beginning to think in new and more sophisticated ways. According to Piaget, the child is entering a new stage of cognitive development where they are improving their logical skills. During middle childhood, children also make improvements in short term and long term memory.

Learning Outcomes

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Table 1. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Age (years) Stage Description Developmental issues
0–2 Sensorimotor World experienced through senses and actions Object permanence
Stranger anxiety
2–7 Preoperational Use words and images to represent things but lack logical reasoning Pretend play
Egocentrism
Language development
7–11 Concrete operational Understand concrete events and logical analogies; perform arithmetical operations Conservation
Mathematical transformations
11– Formal operational Utilize abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking Abstract logic
Moral reasoning

Concrete Operational Thought

Iraqi girl in headscarf sits with a laptop.
Figure 1. This child is likely in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development.

According to Piaget, children in early childhood are in the preoperational stage of development in which they learn to think symbolically about the world. From ages 7 to 11, the school-aged child continues to develop in what Piaget referred to as the concrete operational stage of cognitive development. This involves mastering the use of logic in concrete ways. The child can use logic to solve problems tied to their own direct experience but has trouble solving hypothetical problems or considering more abstract problems. The child uses inductive reasoning, which means thinking that the world reflects one’s own personal experience. For example, a child has one friend who is rude, another friend who is also rude, and the same is true for a third friend. Using inductive reasoning, the child may conclude that friends are rude. (We will see that this way of thinking tends to change during adolescence as children begin to use deductive reasoning effectively.)

The word concrete refers to that which is tangible; that which can be seen or touched or experienced directly. The concrete operational child is able to make use of logical principles in solving problems involving the physical world. For example, the child can understand the principles of cause and effect, size, and distance.

As children’s experiences and vocabularies grow, they build schema and are able to classify objects in many different ways. Classification can include new ways of arranging information, categorizing information, or creating classes of information. Many psychological theorists, including Piaget, believe that classification involves a hierarchical structure, such that information is organized from very broad categories to very specific items.

One feature of concrete operational thought is the understanding that objects have an identity or qualities that do not change even if the object is altered in some way. For instance, the mass of an object does not change by rearranging it. A piece of chalk is still chalk even when the piece is broken in two.

During middle childhood, children also understand the concept of reversibility, or that some things that have been changed can be returned to their original state. Water can be frozen and then thawed to become liquid again. But eggs cannot be unscrambled. Arithmetic operations are reversible as well: 2 + 3 = 5 and 5 – 3 = 2. Many of these cognitive skills are incorporated into the school’s curriculum through mathematical problems and in worksheets about which situations are reversible or irreversible. (If you have access to children’s school papers, look for examples of these.)

Remember the example from the earlier module of children thinking that a tall beaker filled with 8 ounces of water was “more” than a short, wide bowl filled with 8 ounces of water? Concrete operational children can understand the concept of reciprocity which means that changing one quality (in this example, height or water level) can be compensated for by changes in another quality (width). So there is the same amount of water in each container although one is taller and narrower and the other is shorter and wider.

These new cognitive skills increase the child’s understanding of the physical world. Operational or logical thought about the abstract world comes later.

Information Processing Theory

Information processing theory is a classic theory of memory that compares the way in which the mind works to computer storing, processing, and retrieving information. According to the theory, there are three levels of memory:

1) Sensory memory: Information first enters our sensory memory (sometimes called sensory register). Stop reading and look around the room very quickly. (Yes, really. Do it!) Okay. What do you remember? Chances are, not much, even though EVERYTHING you saw and heard entered into your sensory memory. And although you might have heard yourself sigh, caught a glimpse of your dog walking across the room, and smelled the soup on the stove, you may not have registered those sensations. Sensations are continuously coming into our brains, and yet most of these sensations are never really perceived or stored in our minds. They are lost after a few seconds because they were immediately filtered out as irrelevant. If the information is not perceived or stored, it is discarded quickly.

2) Working memory (short-term memory): If information is meaningful (either because it reminds us of something else or because we must remember it for something like a history test we will be taking in 5 minutes), it moves from sensory memory into our working memory. The process by which this happens is not entirely clear. Working memory consists of information that we are immediately and consciously aware of. All of the things on your mind at this moment are part of your working memory.

There is a limited amount of information that can be kept in the working memory at any given time. For most people, this is somewhere around 7 + or – 2 pieces or chunks of information. If you are given too much information at a time, you may lose some of it. (Have you ever been writing down notes in a class and the instructor speaks too quickly for you to get it all in your notes? You are trying to get it down and out of your working memory to make room for new information and if you cannot “dump” that information onto your paper and out of your mind quickly enough, you lose what has been said.)

Rehearsal can help you maintain information in your working memory, but the process by which information moves from working memory into long term memory seems to rely on more than simple rehearsal. Information in our working memory must be stored in an effective way in order to be accessible to us for later use. It is stored in our long-term memory or knowledge base.

3) Long-term memory (knowledge base): This level of memory has an unlimited capacity and stores information for days, months, or years. It consists of things that we know of or can remember if asked. This is where you want the information to ultimately be stored. The important thing to remember about storage is that it must be done in a meaningful or effective way. In other words, if you simply try to repeat something several times in order to remember it, you may only be able to remember the sound of the word rather than the meaning of the concept. So if you are asked to explain the meaning of the word or to apply a concept in some way, you will be lost. Studying involves organizing information in a meaningful way for later retrieval. Passively reading a text is usually inadequate and should be thought of as the first step in learning material. Writing keywords, thinking of examples to illustrate their meaning, and considering ways that concepts are related are all techniques helpful for organizing information for effective storage and later retrieval.

During middle childhood, children are able to learn and remember due to an improvement in the ways they attend to and store information. As children enter school and learn more about the world, they develop more categories for concepts and learn more efficient strategies for storing and retrieving information. One significant reason is that they continue to have more experiences on which to tie new information. New experiences are similar to old ones or remind the child of something else about which they know. This helps them file away new experiences more easily.

Children in middle childhood also have a better understanding of how well they are performing on a task and the level of difficulty of a task. As they become more realistic about their abilities, they can adapt studying strategies to meet those needs. While preschoolers may spend as much time on an unimportant aspect of a problem as they do on the main point, school-aged children start to learn to prioritize and gauge what is significant and what is not. They develop metacognition or the ability to understand the best way to figure out a problem. They gain more tools and strategies (such as “i before e except after c” so they know that “receive” is correct but “recieve” is not.)

Language Development

Vocabulary

One of the reasons that children can classify objects in so many ways is that they have acquired a vocabulary to do so. By 5th grade, a child’s vocabulary has grown to 40,000 words. It grows at the rate of 20 words per day, a rate that exceeds that of preschoolers. This language explosion, however, differs from that of preschoolers because it is facilitated by being able to associate new words with those already known (fast-mapping) and because it is accompanied by a more sophisticated understanding of the meanings of a word.

A child in middle childhood is also able to think of objects in less literal ways. For example, if asked for the first word that comes to mind when one hears the word “pizza”, the preschooler is likely to say “eat” or some word that describes what is done with a pizza. However, the school-aged child is more likely to place pizza in the appropriate category and say “food” or “carbohydrate”.

This sophistication of vocabulary is also evidenced in the fact that school-aged children are able to tell jokes and delight in doing so. They may use jokes that involve plays on words such as “knock-knock” jokes or jokes with punch lines. Preschoolers do not understand plays on words and rely on telling “jokes” that are literal or slapstick such as “A man fell down in the mud! Isn’t that funny?”

Grammar and Flexibility

School-aged children are also able to learn new rules of grammar with more flexibility. While preschoolers are likely to be reluctant to give up saying “I goed there”, school-aged children will learn this rather quickly along with other rules of grammar.

While the preschool years might be a good time to learn a second language (being able to understand and speak the language), the school years may be the best time to be taught a second language (the rules of grammar).

What you’ll learn to do: explain emotional, social, and moral development during middle childhood

A girl whispering into another girl's ear

Children in middle childhood are starting to make friends in more sophisticated ways. They are choosing friends for specific characteristics, including shared interests, a sense of humor, and being a good person. That is quite a departure from the earlier days of playing with the people in your group just because they are there. Children in middle childhood are starting to realize that there are benefits to friendships, and there are sometimes difficulties as well. In this section, we’ll examine some aspects of these relationships.

Learning outcomes

Psychodynamic and Psychosocial Theories of Middle Childhood

Now let’s turn our attention to concerns related to social development, self-concept, the world of friendships, and family life. During middle childhood, children are likely to show more independence from their parents and family, think more about the future, understand more about their place in the world, pay more attention to friendships, and want to be accepted by their peers.

Freud’s Psychosexual Development: The Latency Stage

Freud’s Theory 

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

Remember that Freud’s theory of psychosexual development suggests that children develop their personality through a series of psychosexual stages. In each stage, the erogenous zone is the source of the libidinal energy. So far we have seen the oral stage (ages birth – 18 months), the anal stage (ages 18 months – 3 years), and the phallic stage (ages 3 years – 6 years).

During middle childhood (6-11), the child enters the latency stage, focusing their attention outside the family and toward friendships. Freud’s fourth stage of psychosexual development is the latency stage. This stage begins around age 6 and lasts until puberty. The biological drives are temporarily quieted (latent) and the child can direct attention to a larger world of friends. If the child is able to make friends, they will gain a sense of confidence. If not, the child may continue to be a loner or shy away from others, even as an adult.

In the latency stage, children are actually doing very little psychosexual developing according to Freud. Where pleasure and development occurred through erogenous zones in the first 3 stages, in the latency stage all pleasure from erogenous zones is repressed. In other words, it is latent—hence the stage’s name. Freud believed that in the latency stage all development and stimulation come from secondary sources since the erogenous forces are repressed. These secondary sources can include education, forming various social relationships, and hobbies.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Development: Industry vs. Inferiority (Competence)

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions
Table

As we have seen in previous modules, Erikson believes that children’s greatest source of personality development comes from their social relationships. So far, we have seen 3 psychosocial stages: trust versus mistrust (ages birth – 18 months), autonomy versus shame and doubt (ages 18 months – 3 years), and initiative versus guilt (ages 3 years – around 6 years).

During the elementary school stage (ages 7–12), children face the task of industry vs. inferiority. Children begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they feel that they don’t measure up. If children do not learn to get along with others or have negative experiences at home or with peers, an inferiority complex might develop into adolescence and adulthood.

According to Erikson, children in middle childhood are very busy or industrious. They are constantly doing, planning, playing, getting together with friends, and achieving. This is a very active time and a time when they are gaining a sense of how they measure up when compared with friends. Erikson believed that if these industrious children view themselves as successful in their endeavors, they will get a sense of competence for future challenges. If instead, a child feels that they are not measuring up to their peers, feelings of inferiority and self-doubt will develop. These feelings of inferiority can, according to Erikson, lead to an inferiority complex that lasts into adulthood.

To help children have a successful resolution in this stage, they should be encouraged to explore their abilities. They should be given authentic feedback as well. Failure is not necessarily a horrible thing according to Erikson. Indeed, failure is a type of feedback that may help a child form a sense of modesty. A balance of competence and modesty is ideal for creating a sense of competence in the child.

Self-Concept

Children in middle childhood have a more realistic sense of self than do those in early childhood. That exaggerated sense of self as “biggest” or “smartest” or “tallest” gives way to an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses. This can be attributed to greater experience in comparing one’s own performance with that of others and to greater cognitive flexibility. A child’s self-concept can be influenced by peers, family, teachers, and the messages they send about a child’s worth. Contemporary children also receive messages from the media about how they should look and act.  Movies, music videos, the internet, and advertisers can all create cultural images of what is desirable or undesirable and this too can influence a child’s self-concept.

Tweens

The pre-adolescent, or tween, age range of roughly 9-12 is a major force in the marketing world. This group has a spending power of $200 billion, and are primarily targeted as consumers of media, clothing, and products that make them look “cool” and feel independent. This market came under heavy fire a few years ago for being overly sexualized, which led to the creation of a task force by the American Psychological Association to learn more—their findings and recommendations to reduce this problem can be accessed here.

The Society of Children

Friendships during middle childhood take on new importance as judges of one’s worth, competence, and attractiveness. Friendships provide the opportunity for learning social skills such as how to communicate with others and how to negotiate differences. Children get ideas from one another about how to perform certain tasks, how to gain popularity, what to wear, what to say, what to listen to, and how to act. This society of children marks a transition from a life focused on the family to a life concerned with peers.  In peer relationships, children learn how to initiate and maintain social interactions with other children. They learn skills for managing conflict, such as turn-taking, compromise, and bargaining. Play and communication also involve the mutual, sometimes complex, coordination of goals, actions, and understanding.

Social Comparison and Bullying

However, peer relationships can be challenging as well as supportive (Rubin, Coplan, Chen, Bowker, & McDonald, 2011). Being accepted by other children is an important source of affirmation and self-esteem, but peer rejection can foreshadow later behavior problems (especially when children are rejected due to aggressive behavior). With increasing age, children confront the challenges of bullying, peer victimization, and managing conformity pressures.

Social comparison with peers is an important means by which children evaluate their skills, knowledge, and personal qualities, but it may cause them to feel that they do not measure up well against others. For example, a boy who is not athletic may feel unworthy of his football-playing peers and revert to shy behavior, isolating himself, and avoiding conversation. Conversely, an athlete who doesn’t “get” Shakespeare may feel embarrassed and avoid reading altogether.

Most children want to be liked and accepted by their friends. Some popular children are nice and have good social skills. These popular-prosocial children tend to do well in school and are cooperative and friendly. Popular-antisocial children may gain popularity by acting tough or spreading rumors about others (Cillessen & Mayeux, 2004). Rejected children are sometimes excluded because they are shy and withdrawn. The withdrawn-rejected children are easy targets for bullies because they are unlikely to retaliate when belittled (Boulton, 1999). Other rejected children are ostracized because they are aggressive, loud, and confrontational. The aggressive-rejected children may be acting out of a feeling of insecurity. Unfortunately, their fear of rejection only leads to behavior that brings further rejection from other children. Children who are not accepted are more likely to experience conflict, lack confidence, and have trouble adjusting. Other categories in the most commonly used sociometric system, developed by Coie & Dodge, includes neglected children, who tend to go unnoticed but are not especially liked or disliked by their peers; average children, who receive an average number of positive and negative votes from their peers, or controversial children, who may be strongly liked and disliked by quite a few peers.

Also, with the approach of adolescence, peer relationships become focused on psychological intimacy, involving personal disclosure, vulnerability, and loyalty (or its betrayal)—which significantly affects a child’s outlook on the world. Each of these aspects of peer relationships requires developing very different social and emotional skills than those that emerge in parent-child relationships. They also illustrate the many ways that peer relationships influence the growth of personality and self-concept.

Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg (1963) built on the work of Piaget and was interested in finding out how our moral reasoning changes as we get older. He wanted to find out how people decide what is right and what is wrong. In order to explore this area, he read a story containing a moral dilemma to boys of different age groups (also known as the Heinz dilemma). In the story, a man is trying to obtain an expensive drug that his wife needs in order to treat her cancer. The man has no money and no one will loan him the money he requires. He begs the pharmacist to reduce the price, but the pharmacist refuses. So, the man decides to break into the pharmacy to steal the drug. Then Kohlberg asked the children to decide whether the man was right or wrong in his choice. Kohlberg was not interested in whether they said the man was right or wrong, he was interested in finding out how they arrived at such a decision. He wanted to know what they thought made something right or wrong.

Pre-conventional Moral Development

The youngest subjects seemed to answer based on what would happen to the man as a result of the act. For example, they might say the man should not break into the pharmacy because the pharmacist might find him and beat him, or they might say that the man should break in and steal the drug and his wife will give him a big kiss. Right or wrong, both decisions were based on what would physically happen to the man as a result of the act. This is a self-centered approach to moral decision-making. He called this most superficial understanding of right and wrong pre-conventional moral development.

Pre-conventional development covers stages one and two in Kohlberg’s theory. In stage one, the focus is on the direct consequences of their actions. Their main concern is avoiding punishment and being obedient. In stage two, the focus is more “what’s in it for me”? A stage two mentality is self-interest driven.

Conventional Moral Development

Middle childhood boys seemed to base their answers on what other people would think of the man as a result of his act. For instance, they might say he should break into the store, and then everyone would think he was a good husband. Or, he shouldn’t because it is against the law. In either case, right and wrong are determined by what other people think. Because what other people think is usually a function of socially accepted morality, this view is often thought of as applying society’s standards. A good decision is one that gains the approval of others or one that complies with the law. This is conventional moral development.

The conventional moral development covers stages three and four. In stage three, the focus is on what society deems okay or good in order to gain approval from others. In stage four, the focus is on maintaining social order. The person has an understanding that laws and social conventions are created to maintain a properly functioning society.

Post-conventional Moral Development

Older children were the only ones to appreciate the fact that the Heinz dilemma has different levels of right and wrong. Right and wrong are based on social contracts established for the good of everyone or on universal principles of right and wrong that transcend the self and social convention. For example, the man should break into the store because, even if it is against the law, the wife needs the drug and her life is more important than the consequences the man might face for breaking the law. Or, the man should not violate the principle of the right of property because this rule is essential for social order. In either case, the person’s judgment goes beyond what happens to the self. It is based on a concern for others, for society as a whole, or for an ethical standard rather than a legal standard. This level is called post-conventional moral development because it goes beyond convention or what other people think to a higher, universal ethical principle of conduct that may or may not be reflected in the law. Notice that such thinking (the kind supreme justices do all day in deliberating whether a law is moral or ethical, etc.) requires being able to think abstractly. Often this is not accomplished until a person reaches adolescence or adulthood.

Post conventional moral development covers stages five and six. In stage five, the person realizes that not everything is black and white. The person realizes that there are many different ways of thinking about what is good and what is right. Further, just because there is a law does not mean that the law is necessarily good for everyone. In stage five, then, the idea is to do the most good for the most people. Kohlberg’s sixth stage is interesting in that it does not seem that people make it to this stage and stay. Indeed, many researchers have failed to identify people who operate within a stage six mentality at all, while others have identified a very few people who operate within stage six on occasion. Why might this be the case? Stage six is a way of thinking about the question of morality in a way that is not personal. Instead, a person tries to empathize with other people and to see the world from the other person’s perspective before making a decision. While this sounds easy, very few people are capable of doing this well, and even fewer are capable of doing it consistently. Further, the idea of universal justice is involved in stage six. Indeed, a person in stage six is ready to disobey unjust laws. The focus is on doing the right thing, regardless of the personal consequences.

Watch It

The Heinz dilemma is a frequently used example used to help us understand Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. It is described in the following video:

From a theoretical point of view, it is not important what the participant thinks that Heinz should do. Kohlberg’s theory holds that the justification the participant offers is what is significant, the form of their response. Below are some of many examples of possible arguments that belong to the six stages:

Modern Views of Moral Development

Kohlberg continued to explore his theory after the initial theory was researched. He theorized that there could be other stages and that there could be transitions into each stage. One thing that Kohlberg never fully addressed was his use of nearly all-male samples. Men and women tend to have very different styles of moral decision making; men tend to be very justice-oriented while women tend to be more compassion oriented. In terms of Kohlberg’s stages, women tend to be in lower stages than men because of their compassion orientation.

Carol Gilligan was one of Kohlberg’s research assistants. She believed that Kohlberg’s theory was inherently biased against women. Gilligan suggests that the biggest reason that there is a gender bias in Kohlberg’s theory is because males tend to focus on logic and rules while women focus on caring for others and relationships. She suggests, then, that in order to truly measure women’s moral development, it was necessary to create a measure specifically for women. Gilligan was clear that she did not believe neither male nor female moral development was better, but rather that they were equally important.

Think It Over

Consider your own decision-making processes. What guides your decisions? Are you primarily concerned with your personal well-being? Do you make choices based on what other people will think about your decision? Or are you guided by other principles? To what extent is this approach guided by your culture?

Stressors in Middle Childhood

Family Life

Three smiling girls posing with peace signs for a picture.
Figure 1. Family relationships change as preteens want to spend more time with friends.

During middle childhood, children spend less time with parents and more time with their peers. Parents may have to modify their approach to parenting to accommodate the child’s growing independence. Authoritative parenting which uses reason and joint decision-making whenever possible may be the most effective approach (Berk, 2007). A more harsh form of parenting, authoritarian parenting, uses strict discipline, and focuses on obedience. Asian-American, African-American, and Mexican-American parents are more likely than European-Americans to use an authoritarian style of parenting. Children raised in authoritative households tend to be confident, successful, and happy (Chao, 2001; Stewart and Bond, 2002).

Family Tasks

One of the ways to assess the quality of family life is to consider the tasks of families.

Berger (2005) lists five family functions:

  1. Providing food, clothing, and shelter
  2. Encouraging Learning
  3. Developing self-esteem
  4. Nurturing friendships with peers
  5. Providing harmony and stability

Notice that in addition to providing food, shelter, and clothing, families are responsible for helping the child learn, relate to others, and have a confident sense of self. The family provides a harmonious and stable environment for living. A good home environment is one in which the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs are adequately met. Sometimes families emphasize physical needs but ignore cognitive or emotional needs. Other times, families pay close attention to physical needs and academic requirements but may fail to nurture the child’s friendships with peers or guide the child toward developing healthy relationships. Parents might want to consider how it feels to live in the household. Is it stressful and conflict-ridden? Is it a place where family members enjoy being?

Family Change: Divorce

A lot of attention has been given to the impact of divorce on the life of children. The assumption has been that divorce has a strong, negative impact on the child and that single-parent families are deficient in some way. Research suggests 75-80 percent of children and adults who experience divorce suffer no long term effects (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). Children of divorce and children who have not experienced divorce are more similar than different (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).

Mintz (2004) suggests that the alarmist view of divorce was due in part to the newness of divorce when rates in the United States began to climb in the late 1970s. Adults reacting to the change grew up in the 1950s when rates were low. As divorce has become more common and there is less stigma associated with divorce, this view has changed somewhat. Social scientists have operated from the divorce as a deficit model emphasizing the problems of being from a “broken home” (Seccombe &Warner, 2004). More recently, a more objective view of divorce, re-partnering, and remarriage indicate that divorce, remarriage, and life in stepfamilies can have a variety of effects. The exaggeration of the negative consequences of divorce has left the majority of those who do well hidden and subjected them to unnecessary stigma and social disapproval (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).

The tasks of families listed above are functions that can be fulfilled in a variety of family types-not just intact, two-parent households. Harmony and stability can be achieved in many family forms and when it is disrupted, either through a divorce, or efforts to blend families, or any other circumstances, the child suffers (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002).

Factors Affecting the Impact of Divorce

As you look at the consequences (both pro and con) of divorce and remarriage on children, keep these family functions in mind. Some negative consequences are a result of financial hardship rather than divorce per se (Drexler, 2005). Some positive consequences reflect improvements in meeting these functions. For instance, we have learned that positive self-esteem comes in part from a belief in the self and one’s abilities rather than merely being complemented by others. In single-parent homes, children may be given more opportunity to discover their own abilities and gain the independence that fosters self-esteem. If divorce leads to fighting between the parents and the child is included in these arguments, the self-esteem may suffer.

The impact of divorce on children depends on a number of factors. The degree of conflict prior to the divorce plays a role. If the divorce means a reduction in tensions, the child may feel relief. If the parents have kept their conflicts hidden, the announcement of a divorce can come as a shock and be met with enormous resentment. Another factor that has a great impact on the child concerns financial hardships they may suffer, especially if financial support is inadequate. Another difficult situation for children of divorce is the position they are put into if the parents continue to argue and fight-especially if they bring the children into those arguments.

Short-term consequences: In roughly the first year following divorce, children may exhibit some of these short-term effects:

  1. Grief over losses suffered. The child will grieve the loss of the parent they no longer see as frequently. The child may also grieve about other family members that are no longer available. Grief sometimes comes in the form of sadness, but it can also be experienced as anger or withdrawal. Preschool-aged boys may act out aggressively while the same-aged girls may become more quiet and withdrawn. Older children may feel depressed.
  2. Reduced Standard of Living. Very often, divorce means a change in the amount of money coming into the household. Children experience new constraints on spending or entertainment. School-aged children, especially, may notice that they can no longer have toys, clothing, or other items to which they’ve grown accustomed. The custodial parent may experience stress at not being able to rely on child support payments or having the same level of income as before. This can affect decisions regarding healthcare, vacations, rents, mortgages, and other expenditures. The stress can result in less happiness and relaxation in the home. The parent who has to take on more work may also be less available to the children.
  3. Adjusting to Transitions. Children may also have to adjust to other changes accompanying a divorce. The divorce might mean moving to a new home and changing schools or friends. It might mean leaving a neighborhood that has meant a lot to them as well.

Long-Term consequences: The following are some effects found after the first year of a divorce:

  1. Economic/Occupational Status. One of the most commonly cited long-term effects of divorce is that children of divorce may have lower levels of education or occupational status. This may be a consequence of lower-income and resources for funding education rather than to divorce per se. In those households where economic hardship does not occur, there may be no impact on education or occupational status (Drexler, 2005).
  2. Improved Relationships with the Custodial Parent (usually the mother): The majority of custodial parents are mothers (approximately 80.4 percent) and
    19.6 percent of custodial parents are fathers. Shared custody is on the rise, however, and shows promising social, academic, and psychological results for the children. Children from single-parent families talk to their mothers more often than children of two-parent families (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Most children of divorce lead happy, well-adjusted lives and develop stronger, positive relationships with their custodial parent (Seccombe and Warner, 2004). In a study of college-age respondents, Arditti (1999) found that increasing closeness and a movement toward more democratic parenting styles was experienced. Others have also found that relationships between mothers and children become closer and stronger (Guttman, 1993) and suggest that greater equality and less rigid parenting is beneficial after divorce (Steward, Copeland, Chester, Malley, and Barenbaum, 1997).
  3. Greater emotional independence in sons. Drexler (2005) notes that sons who are raised by mothers only develop an emotional sensitivity to others that is beneficial in relationships.
  4. Feeling more anxious in their own love relationships. Children of divorce may feel more anxious about their own relationships as adults. This may reflect a fear of divorce if things go wrong, or it may be a result of setting higher expectations for their own relationships.
  5. Adjustment of the custodial parent. Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) believe that the primary factor influencing the way that children adjust to divorce is the way the custodial parent adjusts to the divorce. If that parent is adjusting well, the children will benefit. This may explain a good deal of the variation we find in children of divorce. Adults going through divorce should consider good self-care as beneficial to the children-not as self-indulgent.
  6. Mental health issues: Some studies suggest that anxiety and depression that are common in children and adults within the first year of divorce may actually not resolve. A 15-year study by Bohman, Låftman, Päären, Jonsson (2017) suggests that parental separation significantly increases the risk for depression 15 years later when depression rates were compared to matched controls. In fact, the risk of depression was related more strongly with parental conflict and parental separation than it was with parental depression!

Sexual Abuse in Middle Childhood

Researchers estimate that 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 10 boys have been sexually abused (Valente, 2005). The median age for sexual abuse is 8 or 9 years for both boys and girls (Finkelhor et. al. 1990). Most boys and girls are sexually abused by a male. Childhood sexual abuse is defined as any sexual contact between a child and an adult or a much older child. Incest refers to sexual contact between a child and family members. In each of these cases, the child is exploited by an older person without regard for the child’s developmental immaturity and inability to understand the sexual behavior (Steele, 1986).

