An Overview of Developmental Psychology

People go through many changes over the course of their lives. Development describes the growth of humans throughout the lifespan, from conception to death. The scientific study of human development seeks to understand and explain how and why people change throughout life. By understanding the process of normative development, professionals are better able to spot potential problems and provide early interventions that can result in better outcomes.

What Is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is the branch of psychology that studies how people grow and change over the course of a lifetime. Developmental psychologists do not just study the physical changes that occur as people grow; they also look at the social, emotional, and cognitive development that occurs throughout life.

Some of the many issues that developmental psychologists deal with include:

Researchers spend a lot of time investigating how these processes occur under normal circumstances, but they are also interested in learning about things that can disrupt the developmental processes.

By better understanding how and why people change and grow, we can then apply this knowledge to helping people live up to their full potential. Understanding the course of normal human development and recognizing potential problems early on is important because untreated developmental problems may lead to difficulties with depression, low self-esteem, frustration, and low achievement in school.

Developmental psychologists often utilize a number of theories to think about different aspects of human development. Some of the best-known of these theories include Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Bowlby's theory of attachment, Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, and Vygotsky's theory of sociocultural development. Each approach tends to stress different aspects of development such as mental, social, or parental influences on how children grow and progress.

When You Might Need a Developmental Psychologist

While development tends to follow a fairly predictable pattern, there are times when things might go off course. Parents often focus on what are known as developmental milestones, which represent abilities that most children tend to display by a certain point in development. These developmental milestones typically focus on one of four different areas: physical, cognitive, social/emotional, and communication milestones. For example, walking is one physical milestone that most children achieve sometime between the ages of 9 and 15 months.

If a child is not walking or attempting to walk by 16 to 18 months, parents might consider consulting with their family physician to determine if a developmental issue might be present.

While all children develop at different rates, when a child fails to meet certain milestones by a certain age, there may be cause for concern. By being aware of these milestones, parents can seek assistance and healthcare professionals can offer interventions that can help kids overcome developmental delays.

Developmental psychologists can provide support to individuals at all points of life that may be facing developmental issues or problems related to aging. These professionals often evaluate children to determine if a developmental delay might be present, or they might work with elderly patients who are facing health concerns associated with old age such as cognitive declines, physical struggles, emotional difficulties, or degenerative brain disorders.

Concerns You Might Face at Different Stages of Development

As you might imagine, developmental psychologists often break down development according to various phases of life. Each of these periods of development represents a time when different milestones are typically achieved. People may face particular challenges at each point, and developmental psychologists can often help people who might be struggling with problems to get back on track.

Prenatal: The prenatal period is of interest to developmental psychologists who seek to understand how the earliest influences on development can impact later growth during childhood. Psychologists may look at how primary reflexes emerge before birth, how fetuses respond to stimuli in the womb, and the sensations and perceptions that fetuses are capable of detecting prior to birth. Developmental psychologists may also look at potential problems such as Down Syndrome, maternal drug use, and inherited diseases that might have an impact on the course of future development.

Early Childhood: The period from infancy through early childhood is a time of remarkable growth and change. Developmental psychologists look at things such as the physical, cognitive, and emotional growth that takes place during this critical period of development. In addition to providing interventions for potential developmental problems at this point, psychologists are also focused on helping kids achieve their full potential. Parents and healthcare experts are often on the lookout to ensure that kids are growing properly, receiving adequate nutrition, and achieving cognitive milestones appropriate for their age.

Middle Childhood: This period of development is marked by both physical maturation and an increased importance of social influences as children make their way through elementary school. Kids begin to make their mark on the world as they form friendships, gain competency through schoolwork, and continue to build their unique sense of self.

Adolescence: The teenage years are often the subject of considerable interest as children experience the psychological turmoil and transition that often accompanies this period of development. Psychologists such as Erik Erikson were especially interested in looking at how navigating this period leads to identity formation. At this age, kids often test limits and explore new identities as they explore the question of who they are and who they want to be.

Early Adulthood: This period of life is often marked by forming and maintaining relationships. Forming bonds, intimacy, close friendships, and starting a family are often critical milestones during early adulthood. Those who can build and sustain such relationships tend to experience connectedness and social support while those who struggle with such relationships may be left feeling alienated and lonely.

Middle Adulthood: This stage of life tends to center on developing a sense of purpose and contributing to society. Erikson described this as the conflict between generativity and stagnation. Those who engage in the world, contribute things that will outlast them, and leave a mark on the next generation emerge with a sense of purpose. Activities such as careers, families, group memberships, and community involvement are all things that can contribute to this feeling of generativity.

Old Age: The senior years are often viewed as a period of moribund health, yet many older adults are capable of remaining active and busy well into their 80s and 90s. Increased health concerns mark this period of development, and some individuals may experience mental declines related to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Erikson also viewed the elder years as a time of reflection back on life. Those who are able to look back and see a life well lived emerge with a sense of wisdom and readiness to face the end of their lives, while those who look back with regret may be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.

If You Have Been Diagnosed With a Developmental Issue

To determine if a developmental problem is present, a psychologist or other highly trained professional may administer either a developmental screening or evaluation. Such an evaluation typically involves interviews with parents and other caregivers to learn about behaviors they may have observed, a review of a child's medical history, and standardized testing to measure functioning in terms of communication, social/emotional skills, physical/motor development, and cognitive skills. If a problem is found to be present, the patient may then be referred to a specialist such as a speech-language pathologist, physical therapist, or occupational therapist.

Receiving such a diagnosis can often feel both confusing and frightening, particularly when it is your own child who is affected. Once you or your loved one has received a diagnosis of a developmental issue, spend some time learning as much as you can about the diagnosis and available treatments. Prepare a list of questions and concerns you may have and be sure to discuss these issues with your doctor, developmental psychologist, and other healthcare professionals who may be part of your treatment team. By taking an active role in the process, you will feel better informed and equipped to tackle the next steps in the treatment process.

A Word From Verywell

Developmental psychology is a rich and complex topic that touches on virtually every aspect of our lives. From the earliest influences on life to the complex health issues that people face as they age, developmental psychology allows psychologists, researchers, and healthcare experts to understand better the many factors that influence how people change and grow at all stages of life. Developmental psychologists play a critical role in the diagnosis and treatment of developmental issues that may impact physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language functioning and the early identification of potential problems can lead to faster, more effective interventions.


Erikson, E.H. (1968).Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E.H. (1963).Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

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