Psychology Topics > Child Psychology


Child Psychology, often referred to as Child Development, examines the psychological aspects that occur during childhood (from birth to puberty). An incredible number of changes occur during childhood, especially during infancy, which lasts from birth to age two. In particular, there are massive advances in physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development...all of which are key areas of study within child psychology.

At one time, many believed that children were simply "small adults" and not vastly different from adults. Today, however, most recognize that there are great qualitative differences that make children unique.

Developmental Psychologists study the physical, mental, and social changes that occur during the lifecycle. Thus, child psychologists focus on these changes that occur from birth to adolescence. Click here for a more in-depth definition of Developmental Psychology. In this section, we will not explore conception-to-birth, but will focus on birth to adolescence.

Key Figures & Theories

Arguably the most influential figure in child development is Jean Piaget and his theory of cognitive development. Piaget was a Swiss psychologist that believed children learn through hands on experience, have successes and failures, then use these successes and failures to form their own mental representation of the world. Piaget also believed that children learn in a reliable, staged manner (i.e., they go through different stages of development) and move from one stage to another once they achieve specific developmental milestones.

Piaget's called this theory the Theory of Cognitive Development, and included four stages: Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational.

  • Sensorimotor Stage occurs from Birth - 2 years. During this stage children experience the world through their senses and actions such as touching, looking, etc. Once the child accomplishes the milestones of Object Permanence (i.e., the knowledge that an object exists even when hidden from view) and Stranger Anxiety they've successfully completed this stage and move to the next stage.
  • Preoperational Stage occurs from 2 years - 6 years. During this stage, children are able to represent the world with words and images, but they're still not able to use true logical reasoning. Developmental milestones are pretending and egocentrism.
  • Concrete Operational Stage occurs from 7 years - 11 years. During this stage, children learn Conservation: that the quantity of concrete materials (objects, liquids) remains constant even if the organization and/or shape changes (see video). For example, pouring liquid into glasses of different sizes does not change the amount of liquid. In other words, they learn that a change in shape does not mean there's a change in quantity or volume.
  • Formal Operational Stage occurs from ~12 year through adulthood. During this stage, children learn to use abstract reasoning. This is a major step as reasoning now goes beyond the concrete (requiring actual experience) to abstract thinking that involves symbols and imagination. A milestone at this stage is the potential for moral reasoning.

Just like Piaget believed we pass through stages of cognitive development, Erik Erikson stated that children pass through stages of psychosocial development. Each stage of development has a specific conflict (the conflict is also the name of the stage) that the child has to overcome before moving to the next stage. If a child is unable to successfully overcome a particular conflict, the child will remain stuck at that stage until he or she is able to resolve that issue. The stages of Erikson's psychosocial development are as follows...

  • Trust vs. Mistrust (this is the stage and the conflict) occurs from birth to 1 year. To resolve this conflict, the child must develop a sense of security
  • Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt occurs from age 1 - 2. To resolve the conflict, the child must a achieve a sense of independence
  • Initiative vs. Guilt occurs from age 3 - 5. To resolve this conflict, the child must find a balance between restraint and being spontaneous (can't just do everything want whenever they want)
  • Industry vs. Inferiority occurs from age 6 through puberty. To resolve this conflict, the child must develop a sense of self-confidence
  • Identity vs. Role Confusion occurs through adolescence. To resolve the conflict, the adolescent experiences a unified sense of self
  • Intimacy vs. Isolation occurs from puberty to young adulthood . To resolve the conflict, the young adult must form close personal relationships with others
  • Generativity vs. Stagnation occurs through middle adulthood. To resolve the conflict, the adult must learn to promote the well-being of others and not be focused completely on themselves
  • Integrity vs. Despair occurs through late adulthood. At this stage, the adult enjoys a sense of satisfaction with themselves and life by reflecting on a well-lived life

Another important topic is Attachment, which can be defined as an emotional tie or bond between two people. Attachment can pertain to all people, regardless of age, but typically relates to the attachment between children and caregivers (usually the mother), and is a very powerful bond that is important for survival - it keeps infants close to their mothers which is important for getting food, staying away from danger, and getting comfort.

John Bowlby was a leader in the development of Attachment Theory. One of the critical elements of attachment theory is that young children need to develop secure relationships to a single, primary caregiver in order for "normal" social and emotional development to occur. Bowlby believed that obtaining attachment is stressful and that children become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive, and are a consistent primary caregiver to the child from 6 months to 2 years of age. As children go through this process and develop secure attachments, they are enabled to explore the world and then return without distress. When children do not form secure attachments, they exhibit stressful behaviors when separated, such as separation anxiety.

Mary Ainsworth followed Bowlby and made significant contributions to our understanding of attachment and secure attachment. Ainsworth used Bowlby's earlier work to conduct her own research observing infant-parent dyads in their own homes and later in the laboratory. What she discovered was that some children became "securely attached" while other children became "insecurely attached". A child with a secure attachment seeks contact with the mother, but then is willing to leave the mother and explore the surroundings, using the mother as a secure base to return to. Conversely, a child with an insecure attachment clings to her mother, protests strongly when the mother tries to leave, is less willing to explore, and then acts angrily or is unresponsive to the mother when she returns.