Although rates of sexual abuse are higher for girls than for boys, boys may be less likely to report abuse because of the cultural expectation that boys should be able to take care of themselves and because of the stigma attached to homosexual encounters (Finkelhor et. al. 1990). Girls are more likely to be victims of incest and boys are more likely to be abused by someone outside the family. Sexual abuse can create feelings of self-blame, betrayal, and feelings of shame and guilt (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse is particularly damaging when the perpetrator is someone the child trusts. Victims of sexual abuse may suffer from depression, anxiety, problems with intimacy, and suicide (Valente, 2005). Sexual abuse has additional impacts as well. Studies suggest that children who have been sexually abused have an increased risk of eating disorders and sleep disturbances Further, sexual abuse can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Being sexually abused as a child can have a powerful impact on self-concept. The concept of false self-training (Davis, 1999) refers to holding a child to adult standards while denying the child’s developmental needs. Sexual abuse is just one example of false self-training. Children are held to adult standards of desirableness and sexuality while their level of cognitive, psychological, and emotional immaturity is ignored. Consider how confusing it might be for a 9-year-old girl who has physically matured early to be thought of as a potential sex partner. Her cognitive, psychological, and emotional state do not equip her to make decisions about sexuality or, perhaps, to know that she can say no to sexual advances. She may feel like a 9-year-old in all ways and be embarrassed and ashamed of her physical development. Girls who mature early have problems with low self-esteem because of the failure of others (family members, teachers, ministers, peers, advertisers, and others) to recognize and respect their developmental needs. Overall, youth are more likely to be victimized because they do not have control over their contact with offenders (parents, babysitters, etc.) and have no means of escape (Finkelhor and Dzuiba-Leatherman, in Davis, 1999).

What you’ll learn to do: examine common learning disabilities and other factors related to education during middle childhood

Two boys at a desk looking down at a book

Across the world, by the time a child is entering middle childhood, they are being educated in some form or fashion. In western society, most children are enrolled in a formal education program by the time they are in middle childhood. That said, what children learn within that formal education program varies greatly across cultures. Further, most programs are set-up for typically developing children, but they may not be set-up to handle children who are accelerated learners or children with learning disabilities. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of these educational differences and developments, as well as struggles and learning difficulties during middle childhood.

Learning outcomes

Developmental Disorders and Learning Disabilities

Girl screaming with anger and frustration as she works on some homework.
Figure 1. What are the pros and cons of labeling a child with a learning disability?

Children’s cognitive and social skills are evaluated as they enter and progress through school. Sometimes this evaluation indicates that a child needs special assistance with language or in learning how to interact with others. Evaluation and diagnosis of a child can be the first step in helping to provide that child with the type of instruction and resources needed. But diagnosis and labeling also have social implications. It is important to consider that children can be misdiagnosed and that once a child has received a diagnostic label, the child, teachers, and family members may tend to interpret the actions of the child through that label. The label can also influence the child’s self-concept. Consider, for example, a child who is misdiagnosed as learning disabled. That child may expect to have difficulties in school, lack confidence, and out of these expectations, have trouble indeed. This self-fulfilling prophecy, or tendency to act in such a way as to make what you predict will happen, comes true, calls our attention to the power that labels can have whether or not they are accurately applied.

It is also important to consider that children’s difficulties can change over time; a child who has problems in school may improve later or may live under circumstances as an adult where the problem (such as a delay in math skills or reading skills) is no longer relevant. That person, however, will still have a label as learning disabled. It should be recognized that the distinction between abnormal and normal behavior is not always clear; some abnormal behavior in children is fairly common. Misdiagnosis may be more of a concern when evaluating learning difficulties than in cases of autism spectrum disorder where unusual behaviors are clear and consistent.

Keeping these cautionary considerations in mind, let’s turn our attention to some developmental and learning difficulties.

 

Think It Over: Disability Inclusion

Some disabilities are very apparent and such as a person being in a wheelchair.  However, there are also many invisible disabilities that may not be apparent went first looking at a person. How would you react to seeing a person with a disability? How would you interact with them? It is important to remember that children will model the behavior that they see. We must actively teach children about disability inclusion and how to treat people with all abilities with respect.  Watch this video of a mom who has a daughter with special needs talk about her 5 Tips for disability inclusion.

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. The estimate published by the Center for Disease Control (2018)[ is that about 1 out of every 59 children in the United States has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which covers a wide variety of ranges in ability, from those with milder forms (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome) to more severe deficits in communication.

Link to Learning

Learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorders at Autism Speaks, or the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

A person with autism has difficulty with and a lack of interest in learning language. An autistic child may respond to a question by repeating the question or might rarely speak. Sometimes autistic children learn more difficult words before simple words or can complete complicated tasks before they are able to complete easier ones. The person often has difficulty reading social cues such as the meanings of non-verbal gestures such as a wave of the hand or the emotion associated with a frown. Intense sensitivity to touch or visual stimulation may also be experienced. Autistic children often have poor social skills and are often unable to communicate with others or empathize with others emotionally. People with autism often view the world differently and learn differently than people who do not have autism. Autistic children tend to prefer routines and patterns and become upset when routines are altered. For example, moving the furniture or changing the daily schedule can be very upsetting.

Many children with ASD are not identified until they reach school age, although our ability to diagnose children earlier continues to improve. In the 2017-2018 school year, about 710,000 children on the spectrum received special education through the public schools. These disorders are found in all racial and ethnic groups and are more common in boys than in girls. All of these disorders are marked by difficulty in social interactions, problems in various areas of communication, and in difficulty with altering patterns or daily routines. There is no single cause of ASD and the causes of these disorders are to a large extent, unknown. In cases involving identical twins, if one twin has autism, the other is also autistic about 75 percent of the time. Rubella, fragile X syndrome and PKU that have been untreated are some of the medical conditions associated with risks of autism.

Some individuals benefit from medications that alleviate some of the symptoms of ASD, but the most effective treatments involve behavioral intervention and teaching techniques used to promote the development of language and social skills. Children also excel when they are in structured learning environments that accommodate the needs of children on the spectrum.

Impaired Theory of Mind in Individuals with Autism

People with autism or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically show an impaired ability to recognize other people’s minds. Under the DSM-5, autism is characterized by persistent deficits in social communication and interaction across multiple contexts, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. These deficits are present in early childhood, typically before age three, and lead to clinically significant functional impairment. Symptoms may include lack of social or emotional reciprocity, stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language, and persistent preoccupation with unusual objects.

About half of parents of children with ASD notice their child’s unusual behaviors by age 18 months, and about four-fifths notice by age 24 months, but often a diagnosis comes later, and individual cases vary significantly. Typical early signs of autism include:

Children with ASD experience difficulties with explaining and predicting other people’s behavior, which leads to problems in social communication and interaction. Children who are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder usually develop the theory of mind more slowly than other children and continue to have difficulties with it throughout their lives.

For testing whether someone lacks the theory of mind, the Sally-Anne test is performed. The child sees the following story: Sally and Anne are playing. Sally puts her ball into a basket and leaves the room. While Sally is gone, Anne moves the ball from the basket to the box. Now Sally returns. The question is: where will Sally look for her ball? The test is passed if the child correctly assumes that Sally will look in the basket. The test is failed if the child thinks that Sally will look in the box. Children younger than four and older children with autism will generally say that Sally will look in the box.

CONNECT THE CONCEPTS: Emotional Expression and Emotion Regulation

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a set of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by repetitive behaviors and communication and social problems. Children who have autism spectrum disorders have difficulty recognizing the emotional states of others, and research has shown that this may stem from an inability to distinguish various nonverbal expressions of emotion (i.e., facial expressions) from one another (Hobson, 1986). In addition, there is evidence to suggest that autistic individuals also have difficulty expressing emotion through tone of voice and by producing facial expressions (Macdonald et al., 1989). Difficulties with emotional recognition and expression may contribute to the impaired social interaction and communication that characterize autism; therefore, various therapeutic approaches have been explored to address these difficulties. Various educational curricula, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and pharmacological therapies have shown some promise in helping autistic individuals process emotionally relevant information (Bauminger, 2002; Golan & Baron-Cohen, 2006; Guastella et al., 2010).

Emotion regulation describes how people respond to situations and experiences by modifying their emotional experiences and expressions. Covert emotion regulation strategies are those that occur within the individual, while overt strategies involve others or actions (such as seeking advice or consuming alcohol). Aldao and Dixon (2014) studied the relationship between overt emotional regulation strategies and psychopathology. They researched how 218 undergraduate students reported their use of covert and overt strategies and their reported symptoms associated with selected mental disorders and found that overt emotional regulation strategies were better predictors of psychopathology than covert strategies. Another study examined the relationship between pregaming (the act of drinking heavily before a social event) and two emotion regulation strategies to understand how these might contribute to alcohol-related problems; results suggested a relationship but a complicated one (Pederson, 2016). Further research is needed in these areas to better understand patterns of adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation (Aldao & Dixon-Gordon, 2014).

Learning Disabilities

What is a learning disability? If a child is mentally disabled, that child is typically slow in all areas of learning. However, a child with a learning disability has problems in a specific area or with a specific task or type of activity related to education. A learning difficulty refers to a deficit in a child’s ability to perform an expected academic skill (Berger, 2005). These difficulties are identified in school because this is when children’s academic abilities are being tested, compared, and measured. Consequently, once academic testing is no longer essential in that person’s life (as when they are working rather than going to school) these disabilities may no longer be noticed or relevant, depending on the person’s job and the extent of the disability.

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Dyslexia is one of the most commonly diagnosed disabilities and involves having difficulty in the area of reading. This diagnosis is used for a number of reading difficulties. For example, the child may reverse letters, may have difficulty reading from left to right, or may have problems associating letters with sounds. Dyslexia appears to be rooted in some neurological problems involving the parts of the brain active in recognizing letters, verbally responding, or being able to manipulate sounds (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 2006). Treatment typically involves altering teaching methods to accommodate the person’s particular problematic area.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is considered a neurological and behavioral disorder in which a person has difficulty staying on task, screening out distractions, and inhibiting behavioral outbursts. The most commonly recommended treatment involves the use of medication, structuring the classroom environment to keep distractions at a minimum, tutoring, and teaching parents how to set limits and encourage age-appropriate behavior (NINDS, 2006). Some people say that the term Attention Deficit is a misnomer because people who suffer from ADHD actually have great difficulty tuning things out. They are bombarded with information… their brains are trying to pay attention to everything. They do not have a deficit of attention- they are trying to pay attention to too many things at once, so everything suffers.

Recent research suggests that several brain structures may be implicated in ADHD. These studies have mainly focused on the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex. Some studies suggest that the frontal lobe is underdeveloped in children and adults with ADHD. The frontal lobe is involved in executive function, attention, planning, impulse control, motivation, and decision making. In some cases the development is delayed, but catches up to expected standards by adulthood; in other cases, the frontal lobe never fully develops.

link to learning

How is ADHD diagnosed? The DSM-V lists the criteria that must be present in order for a diagnosis to be made and an official diagnosis must be made by a qualified mental health professional.  It is also important to note that the term ADD is an older term that has been phased out in the newer versions of the DSM. Review the criteria for ADHD. Do you think that making a diagnosis would be difficult?  Why or why not?

In general, ADHD is treated with stimulants. While this may seem counter-intuitive (why give a hyperactive child a stimulant?), when you understand the neurological processes involved, it makes a lot of sense. There are two ways that stimulants may work to help people with ADHD focus. Some researchers have found that the stimulants activate the underdeveloped parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe) thereby making these brain areas function more as they should. This allows the child or adult to focus properly. Other researchers suspect that the stimulants affect the way the neurotransmitters function in these brain areas, leading to better function in those areas.

There is still a lot of controversy about medicating children with ADHD. While there is clear evidence that medication works to control the negative effects of ADHD, there are also negative side effects that must be dealt with including problems sleeping, changes in appetite, headaches, and more. Further, the long term effects of medicating young children are not well understood. For these reasons, many parents prefer an intervention that does not involve medication. The most common non-pharmaceutical intervention for ADHD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT works by helping children to become aware of their thought processes, and then to learn to change those thought processes to be more beneficial or positive. CBT can also help by educating parents about ways to help their children learn about self-control and discipline. There is very good evidence that CBT is an effective strategy in treating ADHD. Indeed, in some studies, children treated with CBT have better long-term outcomes than children treated with medication. Some studies show that a combination of medication and CBT is most beneficial because the medication helps with behavior change more quickly, allowing for the child to learn through CBT more quickly. The CBT then helps with longer-term behavior change so that the child can stop taking medications and deal effectively with their ADHD symptoms based on what they have learned through CBT.

DIG DEEPER: Why Is the Prevalence Rate of ADHD Increasing?

Many people believe that the rates of ADHD have increased in recent years, and there is evidence to support this contention. In a recent study, investigators found that the parent-reported prevalence of ADHD among children (4–17 years old) in the United States increased by 22% during a 4-year period, from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007 (CDC, 2010). Over time this increase in parent-reported ADHD was observed in all sociodemographic groups and was reflected by substantial increases in 12 states (Indiana, North Carolina, and Colorado were the top three). The increases were greatest for older teens (ages 15–17), multiracial and Hispanic children, and children with a primary language other than English. Another investigation found that from 1998–2000 through 2007–2009 the parent-reported prevalence of ADHD increased among U.S. children between the ages of 5–17 years old, from 6.9% to 9.0% (Akinbami, Liu, Pastor, & Reuben, 2011).

A major weakness of both studies was that children were not actually given a formal diagnosis. Instead, parents were simply asked whether or not a doctor or other health-care provider had ever told them their child had ADHD; the reported prevalence rates thus may have been affected by the accuracy of parental memory. Nevertheless, the findings from these studies raise important questions concerning what appears to be a demonstrable rise in the prevalence of ADHD. Although the reasons underlying this apparent increase in the rates of ADHD over time are poorly understood and, at best, speculative, several explanations are viable:

Learning and Intelligence

Schools and Testing

When Should School Begin?

four elementary students sit in front of computers taking a standardized test.
Figure 2. An average elementary schooler will spend around 7 hours a day in school.

In the United States, children generally begin school around age 5 or 6. In fact, most Western countries follow this model. But WHY do we begin school at 5 or 6? For the most part, this age was chosen as a matter of convenience. In countries where the mother is expected to work, the age at which children begin school tends to be younger. That said, research does not support that children should begin formal education so early. Many research studies suggest age 7 is the most appropriate age to begin formalized school. Before age 7, children learn best through play. By age 7, most children are capable of learning in a more formal academic-forward setting.

The Controversy Over Testing In Schools

Children’s academic performance is often measured with the use of standardized tests. Achievement tests are used to measure what a child has already learned. Achievement tests are often used as measures of teaching effectiveness within a school setting and as a method to make schools that receive tax dollars (such as public schools, charter schools, and private schools that receive vouchers) accountable to the government for their performance. In 2001, President George W. Bush signed into effect the No Child Left Behind Act mandating that schools administer achievement tests to students and publish those results so that parents have an idea of their children’s performance and the government has information on the gaps in educational achievement between children from various social class, racial, and ethnic groups. Schools that show significant gaps in these levels of performance are to work toward narrowing these gaps. Educators have criticized the policy for focusing too much on testing as the only indication of performance levels.

Aptitude tests are designed to measure a student’s ability to learn or to determine if a person has potential in a particular program. These are often used at the beginning of a course of study or as part of college entrance requirements. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) are perhaps the most familiar aptitude tests to students in grades 6 and above. Learning test-taking skills and preparing for SATs has become part of the training that some students in these grades receive as part of their pre-college preparation. Other aptitude tests include the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). Intelligence tests are also a form of aptitude tests that are designed to measure a person’s ability to learn.

Theories of Intelligence

Intelligence tests and psychological definitions of intelligence have been heavily criticized since the 1970s for being biased in favor of Anglo-American, middle-class respondents and for being inadequate tools for measuring non-academic types of intelligence or talent. Intelligence changes with experience and intelligence quotients or scores do not reflect that ability to change. What is considered smart varies culturally as well and most intelligence tests do not take this variation into account. For example, in the West, being smart is associated with being quick. A person who answers a question the fastest is seen as the smartest. But in some cultures, being smart is associated with considering an idea thoroughly before giving an answer. A well-thought-out and contemplative answer is the best answer.

Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner (1983, 1998, 1999) suggests that there are not one, but nine domains of intelligence. His theory is known as the theory of multiple intelligences. The first three are skills that can be measured by IQ tests:

The next six represent skills that are not measured in standard IQ tests but are talents or abilities that can also be important for success in a variety of fields: These are:

Gardner contends that these are also forms of intelligence. A high IQ does not always ensure success in life or necessarily indicate that a person has common sense, good interpersonal skills, or other abilities important for success.

Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

Another alternative view of intelligence is presented by Sternberg (1997; 1999). Sternberg offers three types of intelligence, known as the triarchic theory of intelligence. Sternberg was concerned that there was too much emphasis placed on aptitude test scores and believed that there were other, less easily measured, qualities necessary for success in higher education and in the world of work. Aptitude test scores indicate the first type of intelligence—academic, or analytical.

Sternberg noted that students who have high academic abilities may still not have what is required to be a successful graduate student or a competent professional. To do well as a graduate student, he noted, the person needs to be creative. The second type of intelligence emphasizes this quality.

A potential graduate student might be strong academically and have creative ideas, but still be lacking in the social skills required to work effectively with others or to practice good judgment in a variety of situations. This common sense is the third type of intelligence.

This type of intelligence helps a person know when problems need to be solved. Practical intelligence can help a person know how to act and what to wear for job interviews, when to get out of problematic relationships, how to get along with others at work, and when to make changes to reduce stress.

Think It over

The World of School

Remember Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model we learned about when we first examined theories of development? This model helps us understand an individual by examining the contexts in which the person lives and the direct and indirect influences on that person’s life. School becomes a very important component of children’s lives during middle childhood and one way to understand children is to look at the world of school. We have discussed educational policies that impact the curriculum in schools above. Now let’s focus on the school experience from the standpoint of the student, the teacher and parent relationship, and the cultural messages or hidden curriculum taught in school in the United States.

Parents vary in their level of involvement with their children’s schools. Teachers often complain that they have difficulty getting parents to participate in their child’s education and devise a variety of techniques to keep parents in touch with daily and overall progress. For example, parents may be required to sign a behavior chart each evening to be returned to school or may be given information about the school’s events through websites and newsletters. There are other factors that need to be considered when looking at parental involvement. To explore these, first ask yourself if all parents who enter the school with concerns about their child are received in the same way? If not, what would make a teacher or principal more likely to consider the parent’s concerns? What would make this less likely?

Lareau and Horvat (2004) found that teachers seek a particular type of involvement from particular types of parents. While teachers thought they were open and neutral in their responses to parental involvement, in reality, teachers were most receptive to support, praise, and agreement coming from parents who were most similar in race and social class with the teachers. Parents who criticized the school or its policies were less likely to be given a voice. Parents who have higher levels of income, occupational status, and other qualities favored in society have family capital. This is a form of power that can be used to improve a child’s education. Parents who do not have these qualities may find it more difficult to be effectively involved. Lareau and Horvat (2004) offer three cases of African-American parents who were each concerned about discrimination in the schools. Despite evidence that such discrimination existed, their children’s white, middle-class teachers were reluctant to address the situation directly. Note the variation in approaches and outcomes for these three families:

Working within the system without direct confrontation seemed to yield better results for the Irvings, although the issue of discrimination in the school was not completely addressed. Ms. Caldron was the least involved and felt powerless in the school setting. Her lack of family capital and lack of knowledge and confidence keep her from addressing her concerns with the teachers. What do you think would happen if she directly addressed the teachers and complained about discrimination? Chances are, she would be dismissed as undermining the authority of the school, just as the Masons, and might be thought to lack credibility because of her poverty and drug addiction. The authors of this study suggest that teachers closely examine their biases against parents. Schools may also need to examine their ability to dialogue with parents about school policies in more open ways. What happens when parents have concerns over school policy or view student problems as arising from flaws in the educational system? How are parents who are critical of the school treated? And are their children treated fairly even when the school is being criticized? Certainly, any efforts to improve effective parental involvement should address these concerns.

Student Perspectives

Imagine being a 3rd-grader for one day in public school. What would the daily routine involve? To what extent would the institution dictate the activities of the day and how much of the day would you spend on those activities? Would you always be on task? What would you say if someone asked you how your day went? or “What happened in school today?” Chances are, you would be more inclined to talk about whom you sat at lunch with or who brought a puppy to class than to describe how fractions are added.

Ethnographer and Professor of Education Peter McLaren (1999) describes the student’s typical day as filled with a constrictive and unnecessary ritual that has a damaging effect on the desire to learn. Students move between various states as they negotiate the demands of the school system and their own personal interests. The majority of the day (298 minutes) takes place in the student state. This state is one in which the student focuses on a task or tries to stay focused on a task, is passive, compliant, and often frustrated. Long pauses before getting out the next book or finding materials sometimes indicate that frustration. The street corner state is one in which the child is playful, energetic, excited, and expresses personal opinions, feelings, and beliefs. About 66 minutes a day take place in this state. Children try to maximize this by going slowly to assemblies or when getting a hall pass-always eager to say ‘hello’ to a friend or to wave if one of their classmates is in another room. This is the state in which friends talk and play. In fact, teachers sometimes reward students with opportunities to move freely or to talk or to be themselves. But when students initiate the street corner state on their own, they risk losing recess time, getting extra homework, or being ridiculed in front of their peers. The home state occurs when parents or siblings visit the school. Children in this state may enjoy special privileges such as going home early or being exempt from certain school rules in the mother’s presence, or it can be difficult if the parent is there to discuss trouble at school with a staff member. The sanctity state is a time in which the child is contemplative, quiet, or prayerful. Typically the sanctity state is a very brief part of the day.

Since students seem to have so much enthusiasm and energy in street corner states, what would happen if the student and street corner states could be combined? Would it be possible? Many educators feel concerned about the level of stress children experience in school. Some stress can be attributed to problems in friendship. And some can be a result of the emphasis on testing and grades, as reflected in a Newsweek article entitled “The New First Grade: Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast Too Soon?” (Tyre, 2006). This article reports concerns of a principal who worries that students begin to burn out as early as 3rd grade. In the book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, Kohn (2006) argues that neither research nor experience support claims that homework reinforces learning and builds responsibility. Why do schools assign homework so frequently? A look at cultural influences on education may provide some answers.

Cultural Influences

Another way to examine the world of school is to look at the cultural values, concepts, behaviors, and roles that are part of the school experience but are not part of the formal curriculum. These are part of the hidden curriculum but are nevertheless very powerful messages. The hidden curriculum includes ideas of patriotism, gender roles, the ranking of occupations and classes, competition, and other values. Teachers, counselors, and other students specify and make known what is considered appropriate for girls and boys. The gender curriculum continues into high school, college, and professional school. Students learn a ranking system of occupations and social classes as well. Students in gifted programs or those moving toward college preparation classes may be viewed as superior to those who are receiving tutoring.

Gracy (2004) suggests that cultural training occurs early. Kindergarten is an “academic boot camp” in which students are prepared for their future student role-that of complying with an adult imposed structure and routine designed to produce docile, obedient, children who do not question meaningless tasks that will become so much of their future lives as students. A typical day is filled with structure, ritual, and routine that allows for little creativity or direct, hands-on contact. “Kindergarten, therefore, can be seen as preparing children not only for participation in the bureaucratic organization of large modern school systems but also for the large-scale occupational bureaucracies of modern society.” (Gracy, 2004, p. 148)

Emphasizing math and reading in preschool and kindergarten classes is becoming more common in some school districts. It is not without controversy, however. Some suggest that emphasis is warranted in order to help students learn math and reading skills that will be needed throughout school and in the world of work. This will also help school districts improve their accountability through test performance. Others argue that learning is becoming too structured to be enjoyable or effective and that students are being taught only to focus on performance and test-taking. Students learn student incivility or lack of sincere concern for politeness and consideration of others is taught in kindergarten through 12th grades through the “what is on the test” mentality modeled by teachers. Students are taught to accept routinized, meaningless information in order to perform well on tests. And they are experiencing the stress felt by teachers and school districts focused on test scores and taught that their worth comes from their test scores. Genuine interest, an appreciation of the process of learning, and valuing others are important components of success in the workplace that are not part of the hidden curriculum in today’s schools.

Think It Over

A group of scouts walking across a field in a single-file line

Up until middle childhood, the process of development isn’t usually as structured as it becomes during middle childhood when children enter into the formal education setting. Children in school are taught new ways of thinking about things that they already know—they learn why they structure sentences the way they do, they learn new words not through hearing them from others, but from lists provided by teachers or determined by committees. They are even taught how to play sports in specific ways with explicit rules that they get tested on in written form. This is quite a departure from the organic learning of younger years.

Learning in this new way is difficult for some children who have never had to sit down for formal instruction. Structured learning can also shed light on learning difficulties and learning disabilities. Educators today are trained to recognize the signs of many learning disabilities so that children can get help early on in their academic careers.

Developing social relationships in the school environment and keeping up with the changing relationships at home can be difficult tasks for children during middle childhood. Children begin the period relatively dependent on parents and by the end of the period, children should be able to act autonomously in terms of decision making and caring for themselves. This change may feel quick to parents, and it can be difficult for them to let go of control and to allow the child to make more decisions. In order for the child to continue healthy development, though, that gradual letting go is necessary. Parents should pay close attention to their children to recognize signs that the child is capable of taking on new responsibilities. This will help the child continue to develop their skills, their sense of self, their sense of place in the family, and their sense of place in the greater community.

Additional Supplemental Resources

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Chapter 7: Adolescence

7

Why understand the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes that occur during adolescence?

Adolescence is a socially constructed concept. In pre-industrial society, children were considered adults when they reached physical maturity; however, today we have an extended time between childhood and adulthood known as adolescence. Adolescence is the period of development that begins at puberty and ends at early adulthood or emerging adulthood; the typical age range is from 12 to 18 years, and this stage of development has some predictable milestones.

Media portrayals of adolescents often seem to emphasize the problems that can be a part of adolescence. Gang violence, school shootings, alcohol-related accidents, drug abuse, and suicides involving teens are all too frequently reflected in newspaper headlines and movie plots. In the professional literature, too, adolescence is frequently portrayed as a negative stage of life—a period of storm and stress to be survived or endured (Arnett, 1999).   Adolescents are often characterized as impulsive, reckless, and emotionally unstable. This tends to be attributed to “raging hormones” or what is now known as the “teen brain.”

With all of the attention given to negative images of adolescents, the positive aspects of adolescence can be overlooked (APA, 2000). Most adolescents in fact succeed in school, are attached to their families and their communities, and emerge from their teen years without experiencing serious problems such as substance abuse or involvement with violence. Recent research suggests that it may be time to lay the stereotype of the “wild teenage brain” to rest. This research posits that brain deficits do not make teens do risky things; lack of experience and a drive to explore the world are the real factors. Evidence supports that risky behavior during adolescence is a normal part of development and reflects a biologically driven need for exploration – a process aimed at acquiring experience and preparing teens for the complex decisions they will need to make as adults (Romer, Reyna, & Satterthwaite, 2017). Furthermore, McNeely & Blanchard (2009) described the adolescent years as a “time of opportunity, not turmoil.”

Second only to infant development, adolescents experience rapid development in a short period of time. During adolescence, children gain 50% of their adult body weight, experience puberty and become capable of reproducing, and experience an astounding transformation in their brains. All of these changes occur in the context of rapidly expanding social spheres. Adolescents begin to learn about adult responsibilities and adult relationships. The details of growing bodies and the rational and irrational thinking of adolescents are covered in this module. As you will learn, although the physical development of adolescents is often completed by age 18, the brain requires many more years to reach maturity. Understanding these changes developmentally can help both adults and adolescents enjoy this second decade of life.

This module will outline changes that occur during adolescence in three domains: physical, cognitive, and psychosocial. Physical changes associated with puberty are triggered by hormones. Cognitive changes include improvements in complex and abstract thought, as well as the development that happens at different rates in distinct parts of the brain and increases adolescents’ propensity for risky behavior because increases in sensation-seeking and reward motivation precede increases in cognitive control. Within the psychosocial domain, changes in relationships with parents, peers, and romantic partners will be considered. Adolescents’ relationships with parents go through a period of redefinition in which adolescents become more autonomous, and aspects of parenting, such as distal monitoring and psychological control, become more salient. Peer relationships are important sources of support and companionship during adolescence yet can also promote problem behaviors. Same-sex peer groups evolve into mixed-sex peer groups, and adolescents’ romantic relationships tend to emerge from these groups. Identity formation occurs as adolescents explore and commit to different roles and ideological positions.

