What is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is the study of how humans grow, change and adapt throughout life. Developmental psychologists study the stages of physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development from the prenatal period through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Learn more about developmental psychology, including definitions, types, life stages, and how to seek treatment if necessary.


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

At each life stage in developmental psychology, people typically reach certain physical, emotional, and social milestones. According to developmental psychologists, these are the main life stages:

  • Prenatal Development: Developmental psychologists are interested in diagnoses that may be noticed during the prenatal (prenatal) stage, such as Down syndrome. They also investigated how mothers’ behaviors (behaviors of pregnant parents), such as nutrition and drug use, affect the developing fetus.
  • Early childhood: Developmental psychologists are interested in whether young children reach key milestones, such as walking, speaking, and developing fine motor skills (coordination of the hands, fingers, and wrists). They may also be interested in a child’s attachment to parents and other caregivers.
  • Middle Childhood: During this stage, children learn about the world and gain knowledge through experimentation, questioning, and observation. They begin to develop logical and moral reasoning skills.
  • Adolescence: Adolescence is a time of significant progress in personal development and identity formation. Teens and young adults may experiment with a variety of identities, career options, or areas of interest.
  • Early adulthood: During early adulthood, most people focus on preparing for the rest of their lives by focusing on education, career, and financial independence. Romantic relationships, marriage, family building, “grounding” and parenting are often the focus of this life stage.
  • Middle-aged: Middle-aged people are often focused on helping the next generation, either in their own family or in their community. They are also often interested in the legacy they will leave behind.
  • In adulthood: In addition to physical health challenges, older adults may face problems such as dementia or cognitive decline (decreased thinking, memory, and reasoning abilities). Seniors also often need to reflect on their lives, tell their stories, and find meaning and peace in the aging process.
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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 has grown, so has its focus. Today, developmental psychologists focus on all stages of the human life cycle.

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Types of

With the development of developmental psychology, various researchers have proposed theories on how to understand the process of human development. Depending on their training, developmental psychologists may specialize in specific theories or methods in the field.

Following are several major branches of developmental psychology.

psychosocial development theory

On the basis of the theory of psychosexual development of Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, psychologist Eric Erickson proposed a lifespan theory that included psychosocial Eight stages of development.

Each stage corresponds to an age range and a core “crisis” (such as infancy trust and distrust) that must be addressed before moving on to the next stage.

Cognitive Development Theory

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

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

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attachment theory

Attachment theory, originally proposed by psychoanalyst John Bowlby, established the importance of a supportive, stable, and loving caregiver in infant and child development.

If children do not form such bonds, or if they experience parental separation or loss, they may continue to struggle to develop healthy attachments as they age.

sociocultural development theory

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

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

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how does this work

Some developmental psychologists study specific aspects of human development, such as physical development, intellectual development, social/emotional advancement, or communication skills. Others look at trends in communities over time, such as how people from different sociocultural backgrounds perceive the aging process.

Developmental psychologists can also directly diagnose and treat a variety of disorders. For example, a developmental psychologist can refer parents to a speech-language pathologist or physical therapist if their child does not reach the usual developmental milestones (such as walking or talking) before the typical age. They may also diagnose someone with a learning disability, or help older adults receiving end-of-life care (hospice) to look back on their lives with dissatisfaction.

treatment condition

Developmental psychologists can help people solve developmental problems in order to reach their full potential.

Some of the conditions that a developmental psychologist may treat are:

  • Learning Disability
  • Mental retardation
  • Stunting
  • Delayed motor skills
  • Social and Emotional Development Issues
  • Auditory processing (hearing) impairment
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • speech and language delay
  • Dementia
  • Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, especially in relation to life stages​​​

Training and Certification

According to the APA, the training required to become a developmental psychologist is similar to training in other psychology subfields. Most developmental psychologists begin with an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate (PhD).

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

seek treatment

If you are concerned that your child is facing developmental delays, a developmental psychologist can assess them to make sure they are reaching milestones. It is best to seek evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment as early as possible so that intervention can be initiated as soon as it is needed.

A developmental psychologist may perform physical and/or cognitive tests to diagnose your child or refer them to other specialists, such as:

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

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

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

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

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

VigorTip words

A developmental psychologist can help you if you feel challenged in an area of ​​development, or want to know if your child has reached their developmental milestones. While everyone develops at a different pace, it’s always beneficial to address any issues that may arise along the way so you can reach your full potential.