Ainsworth used Stranger Wariness, also Stranger Anxiety, to assess children for attachment styles. Stranger anxiety usually occurs in infants between 8-9 months of age. At this age, they begin to notice that some people are different than others and they show a preference to those who are more familiar or that they have an attachment to. Through observation, researchers discovered that children become the most distressed if a stranger comes into a familiar environment to the child rather than one that in unfamiliar. This may be a result of expectations. The child does not expect someone unfamiliar to come into their room whereas they might expect to see a stranger in a new environment. Either way, however, a child at this stage will show some amount of wariness or distress and desire the comfort of a caregiver. The degree of the child's distress is also partly dependent on the strength of their attachments to caregivers.

Another important psychologist, Harry Harlow, conducted experiments with monkeys that supported the attachment theories of Bowlby and Ainsworth. He noticed while experimenting with monkeys that they became very distressed when a cloth was removed from their cage to be replaced or cleaned. He theorized that the monkeys found comfort by nestling in the cloth as if they had formed a type of attachment with it. In order to investigate his observations further, he took infant monkeys and paired them with either a fake surrogate monkey constructed of wire or terry cloth.

In some experiments, Harlow attached a bottle of milk to the terry cloth monkey and in others he attached the bottle of milk to the wire monkey. Then he observed the infant monkey's reactions to ascertain which surrogate the monkey preferred. Harlow also wanted to see if the monkeys could be taught or conditioned to prefer one surrogate over the other if it was the only one that had an attached bottle of milk. He found that the monkeys always preferred the cloth surrogate mother over the wire surrogate whether it provided milk or not. In the cases where only the wire surrogate had the bottle, the monkey would temporarily feed from the wire mother and then immediately go back to the cloth mother.

Harlow also did similar trials with the monkeys by putting them in large rooms with objects for the monkeys to interact with. He also placed either the wire or cloth surrogate monkey in these rooms. In these experiments, the monkeys would show distress at the unfamiliar environment and cling to the cloth mother if available. After clinging to the cloth mother for awhile, the monkeys would let go and explore the room and objects. If the cloth mother was not in the room, however, the monkeys continually displayed distress and did not explore, even if the wire surrogate was present.

These experiments were important to developmental psychology because the findings supported that emotional comfort and physical touch through a secure attachment was extremely important for psychological and social health. No matter whether the monkeys in these experiments were fully or partially isolated, if there was no comfort or secure attachment, they all displayed psychological distress to a low or high degree. Similar effects were observed with the children in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s.

Recent studies in attachment have also discovered the impact of a chemical in the brain called oxytocin. Researchers found that higher levels of oxytocin were correlated with feelings of well-being and security in relationships. They also found that oxytocin was released in both an infant and mother's brain during closeness and cuddling. This oxytocin also strengthened the attachment of the mother and child. Therefore, scientists have hypothesized that this early imprinting of oxytocin in the reward centers of the brain could also lead to future attachment styles as an adult. Researchers found that those people who did not experience secure attachments as infants, had more difficulty with relationships as adults and also a less developed reward system in the brain.

In addition to physical and psychological development, moral development also has important roots in childhood. Two important theorists in the study of moral development were Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg.

Piaget believed moral development consisted of two stages. One based on consequences and the other based on motives. Consider the following two scenarios on the context of Piaget's moral stages:

A mother placed a cookie jar on a high shelf to stop Sam from getting any cookies. After she left, Sam broke a cup while trying to steal the cookies.

Tevis went into the kitchen to help his mother clean but accidentally broke 10 cups.

In stage 1 (0-10 years old) of Piaget's moral development theory, children see rules as absolute and unchangeable. Their judgments are based on consequences- wrong and right- punishment versus no punishment. If a child in this stage was asked "Who should be punished in the above scenarios? Sam or Tevis?" The child would respond, "Tevis, because he broke the most cups."

Children at stage 2 (11 years +) of Piaget's moral development base their judgments on intentions and motives. If they were asked the same question, "Who should be punished?" They would say, "Sam. Because he broke the cup while trying to steal cookies."

Lawrence Kohlberg expounded on Piaget's two moral stages. His theory in contrast consisted of 3 levels and 6 stages. These stages and levels are outlined below.

Stage 1 - Obedience and Punishment
In this stage, rules are absolute and the child obeys rules in order to avoid punishment. They see problems as black or white. Either a choice is against the rules or it isn't. There are no exceptions and people who break the rules should be punished.

Stage 2 - Individualism and Exchange
In the second stage, children recognize people have different individual needs. Therefore, a person should make a decision based on which outcome will best serve those individual needs.

Stage 3 - Interpersonal Relationships
At this stage, children focus on social expectations. It is also referred to as the "good girl- good boy" stage. They believe in conformity, being nice, and how these choices will affect social relationships.

Stage 4 - Maintaining Social Order
Stage four consists of the importance of following laws and rules that are set by society. This is different from stage 1 because it is not based solely on punishment, but on how obedience to laws helps society.

Stage 5 - Social Contract and Individual Rights
In stage 5, people take individual needs into account when making decisions. People believe that laws should meet the needs of the majority. It is a democratic view in that people in this stage believe the majority vote should be the deciding factor in the creation of laws and rules.

Stage 6 - Universal Principles
This final stage concerns ethics. At this stage, people believe that laws can be broken if they are unjust.

In order to determine what stage of moral development an individual was at, Kohlberg gave them a scenario and asked what the person in the scenario should do. Kohlberg was not interested in whether the individual said yes or no, but in the reasoning they had for saying yes or no.