No adolescent can truly be understood in separate parts—an adolescent is a “package deal.” Change in one area of development typically leads to or occurs in conjunction with, changes in other areas. Furthermore, no adolescent can be fully understood outside the context of his or her family, neighborhood, school, workplace, or community or without considering such factors as gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or chronic illness, and religious beliefs (APA, 2002).

What you’ll learn to do: describe the physical changes that occur during puberty and adolescence

Physical changes of puberty mark the onset of adolescence (Lerner & Steinberg, 2009). For both boys and girls, these changes include a growth spurt in height, growth of pubic and underarm hair, and skin changes (e.g., pimples). Boys also experience growth in facial hair and a deepening of their voice. Girls experience breast development and begin menstruating. These pubertal changes are driven by hormones, particularly an increase in testosterone for boys and estrogen for girls. The physical changes that occur during adolescence are greater than those of any other time of life, with the exception of infancy. In some ways, however, the changes in adolescence are more dramatic than those that occur in infancy—unlike infants, adolescents are aware of the changes that are taking place and of what the changes mean. In this section, you will learn about the pubertal changes in body size, proportions, and sexual maturity, the social and emotional attitudes and reactions toward puberty, and some of the health concerns during adolescence, including eating disorders.

Learning outcomes

Physical Development during Adolescence

Puberty Begins

Puberty is the period of rapid growth and sexual development that begins in adolescence and starts at some point between ages 8 and 14. While the sequence of physical changes in puberty is predictable, the onset and pace of puberty vary widely. Every person’s individual timetable for puberty is different and is primarily influenced by heredity; however environmental factors—such as diet and exercise—also exert some influence.

Adolescence has evolved historically, with evidence indicating that this stage is lengthening as individuals start puberty earlier and transition to adulthood later than in the past. Puberty today begins, on average, at age 10–11 years for girls and 11–12 years for boys. This average age of onset has decreased gradually over time since the 19th century by 3–4 months per decade, which has been attributed to a range of factors including better nutrition, obesity, increased father absence, and other environmental factors (Steinberg, 2013). Completion of formal education, financial independence from parents, marriage, and parenthood have all been markers of the end of adolescence and beginning of adulthood, and all of these transitions happen, on average, later now than in the past. In fact, the prolonging of adolescence has prompted the introduction of a new developmental period called emerging adulthood that captures these developmental changes out of adolescence and into adulthood, occurring from approximately ages 18 to 29 (Arnett, 2000). We’ll learn more about this phase in the next module on early adulthood.

Drawing of adolescent pointing to receding hairline, acne appearing, facial hair growth, larynx gets bigger (voice deepens), armpit hair grow, pubic hair grows, penis grows, and muscles develop.
Figure 1. Major physical changes in males during puberty.

Hormonal Changes

Puberty involves distinctive physiological changes in an individual’s height, weight, body composition, and circulatory and respiratory systems, and during this time, both the adrenal glands and sex glands mature. These changes are largely influenced by hormonal activity. Many hormones contribute to the beginning of puberty, but most notably a major rush of estrogen for girls and testosterone for boys. Hormones play an organizational role (priming the body to behave in a certain way once puberty begins) and an activational role (triggering certain behavioral and physical changes). During puberty, the adolescent’s hormonal balance shifts strongly towards an adult state; the process is triggered by the pituitary gland, which secretes a surge of hormonal agents into the bloodstream and initiates a chain reaction.

Puberty occurs over two distinct phases, and the first phase, adrenarche, begins at 6 to 8 years of age and involves increased production of adrenal androgens that contribute to a number of pubertal changes—such as skeletal growth. The second phase of puberty, gonadarche, begins several years later and involves increased production of hormones governing physical and sexual maturation.

Sexual Maturation

Drawing of woman showing changes of acne appearance, armpit hair, breast develop, uterus grows bigger, menarche, pubic hair grows, body shape rounds.
Figure 2. Major physical changes in females during puberty.

During puberty, primary and secondary sex characteristics develop and mature. Primary sex characteristics are organs specifically needed for reproduction—the uterus and ovaries in females and testes in males. Secondary sex characteristics are physical signs of sexual maturation that do not directly involve sex organs, such as the development of breasts and hips in girls, and the development of facial hair and a deepened voice in boys. Both sexes experience the development of pubic and underarm hair, as well as increased development of sweat glands.

The male and female gonads are activated by the surge of the hormones discussed earlier, which puts them into a state of rapid growth and development. The testes primarily release testosterone and the ovaries release estrogen; the production of these hormones increases gradually until sexual maturation is met.

For girls, observable changes begin with nipple growth and pubic hair. Then the body increases in height while fat forms particularly on the breasts and hips. The first menstrual period (menarche) is followed by more growth, which is usually completed by four years after the first menstrual period began. Girls experience menarche usually around 12–13 years old. For boys, the usual sequence is the growth of the testes, initial pubic-hair growth, growth of the penis, first ejaculation of seminal fluid (spermarche), appearance of facial hair, a peak growth spurt, deepening of the voice, and final pubic-hair growth. (Herman-Giddens et al., 2012). Boys experience spermarche, the first ejaculation, around 13–14 years old.

Physical Growth: The Growth Spurt

During puberty, both sexes experience a rapid increase in height and weight (referred to as a growth spurt) over about 2-3 years resulting from the simultaneous release of growth hormones, thyroid hormones, and androgens. Males experience their growth spurt about two years later than females. For girls, the growth spurt begins between 8 and 13 years old (average 10-11), with adult height reached between 10 and 16 years old. Boys begin their growth spurt slightly later, usually between 10 and 16 years old (average 12-13), and reach their adult height between 13 and 17 years old. Both nature (i.e., genes) and nurture (e.g., nutrition, medications, and medical conditions) can influence both height and weight.

Before puberty, there are nearly no differences between males and females in the distribution of fat and muscle. During puberty, males grow muscle much faster than females, and females experience a higher increase in body fat and bones become harder and more brittle. An adolescent’s heart and lungs increase in both size and capacity during puberty; these changes contribute to increased strength and tolerance for exercise.

Reactions Toward Puberty and Physical Development

The accelerated growth in different body parts happens at different times, but for all adolescents, it has a fairly regular sequence. The first places to grow are the extremities (head, hands, and feet), followed by the arms and legs, and later the torso and shoulders. This non-uniform growth is one reason why an adolescent body may seem out of proportion. Additionally, because rates of physical development vary widely among teenagers, puberty can be a source of pride or embarrassment.

Most adolescents want nothing more than to fit in and not be distinguished from their peers in any way, shape, or form (Mendle, 2015). So when a child develops earlier or later than his or her peers, there can be long-lasting effects on mental health. Simply put, beginning puberty earlier than peers presents great challenges, particularly for girls. The picture for early-developing boys isn’t as clear, but evidence suggests that they, too, eventually might suffer ill effects from maturing ahead of their peers. The biggest challenges for boys, however, seem to be more related to late development.

As mentioned in the Khan Academy video about physical development, early maturing boys tend to be stronger, taller, and more athletic than their later maturing peers. They are usually more popular, confident, and independent, but they are also at a greater risk for substance abuse and early sexual activity (Flannery, Rowe, & Gulley, 1993; Kaltiala-Heino, Rimpela, Rissanen, & Rantanen, 2001). Additionally, more recent research found that while early-maturing boys initially had lower levels of depression than later-maturing boys, over time they showed signs of increased anxiety, negative self-image and interpersonal stress. (Rudolph, Troop-Gordon, Lambert, & Natsuaki, 2014).

Early maturing girls may be teased or overtly admired, which can cause them to feel self-conscious about their developing bodies. These girls are at increased risk of a range of psychosocial problems including depression, substance use, and early sexual behavior (Graber, 2013). These girls are also at a higher risk for eating disorders, which we will discuss in more detail later in this module (Ge, Conger, & Elder, 2001; Graber, Lewinsohn, Seeley, & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Striegel-Moore & Cachelin, 1999).

Late-blooming boys and girls (i.e., they develop more slowly than their peers) may feel self-conscious about their lack of physical development. Negative feelings are particularly a problem for late maturing boys, who are at a higher risk for depression and conflict with parents (Graber et al., 1997) and more likely to be bullied (Pollack & Shuster, 2000).

Brain Development During Adolescence

The human brain is not fully developed by the time a person reaches puberty. Between the ages of 10 and 25, the brain undergoes changes that have important implications for behavior. The brain reaches 90% of its adult size by the time a person is six or seven years of age. Thus, the brain does not grow in size much during adolescence. However, the creases in the brain continue to become more complex until the late teens. The biggest changes in the folds of the brain during this time occur in the parts of the cortex that process cognitive and emotional information.

Up until puberty, brain cells continue to bloom in the frontal region. Some of the most developmentally significant changes in the brain occur in the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making and cognitive control, as well as other higher cognitive functions. During adolescence, myelination and synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex increases, improving the efficiency of information processing, and neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain are strengthened. However, this growth takes time and the growth is uneven.

The Teen Brain: 6 Things to Know

Image showing a baby developing to a teenager alongside brains developing in mass and connections.
Figure 3. The brain reaches its largest size in the early teen years, but continues to mature well into the 20s.

As you learn about brain development during adolescence, consider these six facts from The National Institute of Mental Health:

Your brain does not keep getting bigger as you get older

For girls, the brain reaches its largest physical size around 11 years old and for boys, the brain reaches its largest physical size around age 14. Of course, this difference in age does not mean either boys or girls are smarter than one another!

But that doesn’t mean your brain is done maturing

For both boys and girls, although your brain may be as large as it will ever be, your brain doesn’t finish developing and maturing until your mid-to-late-20s. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses.

The teen brain is ready to learn and adapt

In a digital world that is constantly changing, the adolescent brain is well prepared to adapt to new technology—and is shaped in return by experience.

Many mental disorders appear during adolescence

All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is the time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—emerge.

The teen brain is resilient

Although adolescence is a vulnerable time for the brain and for teenagers in general, most teens go on to become healthy adults. Some changes in the brain during this important phase of development actually may help protect against long-term mental disorders.

Teens need more sleep than children and adults

Although it may seem like teens are lazy, science shows that melatonin levels (or the “sleep hormone” levels) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning than in most children and adults. This may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens don’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep makes paying attention hard, increases impulsivity, and may also increase irritability and depression.

The limbic system develops years ahead of the prefrontal cortex. Development in the limbic system plays an important role in determining rewards and punishments and processing emotional experience and social information. Pubertal hormones target the amygdala directly and powerful sensations become compelling (Romeo, 2013). Brain scans confirm that cognitive control, revealed by fMRI studies, is not fully developed until adulthood because the prefrontal cortex is limited in connections and engagement (Hartley & Somerville, 2015). Recall that this area is responsible for judgment, impulse control, and planning, and it is still maturing into early adulthood (Casey, Tottenham, Liston, & Durston, 2005). 

An illustration of a brain is shown with the frontal lobe labeled.
Figure 4. Brain development continues into the early 20s. The development of the frontal lobe, in particular, is important during this stage.

Additionally, changes in both the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the limbic system make adolescents more emotional and more responsive to rewards and stress. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure and attuning to the environment during decision-making. During adolescence, dopamine levels in the limbic system increase, and input of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex increases. The increased dopamine activity in adolescence may have implications for adolescent risk-taking and vulnerability to boredom. Serotonin is involved in the regulation of mood and behavior. It affects the brain in a different way. Known as the “calming chemical,” serotonin eases tension and stress. Serotonin also puts a brake on the excitement and sometimes recklessness that dopamine can produce. If there is a defect in the serotonin processing in the brain, impulsive or violent behavior can result.

When the overall brain chemical system is working well, it seems that these chemicals interact to balance out extreme behaviors. But when stress, arousal, or sensations become extreme, the adolescent brain is flooded with impulses that overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, and as a result, adolescents engage in increased risk-taking behaviors and emotional outbursts possibly because the frontal lobes of their brains are still developing.

Later in adolescence, the brain’s cognitive control centers in the prefrontal cortex develop, increasing adolescents’ self-regulation and future orientation. The difference in timing of the development of these different regions of the brain contributes to more risk-taking during middle adolescence because adolescents are motivated to seek thrills that sometimes come from risky behavior, such as reckless driving, smoking, or drinking, and have not yet developed the cognitive control to resist impulses or focus equally on the potential risks (Steinberg, 2008).  One of the world’s leading experts on adolescent development, Laurence Steinberg, likens this to engaging a powerful engine before the braking system is in place. The result is that adolescents are more prone to risky behaviors than are children or adults.

As mentioned in the introduction to adolescence, too many who have read the research on the teenage brain come to quick conclusions about adolescents as irrational loose cannons. However, adolescents are actually making choices influenced by a very different set of chemical influences than their adult counterparts—a hopped up reward system that can drown out warning signals about risk. Adolescent decisions are not always defined by impulsivity because of lack of brakes, but because of planned and enjoyable pressure to the accelerator. It is helpful to put all of these brain processes in a developmental context. Young people need to somewhat enjoy the thrill of risk-taking in order to complete the incredibly overwhelming task of growing up.

Key Takeaways

In sum, the adolescent years are a time of intense brain changes. Interestingly, two of the primary brain functions develop at different rates. Brain research indicates that the part of the brain that perceives rewards from risk, the limbic system, kicks into high gear in early adolescence. The part of the brain that controls impulses and engages in longer-term perspective, the frontal lobes, matures later. This may explain why teens in mid-adolescence take more risks than older teens. As the frontal lobes become more developed, two things happen. First, self-control develops as teens are better able to assess cause and effect. Second, more areas of the brain become involved in processing emotions, and teens become better at accurately interpreting others’ emotions.

Sleep

Brain development even affects the way teens sleep. Adolescents’ normal sleep patterns are different from those of children and adults. Teens are often drowsy upon waking, tired during the day, and wakeful at night. Although it may seem like teens are lazy, science shows that melatonin levels (or the “sleep hormone” levels) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning in teens than in most children and adults. This may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens don’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep makes paying attention hard, increases impulsivity, and may also increase irritability and depression.

Link to Learning: School Start Times

As research reveals the importance of sleep for teenagers, many people advocate for later high school start times. Read about some of the research at the National Sleep Foundation on school start times.

Health During Adolescence

Health Concerns During Adolescence

Nutrition

Adequate adolescent nutrition is necessary for optimal growth and development. Dietary choices and habits established during adolescence greatly influence future health, yet many studies report that teens consume few fruits and vegetables and are not receiving the calcium, iron, vitamins, or minerals necessary for healthy development.

One of the reasons for poor nutrition is anxiety about body image, which is a person’s idea of how his or her body looks. The way adolescents feel about their bodies can affect the way they feel about themselves as a whole. Few adolescents welcome their sudden weight increase, so they may adjust their eating habits to lose weight. Adding to the rapid physical changes, they are simultaneously bombarded by messages, and sometimes teasing, related to body image, appearance, attractiveness, weight, and eating that they encounter in the media, at home, and from their friends/peers (both in-person and via social media).

Much research has been conducted on the psychological ramifications of body image on adolescents. Modern-day teenagers are exposed to more media on a daily basis than any generation before them. Recent studies have indicated that the average teenager watches roughly 1500 hours of television per year, and 70% use social media multiple times a day (Markey, 2019). As such, modern-day adolescents are exposed to many representations of ideal, societal beauty. The concept of a person being unhappy with their own image or appearance has been defined as “body dissatisfaction.” In teenagers, body dissatisfaction is often associated with body mass, low self-esteem, and atypical eating patterns. Scholars continue to debate the effects of media on body dissatisfaction in teens. What we do know is that two-thirds of U.S. high school girls are trying to lose weight and one-third think they are overweight, while only one-sixth are actually overweight (MMWR, 2016). [

Eating Disorders

Dissatisfaction with body image can explain why many teens, mostly girls, eat erratically or ingest diet pills to lose weight and why boys may take steroids to increase their muscle mass. Although eating disorders can occur in children and adults, they frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood (National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 2019). Eating disorders affect both genders, although rates among women are 2½ times greater than among men. Similar to women who have eating disorders, some men also have a distorted sense of body image, including muscle dysmorphia or an extreme concern with becoming more muscular.

Because of the high mortality rate, researchers are looking into the etiology of the disorder and associated risk factors. Researchers are finding that eating disorders are caused by a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors (NIMH, 2019). Eating disorders appear to run in families, and researchers are working to identify DNA variations that are linked to the increased risk of developing eating disorders. Researchers have also found differences in patterns of brain activity in women with eating disorders in comparison with healthy women. The main criteria for the most common eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fifth Edition, DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Health Consequences of Eating Disorders

For those suffering from anorexia, health consequences include an abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart failure. Additionally, there is a reduction in bone density (osteoporosis), muscle loss and weakness, severe dehydration, fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Individuals with this disorder may die from complications associated with starvation, while others die of suicide. In women, suicide is much more common in those with anorexia than with most other mental disorders.

The binging and purging cycle of bulimia can affect the digestive system and lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances that can affect the heart and other major organs. Frequent vomiting can cause inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus, as well as tooth decay and staining from stomach acids. Lastly, binge eating disorder results in similar health risks to obesity, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, Type II diabetes, and gall bladder disease (National Eating Disorders Association, 2016).

Eating Disorders Treatment

To treat eating disorders, getting adequate nutrition, and stopping inappropriate behaviors, such as purging, are the foundations of treatment. Treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and include medical care, nutritional counseling, medications (such as antidepressants), and individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy (NIMH, 2019). For example, the Maudsley Approach has parents of adolescents with anorexia nervosa be actively involved in their child’s treatment, such as assuming responsibility for feeding their child. To eliminate binge eating and purging behaviors, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) assists sufferers by identifying distorted thinking patterns and changing inaccurate beliefs.

Link to Learning

Visit the National Eating Disorders Association to learn more about eating disorders.

Sexual Development

Developing sexually is an expected and natural part of growing into adulthood. Healthy sexual development involves more than sexual behavior. It is the combination of physical sexual maturation (puberty, age-appropriate sexual behaviors), the formation of a positive sexual identity, and a sense of sexual well-being (discussed more in-depth later in this module). During adolescence, teens strive to become comfortable with their changing bodies and to make healthy, safe decisions about which sexual activities, if any, they wish to engage in.

Earlier in the physical development section, we discussed primary and secondary sex characteristics. During puberty, every primary sex organ (the ovaries, uterus, penis, and testes) increases dramatically in size and matures in function. During puberty, reproduction becomes possible. Simultaneously, secondary sex characteristics develop. These characteristics are not required for reproduction, but they do signify masculinity and femininity. At birth, boys and girls have similar body shapes, but during puberty, males widen at the shoulders and females widen at the hips and develop breasts (examples of secondary sex characteristics). Sexual development is impacted by a dynamic mixture of physical and cognitive changes coupled with social expectations. With physical maturation, adolescents may become alternately fascinated with and chagrined by their changing bodies, and often compare themselves to the development they notice in their peers or see in the media. For example, many adolescent girls focus on their breast development, hoping their breasts will conform to an ideal body image.

As the sex hormones cause biological changes, they also affect the brain and trigger sexual thoughts. Culture, however, shapes actual sexual behaviors. Emotions regarding sexual experience, like the rest of puberty, are strongly influenced by cultural norms regarding what is expected at what age, with peers being the most influential. Simply put, the most important influence on adolescents’ sexual activity is not their bodies, but their close friends, who have more influence than do sex or ethnic group norms (van de Bongardt et al., 2015).

Sexual interest and interaction are a natural part of adolescence. Sexual fantasy and masturbation episodes increase between the ages of 10 and 13. Masturbation is very ordinary—even young children have been known to engage in this behavior. As the bodies of children mature, powerful sexual feelings begin to develop, and masturbation helps release sexual tension. For adolescents, masturbation is a common way to explore their erotic potential, and this behavior can continue throughout adult life.

Sexual Interactions

Many early social interactions tend to be nonsexual—text messaging, phone calls, email—but by the age of 12 or 13, some young people may pair off and begin dating and experimenting with kissing, touching, and other physical contact, such as oral sex. The vast majority of young adolescents are not prepared emotionally or physically for oral sex and sexual intercourse. If adolescents this young do have sex, they are highly vulnerable to sexual and emotional abuse, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV, and early pregnancy. For STI’s in particular, adolescents are slower to recognize symptoms, tell partners, and get medical treatment, which puts them at risk of infertility and even death.

Link to Learning

Visit the CDC website to learn more about sexual behavior in adolescence.

Adolescents ages 14 to 16 understand the consequences of unprotected sex and teen parenthood if properly taught, but cognitively they may lack the skills to integrate this knowledge into everyday situations or consistently to act responsibly in the heat of the moment. By the age of 17, many adolescents have willingly experienced sexual intercourse. Teens who have early sexual intercourse report strong peer pressure as a reason behind their decision. Some adolescents are just curious about sex and want to experience it.

Becoming a sexually healthy adult is a developmental task of adolescence that requires integrating psychological, physical, cultural, spiritual, societal, and educational factors. It is particularly important to understand the adolescent in terms of his or her physical, emotional, and cognitive stage. Additionally, healthy adult relationships are more likely to develop when adolescent impulses are not shamed or feared. Guidance is certainly needed, but acknowledging that adolescent sexuality development is both normal and positive would allow for more open communication so adolescents can be more receptive to education concerning the risks (Tolman & McClelland, 2011).

Adolescents are receptive to their culture, to the models they see at home, in school, and in the mass media. These observations influence moral reasoning and moral behavior, which we discuss in more detail later in this module. Decisions regarding sexual behavior are influenced by teens’ ability to think and reason, their values, and their educational experience. Helping adolescents recognize all aspects of sexual development encourages them to make informed and healthy decisions about sexual matters.

Freud’s Psychosexual Development: The Genital Stage

Freud’s Theory 

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

 

The final stage of psychosexual development is referred to as the genital stage. From adolescence throughout adulthood, a person is preoccupied with sex and reproduction. The adolescent experiences rising hormone levels and the sex drive and hunger drives become very strong. Ideally, the adolescent will rely on the ego to help think logically through these urges without taking actions that might be damaging. An adolescent might learn to redirect their sexual urges into a safer activity such as running, for example. Quieting the id with the superego can lead to feeling overly self-conscious and guilty about these urges. Hopefully, it is the ego that is strengthened during this stage and the adolescent uses reason to manage urges. According to Freud, the genital stage is similar to the phallic stage, in that its main concern is the genitalia; however, this concern is now conscious. The genital stage comes about when the sexual and aggressive drives have returned, but the source of sexual pleasure expands outside of the mother and father (as in the Oedipus or Electra complex).

During the genital stage, the ego and superego have become more developed. This allows the individual to have a more realistic way of thinking and to establish an assortment of social relations apart from the family. The genital stage is the last stage and is considered the highest level of maturity. In this stage, a person’s concern shifts from primary-drive gratification (instinct) to applying secondary process-thinking to gratify desire symbolically and intellectually by means of friendships, intimate relationships, and family and adult responsibilities.

Cognitive Development during Adolescence

LEARNING OUTCOMES

  • Explain Piaget’s theory on formal operational thought
  • Describe cognitive abilities and changes during adolescence

three adolescent boys look at a note together

Figure 1. Adolescents practice their developing abstract and hypothetical thinking skills, coming up with alternative interpretations of information.

Adolescence is a time of rapid cognitive development. Biological changes in brain structure and connectivity in the brain interact with increased experience, knowledge, and changing social demands to produce rapid cognitive growth. These changes generally begin at puberty or shortly thereafter, and some skills continue to develop as an adolescent ages. Development of executive functions, or cognitive skills that enable the control and coordination of thoughts and behavior, are generally associated with the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. The thoughts, ideas, and concepts developed during this period of life greatly influence one’s future life and play a major role in character and personality formation.

Perspectives and Advancements in Adolescent Thinking

There are two perspectives on adolescent thinking: constructivist and information-processing. The constructivist perspective, based on the work of Piaget, takes a quantitative, stage-theory approach. This view hypothesizes that adolescents’ cognitive improvement is relatively sudden and drastic. The information-processing perspective derives from the study of artificial intelligence and explains cognitive development in terms of the growth of specific components of the overall process of thinking.

Improvements in basic thinking abilities generally occur in five areas during adolescence:

  • Attention. Improvements are seen in selective attention (the process by which one focuses on one stimulus while tuning out another), as well as divided attention (the ability to pay attention to two or more stimuli at the same time).
  • Memory. Improvements are seen in working memory and long-term memory.
  • Processing Speed. Adolescents think more quickly than children. Processing speed improves sharply between age five and middle adolescence, levels off around age 15, and does not appear to change between late adolescence and adulthood.
  • Organization. Adolescents are more aware of their own thought processes and can use mnemonic devices and other strategies to think and remember information more efficiently.
  • Metacognition. Adolescents can think about thinking itself. This often involves monitoring one’s own cognitive activity during the thinking process. Metacognition provides the ability to plan ahead, see the future consequences of an action, and provide alternative explanations of events.

Formal Operational Thought

Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Table 1. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Age (years) Stage Description Developmental issues
0–2 Sensorimotor World experienced through senses and actions Object permanence
Stranger anxiety
2–7 Preoperational Use words and images to represent things but lack logical reasoning Pretend play
Egocentrism
Language development
7–11 Concrete operational Understand concrete events and logical analogies; perform arithmetical operations Conservation
Mathematical transformations
11– Formal operational Utilize abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking Abstract logic
Moral reasoning

In the last of the Piagetian stages, which is from about age 11 to adulthood, a child becomes able to reason not only about tangible objects and events but also about hypothetical or abstract ones. Hence it has the name formal operational stage—the period when the individual can “operate” on “forms” or representations. This allows an individual to think and reason with a wider perspective. This stage of cognitive development, termed by Piaget as formal operational thought, marks a movement from an ability to think and reason from concrete visible events to an ability to think hypothetically and entertain what-if possibilities about the world. An individual can solve problems through abstract concepts and utilize hypothetical and deductive reasoning. Adolescents use trial and error to solve problems, and the ability to systematically solve a problem in a logical and methodical way emerges.

Whereas children in the concrete operational stage are able to think logically only about concrete events, children in the formal operational stage can also deal with abstract ideas and hypothetical situations. Children in this stage can use abstract thinking to problem solve, look at alternative solutions, and test these solutions. In adolescence, a renewed egocentrism occurs. For example, a 15-year-old with a very small pimple on her face might think it is huge and incredibly visible, under the mistaken impression that others must share her perceptions.

FORMAL OPERATIONAL THINKING IN THE CLASSROOM

School is the main contributor in guiding students towards formal operational thought. With students at this level, the teacher can pose hypothetical (or contrary-to-fact) problems: “What if the world had never discovered oil?” or “What if the first European explorers had settled first in California instead of on the East Coast of the United States?” To answer such questions, students must use hypothetical reasoning, meaning that they must manipulate ideas that vary in several ways at once and do so entirely in their minds.

The hypothetical reasoning that concerned Piaget primarily involved scientific problems. His studies of formal operational thinking therefore often look like problems that middle or high school teachers pose in science classes. In one problem, for example, a young person is presented with a simple pendulum, to which different amounts of weight can be hung (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). The experimenter asks: “What determines how fast the pendulum swings: the length of the string holding it, the weight attached to it, or the distance that it is pulled to the side?” The young person is not allowed to solve this problem by trial-and-error with the materials themselves but must reason a way to the solution mentally. To do so systematically, he or she must imagine varying each factor separately, while also imagining the other factors that are held constant. This kind of thinking requires facility at manipulating mental representations of the relevant objects and actions—precisely the skill that defines formal operations.

As you might suspect, students with an ability to think hypothetically have an advantage in many kinds of schoolwork: by definition, they require relatively few “props” to solve problems. In this sense, they can in principle be more self-directed than students who rely only on concrete operations—certainly a desirable quality in the opinion of most teachers. Note, though, that formal operational thinking is desirable but not sufficient for school success, and that it is far from being the only way that students achieve educational success. Formal thinking skills do not ensure that a student is motivated or well-behaved, for example, nor does it guarantee other desirable skills. The fourth stage in Piaget’s theory is really about a particular kind of formal thinking, the kind needed to solve scientific problems and devise scientific experiments. Since many people do not normally deal with such problems in the normal course of their lives, it should be no surprise that research finds that many people never achieve or use formal thinking fully or consistently, or that they use it only in selected areas with which they are very familiar (Case & Okomato, 1996). For teachers, the limitations of Piaget’s ideas suggest a need for additional theories about development—ones that focus more directly on the social and interpersonal issues of childhood and adolescence.

