What Is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is the study of how humans grow, change, and adapt across the course of their lives. Developmental psychologists research the stages of physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development from the prenatal stage to infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Learn more about developmental psychology, including the definition, types, life stages, and how to seek treatment when necessary.

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Definition

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), developmental psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on how human beings grow, change, adapt, and mature across various life stages.

In each of the life stages of developmental psychology, people generally meet certain physical, emotional, and social milestones. These are the major life stages, according to developmental psychologists:

  • Prenatal development: Developmental psychologists are interested in diagnoses, such as Down syndrome, that might be noticed during the prenatal (before birth) stage. They also investigate how maternal behaviors (behaviors of the pregnant parent), such as nutrition and drug use, could affect the developing fetus.
  • Early childhood: Developmental psychologists are interested in whether young children are meeting key milestones, such as walking, talking, and developing fine motor skills (coordination in the hands, fingers, and wrists). They might also be interested in a child’s attachment to their parents and other caregivers.
  • Middle childhood: In this stage, children learn about the world and acquire knowledge through experimentation, questioning, and observation. They begin to develop logical and moral reasoning skills.
  • Adolescence: Adolescence is a time of major strides in terms of personal development and identity formation. Teens and young adults might experiment with various identities, career choices, or areas of interest.
  • Early adulthood: During early adulthood, most people are focused on preparing for the rest of their lives through a focus on education, career, and financial independence. Romantic relationships, marriage, family-building, setting down “roots,” and child-rearing are often a focus of this life stage.
  • Middle adulthood: Middle-aged adults are often focused on helping the next generation, whether in their own family or their community. They are also often interested in the legacy they’ll leave behind.
  • Older adulthood: In addition to physical health challenges, older people might face issues like dementia or cognitive decline (decline in thinking, remembering, and reasoning). Older adults also often need to reflect on their lives, tell their stories, and find meaning and peace within the aging process.

The Origins of Developmental Psychology

During its early development as a branch of psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, developmental psychology focused on infant and child development. As the field grew, so did its focus. Today, developmental psychologists focus on all stages of the human life span. 

Types

As developmental psychology grew over time, various researchers proposed theories about how to understand the process of human development. Depending on their training, a developmental psychologist might focus on a specific theory or approach within the field. 

Here are a few of the major branches of developmental psychology.

Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Building on Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoananlysis Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, psychologist Erik Erikson proposed a life span theory that included eight stages of psychosocial development.

Each of the stages corresponds to both an age range and a core “crisis” (such as trust vs. mistrust in infancy) that must be resolved before someone can move on to the next.

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development focuses on how a typical child learns to make sense of their world through observation, experimentation, logical reasoning, and analysis.

It includes four stages of intellectual development, beginning at birth and ending at age 12.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory, originally developed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby, establishes the importance of a supportive, steady, and loving caregiver in infant and child development.

If a child doesn’t establish such a connection, or if they experience parental separation or loss, they might continue to have a hard time with healthy attachments as they get older.

Sociocultural Developmental Theory

While Bowlby considered the importance of the immediate family in child development, psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural developmental theory looks at the role of society.

Cultural influences and beliefs can have a profound impact on how a person views their own identity and relates to others.

How It Works

Some developmental psychologists conduct research into a particular aspect of human development, such as physical growth, intellectual development, social/emotional progress, or communication skills. Others study trends in a community over time, such as how people from different sociocultural backgrounds view the aging process.

Developmental psychologists can also directly diagnose and treat various conditions. For example, a developmental psychologist could refer a parent to a speech-language pathologist or physical therapist if their child isn’t meeting the usual developmental milestones (such as walking or talking) by the typical age. They might also diagnose someone with a learning disability or help an older adult in hospice care (end-of-life care) who feels unsatisfied when they look back at their life.

Conditions Treated

Developmental psychologists can help people address developmental issues in order to reach their full potential. 

Some of the conditions a developmental psychologist might treat are:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Developmental delays
  • Motor skill delays
  • Issues with social and emotional development
  • Auditory processing (hearing) disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Speech and language delays
  • Dementia
  • Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, especially related to life stages

Training and Certifications

The training required to become a developmental psychologist is similar to that in other subfields of psychology, according to the APA. Most developmental psychologists start with an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field, followed by a master’s degree and a doctoral degree (PhD). 

There are many master’s, graduate certificate, and PhD programs in developmental psychology in the United States. Some focus on a certain part of a person's life span, such as child and adolescent development. In addition to research and teaching, graduates may participate in a practicum or internship to pursue licensing as a therapist. 

Seeking Treatment

If you're concerned that your child is facing a developmental delay, a developmental psychologist can assess them to ensure that they are meeting their milestones. It's best to seek an assessment, diagnosis, and treatment early, so you can get interventions as soon as possible, if needed.

A developmental psychologist might perform physical and/or cognitive testing to diagnose your child or refer them to another specialist, such as a:

  • Physical therapist (helps people improve movement and manage pain)
  • Occupational therapist (helps people adjust to everyday activities after injury, illness, or disability)
  • Speech-language pathologist (treats speech, language, and social and
    cognitive communication)
  • Psychotherapist (uses talk therapy to treat mental health conditions)
  • Neurologist (medical doctor who treats disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves)
  • Psychiatrist (medical doctor specializing in mental health disorders)

A developmental psychologist will also likely ask you and your child questions about their issues in areas of their life such as friends, behavior, or school performance.

Developmental psychologists don’t only work with infants and children. They can also help you at any stage of your life. In particular, many older adults benefit from working with a developmental psychologist if they're experiencing symptoms of dementia, ill health, or cognitive decline.

Summary

Developmental psychology is the study of how human beings grow and change over the course of their lives. Many developmental psychologists focus on the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development of infants, children, and adolescents. Others treat and assess people of all ages. 

Developmental psychologists can treat issues such as developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, speech and language delays, motor skill delays, dementia, anxiety, depression, auditory processing disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and more. They also make referrals to other specialists, such as physical therapists, psychiatrists, and speech-language pathologists. 

A Word From Verywell

If you're feeling challenged with an aspect of your development or wondering whether your child is meeting their developmental milestones, a developmental psychologist can help you. While everyone develops at a different pace, it's always beneficial to address any issues that might arise along the way so you can reach your full potential. 

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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