Hypothetical and abstract thinking 

One of the major premises of formal operational thought is the capacity to think of possibility, not just reality. Adolescents’ thinking is less bound to concrete events than that of children; they can contemplate possibilities outside the realm of what currently exists. One manifestation of the adolescent’s increased facility with thinking about possibilities is the improvement of skill in deductive reasoning (also called top-down reasoning), which leads to the development of hypothetical thinking. This provides the ability to plan ahead, see the future consequences of an action, and to provide alternative explanations of events. It also makes adolescents more skilled debaters, as they can reason against a friend’s or parent’s assumptions. Adolescents also develop a more sophisticated understanding of probability.

This appearance of more systematic, abstract thinking allows adolescents to comprehend the sorts of higher-order abstract logic inherent in puns, proverbs, metaphors, and analogies. Their increased facility permits them to appreciate the ways in which language can be used to convey multiple messages, such as satire, metaphor, and sarcasm. (Children younger than age nine often cannot comprehend sarcasm at all). This also permits the application of advanced reasoning and logical processes to social and ideological matters such as interpersonal relationships, politics, philosophy, religion, morality, friendship, faith, fairness, and honesty.

Metacognition

Metacognition refers to “thinking about thinking.” It is relevant in social cognition as it results in increased introspection, self-consciousness, and intellectualization. Adolescents are much better able to understand that people do not have complete control over their mental activity. Being able to introspect may lead to forms of egocentrism, or self-focus, in adolescence.  Adolescent egocentrism is a term that David Elkind used to describe the phenomenon of adolescents’ inability to distinguish between their perception of what others think about them and what people actually think in reality. Elkind’s theory on adolescent egocentrism is drawn from Piaget’s theory on cognitive developmental stages, which argues that formal operations enable adolescents to construct imaginary situations and abstract thinking.

Accordingly, adolescents are able to conceptualize their own thoughts and conceive of other people’s thoughts. However, Elkind pointed out that adolescents tend to focus mostly on their own perceptions, especially on their behaviors and appearance, because of the “physiological metamorphosis” they experience during this period. This leads to adolescents’ belief that other people are as attentive to their behaviors and appearance as they are of themselves. According to Elkind, adolescent egocentrism results in two distinct problems in thinking: the imaginary audience and the personal fable. These likely peak at age fifteen, along with self-consciousness in general.

Imaginary audience is a term that Elkind used to describe the phenomenon that an adolescent anticipates the reactions of other people to him/herself in actual or impending social situations. Elkind argued that this kind of anticipation could be explained by the adolescent’s preoccupation that others are as admiring or as critical of them as they are of themselves. As a result, an audience is created, as the adolescent believes that they will be the focus of attention.

However, more often than not the audience is imaginary because in actual social situations individuals are not usually the sole focus of public attention. Elkind believed that the construction of imaginary audiences would partially account for a wide variety of typical adolescent behaviors and experiences, and imaginary audiences played a role in the self-consciousness that emerges in early adolescence. However, since the audience is usually the adolescent’s own construction, it is privy to his or her own knowledge of him/herself. According to Elkind, the notion of an imaginary audience helps to explain why adolescents usually seek privacy and feel reluctant to reveal themselves–it is a reaction to the feeling that one is always on stage and constantly under the critical scrutiny of others.

Elkind also addressed that adolescents have a complex set of beliefs that their own feelings are unique and they are special and immortal. Personal fable is the term Elkind created to describe this notion, which is the complement of the construction of the imaginary audience. Since an adolescent usually fails to differentiate their own perceptions and those of others, they tend to believe that they are of importance to so many people (the imaginary audiences) that they come to regard their feelings as something special and unique. They may feel that only they have experienced strong and diverse emotions, and therefore others could never understand how they feel. This uniqueness in one’s emotional experiences reinforces the adolescent’s belief of invincibility, especially to death.

This adolescent belief in personal uniqueness and invincibility becomes an illusion that they can be above some of the rules, disciplines, and laws that apply to other people; even consequences such as death (called the invincibility fable)This belief that one is invincible removes any impulse to control one’s behavior (Lin, 2016). Therefore, adolescents will engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving or unprotected sex, and feel they will not suffer any negative consequences.

Intuitive and Analytic Thinking

Piaget emphasized the sequence of thought throughout four stages. Others suggest that thinking does not develop in sequence, but instead, that advanced logic in adolescence may be influenced by intuition. Cognitive psychologists often refer to intuitive and analytic thought as the dual-process model; the notion that humans have two distinct networks for processing information (Kuhn, 2013.) Intuitive thought is automatic, unconscious, and fast, and it is more experiential and emotional.

In contrast, analytic thought is deliberate, conscious, and rational (logical). While these systems interact, they are distinct (Kuhn, 2013). Intuitive thought is easier, quicker, and more commonly used in everyday life. As discussed in the adolescent brain development section earlier in this module, the discrepancy between the maturation of the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex may make teens more prone to emotional intuitive thinking than adults. As adolescents develop, they gain in logic/analytic thinking ability and sometimes regress, with social context, education, and experiences becoming major influences. Simply put, being “smarter” as measured by an intelligence test does not advance cognition as much as having more experience, in school and in life (Klaczynski & Felmban, 2014).

Risk-taking

Because most injuries sustained by adolescents are related to risky behavior (alcohol consumption and drug use, reckless or distracted driving, and unprotected sex), a great deal of research has been done on the cognitive and emotional processes underlying adolescent risk-taking. In addressing this question, it is important to distinguish whether adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors (prevalence), whether they make risk-related decisions similarly or differently than adults (cognitive processing perspective), or whether they use the same processes but value different things and thus arrive at different conclusions. The behavioral decision-making theory proposes that adolescents and adults both weigh the potential rewards and consequences of an action. However, research has shown that adolescents seem to give more weight to rewards, particularly social rewards, than do adults. Adolescents value social warmth and friendship, and their hormones and brains are more attuned to those values than to long-term consequences (Crone & Dahl, 2012).

Four teenagers gathered around a table attempting to figure out a logic problem together.

Figure 2. Teenage thinking is characterized by the ability to reason logically and solve hypothetical problems such as how to design, plan, and build a structure. (credit: U.S. Army RDECOM)

Some have argued that there may be evolutionary benefits to an increased propensity for risk-taking in adolescence. For example, without a willingness to take risks, teenagers would not have the motivation or confidence necessary to leave their family of origin. In addition, from a population perspective, there is an advantage to having a group of individuals willing to take more risks and try new methods, counterbalancing the more conservative elements more typical of the received knowledge held by older adults.

Relativistic Thinking

Adolescents are more likely to engage in relativistic thinking—in other words, they are more likely to question others’ assertions and less likely to accept information as absolute truth. Through experience outside the family circle, they learn that rules they were taught as absolute are actually relativistic. They begin to differentiate between rules crafted from common sense (don’t touch a hot stove) and those that are based on culturally relative standards (codes of etiquette). This can lead to a period of questioning authority in all domains.

As we continue through this module, we will discuss how this influences moral reasoning, as well as psychosocial and emotional development. These more abstract developmental dimensions (cognitive, moral, emotional, and social dimensions) are not only more subtle and difficult to measure, but these developmental areas are also difficult to tease apart from one another due to the inter-relationships among them. For instance, our cognitive maturity will influence the way we understand a particular event or circumstance, which will in turn influence our moral judgments about it and our emotional responses to it. Similarly, our moral code and emotional maturity influence the quality of our social relationships with others.

School During Adolescence

LEARNING OUTCOMES

  • Describe the role of secondary education in adolescent development

Secondary Education

Large cafeteria lunch at a middle school.

Figure 1. The transition to middle school typically includes more freedom and responsibility along with more social pressures.

Adolescents spend more waking time in school than in any other context (Eccles & Roeser, 2011). Secondary education is traditionally grades 7-12 and denotes the school years after elementary school (known as primary education) and before college or university (known as tertiary education). Adolescents who complete primary education (learning to read and write) and continue on through secondary and tertiary education tend to also have better health, wealth, and family life (Rieff, 1998).[1] Because the average age of puberty has declined over the years, middle schools were created for grades 5 or 6 through 8 as a way to distinguish between early adolescence and late adolescence, especially because these adolescents different biologically, cognitively, and emotionally and definitely have different needs.

Transition to middle school is stressful and the transition is often complex. When students transition from elementary to middle school, many students are undergoing physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and moral changes (Parker, 2013).  Research suggests that early adolescence is an especially sensitive developmental period (McGill et al., 2012). Some students mature faster than others. Students who are developmentally behind typically experience more stress than their counterparts (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Consequently, they may earn lower grades and display decreased academic motivation, which may increase the rate of dropping out of school (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). For many middle school students, academic achievement slows down and behavioral problems can increase.

Specific Middle School Issues

Regardless of a student’s gender or ethnicity, middle school is challenging. Although young adolescents seem to desire independence, they also need protection, security, and structure (Brighton, 2007). Baly, Cornell, & Lovegrove (2014) found that bullying increases in middle school, particularly in the first year. Additionally, unlike elementary school, concerns arise regarding procedural changes. Just when egocentrism is at its height, students are worried about being thrown into an environment of independence and responsibility. They are expected to get to and from classes on their own, manage time wisely, organize and keep up with materials for multiple classes, be responsible for all classwork and homework from multiple teachers, and at the same time develop and maintain a social life (Meece & Eccles, 2010). Students are trying to build new friendships and maintain the ones they already have. As noted throughout this module, peer acceptance is particularly important.

Another aspect to consider is technology. Typically, adolescents get their first cell phone at about age 11, and, simultaneously, they are also expected to research items on the Internet. Social media use and texting increase dramatically and the research finds both harm and benefits to this use (Coyne et al., 2018).

TEENS, TECHNOLOGY, AND BULLYING

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems. It is a prevalent problem during the middle and high school years, exacerbated by access to technology and the means to easily spread damaging information online. These are some key statistics about bullying from StopBullying.gov:

  • Been Bullied

    • The 2017 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice) indicates that, nationwide, about 20% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying.
    • The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that, nationwide, 19% of students in grades 9–12 report being bullied on school property in the 12 months preceding the survey.
  • Bullied Others

    • Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.
  • Seen Bullying

    • 70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
    • 70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.
    • When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.
    • Pew Center Research showing that 59% of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying: name-calling (42%), spreading false rumors (32%), receiving explicit images they didn't ask for (25%), constant asking-like stalking from a non-parent (21%), physical threats (16%), and having their explicit images shared (7%).

      Figure 1. Cyberbullying comes in many forms.

  • Been Cyberbullied

    • The 2017 School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice) indicates that among students ages 12-18 who reported being bullied at school during the school year, 15% were bullied online or by text.
    • The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that an estimated 14.9% of high school students were electronically bullied in the 12 months prior to the survey.
    • Pew Center Research reports a much higher number, stating that 59% of teens have experienced cyberbullying.
  • How Often Bullied

    • In one large study, about 49% of children in grades 4–12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, whereas 30.8% reported bullying others during that time.
    • Defining “frequent” involvement in bullying as occurring two or more times within the past month, 40.6% of students reported some type of frequent involvement in bullying, with 23.2% being the youth frequently bullied, 8.0% being the youth who frequently bullied others, and 9.4% playing both roles frequently.
  • Types of Bullying

    • The most common types of bullying are verbal and social. Physical bullying happens less often. Cyberbullying happens the least frequently.
    • According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced these various types of bullying: name-calling (44.2 %); teasing (43.3 %); spreading rumors or lies (36.3%); pushing or shoving (32.4%); hitting, slapping, or kicking (29.2%); leaving out (28.5%); threatening (27.4%); stealing belongings (27.3%); sexual comments or gestures (23.7%); e-mail or blogging (9.9%).
  • Where Bullying Occurs

    • Most bullying takes place in school, outside on school grounds, and on the school bus. Bullying also happens wherever kids gather in the community. And of course, cyberbullying occurs on cell phones and online.
    • According to one large study, the following percentages of middle schools students had experienced bullying in these various places at school: classroom (29.3%); hallway or lockers (29.0%); cafeteria (23.4%); gym or PE class (19.5%); bathroom (12.2%); playground or recess (6.2%).

Many organizations, schools, teachers, parents, and lawmakers are working to address the issue of bullying. One example is that of ReThink, a technology designed by teenager Trisha Prabhu to recognize bullying online and encourage posters to reconsider their behavior (watch Trisha Prabhu’s TED talk)

High School

As adolescents enter high school, their continued cognitive development allows them to think abstractly, analytically, hypothetically, and logically, which is all formal operational thought. High school emphasizes formal thinking in an attempt to prepare graduates for college where analysis is required. Overall, high school graduation rates in the United States have increased steadily over the past decade, reaching 83.2 percent in 2016 after four years in high school (Gewertz, 2017). Additionally, many students in the United States do attend college. Unfortunately, though, about half of those who go to college leave without a degree (Kena et al., 2016). Those that do earn a degree, however, do make more money and have an easier time finding employment. The key here is understanding adolescent development and supporting teens in making decisions about college or alternatives to college after high school.

Academic Achievement

Academic achievement during adolescence is predicted by interpersonal (e.g., parental engagement in adolescents’ education), intrapersonal (e.g., intrinsic motivation), and institutional (e.g., school quality) factors. Academic achievement is important in its own right as a marker of positive adjustment during adolescence but also because academic achievement sets the stage for future educational and occupational opportunities. The most serious consequence of school failure, particularly dropping out of school, is the high risk of unemployment or underemployment in adulthood that follows. High achievement can set the stage for college or future vocational training and opportunities.

Moral Reasoning During Adolescence

LEARNING OUTCOMES

  • Describe moral development during adolescence

Moral Reasoning in Adolescence

Teen girls holding drinks at a party.

Figure 1. Adolescents’ moral development gets put to the test in real-life situations, often along with peer pressure to behave or not behave in particular ways.

As adolescents become increasingly independent, they also develop more nuanced thinking about morality, or what is right or wrong. We all make moral judgments on a daily basis. As adolescents’ cognitive, emotional, and social development continue to mature, their understanding of morality expands and their behavior becomes more closely aligned with their values and beliefs. Therefore, moral development describes the evolution of these guiding principles and is demonstrated by the ability to apply these guidelines in daily life. Understanding moral development is important in this stage where individuals make so many important decisions and gain more and more legal responsibility.

If you recall from the module on Middle Childhood, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) argued that moral development moves through a series of stages, and reasoning about morality becomes increasingly complex (somewhat in line with increasing cognitive skills, as per Piaget’s stages of cognitive development). As children develop intellectually, they pass through three stages of moral thinking: the preconventional level, the conventional level, and the postconventional level. In middle childhood into early adolescence, the child begins to care about how situational outcomes impact others and wants to please and be accepted (conventional morality). At this developmental phase, people are able to value the good that can be derived from holding to social norms in the form of laws or less formalized rules. From adolescence and beyond, adolescents begin to employ abstract reasoning to justify behaviors. Moral behavior is based on self-chosen ethical principles that are generally comprehensive and universal, such as justice, dignity, and equality, which is postconventional morality.

Influences on Moral Development

Adolescents are receptive to their culture, to the models they see at home, in school, and in the mass media. These observations influence moral reasoning and moral behavior. When children are younger, their family, culture, and religion greatly influence their moral decision-making. During the early adolescent period, peers have a much greater influence. Peer pressure can exert a powerful influence because friends play a more significant role in teens’ lives. Furthermore, the new ability to think abstractly enables youth to recognize that rules are simply created by other people. As a result, teens begin to question the absolute authority of parents, schools, government, and other traditional institutions (Vera-Estay, Dooley, & Beauchamp, 2014). By late adolescence, most teens are less rebellious as they have begun to establish their own identity, their own belief system, and their own place in the world.

Unfortunately, some adolescents have life experiences that may interfere with their moral development. Traumatic experiences may cause them to view the world as unjust and unfair. Additionally, social learning also impacts moral development. Adolescents may have observed the adults in their lives making immoral decisions that disregarded the rights and welfare of others, leading these youth to develop beliefs and values that are contrary to the rest of society. That being said, adults have opportunities to support moral development by modeling the moral character that we want to see in our children. Parents are particularly important because they are generally the original source of moral guidance. Authoritative parenting facilitates children’s moral growth better than other parenting styles and one of the most influential things a parent can do is to encourage the right kind of peer relations. While parents may find this process of moral development difficult or challenging, it is important to remember that this developmental step is essential to their children’s well-being and ultimate success in life.

LINK TO LEARNING

Parenting has the largest impact on adolescent moral development. Read more here in this article, “Building Character: Moral Development in Adolescence” from the Center for Parent and Teen Communication.

What you’ll learn to do: describe adolescent identity development and social influences on development

2 people sitting together on the grass looking at their laptops

Adolescence is a period of personal and social identity formation, in which different roles, behaviors, and ideologies are explored. In the United States, adolescence is seen as a time to develop independence from parents while remaining connected to them. Some key points related to social development during adolescence include the following:

Learning outcomes

Identity Formation

Psychosocial Development

Identity Development

Young teenagers, most wearing school uniforms, smiling outside.
Figure 1. Adolescents simultaneously struggle to fit in with their peers and to form their own unique identities.

Identity development is a stage in the adolescent life cycle. For most, the search for identity begins in the adolescent years. During these years, adolescents are more open to ‘trying on’ different behaviors and appearances to discover who they are. In an attempt to find their identity and discover who they are, adolescents are likely to cycle through a number of identities to find one that suits them best. Developing and maintaining identity (in adolescent years) is a difficult task due to multiple factors such as family life, environment, and social status. Empirical studies suggest that this process might be more accurately described as identity development, rather than formation, but confirms a normative process of change in both content and structure of one’s thoughts about the self.

Self-Concept

Two main aspects of identity development are self-concept and self-esteem. The idea of self-concept is known as the ability of a person to have opinions and beliefs that are defined confidently, consistently, and with stability. Early in adolescence, cognitive developments result in greater self-awareness, greater awareness of others and their thoughts and judgments, the ability to think about abstract, future possibilities, and the ability to consider multiple possibilities at once. As a result, adolescents experience a significant shift from the simple, concrete, and global self-descriptions typical of young children; as children, they defined themselves by physical traits whereas adolescents define themselves based on their values, thoughts, and opinions.

Adolescents can conceptualize multiple “possible selves” that they could become and the long-term possibilities and consequences of their choices. Exploring these possibilities may result in abrupt changes in self-presentation as the adolescent chooses or rejects qualities and behaviors, trying to guide the actual self toward the ideal self (who the adolescent wishes to be) and away from the feared self (who the adolescent does not want to be). For many, these distinctions are uncomfortable, but they also appear to motivate achievement through behavior consistent with the ideal and distinct from the feared possible selves.

Further distinctions in self-concept, called “differentiation,” occur as the adolescent recognizes the contextual influences on their own behavior and the perceptions of others, and begin to qualify their traits when asked to describe themselves. Differentiation appears fully developed by mid-adolescence. Peaking in the 7th-9th grades, the personality traits adolescents use to describe themselves refer to specific contexts, and therefore may contradict one another. The recognition of inconsistent content in the self-concept is a common source of distress in these years, but this distress may benefit adolescents by encouraging structural development.

Self-Esteem

Another aspect of identity formation is self-esteem. Self-esteem is defined as one’s thoughts and feelings about one’s self-concept and identity. Most theories on self-esteem state that there is a grand desire, across all genders and ages, to maintain, protect, and enhance their self-esteem. Contrary to popular belief, there is no empirical evidence for a significant drop in self-esteem over the course of adolescence. “Barometric self-esteem” fluctuates rapidly and can cause severe distress and anxiety, but baseline self-esteem remains highly stable across adolescence. The validity of global self-esteem scales has been questioned, and many suggest that more specific scales might reveal more about the adolescent experience. Girls are most likely to enjoy high self-esteem when engaged in supportive relationships with friends, the most important function of friendship to them is having someone who can provide social and moral support. When they fail to win friends’ approval or can’t find someone with whom to share common activities and common interests, in these cases, girls suffer from low self-esteem.

In contrast, boys are more concerned with establishing and asserting their independence and defining their relation to authority. As such, they are more likely to derive high self-esteem from their ability to successfully influence their friends; on the other hand, the lack of romantic competence, for example, failure to win or maintain the affection of the opposite or same-sex (depending on sexual orientation), is the major contributor to low self-esteem in adolescent boys.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Development: Identity vs. confusion (Fidelity)

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions
Table

Adolescents continue to refine their sense of self as they relate to others. Erik Erikson referred to life’s fifth psychosocial task as one of identity versus role confusion when adolescents must work through the complexities of finding one’s own identity. Individuals are influenced by how they resolved all of the previous childhood psychosocial crises and this adolescent stage is a bridge between the past and the future, between childhood and adulthood. Thus, in Erikson’s view, an adolescent’s main questions are “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” Identity formation was highlighted as the primary indicator of successful development during adolescence (in contrast to role confusion, which would be an indicator of not successfully meeting the task of adolescence). This crisis is resolved positively with identity achievement and the gain of fidelity (ability to be faithful) as a new virtue when adolescents have reconsidered the goals and values of their parents and culture. Some adolescents adopt the values and roles that their parents expect for them. Other teens develop identities that are in opposition to their parents but align with a peer group. This is common as peer relationships become a central focus in adolescents’ lives.

Along the way, most adolescents try on many different selves to see which ones fit; they explore various roles and ideas, set goals, and attempt to discover their adult selves. Adolescents who are successful at this stage have a strong sense of identity and are able to remain true to their beliefs and values in the face of problems and other people’s perspectives. When adolescents are apathetic, do not make a conscious search for identity, or are pressured to conform to their parents’ ideas for the future, they may develop a weak sense of self and experience role confusion. They will be unsure of their identity and confused about the future. Teenagers who struggle to adopt a positive role will likely struggle to find themselves as adults.

Identity Formation: Who am I?

Expanding on Erikson’s theory, Marcia (1966) described identity formation during adolescence as involving both decision points and commitments with respect to ideologies (e.g., religion, politics) and occupations. Foreclosure occurs when an individual commits to an identity without exploring options. Identity confusion/diffusion occurs when adolescents neither explore nor commit to any identities. Moratorium is a state in which adolescents are actively exploring options but have not yet made commitments. As mentioned earlier, individuals who have explored different options, discovered their purpose, and have made identity commitments are in a state of identity achievement.

Developmental psychologists have researched several different areas of identity development and some of the main areas include:

Gender Identity and Transgender Individuals

Individuals who identify with a role that is different from their biological sex are called transgender. Approximately 1.4 million U.S. adults or .6 percent of the population are transgender according to a 2016 report.

Transgender individuals may choose to alter their bodies through medical interventions such as surgery and hormonal therapy so that their physical being is better aligned with gender identity. They may also be known as male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM). Not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies; many will maintain their original anatomy but may present themselves to society as another gender. This is typically done by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristics typically assigned to another gender. It is important to note that people who cross-dress or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to a different gender is not the same as identifying as trans. Cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression, entertainment, or personal style, and it is not necessarily an expression against one’s assigned gender (APA 2008).

After years of controversy over the treatment of sex and gender in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (Drescher 2010), the most recent edition, DSM-5, responds to allegations that the term “gender identity disorder” is stigmatizing by replacing it with “gender dysphoria.” Gender identity disorder as a diagnostic category stigmatized the patient by implying there was something “disordered” about them. Gender dysphoria, on the other hand, removes some of that stigma by taking the word “disorder” out while maintaining a category that will protect patient access to care, including hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. In the DSM-5, gender dysphoria is a condition of people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with. For a person to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months. In children, the desire to be of the other gender must be present and verbalized (APA 2013).

Changing the clinical description may contribute to a larger acceptance of transgender people in society. A 2017 poll showed that 54 percent of Americans believe gender is determined by sex at birth and 32 percent say society has”gone too far” in accepting transgender people; views are sharply divided along political and religious lines.

Studies show that people who identify as transgender are twice as likely to experience assault or discrimination as nontransgender individuals; they are also one and a half times more likely to experience intimidation (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 2010; Giovanniello 2013). Trans women of color are most likely be to victims of abuse. A practice called “deadnaming” by the American Civil Liberties Union, whereby trans people who are murdered are referred to by their birth name and gender is a discriminatory tool that effectively erases a person’s trans identity and also prevents investigations into their deaths and knowledge of their deaths. Organizations such as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and Global Action for Trans Equality work to prevent, respond to, and end all types of violence against transgender and homosexual individuals. These organizations hope that by educating the public about gender identity and empowering transgender individuals, this violence will end.

Social Development during Adolescence

Parents

It appears that most teens do not experience adolescent storm and stress to the degree once famously suggested by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the study of adolescent development. Only small numbers of teens have major conflicts with their parents (Steinberg & Morris, 2001), and most disagreements are minor. For example, in a study of over 1,800 parents of adolescents from various cultural and ethnic groups, Barber (1994) found that conflicts occurred over day-to-day issues such as homework, money, curfews, clothing, chores, and friends. These disputes occur because an adolescent’s drive for independence and autonomy conflicts with the parent’s supervision and control. These types of arguments tend to decrease as teens develop (Galambos & Almeida, 1992).

As adolescents work to form their identities, they pull away from their parents, and the peer group becomes very important (Shanahan, McHale, Osgood, & Crouter, 2007). Despite spending less time with their parents, most teens report positive feelings toward them (Moore, Guzman, Hair, Lippman, & Garrett, 2004). Warm and healthy parent-child relationships have been associated with positive child outcomes, such as better grades and fewer school behavior problems, in the United States as well as in other countries (Hair et al., 2005).

Although peers take on greater importance during adolescence, family relationships remain important too. One of the key changes during adolescence involves a renegotiation of parent-child relationships. As adolescents strive for more independence and autonomy during this time, different aspects of parenting become more salient. For example, parents’ distal supervision and monitoring become more important as adolescents spend more time away from parents and in the presence of peers. Parental monitoring encompasses a wide range of behaviors such as parents’ attempts to set rules and know their adolescents’ friends, activities, and whereabouts, in addition to adolescents’ willingness to disclose information to their parents. (Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Psychological control, which involves manipulation and intrusion into adolescents’ emotional and cognitive world through invalidating adolescents’ feelings and pressuring them to think in particular ways is another aspect of parenting that becomes more salient during adolescence and is related to more problematic adolescent adjustment.

Peers

Two groups of teenage girls, most of whom are wearing head scarves, sitting and chatting on some steps.
Figure 3. Crowds refer to different collections of people, like the “theater kids” or the “environmentalists.” In a way, they are kind of like clothing brands that label the people associated with that crowd. [Image: Garry Knight]

As children become adolescents, they usually begin spending more time with their peers and less time with their families, and these peer interactions are increasingly unsupervised by adults. Children’s notions of friendship often focus on shared activities, whereas adolescents’ notions of friendship increasingly focus on intimate exchanges of thoughts and feelings.

During adolescence, peer groups evolve from primarily single-sex to mixed-sex. Adolescents within a peer group tend to be similar to one another in behavior and attitudes, which has been explained as being a function of homophily (adolescents who are similar to one another choose to spend time together in a “birds of a feather flock together” way) and influence (adolescents who spend time together shape each other’s behavior and attitudes). Peer pressure is usually depicted as peers pushing a teenager to do something that adults disapprove of, such as breaking laws or using drugs. One of the most widely studied aspects of adolescent peer influence is known as deviant peer contagion (Dishion & Tipsord, 2011), which is the process by which peers reinforce problem behavior by laughing or showing other signs of approval that then increase the likelihood of future problem behavior. Although deviant peer contagion is more extreme, regular peer pressure is not always harmful. Peers can serve both positive and negative functions during adolescence. Negative peer pressure can lead adolescents to make riskier decisions or engage in more problematic behavior than they would alone or in the presence of their family. For example, adolescents are much more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, and commit crimes when they are with their friends than when they are alone or with their family. However, peers also serve as an important source of social support and companionship during adolescence, and adolescents with positive peer relationships are happier and better adjusted than those who are socially isolated or who have conflictual peer relationships.

Crowds are an emerging level of peer relationships in adolescence. In contrast to friendships (which are reciprocal dyadic relationships) and cliques (which refer to groups of individuals who interact frequently), crowds are characterized more by shared reputations or images than actual interactions (Brown & Larson, 2009). These crowds reflect different prototypic identities (such as jocks or brains) and are often linked with adolescents’ social status and peers’ perceptions of their values or behaviors.

Link to Learning: Gender Roles

It is interesting to note that even in today’s progressive social climate and with advances in gender equality, there are still considerable differences in the ways teenage boys and girls spend their time, as shown in 2019 research by the Pew Research Center. During the school year, teenage boys spend an average of 24 minutes a day helping around the house and 12 minutes preparing food, while teenage girls spend an average of 38 minutes a day helping around the house and 29 minutes preparing food. Both boys and girls spend more equal amounts of time on maintenance chores and lawn care. Girls also spend an average of 23 more minutes on grooming each day, which is perhaps explained by the fact that 35% of girls say they feel pressure to look good (compared with 23% of boys). Read the article “The Way U.S. Teens Spend Their Time is Changing, but Differences Between Boys and Girls Persist” to learn more.

Romantic relationships

Adolescence is the developmental period during which romantic relationships typically first emerge. Initially, same-sex peer groups that were common during childhood expand into mixed-sex peer groups that are more characteristic of adolescence. Romantic relationships often form in the context of these mixed-sex peer groups (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000). Although romantic relationships during adolescence are often short-lived rather than long-term committed partnerships, their importance should not be minimized. Adolescents spend a great deal of time focused on romantic relationships, and their positive and negative emotions are more tied to romantic relationships (or lack thereof) than to friendships, family relationships, or school (Furman & Shaffer, 2003). Romantic relationships contribute to adolescents’ identity formation, changes in family and peer relationships, and adolescents’ emotional and behavioral adjustment.

Furthermore, romantic relationships are centrally connected to adolescents’ emerging sexuality. Parents, policymakers, and researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to adolescents’ sexuality, in large part because of concerns related to sexual intercourse, contraception, and preventing teen pregnancies. However, sexuality involves more than this narrow focus. Sexual orientation refers to whether a person is sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. For example, adolescence is often when individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender come to perceive themselves as such (Russell, Clarke, & Clary, 2009). Thus, romantic relationships are a domain in which adolescents experiment with new behaviors and identities.

Many adolescents may choose to come out during this period of their life once an identity has been formed; many others may go through a period of questioning or denial, which can include experimentation with both homosexual and heterosexual experiences. A study of 194 lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths under the age of 21 found that having an awareness of one’s sexual orientation occurred, on average, around age 10, but the process of coming out to peers and adults occurred around age 16 and 17, respectively. Coming to terms with and creating a positive LGBT identity can be difficult for some youth for a variety of reasons. Peer pressure is a large factor when youth who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity are surrounded by heteronormative peers and can cause great distress due to a feeling of being different from everyone else. While coming out can also foster better psychological adjustment, the risks associated are real. Indeed, coming out in the midst of a heteronormative peer environment often comes with the risk of ostracism, hurtful jokes, and even violence. Because of this, statistically, the suicide rate amongst LGBT adolescents is up to four times higher than that of their heterosexual peers due to bullying and rejection from peers or family members.

DIG DEEPER: Stress and Discrimination

Being the recipient of prejudice and discrimination is associated with a number of negative outcomes. Many studies have shown how perceived discrimination is a significant stressor for marginalized groups (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009). Discrimination negatively impacts both the physical and mental health of individuals in stigmatized groups. As you’ll learn when you study social psychology, various social identities (such as gender, age, religion, sexuality, ethnicity) often lead people to simultaneously be exposed to multiple forms of discrimination, which can have even stronger negative effects on mental and physical health (Vines, Ward, Cordoba, & Black, 2017). For example, the amplified levels of discrimination faced by Latinx transgender women may have related effects, leading to high-stress levels and poor mental and physical health outcomes.

Perceived control and the general adaptation syndrome help explain the process by which discrimination affects mental and physical health. Discrimination can be conceptualized as an uncontrollable, persistent, and unpredictable stressor. When a discriminatory event occurs, the target of the event initially experiences an acute stress response (alarm stage). This acute reaction alone does not typically have a great impact on health. However, discrimination tends to be a chronic stressor. As people in marginalized groups experience repeated discrimination, they develop a heightened reactivity as their bodies prepare to act quickly (resistance stage). This long-term accumulation of stress responses can eventually lead to increases in negative emotion and wear on physical health (exhaustion stage). This explains why a history of perceived discrimination is associated with a host of mental and physical health problems including depression, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009).

Protecting stigmatized groups from the negative impact of discrimination-induced stress may involve reducing the incidence of discriminatory behaviors in conjunction with protective strategies that reduce the impact of discriminatory events when they occur. Civil rights legislation has protected some stigmatized groups by making discrimination a prosecutable offense in many social contexts. However, some groups (e.g., transgender people) often lack important legal recourse when discrimination occurs. Moreover, most modern discrimination comes in subtle forms that fall below the radar of the law. For example, discrimination may be experienced as selective inhospitality that the target perceives as race-based discrimination, but little is done in response since it would be easy to attribute the behavior to other causes. Although some cultural changes are increasingly helping people to recognize and control subtle discrimination, such shifts may take a long time.

Similar to other stressors, buffers like social support and healthy coping strategies appear to be effective in lowering the impact of perceived discrimination. For example, one study (Ajrouch, Reisine, Lim, Sohn, & Ismail, 2010) showed that discrimination predicted high psychological distress among African American mothers living in Detroit. However, the women who had readily available emotional support from friends and family experienced less distress than those with fewer social resources. While coping strategies and social support may buffer the effects of discrimination, they fail to erase all of the negative impacts. Vigilant anti-discrimination efforts, including the development of legal protections for vulnerable groups, are needed to reduce discrimination, stress, and the resulting physical and mental health effects.

 

Diversity

Adolescent development does not necessarily follow the same pathway for all individuals. Certain features of adolescence, particularly with respect to biological changes associated with puberty and cognitive changes associated with brain development, are relatively universal. But other features of adolescence depend largely on circumstances that are more environmentally variable. For example, adolescents growing up in one country might have different opportunities for risk-taking than adolescents in another country, and supports and sanctions for different behaviors in adolescence depend on laws and values that might be specific to where adolescents live. Likewise, different cultural norms regarding family and peer relationships shape adolescents’ experiences in these domains. For example, in some countries, adolescents’ parents are expected to retain control over major decisions, whereas, in other countries, adolescents are expected to begin sharing in or taking control of decision making.

Even within the same country, adolescents’ gender, ethnicity, immigrant status, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and personality can shape both how adolescents behave and how others respond to them, creating diverse developmental contexts for different adolescents. For example, early puberty (that occurs before most other peers have experienced puberty) appears to be associated with worse outcomes for girls than boys, likely in part because girls who enter puberty early tend to associate with older boys, which in turn is associated with early sexual behavior and substance use. For adolescents who are ethnic or sexual minorities, discrimination sometimes presents a set of challenges that non-minorities do not face.

Finally, genetic variations contribute an additional source of diversity in adolescence. Current approaches emphasize gene X environment interactions, which often follow a differential susceptibility model (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). That is, particular genetic variations are considered riskier than others, but genetic variations also can make adolescents more or less susceptible to environmental factors. For example, the association between the CHRM2 genotype and adolescent externalizing behavior (aggression and delinquency) has been found in adolescents whose parents are low in monitoring behaviors (Dick et al., 2011). Thus, it is important to bear in mind that individual differences play an important role in adolescent development.

Behavioral and Psychological Adjustment

Young teenager holding his fists out ready to punch the photographer.
Figure 4. Early antisocial behavior leads to befriending others who also engage in antisocial behavior, which only perpetuates the downward cycle of aggression and wrongful acts. [Image: Philippe Put]

Aggression and Antisocial Behavior

Several major theories of the development of antisocial behavior treat adolescence as an important period. Patterson’s (1982)nearly versus late starter model of the development of aggressive and antisocial behavior distinguishes youths whose antisocial behavior begins during childhood (early starters) versus adolescence (late starters). According to the theory, early starters are at greater risk for long-term antisocial behavior that extends into adulthood than are late starters. Late starters who become antisocial during adolescence are theorized to experience poor parental monitoring and supervision, aspects of parenting that become more salient during adolescence. Poor monitoring and lack of supervision contribute to increasing involvement with deviant peers, which in turn promotes adolescents’ own antisocial behavior. Late starters desist from antisocial behavior when changes in the environment make other options more appealing.

Similarly, Moffitt’s (1993) life-course persistent versus adolescent-limited model distinguishes between antisocial behavior that begins in childhood versus adolescence. Moffitt regards adolescent-limited antisocial behavior as resulting from a “maturity gap” between adolescents’ dependence on and control by adults and their desire to demonstrate their freedom from adult constraint. However, as they continue to develop, and legitimate adult roles and privileges become available to them, there are fewer incentives to engage in antisocial behavior, leading to resistance in these antisocial behaviors.

Anxiety and Depression

Developmental models of anxiety and depression also treat adolescence as an important period, especially in terms of the emergence of gender differences in prevalence rates that persist through adulthood (Rudolph, 2009). Starting in early adolescence, compared with males, females have rates of anxiety that are about twice as high and rates of depression that are 1.5 to 3 times as high (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Although the rates vary across specific anxiety and depression diagnoses, rates for some disorders are markedly higher in adolescence than in childhood or adulthood. For example, prevalence rates for specific phobias are about 5% in children and 3%–5% in adults but 16% in adolescents. Additionally, some adolescents sink into a major depression, a deep sadness, and hopelessness that disrupts all normal, regular activities. Causes include many factors such as genetics and early childhood experiences that predate adolescence, but puberty may push vulnerable children, especially girls into despair.

During puberty, the rate of major depression more than doubles to an estimated 15%, affecting about one in five girls and one in ten boys. The gender difference occurs for many reasons, biological and cultural (Uddin et al., 2010). Anxiety and depression are particularly concerning because suicide is one of the leading causes of death during adolescence. Some adolescents experience suicidal ideation (distressing thoughts about killing oneself) which becomes most common at about age 15 (Berger, 2019) and can lead to parasuicide, also called attempted suicide or failed suicide. Suicidal ideation and parasuicide should be taken seriously and serve as a warning that emotions may be overwhelming.

Developmental models focus on interpersonal contexts in both childhood and adolescence that foster depression and anxiety (e.g., Rudolph, 2009). Family adversity, such as abuse and parental psychopathology, during childhood, sets the stage for social and behavioral problems during adolescence. Adolescents with such problems generate stress in their relationships (e.g., by resolving conflict poorly and excessively seeking reassurance) and select into more maladaptive social contexts (e.g., “misery loves company” scenarios in which depressed youths select other depressed youths as friends and then frequently co-ruminate as they discuss their problems, exacerbating negative affect and stress). These processes are intensified for girls compared with boys because girls have more relationship-oriented goals related to intimacy and social approval, leaving them more vulnerable to disruption in these relationships. Anxiety and depression then exacerbate problems in social relationships, which in turn contribute to the stability of anxiety and depression over time.

A group of people facing the sunrise with their arms in the air

Adolescent development is characterized by significant biological, cognitive, and psychosocial changes. Physical changes associated with puberty are triggered by hormones and changes in the brain in which reward-processing centers develop more rapidly than cognitive control systems, making adolescents more sensitive to rewards than to possible negative consequences. Cognitive changes include improvements in complex and abstract thought and moral reasoning. Psychosocial changes are particularly notable as adolescents become more autonomous from their parents, spend more time with peers, and begin exploring romantic relationships and sexuality.  

Adjustment during adolescence is reflected in identity formation, which often involves a period of exploration followed by commitments to particular identities. Adolescents’ relationships with parents go through a period of redefinition in which adolescents become more autonomous, and aspects of parenting, such as monitoring and psychological control, become more salient. Peer relationships are important sources of support and companionship during adolescence, yet can also promote problem behaviors. Same-sex peer groups evolve into mixed-sex peer groups, and adolescents’ romantic relationships tend to emerge from these groups. Identity formation occurs as adolescents explore and commit to different roles and ideological positions. Despite these generalizations, factors such as country of residence, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation shape development in ways that lead to a diversity of experiences across adolescence. 

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Chapter 8: Emerging Adulthood

8

Why learn about development changes during emerging adulthood?

Emerging adulthood has been proposed as a new life stage between adolescence and young adulthood, lasting roughly from ages 18 to 25. Five features make emerging adulthood distinctive: identity explorations, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between adolescence and adulthood, and a sense of broad possibilities for the future. Emerging adulthood is found mainly in industrialized countries, where most young people obtain tertiary education and median ages of entering marriage and parenthood are around 30. There are variations in emerging adulthood within industrialized countries. It lasts longest in Europe, and in Asian industrialized countries, the self-focused freedom of emerging adulthood is balanced by obligations to parents and by conservative views of sexuality. In non-industrialized countries, although today emerging adulthood exists only among the middle-class elite, it can be expected to grow in the 21st century as these countries become more affluent.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain where, when, and why a new life stage of emerging adulthood appeared over the past half-century.
  • Identify the five features that distinguish emerging adulthood from other life stages.
  • Describe the variations in emerging adulthood in countries around the world.

What you’ll learn to do: explain developmental tasks during emerging adulthood

Think for a moment about the lives of your grandparents and great-grandparents when they were in their twenties. How do their lives at that age compare to your life? If they were like most other people of their time, their lives were quite different than yours. What happened to change the twenties so much between their time and our own? And how should we understand the 18–25 age period today?

A group of young people participating in a US-based Gap Year program called City Year.
In industrialized countries, young people just out of high school and into their 20’s are spending more time experimenting with potential directions for their lives. This new way of transitioning into adulthood is different enough from generations past that it is considered a new developmental phase – Emerging Adulthood. [Image: City Year, https://goo.gl/1ZGKWw, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://goo.gl/62XJAl]

The theory of emerging adulthood proposes that a new life stage has arisen between adolescence and young adulthood over the past half-century in industrialized countries. Fifty years ago, most young people in these countries had entered stable adult roles in love and work by their late teens or early twenties. Relatively few people pursued education or training beyond secondary school, and, consequently, most young men were full-time workers by the end of their teens. Relatively few women worked in occupations outside the home, and the median marriage age for women in the United States and in most other industrialized countries in 1960 was around 20 (Arnett & Taber, 1994; Douglass, 2005). The median marriage age for men was around 22, and married couples usually had their first child about one year after their wedding day. All told, for most young people half a century ago, their teenage adolescence led quickly and directly to stable adult roles in love and work by their late teens or early twenties. These roles would form the structure of their adult lives for decades to come.

Now, all that has changed. A higher proportion of young people than ever before—about 70% in the United States—pursue education and training beyond secondary school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). The early twenties are not a time of entering stable adult work but a time of immense job instability: In the United States, the average number of job changes from ages 20 to 29 is seven. The median age of entering marriage in the United States is now 27 for women and 29 for men (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). Consequently, a new stage of the life span, emerging adulthood, has been created, lasting from the late teens through the mid-twenties, roughly ages 18 to 25.

The Five Features of Emerging Adulthood

Five characteristics distinguish emerging adulthood from other life stages (Arnett, 2004). Emerging adulthood is:

  1. the age of identity explorations;
  2. the age of instability;
  3. the self-focused age;
  4. the age of feeling in-between; and
  5. the age of possibilities.
A group of fashion forward young men.
The years of emerging adulthood are often times of identity exploration through work, fashion, music, education, and other venues. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of emerging adulthood is that it is the age of identity explorations. That is, it is an age when people explore various possibilities in love and work as they move toward making enduring choices. Through trying out these different possibilities, they develop a more definite identity, including an understanding of who they are, what their capabilities and limitations are, what their beliefs and values are, and how they fit into the society around them. Erik Erikson (1950), who was the first to develop the idea of identity, proposed that it is mainly an issue in adolescence; but that was more than 50 years ago, and today it is mainly in emerging adulthood that identity explorations take place (Côté, 2006).

The explorations of emerging adulthood also make it the age of instability. As emerging adults explore different possibilities in love and work, their lives are often unstable. A good illustration of this instability is their frequent moves from one residence to another. Rates of residential change in American society are much higher at ages 18 to 29 than at any other period of life (Arnett, 2004). This reflects the explorations going on in emerging adults’ lives. Some move out of their parents’ household for the first time in their late teens to attend a residential college, whereas others move out simply to be independent (Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999). They may move again when they drop out of college or when they graduate. They may move to cohabit with a romantic partner and then move out when the relationship ends. Some move to another part of the country or the world to study or work. For nearly half of American emerging adults, residential change includes moving back in with their parents at least once (Goldscheider & Goldscheider, 1999). In some countries, such as in southern Europe, emerging adults remain in their parents’ home rather than move out; nevertheless, they may still experience instability in education, work, and love relationships (Douglass, 2005, 2007).

Emerging adulthood is also a self-focused age. Most American emerging adults move out of their parents’ home at age 18 or 19 and do not marry or have their first child until at least their late twenties (Arnett, 2004). Even in countries where emerging adults remain in their parents’ home through their early twenties, as in southern Europe and in Asian countries such as Japan, they establish a more independent lifestyle than they had as adolescents (Rosenberger, 2007). Emerging adulthood is a time between adolescents’ reliance on parents and adults’ long-term commitments in love and work, and during these years, emerging adults focus on themselves as they develop the knowledge, skills, and self-understanding they will need for adult life. In the course of emerging adulthood, they learn to make independent decisions about everything from what to have for dinner to whether or not to get married.

Another distinctive feature of emerging adulthood is that it is an age of feeling in-between, not adolescent but not fully adult, either. When asked, “Do you feel that you have reached adulthood?” the majority of emerging adults respond neither yes nor no but with the ambiguous “in some ways yes, in some ways no” (Arnett, 2003, 2012). It is only when people reach their late twenties and early thirties that a clear majority feels adult. Most emerging adults have the subjective feeling of being in a transitional period of life, on the way to adulthood but not there yet. This “in-between” feeling in emerging adulthood has been found in a wide range of countries, including Argentina (Facio & Micocci, 2003), Austria (Sirsch, Dreher, Mayr, & Willinger, 2009), Israel (Mayseless & Scharf, 2003), the Czech Republic (Macek, Bejček, & Vaníčková, 2007), and China (Nelson & Chen, 2007).

Finally, emerging adulthood is the age of possibilities, when many different futures remain possible, and when little about a person’s direction in life has been decided for certain. It tends to be an age of high hopes and great expectations, in part because few of their dreams have been tested in the fires of real life. In one national survey of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States, nearly all—89%—agreed with the statement, “I am confident that one day I will get to where I want to be in life” (Arnett & Schwab, 2012). This optimism in emerging adulthood has been found in other countries as well (Nelson & Chen, 2007).

International Variations

The five features proposed in the theory of emerging adulthood originally were based on research involving about 300 Americans between ages 18 and 29 from various ethnic groups, social classes, and geographical regions (Arnett, 2004). To what extent does the theory of emerging adulthood apply internationally?

The answer to this question depends greatly on what part of the world is considered. Demographers make a useful distinction between the non-industrialized countries that comprise the majority of the world’s population and the industrialized countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including the United States, Canada, western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The current population of OECD countries (also called industrialized countries) is 1.2 billion, about 18% of the total world population (UNDP, 2011). The rest of the human population resides in non-industrialized countries, which have much lower median incomes; much lower median educational attainment; and much higher incidence of illness, disease, and early death. Let us consider emerging adulthood in OECD countries first, then in non-industrialized countries.

A map of OECD countries described in the preceding paragraph.
Map of OECD countries. Darker shaded countries are original members. [Image: Parastscilveks, https://goo.gl/Mlvm0Y, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/eH69he]

EA in OECD Countries: The Advantages of Affluence

The same demographic changes as described above for the United States have taken place in other OECD countries as well. This is true of participation in postsecondary education as well as median ages for entering marriage and parenthood (UN data, 2010). However, there is also substantial variability in how emerging adulthood is experienced across OECD countries. Europe is the region where emerging adulthood is the longest and most leisurely. The median ages for entering marriage and parenthood are near 30 in most European countries (Douglass, 2007). Europe today is the location of the most affluent, generous, and egalitarian societies in the world—in fact, in human history (Arnett, 2007). Governments pay for tertiary education, assist young people in finding jobs, and provide generous unemployment benefits for those who cannot find work. In northern Europe, many governments also provide housing support. Emerging adults in European societies make the most of these advantages, gradually making their way to adulthood during their twenties while enjoying travel and leisure with friends.

The lives of Asian emerging adults in industrialized countries such as Japan and South Korea are in some ways similar to the lives of emerging adults in Europe and in some ways strikingly different. Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults tend to enter marriage and parenthood around age 30 (Arnett, 2011). Like European emerging adults, Asian emerging adults in Japan and South Korea enjoy the benefits of living in affluent societies with generous social welfare systems that provide support for them in making the transition to adulthood—for example, free university education and substantial unemployment benefits.

However, in other ways, the experience of emerging adulthood in Asian OECD countries is markedly different than in Europe. Europe has a long history of individualism, and today’s emerging adults carry that legacy with them in their focus on self-development and leisure during emerging adulthood. In contrast, Asian cultures have a shared cultural history emphasizing collectivism and family obligations. Although Asian cultures have become more individualistic in recent decades as a consequence of globalization, the legacy of collectivism persists in the lives of emerging adults. They pursue identity explorations and self-development during emerging adulthood, like their American and European counterparts, but within narrower boundaries set by their sense of obligations to others, especially their parents (Phinney & Baldelomar, 2011). For example, in their views of the most important criteria for becoming an adult, emerging adults in the United States and Europe consistently rank financial independence among the most important markers of adulthood. In contrast, emerging adults with an Asian cultural background especially emphasize becoming capable of supporting parents financially as among the most important criteria (Arnett, 2003; Nelson, Badger, & Wu, 2004). This sense of family obligation may curtail their identity explorations in emerging adulthood to some extent, as they pay more heed to their parents’ wishes about what they should study, what job they should take, and where they should live than emerging adults do in the West (Rosenberger, 2007).

Another notable contrast between Western and Asian emerging adults is in their sexuality. In the West, premarital sex is normative by the late teens, more than a decade before most people enter marriage. In the United States and Canada, and in northern and eastern Europe, cohabitation is also normative; most people have at least one cohabiting partnership before marriage. In southern Europe, cohabiting is still taboo, but premarital sex is tolerated in emerging adulthood. In contrast, both premarital sex and cohabitation remain rare and forbidden throughout Asia. Even dating is discouraged until the late twenties when it would be a prelude to a serious relationship leading to marriage. In cross-cultural comparisons, about three-fourths of emerging adults in the United States and Europe report having had premarital sexual relations by age 20, versus less than one fifth in Japan and South Korea (Hatfield & Rapson, 2006).

EA in Non-Industrialized Countries: Low But Rising

Emerging adulthood is well established as a normative life stage in the industrialized countries described thus far, but it is still growing in non-industrialized countries. Demographically, in non-industrialized countries as in OECD countries, the median ages for entering marriage and parenthood have been rising in recent decades, and an increasing proportion of young people have obtained post-secondary education. Nevertheless, currently, it is only a minority of young people in non-industrialized countries who experience anything resembling emerging adulthood. The majority of the population still marries around age 20 and has long finished education by the late teens. As you can see in Figure 1, rates of enrollment in tertiary education are much lower in non-industrialized countries (represented by the five countries on the right) than in OECD countries (represented by the five countries on the left).

This figure shows the gross enrollment of students in higher education by sex for 10 nations. Males are better represented in South Korea, India, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Females are better represented in Finland, the USA, Spain, and Canada. The ratio is equal in China. In general, the more affluent, industrialized countries have higher rates of overall enrollment.
Figure 1: Gross tertiary enrollment, selected countries, 2007. Source: UNdata (2010). Note. Gross enrollment ratio is the total enrollment in a specific level of education, regardless of age, expressed as a percentage of the eligible official school-age population corresponding to the same level of education in a given school year. For the tertiary level, the population used is that of the five-year age group following the end of secondary schooling.

For young people in non-industrialized countries, emerging adulthood exists only for the wealthier segment of society, mainly the urban middle class, whereas the rural and urban poor—the majority of the population—have no emerging adulthood and may even have no adolescence because they enter adult-like work at an early age and also begin marriage and parenthood relatively early. What Saraswathi and Larson (2002) observed about adolescence applies to emerging adulthood as well: “In many ways, the lives of middle-class youth in India, South East Asia, and Europe have more in common with each other than they do with those of poor youth in their own countries.” However, as globalization proceeds, and economic development along with it, the proportion of young people who experience emerging adulthood will increase as the middle class expands. By the end of the 21st century, emerging adulthood is likely to be normative worldwide.

Education and Work

Education in Early Adulthood

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2017), 90 percent of the American population 25 and older have completed high school or higher level of education—compare this to just 24 percent in 1940! Each generation tends to earn (and perhaps need) increased levels of formal education. As we can see in the graph, approximately one-third of the American adult population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, as compared with less than 5 percent in 1940. Educational attainment rates vary by gender and race. In all races combined, women are slightly more likely to have graduated from college than men; that gap widens with graduate and professional degrees. However, wide racial disparities still exist. For example, 23 percent of African-Americans have a college degree and only 16.4 percent of Hispanic Americans have a college degree, compared to 37 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans. The college graduation rates of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans have been growing in recent years, however (the rate has doubled since 1991 for African-Americans and it has increased 60 percent in the last two decades for Hispanic-Americans).

Line graph showing highest educational attainment levels since 1940. In 1940 4.6% of adults over 25 had a bachelor's degree and then 33.4% in 2016.
Figure 2. Since 1940, there has been a significant rise in educational attainment for adults over age 25.
What about those young or emerging adults graduating high school today—is the majority of that group going to college? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017), 66.7 percent of youth ages 16-24 who graduated high school between January and October 2017 were enrolled in colleges or universities in October 2017. There were gender differences (71.7 percent of females vs. 61.1 percent of males) and racial differences (83 percent of Asians, 67.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 61 percent Hispanics, and 59.4 percent Blacks). Not all of these students will persist and earn college degrees, however.

Education and the Workplace

With the rising costs of higher education, various news headlines have asked if a college education is worth the cost. One way to address this question is in terms of the earning potential associated with various levels of educational achievement. In 2016, the average earnings for Americans 25 and older with only a high school education was $35,615, compared with $65,482 for those with a bachelor’s degree, compared with $92,525 for those with more advanced degrees. Average earnings vary by gender, race, and geographical location in the United States.

Of concern in recent years is the relationship between higher education and the workplace. In 2005, American educator and then Harvard University President, Derek Bok, called for a closer alignment between the goals of educators and the demands of the economy. Companies outsource much of their work, not only to save costs but to find workers with the skills they need. What is required to do well in today’s economy? Colleges and universities, he argued, need to promote global awareness, critical thinking skills, the ability to communicate, moral reasoning, and responsibility in their students. Regional accrediting agencies and state organizations provide similar guidelines for educators. Workers need skills in listening, reading, writing, speaking, global awareness, critical thinking, civility, and computer literacy—all skills that enhance success in the workplace.

More than a decade later, the question remains: does formal education prepare young adults for the workplace? It depends on whom you ask. In an article referring to information from the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2018 Job Outlook Survey, Bauer-Wolf (2018) explains that employers perceive gaps in students’ competencies but many graduating college seniors are overly confident. The biggest difference was in perceived professionalism and work ethic (only 43 percent of employers thought that students are competent in this area compared to 90 percent of the students). Similar differences were also found in terms of oral communication, written communication, and critical thinking skills. Only in terms of digital technology skills were more employers confident about students’ competencies than were the students (66 percent compared to 60 percent).

It appears that students need to learn what some call “soft skills,” as well as the particular knowledge and skills within their college major. As education researcher Loni Bordoloi Pazich (2018) noted, most American college students today are enrolling in business or other pre-professional programs and to be effective and successful workers and leaders, they would benefit from the communication, teamwork, and critical thinking skills, as well as the content knowledge, gained from liberal arts education. In fact, two-thirds of children starting primary school now will be employed in jobs in the future that currently do not exist. Therefore, students cannot learn every single skill or fact that they may need to know, but they can learn how to learn, think, research, and communicate well so that they are prepared to continually learn new things and adapt effectively in their careers and lives since the economy, technology, and global markets will continue to evolve.

An important consideration in managing employees is age. Workers’ expectations and attitudes are developed in part by experience in particular cultural time periods. Generational constructs are somewhat arbitrary, yet they may be helpful in setting broad directions to organizational management as one generation leaves the workforce and another enters it. The baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) is in the process of leaving the workforce and will continue to depart it for a decade or more. Generation X (born between the early 1960s and the 1980s) are now in the middle of their careers. Millennials (born from 1979 to early 1994) began to come of age at the turn of the century, and are early in their careers.

Today, as these three different generations work side by side in the workplace, employers and managers need to be able to identify their unique characteristics. Each generation has distinctive expectations, habits, attitudes, and motivations (Elmore, 2010). One of the major differences among these generations is knowledge of the use of technology in the workplace. Millennials are technologically sophisticated and believe their use of technology sets them apart from other generations. They have also been characterized as self-centered and overly self-confident. Their attitudinal differences have raised concerns for managers about maintaining their motivation as employees and their ability to integrate into organizational culture created by baby boomers (Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010). For example, millennials may expect to hear that they need to pay their dues in their jobs from baby boomers who believe they paid their dues in their time. Yet millennials may resist doing so because they value life outside of work to a greater degree (Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010). Meister & Willyerd (2010) suggest alternative approaches to training and mentoring that will engage millennials and adapt to their need for feedback from supervisors: reverse mentoring, in which a younger employee educates a senior employee in social media or other digital resources. The senior employee then has the opportunity to provide useful guidance within a less demanding role.

Recruiting and retaining millennials and Generation X employees poses challenges that did not exist in previous generations. The concept of building a career with the company is not relatable to most Generation X employees, who do not expect to stay with one employer for their career. This expectation arises from a reduced sense of loyalty because they do not expect their employer to be loyal to them (Gibson, Greenwood, & Murphy, 2009). Retaining Generation X workers thus relies on motivating them by making their work meaningful (Gibson, Greenwood, & Murphy, 2009). Since millennials lack an inherent loyalty to the company, retaining them also requires effort in the form of nurturing through frequent rewards, praise, and feedback.

Millennials are also interested in having many choices, including options in work scheduling, choice of job duties, and so on. They also expect more training and education from their employers. Companies that offer the best benefits package and brand attract millennials (Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010).

 

Career Choices in Early Adulthood

Hopefully, we are each becoming lifelong learners, particularly since we are living longer and will most likely change jobs multiple times during our lives. However, for many, our job changes will be within the same general occupational field, so our initial career choice is still significant. We’ve seen with Erikson that identity largely involves occupation and, as we will learn in the next section, Levinson found that young adults typically form a dream about work (though females may have to choose to focus relatively more on work or family initially with “split” dreams). The American School Counselor Association recommends that school counselors aid students in their career development beginning as early as kindergarten and continue this development throughout their education.

One of the most well-known theories about career choice is from John Holland (1985), who proposed that there are six personality types (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional), as well as varying types of work environments. The better matched one’s personality is to the workplace characteristics, the more satisfied and successful one is predicted to be with that career or vocational choice. Research support has been mixed and we should note that there is more to satisfaction and success in a career than one’s personality traits or likes and dislikes. For instance, education, training, and abilities need to match the expectations and demands of the job, plus the state of the economy, availability of positions, and salary rates may play practical roles in choices about work.

Link to Learning: What’s Your Right Career?

To complete a free online career questionnaire and identify potential careers based on your preferences, go to Career One Stop Questionnaire

Did you find out anything interesting? Think of this activity as a starting point to your career exploration.  Other great ways for young adults to research careers include informational interviewing, job shadowing, volunteering, practicums, and internships. Once you have a few careers in mind that you want to find out more about, go to the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to learn about job tasks, required education, average pay, and projected outlook for the future.

The O*Net database describes the skills, knowledge, and education required for occupations, as well as what personality types and work styles are best suited to the role. See what it has to say about being a food server in a restaurant or an elementary school teacher or an industrial-organizational psychologist to learn more about these career paths.

EVERYDAY CONNECTION: Preparing for the Job Interview

You might be wondering if psychology research can tell you how to succeed in a job interview. As you can imagine, most research is concerned with the employer’s interest in choosing the most appropriate candidate for the job, a goal that makes sense for the candidate too. But suppose you are not the only qualified candidate for the job; is there a way to increase your chances of being hired? A limited amount of research has addressed this question.

As you might expect, nonverbal cues are important in an interview. Liden, Martin, & Parsons (1993) found that lack of eye contact and smiling on the part of the applicant led to lower applicant ratings. Studies of impression management on the part of an applicant have shown that self-promotion behaviors generally have a positive impact on interviewers (Gilmore & Ferris, 1989). Different personality types use different forms of impression management, for example, extroverts use verbal self-promotion, and applicants high in agreeableness use non-verbal methods such as smiling and eye contact. Self-promotion was most consistently related with a positive outcome for the interview, particularly if it was related to the candidate’s person-job fit. However, it is possible to overdo self-promotion with experienced interviewers (Howard & Ferris, 1996). Barrick, Swider & Stewart (2010) examined the effect of first impressions during the rapport-building that typically occurs before an interview begins. They found that initial judgments by interviewers during this period were related to job offers and that the judgments were about the candidate’s competence and not just likability. Levine and Feldman (2002) looked at the influence of several nonverbal behaviors in mock interviews on candidates’ likability and projections of competence. Likability was affected positively by greater smiling behavior. Interestingly, other behaviors affected likability differently depending on the gender of the applicant. Men who displayed higher eye contact were less likable; women were more likable when they made greater eye contact. However, for this study male applicants were interviewed by men and female applicants were interviewed by women. In a study carried out in a real setting, DeGroot & Gooty (2009) found that nonverbal cues affected interviewers’ assessments about candidates. They looked at visual cues, which can often be modified by the candidate, and vocal (nonverbal) cues, which are more difficult to modify. They found that interviewer judgment was positively affected by visual and vocal cues of conscientiousness, visual and vocal cues of openness to experience, and vocal cues of extroversion.

What is the take-home message from the limited research that has been done? Learn to be aware of your behavior during an interview. You can do this by practicing and soliciting feedback from mock interviews. Pay attention to any nonverbal cues you are projecting and work at presenting nonverbal cures that project confidence and positive personality traits. And finally, pay attention to the first impression you are making as it may also have an impact on the interview.

What you’ll learn to do: explain theories and perspectives on psychosocial development in emerging adulthood

From a lifespan developmental perspective, growth and development do not stop in childhood or adolescence; they continue throughout adulthood. In this section, we will build on Erikson’s psychosocial stages, then be introduced to theories about transitions that occur during adulthood. According to Levinson, we alternate between periods of change and periods of stability. More recently, Arnett notes that transitions to adulthood happen at later ages than in the past and he proposes that there is a new stage between adolescence and early adulthood called, “emerging adulthood.” Let’s see what you think.

learning outcomes

  • Describe Erikson’s stage of intimacy vs. isolation
  • Describe personality in emerging adulthood

Theories of Early Adult Psychosocial Development

Erikson’s Theory

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions
Table

Intimacy vs. Isolation (Love)

A man and woman smile while leaning closer to look at a photograph together.
Figure 1. Young adulthood is a time to connect with others in both friendships and romantic relationships.

Erikson (1950) believed that the main task of early adulthood is to establish intimate relationships and not feel isolated from others. Intimacy does not necessarily involve romance; it involves caring about another and sharing one’s self without losing one’s self. This developmental crisis of “intimacy versus isolation” is affected by how the adolescent crisis of “identity versus role confusion” was resolved (in addition to how the earlier developmental crises in infancy and childhood were resolved). The young adult might be afraid to get too close to someone else and lose her or his sense of self, or the young adult might define her or himself in terms of another person. Intimate relationships are more difficult if one is still struggling with identity. Achieving a sense of identity is a life-long process, but there are periods of identity crisis and stability. And, according to Erikson, having some sense of identity is essential for intimate relationships. Although, consider what that would mean for previous generations of women who may have defined themselves through their husbands and marriages, or for Eastern cultures today that value interdependence rather than independence.

People in early adulthood (the 20s through 40) are concerned with intimacy vs. isolation. After we have developed a sense of self in adolescence, we are ready to share our life with others. However, if other stages have not been successfully resolved, young adults may have trouble developing and maintaining successful relationships with others. Erikson said that we must have a strong sense of self before we can develop successful intimate relationships. Adults who do not develop a positive self-concept in adolescence may experience feelings of loneliness and emotional isolation.

Friendships as a source of intimacy

Five friends from the same sorority posing in graduation gowns.
Figure 2. Many young adulthoods find intimacy through friendships rather than through committed romantic relationships. The increase of young adults attending college has contributed to this trend.

In our twenties, intimacy needs may be met in friendships rather than with partners. This is especially true in the United States today as many young adults postpone making long-term commitments to partners either in marriage or in cohabitation. The kinds of friendships shared by women tend to differ from those shared by men (Tannen, 1990). Friendships between men are more likely to involve sharing information, providing solutions, or focusing on activities rather than discussing problems or emotions. Men tend to discuss opinions or factual information or spend time together in an activity of mutual interest. Friendships between women are more likely to focus on sharing weaknesses, emotions, or problems. Women talk about difficulties they are having in other relationships and express their sadness, frustrations, and joys. These differences in approaches could lead to problems when men and women come together. She may want to vent about a problem she is having; he may want to provide a solution and move on to some activity. But when he offers a solution, she thinks he does not care! Effective communication is the key to good relationships.

Many argue that other-sex friendships become more difficult for heterosexual men and women because of the unspoken question about whether the friendships will lead to a romantic involvement. Although common during adolescence and early adulthood, these friendships may be considered threatening once a person is in a long-term relationship or marriage. Consequently, friendships may diminish once a person has a partner or single friends may be replaced with couple friends.

Personality

Beyond providing insights into the general outline of adult personality development, Roberts et al. (2006) found that young adulthood (the period between the ages of 18 and the late 20s) was the most active time in the lifespan for observing average changes, although average differences in personality attributes were observed across the lifespan. Such a result might be surprising in light of the intuition that adolescence is a time of personality change and maturation. However, young adulthood is typically a time in the lifespan that includes a number of life changes in terms of finishing school, starting a career, committing to romantic partnerships, and parenthood (Donnellan, Conger, & Burzette, 2007Rindfuss, 1991). Finding that young adulthood is an active time for personality development provides circumstantial evidence that adult roles might generate pressures for certain patterns of personality development. Indeed, this is one potential explanation for the maturity principle of personality development.

It should be emphasized again that average trends are summaries that do not necessarily apply to all individuals. Some people do not conform to the maturity principle. The possibility of exceptions to general trends is the reason it is necessary to study individual patterns of personality development. The methods for this kind of research are becoming increasingly popular (e.g., Vaidya, Gray, Haig, Mroczek, & Watson, 2008) and existing studies suggest that personality changes differ across people (Roberts & Mroczek, 2008). These new research methods work best when researchers collect more than two waves of longitudinal data covering longer spans of time. This kind of research design is still somewhat uncommon in psychological studies but it will likely characterize the future of research on personality stability.

What you’ll learn to do: examine relationships in early adulthood

2 interlocking fingers with matching tattoos

We have learned from Erikson that the psychosocial developmental task of early adulthood is “intimacy versus isolation” and if resolved relatively positively, it can lead to the virtue of “love.” In this section, we will look more closely at relationships in early adulthood, particularly in terms of love, dating, cohabitation, marriage, and parenting.

Learning outcomes

  • Describe some of the factors related to attraction in relationships
  • Apply Sternberg’s theory of love to relationships
  • Summarize attachment theory in adulthood
  • Describe trends and norms in dating, cohabitation, and marriage in the United States

Attraction and Love

Attraction

Why do some people hit it off immediately? Or decide that the friend of a friend was not likable? Using scientific methods, psychologists have investigated factors influencing attraction and have identified a number of variables, such as similarity, proximity (physical or functional), familiarity, and reciprocity, that influence with whom we develop relationships.

Friends laughing and chatting as they sit on a bench on public transportation.
Figure 1. Great and important relationships can develop by chance and physical proximity helps. For example, seeing someone regularly on your daily bus commute to work or school may be all that’s necessary to spark a genuine friendship. [Image: Cheri Lucas Rowlands, https://goo.gl/crCc0Q, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/rxiUsF]

Proximity

Often we “stumble upon” friends or romantic partners; this happens partly due to how close in proximity we are to those people. Specifically, proximity or physical nearness has been found to be a significant factor in the development of relationships. For example, when college students go away to a new school, they will make friends consisting of classmates, roommates, and teammates (i.e., people close in proximity). Proximity allows people the opportunity to get to know one other and discover their similarities—all of which can result in a friendship or intimate relationship. Proximity is not just about geographic distance, but rather functional distance, or the frequency with which we cross paths with others. For example, college students are more likely to become closer and develop relationships with people on their dorm-room floors because they see them (i.e., cross paths) more often than they see people on a different floor. How does the notion of proximity apply in terms of online relationships? Deb Levine (2000) argues that in terms of developing online relationships and attraction, functional distance refers to being at the same place at the same time in a virtual world (i.e., a chat room or Internet forum)—crossing virtual paths.

Familiarity

One of the reasons why proximity matters to attraction is that it breeds familiarity; people are more attracted to that which is familiar. Just being around someone or being repeatedly exposed to them increases the likelihood that we will be attracted to them. We also tend to feel safe with familiar people, as it is likely we know what to expect from them. Dr. Robert Zajonc (1968) labeled this phenomenon the mere-exposure effect. More specifically, he argued that the more often we are exposed to a stimulus (e.g., sound, person) the more likely we are to view that stimulus positively. Moreland and Beach (1992) demonstrated this by exposing a college class to four women (similar in appearance and age) who attended different numbers of classes, revealing that the more classes a woman attended, the more familiar, similar, and attractive she was considered by the other students.

There is a certain comfort in knowing what to expect from others; consequently, research suggests that we like what is familiar. While this is often on a subconscious level, research has found this to be one of the most basic principles of attraction (Zajonc, 1980). For example, a young man growing up with an overbearing mother may be attracted to other overbearing women not because he likes being dominated but rather because it is what he considers normal (i.e., familiar).

Similarity

When you hear about celebrity couples such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, do you shake your head thinking “this won’t last”? It is probably because they seem so different. While many make the argument that opposites attract, research has found that is generally not true; similarity is key. Sure, there are times when couples can appear fairly different, but overall we like others who are like us. Ingram and Morris (2007) examined this phenomenon by inviting business executives to a cocktail mixer, 95% of whom reported that they wanted to meet new people. Using electronic name tag tracking, researchers revealed that the executives did not mingle or meet new people; instead, they only spoke with those they already knew well (i.e., people who were similar).

When it comes to marriage, research has found that couples tend to be very similar, particularly when it comes to age, social class, race, education, physical attractiveness, values, and attitudes (McCann Hamilton, 2007; Taylor, Fiore, Mendelsohn, & Cheshire, 2011). This phenomenon is known as the matching hypothesis (Feingold, 1988; Mckillip & Redel, 1983). We like others who validate our points of view and who are similar in thoughts, desires, and attitudes.

Reciprocity

Another key component in attraction is reciprocity; this principle is based on the notion that we are more likely to like someone if they feel the same way toward us. In other words, it is hard to be friends with someone who is not friendly in return. Another way to think of it is that relationships are built on give and take; if one side is not reciprocating, then the relationship is doomed. Basically, we feel obliged to give what we get and to maintain equity in relationships. Researchers have found that this is true across cultures (Gouldner, 1960).

Love

Heterosexual young couple standing in an embrace.
Figure 2. Romantic relationships are so central to psychological health that most people in the world are or will be in a romantic relationship in their lifetime. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

Is all love the same? Are there different types of love? Examining these questions more closely, Robert Sternberg’s (2004; 2007) work has focused on the notion that all types of love are comprised of three distinct areas: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy includes caring, closeness, and emotional support. The passion component of love is comprised of physiological and emotional arousal; these can include physical attraction, emotional responses that promote physiological changes, and sexual arousal. Lastly, commitment refers to the cognitive process and decision to commit to love another person and the willingness to work to keep that love over the course of your life. The elements involved in intimacy (caring, closeness, and emotional support) are generally found in all types of close relationships—for example, a mother’s love for a child or the love that friends share. Interestingly, this is not true for passion. Passion is unique to romantic love, differentiating friends from lovers. In sum, depending on the type of love and the stage of the relationship (i.e., newly in love), different combinations of these elements are present. Taking this theory a step further, anthropologist Helen Fisher explained that she scanned the brains (using fMRI) of people who had just fallen in love and observed that their brain chemistry was “going crazy,” similar to the brain of an addict on a drug high (Cohen, 2007). Specifically, serotonin production increased by as much as 40% in newly-in-love individuals. Further, those newly in love tended to show obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Conversely, when a person experiences a breakup, the brain processes it in a similar way to quitting a heroin habit (Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong, & Mashek, 2009). Thus, those who believe that breakups are physically painful are correct! Another interesting point is that long-term love and sexual desire activate different areas of the brain. More specifically, sexual needs activate the part of the brain that is particularly sensitive to innately pleasurable things such as food, sex, and drugs (i.e., the striatum—a rather simplistic reward system), whereas love requires conditioning—it is more like a habit. When sexual needs are rewarded consistently, then love can develop. In other words, love grows out of positive rewards, expectancies, and habit (Cacioppo, Bianchi-Demicheli, Hatfield & Rapson, 2012).

The model of the Triangular Theory of Love displays 6 types of love evenly spaced around the outside of a triangle, and one type of love at the center of the triangle. The types of love outside the triangle include: Infatuation (Passion), Romantic Love (Passion + Intimacy), Liking (Intimacy), Companionate (Intimacy + Commitment), Empty Love (Commitment), and Fatuous Love (Passion + Commitment). At the center is Consummate Love (Intimacy + Passion + Commitment)." title="The model of the Triangular Theory of Love displays 6 types of love evenly spaced around the outside of a triangle, and one type of love at the center of the triangle. The types of love outside the triangle include: Infatuation (Passion), Romantic Love (Passion + Intimacy), Liking (Intimacy), Companionate (Intimacy + Commitment), Empty Love (Commitment), and Fatuous Love (Passion + Commitment). At the center is Consummate Love (Intimacy + Passion + Commitment).
Figure 3. The Triangular Theory of Love. Adapted from Wikipedia Creative Commons, 2013.

Attachment Theory in Adulthood

The need for intimacy, or close relationships with others, is universal and persistent across the lifespan. What our adult intimate relationships look like actually stems from infancy and our relationship with our primary caregiver (historically our mother)—a process of development described by attachment theory, which you learned about in the module on infancy. Recall that according to attachment theory, different styles of caregiving result in different relationship “attachments.”

For example, responsive mothers—mothers who soothe their crying infants—produce infants who have secure attachments (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969). About 60% of all children are securely attached. As adults, secure individuals rely on their working models—concepts of how relationships operate—that were created in infancy, as a result of their interactions with their primary caregiver (mother), to foster happy and healthy adult intimate relationships. Securely attached adults feel comfortable being depended on and depending on others.

As you might imagine, inconsistent or dismissive parents also impact the attachment style of their infants (Ainsworth, 1973), but in a different direction. In early studies on attachment style, infants were observed interacting with their caregivers, followed by being separated from them, then finally reunited. About 20% of the observed children were “resistant,” meaning they were anxious even before, and especially during, the separation; and 20% were “avoidant,” meaning they actively avoided their caregiver after separation (i.e., ignoring the mother when they were reunited). These early attachment patterns can affect the way people relate to one another in adulthood. Anxious-resistant adults worry that others don’t love them, and they often become frustrated or angry when their needs go unmet. Anxious-avoidant adults will appear not to care much about their intimate relationships and are uncomfortable being depended on or depending on others themselves.

Table 1. Types of Early Attachment and Adult Intimacy
Secure “I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me,”
Anxious-avoidant “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”
Anxious-resistant “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.”

The good news is that our attachment can be changed. It isn’t easy, but it is possible for anyone to “recover” a secure attachment. The process often requires the help of a supportive and dependable other, and for the insecure person to achieve coherence—the realization that his or her upbringing is not a permanent reflection of character or a reflection of the world at large, nor does it bar him or her from being worthy of love or others of being trustworthy (Treboux, Crowell, & Waters, 2004).

You can watch this video “What is Your Attachment Style?” from The School of Life to learn more.

Applications of Sternberg’s Theory

Do these types of love mean anything? Is love necessary or helpful for reproduction in humans?

One study tested this hypothesis using Sternberg’s Triangular Love scale as their operational definition of love. The three components of passion, commitment, and intimacy were measured in a traditional hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania, and researchers gathered data about which type of relationship was most correlated with successful reproduction.

Try to predict the results of the study.

You were probably were able to discern that this study examines the correlation between types of relationships and reproductive success, or the number of children a woman has. In psychology, we learn that correlation does NOT equal causation, so just because a person is in a committed relationship, this does not mean they will have children.

So what does correlation really mean? It means there is a relationship between the variables. Remember, that with positive correlation, as one variable increases, so does the other. In a negative correlation, as one variable increases the other decreases.

How is love measured? The Sorokowski et al. (2017) study we just covered used the short version of the Triangular Love Scale to measure participants’ levels of passion, intimacy, and commitment. Think about the person with who you are currently in a relationship with. If you are not currently in a relationship, think about a relationship in the past, or one that you would like to have in the future. Please indicate how much the statements below apply to you. (Response options: 5 very true, 4 true, 3 partly true/partly untrue, 2 untrue, 1 very untrue.)

Passion

  • I feel a strong attraction to my partner.
  • I feel sexually aroused by my partner.
  • I find my partner sexually attractive.
  • My partner and I clearly show each other our love.

Intimacy

  • My partner and I always tell each other personal things.
  • I tell my partner everything.
  • My partner and I tell each other all our secrets.
  • My partner understands how I feel.

Commitment

  • I want my relationship to be never-ending.
  • I never want to have another partner.
  • I want the relationship with my partner to last forever.
  • I rather be with my partner than with anyone else.

You can now average your scores in each category in order to see your score out of 5.  Which component of love did you score the highest in? Which component of love did you score the lowest in? Can you use this information to predict how many children you might have?  Why or why not?

Trends in Dating, Cohabitation, and Marriage

Dating

In general, traditional dating among teens and those in their early twenties has been replaced with more varied and flexible ways of getting together (and technology with social media, no doubt, plays a key role). The Friday night date with dinner and a movie that may still be enjoyed by those in their 30s gives way to less formal, more spontaneous meetings that may include several couples or a group of friends. Two people may get to know each other and go somewhere alone. How would you describe a “typical” date? Who calls, texts, or face times? Who pays? Who decides where to go? What is the purpose of the date? In general, greater planning is required for people who have additional family and work responsibilities.

Dating and the Internet

The ways people are finding love has changed with the advent of the Internet. In a poll, 49% of all American adults reported that either they or someone they knew had dated a person they met online (Madden & Lenhart, 2006). As Finkel and colleagues (2007) found, social networking sites, and the Internet generally, perform three important tasks. Specifically, sites provide individuals with access to a database of other individuals who are interested in meeting someone. Dating sites generally reduce issues of proximity, as individuals do not have to be close in proximity to meet. Also, they provide a medium in which individuals can communicate with others. Finally, some Internet dating websites advertise special matching strategies, based on factors such as personality, hobbies, and interests, to identify the “perfect match” for people looking for love online. In general, scientific questions about the effectiveness of Internet matching or online dating compared to face-to-face dating remain to be answered.

It is important to note that social networking sites have opened the doors for many to meet people that they might not have ever had the opportunity to meet; unfortunately, it now appears that the social networking sites can be forums for unsuspecting people to be duped. In 2010 a documentary, Catfish, focused on the personal experience of a man who met a woman online and carried on an emotional relationship with this person for months. As he later came to discover, though, the person he thought he was talking and writing with did not exist. As Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeév stated, online relationships leave room for deception; thus, people have to be cautious.

Cohabitation

Cohabitation is an arrangement where two people who are not married live together. They often involve a romantic or sexually intimate relationship on a long-term or permanent basis. Such arrangements have become increasingly common in Western countries during the past few decades, being led by changing social views, especially regarding marriage, gender roles, and religion. Today, cohabitation is a common pattern among people in the Western world. In Europe, the Scandinavian countries have been the first to start this leading trend, although many countries have since followed. Mediterranean Europe has traditionally been very conservative, with religion playing a strong role. Until the mid-1990s, cohabitation levels remained low in this region, but have since increased. Cohabitation is common in many countries, with the Scandinavian nations of Iceland, Sweden, and Norway reporting the highest percentages, and more traditional countries like India, China, and Japan reporting low percentages (DeRose, 2011).

In countries where cohabitation is increasingly common, there has been speculation as to whether or not cohabitation is now part of the natural developmental progression of romantic relationships: dating and courtship, then cohabitation, engagement, and finally marriage. Though, while many cohabitating arrangements ultimately lead to marriage, many do not.

How prevalent is cohabitation today in the United States? According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2018), cohabitation has been increasing, while marriage has been decreasing in young adulthood. As seen in the graph below, over the past 50 years, the percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. living with an unmarried partner has gone from 0.1 percent to 9.4 percent, while living with a spouse has gone from 39.2 percent to 7 percent. More 18 to 24-year-olds live with an unmarried partner now than with a married partner.

Census graph showing that the percentage of those between ages 18-24 living with a spouse declining from 39% in 1968 to 7% in 2018. Living with a partner has increased from almost nonexistent to almost 10%.
Figure 4. The rates of those between ages 18-24 living with a spouse have gone down dramatically, while rates of those living with a partner are gradually on the rise.

While the percent living with a spouse is still higher than the percent living with an unmarried partner among 25 to 34-year-olds today, the next graph clearly shows a similar pattern of decline in marriage and increase in cohabitation over the last five decades. The percent living with a spouse in this age group today is only half of what it was in 1968 (40.3 percent vs. 81.5 percent), while the percent living with an unmarried partner rose from 0.2 percent to 14.8 percent in this age group. Another way to look at some of the data is that only 30% of today’s 18 to 34-year-olds in the U.S. are married, compared with almost double that, 59 percent forty years ago (1978). The marriage rates for less-educated young adults (who tend to have lower income) have fallen at faster rates than those of better educated young adults since the 1970s. Past and present economic climate are key factors; perhaps more couples are waiting until they can afford to get married, financially. Gurrentz (2018) does caution that there are limitations of the measures of cohabitation, particularly in the past.

In 1968, 81.5% of of people between ages 25 and 34 lived with a spouse, while only .2% with a partner. In 2018, 40.3% of people lived with a spouse while 14.8% lived with a partner.
Figure 5. Rates of those living with spouses between the ages of 25 and 34 has been declining, while those cohabitating is on the rise.

How long do cohabiting relationships last?

Cohabitation tends to last longer in European countries than in the United States. Half of cohabiting relationships in the U. S. end within a year; only 10 percent last more than 5 years. These short-term cohabiting relationships are more characteristics of people in their early 20s. Many of these couples eventually marry. Those who cohabit for more than five years tend to be older and more committed to the relationship. Cohabitation may be preferable to marriage for a number of reasons. For partners over 65, cohabitation is preferable to marriage for practical reasons. For many of them, marriage would result in a loss of Social Security benefits and consequently is not an option. Others may believe that their relationship is more satisfying because they are not bound by marriage.

Think About it

Do you think that you will cohabitate before marriage? Or did you cohabitate? Why or why not? Does your culture play a role in your decision? Does what you learned in this module change your thoughts on this practice?

Two women smiling with flowers on their wedding day.
Figure 6. While marriage is common across cultures, the details such as “How” and “When” are often quite different. Now the “Who” of marriage is experiencing an important change as laws are updated in a growing number of countries and states to give same-sex couples the same rights and benefits through marriage as heterosexual couples. [Image: Bart Vis, http://goo.gl/liSy9P, CC BY 2.0, http://goo.gl/T4qgSp]

Same-Sex Couples

As of 2019, same-sex marriage is legal in 28 countries and counting. Many other countries either recognize same-sex couples for the purpose of immigration, grant rights for domestic partnerships, or grant common law marriage status to same-sex couples.

Same-sex couples struggle with concerns such as the division of household tasks, finances, sex, and friendships as do heterosexual couples. One difference between same-sex and heterosexual couples, however, is that same-sex couples have to live with the added stress that comes from social disapproval and discrimination. And continued contact with an ex-partner may be more likely among homosexuals and bisexuals because of the closeness of the circle of friends and acquaintances.

The number of adults who remain single has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. We have more people who never marry, more widows, and more divorcees driving up the number of singles. Singles represent about 25 percent of American households. Singlehood has become a more acceptable lifestyle than it was in the past and many singles are very happy with their status. Whether or not a single person is happy depends on the circumstances of their remaining single.

Stein’s Typology of Singles

Many of the research findings of singles reveal that they are not all alike. Happiness with one’s status depends on whether the person is single by choice and whether the situation is permanent. Let’s look at Stein’s (1981) four categories of singles for a better understanding of this.

Engagement and Marriage

Most people will marry in their lifetime. In the majority of countries, 80% of men and women have been married by the age of 49 (United Nations, 2013). Despite how common marriage remains, it has undergone some interesting shifts in recent times. Around the world, people are tending to get married later in life or, increasingly, not at all. People in more developed countries (e.g., Nordic and Western Europe), for instance, marry later in life—at an average age of 30 years. This is very different than, for example, the economically developing country of Afghanistan, which has one of the lowest average-age statistics for marriage—at 20.2 years (United Nations, 2013). Another shift seen around the world is a gender gap in terms of age when people get married. In every country, men marry later than women. Since the 1970s, the average age of marriage has increased for both women and men.

As illustrated, the courtship process can vary greatly around the world. So too can an engagement—a formal agreement to get married. Some of these differences are small, such as on which hand an engagement ring is worn. In many countries, it is worn on the left, but in Russia, Germany, Norway, and India, women wear their ring on their right. There are also more overt differences, such as who makes the proposal. In India and Pakistan, it is not uncommon for the family of the groom to propose to the family of the bride, with little to no involvement from the bride and groom themselves. In most Western industrialized countries, it is traditional for the male to propose to the female. What types of engagement traditions, practices, and rituals are common where you are from? How are they changing?

Contemporary young adults in the United States are waiting longer than before to marry. The median age of entering marriage in the United States is 27 for women and 29 for men (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). This trend in delays of young adults taking on adult roles and responsibilities is discussed in our earlier section about “emerging adulthood” or the transition from adolescence to adulthood identified by Arnett (2000).

A fair exchange

Social exchange theory suggests that people try to maximize rewards and minimize costs in social relationships. Each person entering the marriage market comes equipped with assets and liabilities or a certain amount of social currency with which to attract a prospective mate. For men, assets might include earning potential and status while for women, assets might include physical attractiveness and youth.

Customers in the “marriage market” do not look for a “good deal,” however. Rather, most look for a relationship that is mutually beneficial or equitable. One of the reasons for this is because most a relationship in which one partner has far more assets than the other will result in power disparities and a difference in the level of commitment from each partner. According to Waller’s principle of least interest, the partner who has the most to lose without the relationship (or is the most dependent on the relationship) will have the least amount of power and is in danger of being exploited. A greater balance of power, then, may add stability to the relationship.

Societies specify through both formal and informal rules who is an appropriate mate. Consequently, mate selection is not completely left to the individual. Rules of endogamy indicate within which groups we should marry. For example, many cultures specify that people marry within their own race, social class, age group, or religion. These rules encourage homogamy or marriage between people who share social characteristics (the opposite is known as heterogamy). The majority of marriages in the U.S. are homogamous with respect to race, social class, age, and to a lesser extent, religion.

In a comparison of educational homogamy in 55 countries, Smits (2003) found strong support for higher-educated people marrying other highly educated people. As such, education appears to be a strong filter people use to help them select a mate. The most common filters we use—or, put another way, the characteristics we focus on most in potential mates—are age, race, social status, and religion (Regan, 2008). Other filters we use include compatibility, physical attractiveness (we tend to pick people who are as attractive as we are), and proximity (for practical reasons, we often pick people close to us) (Klenke-Hamel & Janda, 1980).

A young couple posing for wedding photos in traditional Indian attire.
Figure 7. In some countries, many people are coupled and committed to marriage through arrangements made by parents or professional marriage brokers. [Image: Ananabanana, http://goo.gl/gzCR0x, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, http://goo.gl/iF4hmM]

According to the filter theory of mate selection, the pool of eligible partners becomes narrower as it passes through filters used to eliminate members of the pool (Kerckhoff & Davis, 1962). One such filter is propinquity or geographic proximity. Mate selection in the United States typically involves meeting eligible partners face to face. Those with whom one does not come into contact are simply not contenders (though this has been changing with the Internet). Race and ethnicity is another filter used to eliminate partners. Although interracial dating has increased in recent years and interracial marriage rates are higher than before, interracial marriage still represents only 5.4 percent of all marriages in the United States. Physical appearance is another feature considered when selecting a mate. Age, social class, and religion are also criteria used to narrow the field of eligibles. Thus, the field of eligibles becomes significantly smaller before those things we are most conscious of such as preferences, values, goals, and interests, are even considered.

Arranged Marriages

In some cultures, however, it is not uncommon for the families of young people to do the work of finding a mate for them. For example, the Shanghai Marriage Market refers to the People’s Park in Shanghai, China—a place where parents of unmarried adults meet on weekends to trade information about their children in an attempt to find suitable spouses for them (Bolsover, 2011). In India, the marriage market refers to the use of marriage brokers or marriage bureaus to pair eligible singles together (Trivedi, 2013). To many Westerners, the idea of arranged marriage can seem puzzling. It can appear to take the romance out of the equation and violate values about personal freedom. On the other hand, some people in favor of arranged marriage argue that parents are able to make more mature decisions than young people.

While such intrusions may seem inappropriate based on your upbringing, for many people of the world such help is expected, even appreciated. In India for example, “parental arranged marriages are largely preferred to other forms of marital choices” (Ramsheena & Gundemeda, 2015, p. 138). Of course, one’s religious and social caste plays a role in determining how involved family may be.

An instructor lectures a group of college students.
College and other educational opportunities are important for emerging adults to help transition successfully to the next stages of their lives. [Image: Jirka Matousek, https://goo.gl/WliY5W, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/BRvSA7]

The new life stage of emerging adulthood has spread rapidly in the past half-century and is continuing to spread. Now that the transition to adulthood is later than in the past, is this change positive or negative for emerging adults and their societies? Certainly, there are some negatives. It means that young people are dependent on their parents for longer than in the past, and they take longer to become fully contributing members of their societies. A substantial proportion of them have trouble sorting through the opportunities available to them and struggle with anxiety and depression, even though most are optimistic. However, there are advantages to having this new life stage as well. By waiting until at least their late twenties to take on the full range of adult responsibilities, emerging adults are able to focus on obtaining enough education and training to prepare themselves for the demands of today’s information- and technology-based economy. Also, it seems likely that if young people make crucial decisions about love and work in their late twenties or early thirties rather than their late teens and early twenties, their judgment will be more mature and they will have a better chance of making choices that will work out well for them in the long run.

What can societies do to enhance the likelihood that emerging adults will make a successful transition to adulthood? One important step would be to expand the opportunities for obtaining tertiary education. The tertiary education systems of OECD countries were constructed at a time when the economy was much different, and they have not expanded at the rate needed to serve all the emerging adults who need such education. Furthermore, in some countries, such as the United States, the cost of tertiary education has risen steeply and is often unaffordable to many young people. In non-industrialized countries, tertiary education systems are even smaller and less able to accommodate their emerging adults. Across the world, societies would be wise to strive to make it possible for every emerging adult to receive tertiary education, free of charge. There could be no better investment for preparing young people for the economy of the future.

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Chapter 9: Early Adulthood

9

Why learn about development changes during early adulthood?

Graduates are seen moving their tassels from right to left during a ceremony
Figure 1. Age or another key milestone, such as graduation, may signify the transition to adulthood, but becoming an adult is a process that varies widely across cultures and individuals.

When we are children and teens, we eagerly anticipate each and every birthday, waiting for the next big one…when we’ll finally be grown up and have all the freedoms and rights enjoyed by those who are older than us. Indeed, there are opportunities to drive, buy a car, vote, go to college, join the military, drink, move out on our own, date, live together, get married, work, have children, buy a house, and more. This can be an awesome time in our lives, as we tend to be physically and cognitively strong and healthy, we dream and make plans for the future, find people to share our experiences, and try out new roles. It can also be challenging, stressful, and scary as we realize that a lot of responsibility comes with such freedom. We have probably all seen the coffee mugs that proclaim, “Adulting is hard,” or the t-shirts that announce, “I can’t adult today” (typically worn by young adults!).

Development is a process, and we aren’t suddenly adults at a certain age. In fact, we may even take longer to grow up these days. In this module, we’ll learn about norms, trends, and theories about why certain patterns are forming. It’s even been proposed that there is a new stage of development between adolescence and early adulthood, called “emerging adulthood,” when young people don’t quite feel like they are adults yet and wait longer to join the workforce, move out on their own, get married, and have children. Yet by the end of early adulthood, most of us will have accomplished the important developmental tasks of becoming more autonomous, taking care of ourselves and even others, committing to relationships and jobs/careers, getting married, raising families, and becoming part of our communities. There are, of course, many individual and cultural differences.

Think of your own life. When will you feel like an adult? Or do you already feel like an adult? Why or why not? Did your parents become adults earlier or later in their lives, compared to you?

What you’ll learn to do: explain developmental tasks and physical changes during early adulthood

A group of women doing a forward bend in a yoga class

In this section, we will see how young adults are often at their peak physically, sexually, and in terms of health and reproduction; yet they are also particularly at risk for injury, violence, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and more. As you read, consider whether or not you think young adults are in the prime of their lives.

Learning outcomes

Developmental Tasks of Early Adulthood

College students studying and talking on the grass.
Figure 1. How old do you think this group of young adults are? What clues can you use to help you estimate their age?

Before we dive into the specific physical changes and experiences of early adulthood, let’s consider the key developmental tasks during this time—the ages between 18 and 40. The beginning of early adulthood, ages 18-25, is sometimes considered its own phase, emerging adulthood, but the developmental tasks that are the focus during emerging adulthood persist throughout the early adulthood years. Look at the list below and try to think of someone you know between 18 and 40 who fits each of the descriptions.

Developmental Tasks of Early Adulthood

Havighurst (1972) describes some of the developmental tasks of young adults. These include:

  1. Achieving autonomy: trying to establish oneself as an independent person with a life of one’s own
  2. Establishing identity: more firmly establishing likes, dislikes, preferences, and philosophies
  3. Developing emotional stability: becoming more stable emotionally which is considered a sign of maturing
  4. Establishing a career: deciding on and pursuing a career or at least an initial career direction and pursuing an education
  5. Finding intimacy: forming first close, long-term relationships
  6. Becoming part of a group or community: young adults may, for the first time, become involved with various groups in the community. They may begin voting or volunteering to be part of civic organizations (scouts, church groups, etc.). This is especially true for those who participate in organizations as parents.
  7. Establishing a residence and learning how to manage a household: learning how to budget and keep a home maintained.
  8. Becoming a parent and rearing children: learning how to manage a household with children.
  9. Making marital or relationship adjustments and learning to parent.

Think It Over

To what extent do you think these early adulthood developmental tasks have changed in the last several years? How might these tasks vary by culture?

Physical Development in Early Adulthood

The Physiological Peak

Young man in great physical condition doing a side plank.
Figure 2. Early adulthood is generally a time of peak physical health.

People in their twenties and thirties are considered young adults. If you are in your early twenties, you are probably at the peak of your physiological development. Your body has completed its growth, though your brain is still developing (as explained in the previous module on adolescence). Physically, you are in the “prime of your life” as your reproductive system, motor ability, strength, and lung capacity are operating at their best. However, these systems will start a slow, gradual decline so that by the time you reach your mid to late 30s, you will begin to notice signs of aging. This includes a decline in your immune system, your response time, and your ability to recover quickly from physical exertion. For example, you may have noticed that it takes you quite some time to stop panting after running to class or taking the stairs. But, remember that both nature and nurture continue to influence development. Getting out of shape is not an inevitable part of aging; it is probably due to the fact that you have become less physically active and have experienced greater stress. The good news is that there are things you can do to combat many of these changes. So keep in mind, as we continue to discuss the lifespan, that some of the changes we associate with aging can be prevented or turned around if we adopt healthier lifestyles.

In fact, research shows that the habits we establish in our twenties are related to certain health conditions in middle age, particularly the risk of heart disease. What are healthy habits that young adults can establish now that will prove beneficial in later life? Healthy habits include maintaining a lean body mass index, moderate alcohol intake, a smoke-free lifestyle, a healthy diet, and regular physical activity. When experts were asked to name one thing they would recommend young adults do to facilitate good health, their specific responses included: weighing self often, learning to cook, reducing sugar intake, developing an active lifestyle, eating vegetables, practicing portion control, establishing an exercise routine (especially a “post-party” routine, if relevant), and finding a job you love.

Being overweight or obese is a real concern in early adulthood. Medical research shows that American men and women with moderate weight gain from early to middle adulthood have significantly increased risks of major chronic disease and mortality (Zheng et al., 2017). Given the fact that American men and women tend to gain about one to two pounds per year from early to middle adulthood, developing healthy nutrition and exercise habits across adulthood is important (Nichols, 2017).

A Healthy, but Risky Time

Early adulthood tends to be a time of relatively good health. For instance, in the United States, adults ages 18-44 have the lowest percentage of physician office visits than any other age group, younger or older. However, early adulthood seems to be a particularly risky time for violent deaths (rates vary by gender, race, and ethnicity). The leading causes of death for both age groups 15-24 and 25-34 in the U.S. are unintentional injury, suicide, and homicide. Cancer and heart disease follows as the fourth and fifth top causes of death among young adults (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).

Substance Abuse

Rates of violent death are influenced by substance abuse, which peaks during early adulthood. Some young adults use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with stress from family, personal relationships, or concerns over being on one’s own. Others “use” because they have friends who use and in the early 20s, there is still a good deal of pressure to conform. Youth transitioning into adulthood have some of the highest rates of alcohol and substance abuse. For instance, rates of binge drinking (drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion) in 2014 were: 28.5 percent for people ages 18 to 20 and 43.3 percent for people ages 21-25. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show increases in drug overdose deaths between 2006 and 2016 (with higher rates among males), but with the steepest increases between 2014 and 2016 occurring among males aged 24-34 and females aged 24-34 and 35-44. Rates vary by other factors including race and geography; increased use and abuse of opioids may also play a role.

Drugs impair judgment, reduce inhibitions, and alter mood, all of which can lead to dangerous behavior. Reckless driving, violent altercations, and forced sexual encounters are some examples. College campuses are notorious for binge drinking, which is particularly concerning since alcohol plays a role in over half of all student sexual assaults. Alcohol is involved nearly 90 percent of the time in acquaintance rape (when the perpetrator knows the victim). Over 40 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the victim and almost 70 percent involve alcohol use by the perpetrator.

Drug and alcohol use increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections because people are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior when under the influence. This includes having sex with someone who has had multiple partners, having anal sex without the use of a condom, having multiple partners, or having sex with someone whose history is unknown. Such risky sexual behavior puts individuals at increased risk for both sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). STDs are especially common among young people. There are about 20 million new cases of STDs each year in the United States and about half of those infections are in people between the ages of 15 and 24. Also, young people are the most likely to be unaware of their HIV infection, with half not knowing they have the virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).

Sexual Responsiveness and Reproduction in Early Adulthood

Sexual Responsiveness

Men and women tend to reach their peak of sexual responsiveness at different ages. For men, sexual responsiveness tends to peak in the late teens and early twenties. Sexual arousal can easily occur in response to physical stimulation or fantasizing. Sexual responsiveness begins a slow decline in the late twenties and into the thirties although a man may continue to be sexually active throughout adulthood. Over time, a man may require more intense stimulation in order to become aroused. Women often find that they become more sexually responsive throughout their 20s and 30s and may peak in the late 30s or early 40s. This is likely due to greater self-confidence and reduced inhibitions about sexuality.

There are a wide variety of factors that influence sexual relationships during emerging adulthood; this includes beliefs about certain sexual behaviors and marriage. For example, among emerging adults in the United States, it is common for oral sex to not be considered “real sex”. In the 1950s and 1960s, about 75 percent of people between the ages of 20–24 engaged in premarital sex; today, that number is 90 percent. Unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs/STDs) are a central issue. As individuals move through emerging adulthood, they are more likely to engage in monogamous sexual relationships and practice safe sex.

Reproduction

For many couples, early adulthood is the time for having children. However, delaying childbearing until the late 20s or early 30s has become more common in the United States. The mean age of first-time mothers in the United States increased 1.4 years, from 24.9 in 2000 to 26.3 in 2014. This shift can primarily be attributed to a larger number of first births to older women along with fewer births to mothers under age 20 (CDC, 2016).

Couples delay childbearing for a number of reasons. Women are now more likely to attend college and begin careers before starting families. And both men and women are delaying marriage until they are in their late 20s and early 30s. In 2018, the average age for a first marriage in the United States was 29.8 for men and 27.8 for women.

Infertility

Infertility affects about 6.7 million women or 11 percent of the reproductive age population (American Society of Reproductive Medicine [ASRM], 2006-2010. Male factors create infertility in about a third of the cases. For men, the most common cause is a lack of sperm production or low sperm production.  Female factors cause infertility in another third of cases. For women, one of the most common causes of infertility is an ovulation disorder. Other causes of female infertility include blocked fallopian tubes, which can occur when a woman has had pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or endometriosis. PID is experienced by 1 out of 7 women in the United States and leads to infertility about 20 percent of the time. One of the major causes of PID is Chlamydia, the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted infection in young women. Another cause of pelvic inflammatory disease is gonorrhea. Both male and female factors contribute to the remainder of cases of infertility and approximately 20 percent are unexplained.

Fertility Treatment

The majority of infertility cases (85-90 percent) are treated using fertility drugs to increase ovulation or with surgical procedures to repair the reproductive organs or remove scar tissue from the reproductive tract.  In vitro fertilization (IVF) is used to treat infertility in less than 5 percent of cases. IVF is used when a woman has blocked or deformed fallopian tubes or sometimes when a man has a very low sperm count. This procedure involves removing eggs from the female and fertilizing the eggs outside the woman’s body. The fertilized egg is then reinserted in the woman’s uterus. The average cost of an IVF cycle in the U.S. is $10,000-15,000 and the average live delivery rate for IVF in 2005 was 31.6 percent per retrieval.  IVF makes up about 99 percent of artificial reproductive procedures. (ASRM, 2006-2010)

Less common procedures include gamete intrafallopian tube transfer (GIFT) which involves implanting both sperm and ova into the fallopian tube and fertilization is allowed to occur naturally. Zygote intrafallopian tube transfer (ZIFT) is another procedure in which sperm and ova are fertilized outside of the woman’s body and the fertilized egg or zygote is then implanted in the fallopian tube. This allows the zygote to travel down the fallopian tube and embed in the lining of the uterus naturally. 

Insurance coverage for infertility is required in fourteen states, but the amount and type of coverage available vary greatly (ASRM, 2006-2010). The majority of couples seeking treatment for infertility pay much of the cost. Consequently, infertility treatment is much more accessible to couples with higher incomes. However, grants and funding sources may be available for lower-income couples seeking infertility treatment.

Fertility for Singles and Same-Sex Couples

The journey to parenthood may look different for singles same-sex couples.  However, there are several viable options available to them to have their own biological children. Men and women may choose to donate their sperm or eggs to help others reproduce for monetary or humanitarian reasons. Some gay couples may decide to have a surrogate pregnancy. One or both of the men would provide the sperm and choose a carrier. The chosen woman may be the source of the egg and uterus or the woman could be a third party that carries the created embryo.

Reciprocal IVF is used by couples who both possess female reproductive organs. Using in vitro fertilization, eggs are removed from one partner to be used to make embryos that the other partner will hopefully carry in a successful pregnancy.

Artificial insemination (AI) is the deliberate introduction of sperm into a female’s cervix or uterine cavity for the purpose of achieving a pregnancy through in vivo fertilization by means other than sexual intercourse. AI is most often used by single women who desire to give birth to their own child, women who are in a lesbian relationship, or women who are in a heterosexual relationship but with a male partner who is infertile or who has a physical impairment that prevents intercourse. The sperm used could be anonymous or from a known donor.

What you’ll learn to do: explain cognitive development in early adulthood

A woman shown at her desk, deep in thought with a notebook open in front of her

We have learned about cognitive development from infancy through adolescence, ending with Piaget’s stage of formal operations. Does that mean that cognitive development stops with adolescence? Couldn’t there be different ways of thinking in adulthood that come after (or “post”) formal operations?

In this section, we will learn about these types of postformal operational thought and consider research done by William Perry related to types of thought and advanced thinking. We will also look at education in early adulthood, the relationship between education and work, and some tools used by young adults to choose their careers.

Learning outcomes

Cognitive Development in Early Adulthood

Beyond Formal Operational Thought: Postformal Thought

College students presenting at a conference.
Figure 1. As young adults gain more experience, they think increasingly more in the abstract and are able to understand different perspectives and complexities.

In the adolescence module, we discussed Piaget’s formal operational thought. The hallmark of this type of thinking is the ability to think abstractly or to consider possibilities and ideas about circumstances never directly experienced. Thinking abstractly is only one characteristic of adult thought, however. If you compare a 14-year-old with someone in their late 30s, you would probably find that the latter considers not only what is possible, but also what is likely. Why the change? The young adult has gained experience and understands why possibilities do not always become realities. This difference in adult and adolescent thought can spark arguments between the generations.

Here is an example. A student in her late 30s relayed such an argument she was having with her 14-year-old son. The son had saved a considerable amount of money and wanted to buy an old car and store it in the garage until he was old enough to drive. He could sit in it, pretend he was driving, clean it up, and show it to his friends. It sounded like a perfect opportunity. The mother, however, had practical objections. The car would just sit for several years while deteriorating. The son would probably change his mind about the type of car he wanted by the time he was old enough to drive and they would be stuck with a car that would not run. She was also concerned that having a car nearby would be too much temptation and the son might decide to sneak it out for a quick ride before he had a permit or license.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development ended with formal operations, but it is possible that other ways of thinking may develop after (or “post”) formal operations in adulthood (even if this thinking does not constitute a separate “stage” of development). Postformal thought is practical, realistic, and more individualistic, but also characterized by understanding the complexities of various perspectives. As a person approaches the late 30s, chances are they make decisions out of necessity or because of prior experience and are less influenced by what others think. Of course, this is particularly true in individualistic cultures such as the United States. Postformal thought is often described as more flexible, logical, willing to accept moral and intellectual complexities, and dialectical than previous stages in development.

Perry’s Scheme

One of the first theories of cognitive development in early adulthood originated with William Perry (1970), who studied undergraduate students at Harvard University.  Perry noted that over the course of students’ college years, cognition tended to shift from dualism (absolute, black and white, right and wrong type of thinking) to multiplicity (recognizing that some problems are solvable and some answers are not yet known) to relativism (understanding the importance of the specific context of knowledge—it’s all relative to other factors). Similar to Piaget’s formal operational thinking in adolescence, this change in thinking in early adulthood is affected by educational experiences.

Table 1. Stages of Perry’s Scheme
Summary of Position in Perry’s Scheme Basic Example
Dualism The authorities know “the tutor knows what is right and wrong”
The true authorities are right, the others are frauds “my tutor doesn’t know what is right and wrong but others do”
Multiplicity There are some uncertainties and the authorities are working on them to find the truth “my tutors don’t know, but somebody out there is trying to find out”
(a) Everyone has the right to their own opinion
(b) The authorities don’t want the right answers. They want us to think in a certain way
“different tutors think different things”
“there is an answer that the tutors want and we have to find it”
Relativism Everything is relative but not equally valid “there are no right and wrong answers, it depends on the situation, but some answers might be better than others”
You have to make your own decisions “what is important is not what the tutor thinks but what I think”
First commitment “for this particular topic I think that….”
Several Commitments “for these topics I think that….”
Believe own values, respect others, be ready to learn “I know what I believe in and what I think is valid, others may think differently and I’m prepared to reconsider my views”

Dialectical Thought

In addition to moving toward more practical considerations, thinking in early adulthood may also become more flexible and balanced. Abstract ideas that the adolescent believes in firmly may become standards by which the individual evaluates reality. As Perry’s research pointed out, adolescents tend to think in dichotomies or absolute terms; ideas are true or false; good or bad; right or wrong and there is no middle ground. However, with education and experience, the young adult comes to recognize that there are some right and some wrong in each position. Such thinking is more realistic because very few positions, ideas, situations, or people are completely right or wrong.

Some adults may move even beyond the relativistic or contextual thinking described by Perry; they may be able to bring together important aspects of two opposing viewpoints or positions, synthesize them, and come up with new ideas. This is referred to as dialectical thought and is considered one of the most advanced aspects of postformal thinking (Basseches, 1984). There isn’t just one theory of postformal thought; there are variations, with emphasis on adults’ ability to tolerate ambiguity or to accept contradictions or find new problems, rather than solve problems, etc. (as well as relativism and dialecticism that we just learned about). What they all have in common is the proposition that the way we think may change during adulthood with education and experience.

 

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the role of parenting in early adulthood
  • Differentiate between the various parenting styles

Parenting

Having Children

Do you want children? Do you already have children? Increasingly, families are postponing or not having children. Families that choose to forego having children are known as childfree families, while families that want but are unable to conceive are referred to as childless families. As more young people pursue their education and careers, age at first marriage has increased; similarly, so has the age at which people become parents. With a college degree, the average age for women to have their first child is 30.3, but without a college degree, the average age is 23.8.  Marital status is also related, as the average age for married women to have their first child is 28.8, while the average age for unmarried women is 23.1. Overall, the average age of first-time mothers has increased to 26, up from 21 in 1972, and the average age of first-time fathers has increased to 31, up from 27 in 1972 in the United States. The age of first-time parents in the U.S. increased sharply in the 1970s after abortion was legalized. Since the age of first-time parents varies by geographic region in the U.S. and women’s rights to abortion are being challenged in some states, it will be interesting to follow the norms and trends for first-time parents in the future.

The decision to become a parent should not be taken lightly. There are positives and negatives associated with parenting that should be considered. Many parents report that having children increases their well-being (White & Dolan, 2009). Researchers have also found that parents, compared to their non-parent peers, are more positive about their lives (Nelson, Kushlev, English, Dunn, & Lyubomirsky, 2013). On the other hand, researchers have also found that parents, compared to non-parents, are more likely to be depressed, report lower levels of marital quality, and feel like their relationship with their partner is more businesslike than intimate (Walker, 2011).

If you do become a parent, your parenting style will impact your child’s future success in romantic and parenting relationships. Recall from the module on early childhood that there are several different parenting styles. Authoritative parenting, arguably the best parenting style, is both demanding and supportive of the child (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Support refers to the amount of affection, acceptance, and warmth a parent provides. Demandingness refers to the degree a parent controls their child’s behavior. Children who have authoritative parents are generally happy, capable, and successful (Maccoby, 1992).

Chart of parenting styles. Those with low warmth/responsiveness and low expectations/control are uninvolved. Those with low expectations and high warmth are permissive. those with high expectations and low warmth are authoritarian. Those with high expectations and high warmth are authoritative.
Figure 8. Authoritative parenting, or those parents who give high levels of support but also have high demands and expectations, are associated with the best outcomes for children,

Other, less advantageous parenting styles include authoritarian (in contrast to authoritative), permissive, and uninvolved (Tavassolie, Dudding, Madigan, Thorvardarson, & Winsler, 2016). Authoritarian parents are low in support and high in demandingness. Arguably, this is the parenting style used by Harry Potter’s harsh aunt and uncle, and Cinderella’s vindictive stepmother. Children who receive authoritarian parenting are more likely to be obedient and proficient but score lower in happiness, social competence, and self-esteem. Permissive parents are high in support and low in demandingness. Their children rank low in happiness and self-regulation and are more likely to have problems with authority. Uninvolved parents are low in both support and demandingness. Children of these parents tend to rank lowest across all life domains, lack self-control, have low self-esteem, and are less competent than their peers.

Support for the benefits of authoritative parenting has been found in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic (Dmitrieva, Chen, Greenberger, & Gil-Rivas, 2004), India (Carson, Chowdhurry, Perry, & Pati, 1999), China (Pilgrim, Luo, Urberg, & Fang, 1999), Israel (Mayseless, Scharf, & Sholt, 2003), and Palestine (Punamaki, Qouta, & Sarraj, 1997). In fact, authoritative parenting appears to be superior in Western, individualistic societies—so much so that some people have argued that there is no longer a need to study it (Steinberg, 2001). Other researchers are less certain about the superiority of authoritative parenting and point to differences in cultural values and beliefs. For example, while many European-American children do poorly with too much strictness (authoritarian parenting), Chinese children often do well, especially academically. The reason for this likely stems from Chinese culture viewing strictness in parenting as related to training, which is not central to American parenting (Chao, 1994).

Class and Culture

The impact of class and culture cannot be ignored when examining parenting styles. It is assumed that authoritative styles are best because they are designed to help the parent raise a child who is independent, self-reliant, and responsible. These are qualities favored in “individualistic” cultures such as the United States, particularly by the middle class.

Authoritarian parenting has been used historically and reflects the cultural need for children to do as they are told. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian parents tend to be more authoritarian than non-Hispanic whites. In collectivistic cultures such as China or Korea, being obedient and compliant are favored behaviors. In societies where family members’ cooperation is necessary for survival, as in the case of raising crops, rearing children who are independent and who strive to be on their own makes no sense. But in an economy based on being mobile in order to find jobs and where one’s earnings are based on education, raising a child to be independent is very important.

Working-class parents are more likely than middle-class parents to focus on obedience and honesty when raising their children. In a classic study on social class and parenting styles called Class and Conformity, Kohn (1977) explained that parents tend to emphasize qualities that are needed for their own survival when parenting their children. Working-class parents are rewarded for being obedient, reliable, and honest in their jobs. They are not paid to be independent or to question the management; rather, they move up and are considered good employees if they show up on time, do their work as they are told, and can be counted on by their employers. Consequently, these parents reward honesty and obedience in their children. Middle-class parents who work as professionals are rewarded for taking initiative, being self-directed, and assertive in their jobs. They are required to get the job done without being told exactly what to do. They are asked to be innovative and to work independently. These parents encourage their children to have those qualities as well by rewarding independence and self-reliance. Parenting styles can reflect many elements of culture.

The Development of Parents

Think back to an emotional event you experienced as a child. How did your parents react to you? Did your parents get frustrated or criticize you, or did they act patiently and provide support and guidance? Did your parents provide lots of rules for you or let you make decisions on your own? Why do you think your parents behaved the way they did?

Young couple with their baby girl.
Figure 9. Parenthood has a huge impact on a person’s identity, emotions, daily behaviors, and many other aspects of their lives. [Image: Kim881231, CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

Psychologists have attempted to answer these questions about the influences on parents and understand why parents behave the way they do. Because parents are critical to a child’s development, a great deal of research has been focused on the impact that parents have on children. Less is known, however, about the development of parents themselves and the impact of children on parents. Nonetheless, parenting is a major role in an adult’s life. Parenthood is often considered a normative developmental task of adulthood. Cross-cultural studies show that adolescents around the world plan to have children. In fact, most men and women in the United States will become parents by the age of 40 years (Martinez, Daniels, & Chandra, 2012).

People have children for many reasons, including emotional reasons (e.g., the emotional bond with children and the gratification the parent-child relationship brings), economic and utilitarian reasons (e.g., children provide help in the family and support in old age), and social-normative reasons (e.g., adults are expected to have children; children provide status) (Nauck, 2007).

The Changing Face of Parenthood

Parenthood is undergoing changes in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Children are less likely to be living with both parents, and women in the United States have fewer children than they did previously. The average fertility rate of women in the United States was about seven children in the early 1900s and has remained relatively stable at 2.1 since the 1970s (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2011; Martinez, Daniels, & Chandra, 2012). Not only are parents having fewer children, but the context of parenthood has also changed. Parenting outside of marriage has increased dramatically among most socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, although college-educated women are substantially more likely to be married at the birth of a child than are mothers with less education (Dye, 2010). Parenting is occurring outside of marriage for many reasons, both economic and social. People are having children at older ages, too. Despite the fact that young people are more often delaying childbearing, most 18- to 29-year-olds want to have children and say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life (Wang & Taylor, 2011).

Table 2. Demographic Changes in Parenthood in the United States
1960 2012
Average number of children (fertility rate) 3.6 2.1
Percent of births to unmarried women 5% 41%
Median age at first marriage for women 20.8 26.5
Percent of adults ages 18 to 29 married 59% 20%

Galinsky (1987) was one of the first to emphasize the development of parents themselves, how they respond to their children’s development, and how they grow as parents. Parenthood is an experience that transforms one’s identity as parents take on new roles. Children’s growth and development force parents to change their roles. They must develop new skills and abilities in response to children’s development. Galinsky identified six stages of parenthood that focus on different tasks and goals (see Table 2).

Table 3. Galinsky’s Stages of Parenthood
Age of Child Main Tasks and Goals
Stage 1: The Image-Making Stage Planning for a child; pregnancy Consider what it means to be a parent and plan for changes to accommodate a child
Stage 2: The Nurturing Stage Infancy Develop an attachment relationship with child and adapt to the new baby
Stage 3: The Authority Stage Toddler and preschool Parents create rules and figure out how to effectively guide their children’s behavior
Stage 4: The Interpretative Stage Middle childhood Parents help their children interpret their experiences with the social world beyond the family
Stage 5: The Interdependent Stage Adolescence Parents renegotiate their relationship with their adolescent children to allow for shared power in decision-making.
Stage 6: The Departure Stage Early Adulthood Parents evaluate their successes and failures as parents

1. The Image-Making Stage

As prospective parents think about and form images about their roles as parents and what parenthood will bring, and prepare for the changes an infant will bring, they enter the image-making stage. Future parents develop their ideas about what it will be like to be a parent and the type of parent they want to be. Individuals may evaluate their relationships with their own parents as a model of their roles as parents.

2. The Nurturing Stage

The second stage, the nurturing stage, occurs at the birth of the baby. A parent’s main goal during this stage is to develop an attachment relationship with their baby. Parents must adapt their romantic relationships, their relationships with their other children, and with their own parents to include the new infant. Some parents feel attached to the baby immediately, but for other parents, this occurs more gradually. Parents may have imagined their infant in specific ways, but they now have to reconcile those images with their actual baby. In incorporating their relationship with their child into their other relationships, parents often have to reshape their conceptions of themselves and their identity. Parenting responsibilities are the most demanding during infancy because infants are completely dependent on caregiving.

3. The Authority Stage

The authority stage occurs when children are 2 years old until about 4 or 5 years old. In this stage, parents make decisions about how much authority to exert over their children’s behavior. Parents must establish rules to guide their child’s behavior and development. They have to decide how strictly they should enforce rules and what to do when rules are broken.

4. The Interpretive Stage

The interpretive stage occurs when children enter school (preschool or kindergarten) to the beginning of adolescence. Parents interpret their children’s experiences as children are increasingly exposed to the world outside the family. Parents answer their children’s questions, provide explanations, and determine what behaviors and values to teach. They decide what experiences to provide their children, in terms of schooling, neighborhood, and extracurricular activities. By this time, parents have experience in the parenting role and often reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as parents, review their images of parenthood, and determine how realistic they have been. Parents have to negotiate how involved to be with their children, when to step in, and when to encourage children to make choices independently.

5. The Interdependent Stage

Parents of teenagers are in the interdependent stage. They must redefine their authority and renegotiate their relationship with their adolescent as the children increasingly make decisions independent of parental control and authority. On the other hand, parents do not permit their adolescent children to have complete autonomy over their decision-making and behavior, and thus adolescents and parents must adapt their relationship to allow for greater negotiation and discussion about rules and limits.

Smiling graduate with his parents.
Figure 10. When a child achieves a new level of independence and leaves the home it marks another turning point in the identity of a parent. [Image: State Farm, https://goo.gl/Npw2fb, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/BRvSA7]

6. The Departure Stage

During the departure stage of parenting, parents evaluate the entire experience of parenting. They prepare for their child’s departure, redefine their identity as the parent of an adult child, and assess their parenting accomplishments and failures. This stage forms a transition to a new era in parents’ lives. This stage usually spans a long time period from when the oldest child moves away (and often returns) until the youngest child leaves. The parenting role must be redefined as a less central role in a parent’s identity.

Despite the interest in the development of parents among laypeople and helping professionals, little research has examined developmental changes in parents’ experience and behaviors over time. Thus, it is not clear whether these theoretical stages are generalizable to parents of different races, ages, and religions, nor do we have empirical data on the factors that influence individual differences in these stages. On a practical note, how-to books and websites geared toward parental development should be evaluated with caution, as not all advice provided is supported by research.

Influences on Parenting

Parenting is a complex process in which parents and children influence one another. There are many reasons that parents behave the way they do. The multiple influences on parenting are still being explored. Proposed influences on parental behavior include 1) parent characteristics, 2) child characteristics, and 3) contextual and sociocultural characteristics (Belsky, 1984; Demick, 1999).

Parent Characteristics

Parents bring unique traits and qualities to the parenting relationship that affect their decisions as parents. These characteristics include the age of the parent, gender, beliefs, personality, developmental history, knowledge about parenting and child development, and mental and physical health. Parents’ personalities affect parenting behaviors. Mothers and fathers who are more agreeable, conscientious, and outgoing are warmer and provide more structure to their children. Parents who are more agreeable, less anxious, and less negative also support their children’s autonomy more than parents who are anxious and less agreeable (Prinzie, Stams, Dekovic, Reijntjes, & Belsky, 2009). Parents who have these personality traits appear to be better able to respond to their children positively and provide a more consistent, structured environment for their children.

Parents’ developmental histories, or their experiences as children, also affect their parenting strategies. Parents may learn parenting practices from their own parents. Fathers whose own parents provided monitoring, consistent and age-appropriate discipline, and warmth were more likely to provide this constructive parenting to their own children (Kerr, Capaldi, Pears, & Owen, 2009). Patterns of negative parenting and ineffective discipline also appear from one generation to the next. However, parents who are dissatisfied with their own parents’ approach may be more likely to change their parenting methods with their own children.

Child Characteristics

Small child crying
Figure 11. A child with a difficult temperament can have a significant impact on a parent. [Image: Harald Groven, https://goo.gl/cwemLg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/eH69he]

Parenting is bidirectional. Not only do parents affect their children, but children also influence their parents. Child characteristics, such as gender, birth order, temperament, and health status, affect parenting behaviors and roles. For example, an infant with an easy temperament may enable parents to feel more effective, as they are easily able to soothe the child and elicit smiling and cooing. On the other hand, a cranky or fussy infant elicits fewer positive reactions from his or her parents and may result in parents feeling less effective in the parenting role (Eisenberg et al., 2008). Over time, parents of more difficult children may become more punitive and less patient with their children (Clark, Kochanska, & Ready, 2000; Eisenberg et al., 1999; Kiff, Lengua, & Zalewski, 2011). Parents who have a fussy, difficult child are less satisfied with their marriages and have greater challenges in balancing work and family roles (Hyde, Else-Quest, & Goldsmith, 2004). Thus, child temperament is one of the child characteristics that influences how parents behave with their children.

Another child characteristic is the gender of the child. Parents respond differently to boys and girls. Parents often assign different household chores to their sons and daughters. Girls are more often responsible for caring for younger siblings and household chores, whereas boys are more likely to be asked to perform chores outside the home, such as mowing the lawn (Grusec, Goodnow, & Cohen, 1996). Parents also talk differently with their sons and daughters, providing more scientific explanations to their sons and using more emotion words with their daughters (Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001).

Contextual Factors and Sociocultural Characteristics

The parent-child relationship does not occur in isolation. Sociocultural characteristics, including economic hardship, religion, politics, neighborhoods, schools, and social support, also influence parenting. Parents who experience economic hardship are more easily frustrated, depressed, and sad, and these emotional characteristics affect their parenting skills (Conger & Conger, 2002). Culture also influences parenting behaviors in fundamental ways. Although promoting the development of skills necessary to function effectively in one’s community is a universal goal of parenting, the specific skills necessary vary widely from culture to culture. Thus, parents have different goals for their children that partially depend on their culture (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008). For example, parents vary in how much they emphasize goals for independence and individual achievements, and goals involving maintaining harmonious relationships and being embedded in a strong network of social relationships. These differences in parental goals are influenced by culture and by immigration status. Other important contextual characteristics, such as the neighborhood, school, and social networks, also affect parenting, even though these settings don’t always include both the child and the parent (Brofenbrenner, 1989). For example, Latina mothers who perceived their neighborhood as more dangerous showed less warmth with their children, perhaps because of the greater stress associated with living a threatening environment (Gonzales et al., 2011). Many contextual factors influence parenting.

Graphic showing the influences on parenting, including parent, child, and contextual influences. Parent characteristics include personality, developmental history, mental health, beliefs, knowledge, gender, and age. Child characteristics include temperament, gender, skills, behavior, age, and health. Contextual and sociocultural characteristics include social network, work setting, neighborhood, school, and culture.
Figure 12. Influences on parenting include characteristics of the parent and child, as well as the context and world around them.

A group of young adults conversing in the workplace

Child Care Concerns

About 75.7 percent of mothers of school-aged and 65.1 percent of mothers of preschool-aged children in the United States work outside the home. Since more women have been entering the workplace, there has been a concern that families do not spend as much time with their children. This, however, may not be true. Between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time that parents spent with children increased overall (Sandberg and Hofferth, 2001). Modern numbers for this vary widely, as many parents who work outside of the home also devote significant amounts of time to childcare, to 14 hours a week, compared with 10 in 1965. The amount of this time that is undistracted and involved may be close to 34 minutes a day.

Seventy-five percent of children under age 5 are in scheduled child care programs. Others are cared for by family members, friends, or are in Head Start Programs. Older children are often in after school programs, before school programs, or stay at home alone after school once they are older. Quality childcare programs can enhance a child’s social skills and can provide rich learning experiences. But long hours in poor quality care can have negative consequences for young children in particular. What determines the quality of child care? One very important consideration is the teacher/child ratio. States specify the maximum number of children that can be supervised by one teacher. In general, the younger the children, the more teachers required for a given number of children. The lower the teacher to child ratio, the more time the teacher has for involvement with the children and the less stressed the teacher may be so that the interactions can be more relaxed, stimulating, and positive. The more children there are in a program, the less desirable the program as well. This is because the center may be more rigid in rules and structure to accommodate a large number of children in the facility.

The physical environment should be colorful, stimulating, clean, and safe. The philosophy of the organization and the curriculum available should be child-centered, positive, and stimulating. Providers should be trained in early childhood education as well. A majority of states do not require training for their child care providers. And while a formal education is not required for a person to provide a warm, loving relationship to a child, knowledge of a child’s development is useful for addressing their social, emotional, and cognitive needs in an effective way. By working toward improving the quality of childcare and increasing family-friendly workplace policies, such as more flexible scheduling and perhaps childcare facilities at places of employment, we can accommodate families with smaller children and relieve parents of the stress sometimes associated with managing work and family life.

Learning and Behavior Modification

Parenting and Behaviorism

Parenting generally involves many opportunities to apply principles of behaviorism, especially operant conditioning. In discussing operant conditioning, we use several everyday words—positive, negative, reinforcement, and punishment—in a specialized manner. In operant conditioning, positive and negative do not mean good and bad. Instead, positive means you are adding something, and negative means you are taking something away. Reinforcement means you are increasing a behavior, and punishment means you are decreasing a behavior. Reinforcement can be positive or negative, and punishment can also be positive or negative. All reinforcers (positive or negative) increase the likelihood of a behavioral response. All punishers (positive or negative) decrease the likelihood of a behavioral response. Now let’s combine these four terms: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. (See table below.)

Table 1. Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment
Reinforcement Punishment
Positive Something is added to increase the likelihood of a behavior. Something is added to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.
Negative Something is removed to increase the likelihood of a behavior. Something is removed to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

The most effective way to teach a person or animal a new behavior is with positive reinforcement. In positive reinforcement, a stimulus is added to the situation to increase a behavior. Parents and teachers use positive reinforcement all the time, from offering dessert after dinner, praising children for cleaning their room or completing some work, offering a toy at the end of a successful piano recital, or earning more time for recess. The goal of providing these forms of positive reinforcement is to increase the likelihood of the same behavior occurring in the future.

Positive reinforcement is an extremely effective learning tool, as evidenced by nearly 80 years worth of research. That said, there are many ways to introduce positive reinforcement into a situation. Many people believe that reinforcers must be tangible, but research shows that verbal praise and hugs are very effective reinforcers for people of all ages. Further, research suggests that constantly providing tangible reinforcers may actually be counterproductive in certain situations. For example, paying children for their grades may undermine their intrinsic motivation to go to school and do well. While children who are paid for their grades may maintain good grades, it is to receive the reinforcing pay, not because they have an intrinsic desire to do well. The impact is especially detrimental to students who initially have a high level of intrinsic motivation to do well in school. Therefore, we must provide appropriate reinforcement, and be careful to ensure that the reinforcement does not undermine intrinsic motivation.

In negative reinforcement, an aversive stimulus is removed to increase a behavior. For example, car manufacturers use the principles of negative reinforcement in their seatbelt systems, which go “beep, beep, beep” until you fasten your seatbelt. The annoying sound stops when you exhibit the desired behavior, increasing the likelihood that you will buckle up in the future. Negative reinforcement is also used frequently in horse training. Riders apply pressure—by pulling the reins or squeezing their legs—and then remove the pressure when the horse performs the desired behavior, such as turning or speeding up. The pressure is the negative stimulus that the horse wants to remove.

Sometimes, adding something to the situation is reinforcing as in the cases we described above with cookies, praise, and money. Positive reinforcement involves adding something to the situation in order to encourage a behavior. Other times, taking something away from a situation can be reinforcing. For example, the loud, annoying buzzer on your alarm clock encourages you to get up so that you can turn it off and get rid of the noise. Children whine in order to get their parents to do something and often, parents give in just to stop the whining. In these instances, children have used negative reinforcement to get what they want.

Operant conditioning tends to work best if you focus on trying to encourage a behavior or move a person into the direction you want them to go rather than telling them what not to do. Reinforcers are used to encourage behavior; punishers are used to stop the behavior. A punisher is anything that follows an act and decreases the chance it will reoccur. As with reinforcement, there are also two types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment.

Positive punishment involves adding something in order to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future. Spanking is an example of positive punishment. Receiving a speeding ticket is also an example of positive punishment. Both of these punishers, the spanking and the speeding ticket, are intended to decrease the reoccurrence of the related behavior.

Negative punishment involves removing something that is desired in order to decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future. Putting a child in time out can serve as a negative punishment if the child enjoys social interaction. Taking away a child’s technology privileges can also be a negative punishment. Taking away something that is desired encourages the child to refrain from engaging in that behavior again in order to not lose the desired object or activity.

Often, punished behavior doesn’t really go away. It is just suppressed and may reoccur whenever the threat of punishment is removed. For example, a child may not cuss around you because you’ve washed his mouth out with soap, but he may cuss around his friends. A motorist may only slow down when the trooper is on the side of the freeway. Another problem with punishment is that when a person focuses on punishment, they may find it hard to see what the other does right or well. Punishment is stigmatizing; when punished, some people start to see themselves as bad and give up trying to change.

Reinforcement can occur in a predictable way, such as after every desired action is performed (called continuous reinforcement), or intermittently, after the behavior is performed a number of times or the first time it is performed after a certain amount of time (called partial reinforcement whether based on the number of times or the passage of time). The schedule of reinforcement has an impact on how long a behavior continues after reinforcement is discontinued. So a parent who has rewarded a child’s actions each time may find that the child gives up very quickly if a reward is not immediately forthcoming. Children will learn quickest under a continuous schedule of reinforcement. Then the parent should switch to a schedule of partial reinforcement to maintain the behavior.

Everyday Connection: Behavior Modification in Children

Parents and teachers often use behavior modification to change a child’s behavior. Behavior modification uses the principles of operant conditioning to accomplish behavior change so that undesirable behaviors are switched for more socially acceptable ones. Some teachers and parents create a sticker chart, in which several behaviors are listed. Sticker charts are a form of token economies. Each time children perform the behavior, they get a sticker, and after a certain number of stickers, they get a prize or reinforcer. The goal is to increase acceptable behaviors and decrease misbehavior. Remember, it is best to reinforce desired behaviors, rather than to use punishment. In the classroom, the teacher can reinforce a wide range of behaviors, from students raising their hands to walking quietly in the hall, to turning in their homework. At home, parents might create a behavior chart that rewards children for things such as putting away toys, brushing their teeth, and helping with dinner. In order for behavior modification to be effective, the reinforcement needs to be connected with the behavior; the reinforcement must matter to the child and be provided consistently.

A photograph shows a child placing stickers on a chart hanging on the wall.
Figure 5. Sticker charts are a form of positive reinforcement and a tool for behavior modification. Once this little girl earns a certain number of stickers for demonstrating the desired behavior, she will be rewarded with a trip to the ice cream parlor. (credit: Abigail Batchelder)

Time-out is another popular technique used in behavior modification with children. It operates on the principle of negative punishment. When a child demonstrates an undesirable behavior, she is removed from the desirable activity at hand. For example, say that Sophia and her brother Mario are playing with building blocks. Sophia throws some blocks at her brother, so you give her a warning that she will go to time-out if she does it again. A few minutes later, she throws more blocks at Mario. You remove Sophia from the room for a few minutes. When she comes back, she doesn’t throw blocks.

There are several important points that you should know if you plan to implement time-out as a behavior modification technique. First, make sure the child is being removed from a desirable activity and placed in a less desirable location. If the activity is something undesirable for the child, this technique will backfire because it is more enjoyable for the child to be removed from the activity. Second, the length of the time-out is important. The general rule of thumb is one minute for each year of the child’s age. Sophia is five; therefore, she sits in a time-out for five minutes. Setting a timer helps children know how long they have to sit in time-out. Finally, as a caregiver, keep several guidelines in mind over the course of a time-out: remain calm when directing your child to time-out; ignore your child during a time-out (because caregiver attention may reinforce misbehavior), and give the child a hug or a kind word when time-out is over.

Photograph A shows several children climbing on playground equipment. Photograph B shows a child sitting alone at a table looking at the playground.
Figure 6. A time-out is a popular form of negative punishment used by caregivers. When a child misbehaves, he or she is removed from a desirable activity in an effort to decrease the unwanted behavior. For example, (a) a child might be playing on the playground with friends and push another child; (b) the child who misbehaved would then be removed from the activity for a short period of time. (credit a: modification of work by Simone Ramella; credit b: modification of work by “JefferyTurner”/Flickr)

Do parents socialize children or do children socialize parents?

Bandura’s (1986) findings suggest that there is interplay between the environment and the individual. We are not just the product of our surroundings, rather we influence our surroundings. There is interplay between our personality and the way we interpret events and how they influence us. This concept is called reciprocal determinism. An example of this might be the interplay between parents and children. Parents not only influence their child’s environment, perhaps intentionally through the use of reinforcement, etc., but children influence parents as well. Parents may respond differently to their first child than with their fourth. Perhaps they try to be the perfect parents with their firstborn, but by the time their last child comes along, they have very different expectations of themselves and their child. Our environment creates us and we create our environment. Today there are numerous other social influences, from TV, games, the Internet, i-pads, phones, social media, influencers, advertisements, etc.

learning outcomes

Theories of Early Adult Psychosocial Development

Gaining Adult Status

Many of the developmental tasks of early adulthood involve becoming part of the adult world and gaining independence. Young adults sometimes complain that they are not treated with respect, especially if they are put in positions of authority over older workers. Consequently, young adults may emphasize their age to gain credibility from those who are even slightly younger. “You’re only 23? I’m 27!” a young adult might exclaim. [Note: This kind of statement is much less likely to come from someone in their 40s!]

The focus of early adulthood is often on the future. Many aspects of life are on hold while people go to school, go to work, and prepare for a brighter future. There may be a belief that the hurried life now lived will improve ‘as soon as I finish school’ or ‘as soon as I get promoted’ or ‘as soon as the children get a little older.’ As a result, time may seem to pass rather quickly. The day consists of meeting many demands that these tasks bring. The incentive for working so hard is that it will all result in a better future.

Levinson’s Theory

In 1978, Daniel Levinson published a book entitled, The Seasons of a Man’s Life in which he presented a theory of development in adulthood. Levinson’s work was based on in-depth interviews with 40 men between the ages of 35-45. According to Levinson, young adults have an image of the future that motivates them. This image is called “the dream” and for the men interviewed, it was a dream of how their career paths would progress and where they would be at midlife. Dreams are very motivating. Dreams of a home bring excitement to couples as they look, save, and fantasize about how life will be. Dreams of careers motivate students to continue in school as they fantasize about how much their hard work will pay off. Dreams of playgrounds on a summer day inspire would-be parents. A dream is perfect and retains that perfection as long as it remains in the future. But as the realization of it moves closer, it may or may not measure up to its image. If it does, all is well. But if it does not, the image must be replaced or modified. And so, in adulthood, plans are made, efforts follow, and plans are reevaluated. This creating and recreating characterizes Levinson’s theory. (The shift from idealistic dreams to more realistic experiences might remind us of the cognitive development progression from formal to postformal thought in adulthood.)

Levinson’s stages (at least up to midlife) are presented below (Levinson, 1978). He suggested that periods of transition last about five years and periods of stability last about seven years. The ages presented below are based on life in the middle-class several decades ago. Think about how these ages and transitions might be different today, or in other cultures, or for women compared to men.

Nearly twenty years after his original research, Levinson interviewed 45 women ages 35-45 and published the book, The seasons of a woman’s life. He reported similar patterns with women, although women held a “split dream”—an image of the future in both work and family life and a concern with the timing and coordination of the two. Traditionally, by working outside the home, men were seen as taking care of their families. However, for women, working outside the home and taking care of their families were perceived as separate and competing for their time and attention. Hence, one aspect of the women’s dreams was focused on one goal for several years and then their time and attention shifted towards the other, often resulting in delays in women’s career dreams.

Three women around 40 years old, celebrating at a party by blowing confetti.
Figure 3. Women are often torn between caring for their families and advancing their careers outside of the home.

Adulthood, then, is a period of building and rebuilding one’s life. Many of the decisions that are made in early adulthood are made before a person has had enough experience to really understand the consequences of such decisions. And, perhaps, many of these initial decisions are made with one goal in mind – to be seen as an adult. As a result, early decisions may be driven more by the expectations of others. For example, imagine someone who chose a career path based on other’s advice but now finds that the job is not what was expected. 

The age 30 transition may involve recommitting to the same job, not because it’s stimulating, but because it pays well; or the person may decide to go back to school and change careers. Settling down may involve settling down with a new set of expectations. As the adult gains status, he or she may be freer to make more independent choices. And sometimes these are very different from those previously made. The midlife transition differs from the age 30 transition in that the person is more aware of how much time has gone by and how much time is left. This brings a sense of urgency and impatience about making changes. The future focus of early adulthood gives way to an emphasis on the present in midlife–we will explore this in our next module. Overall, Levinson calls our attention to the dynamic nature of adulthood.

Think It Over