Child psychology encompasses the disciplines and theories concerned with the cognitive, psychological, emotional, physiological, and social/interpersonal aspects of human lifespan development from the period before birth until adulthood. Adulthood is not defined necessarily by chronology in persons who are behaviorally, cognitively, or neurologically atypical.
Child psychologists study human development from the earliest stages of life through adolescence and adulthood. These scientists focus on many areas of growth. In the early years of life they include attachment, motor skills, perceptual analysis and inference, speech and language, social behavior, and the emergence of the basic emotions of happiness, anger, and fear.
Two important strategies for studying development include the longitudinal study, in which a particular group of children is studied over a long period of time, sometimes from infancy through adulthood or adolescence. The second method, which is used more widely because it is less expensive, is called the crosssectional method. In this strategy, child psychologists study a group of children or adolescents at a particular age. In order to compare different ages, different samples are studied but no group is studied over time.
An important area of study for developmental psychologists is the manner in which hard-wired maturational forces interact with experience to produce observable behaviors, skills, and motives. For example, many neurotypical children develop some ability to speak and understand language before they are much more than three years of age. In some cultures, children display this skill soon after the first birthday, whereas in others it can be delayed until the second or third year of life.
A related area of interest in child psychology concerns the heritable temperamental factors that contribute to children's individual personalities. The task is to understand how these inherited temperamental tendencies are affected by experience in the family and with peers and the ways in which they contribute to the personality and character traits the child develops.
Prior to Sigmund Freud's work and his writings, which became popular during the early decades of the twentieth century, most Western explanations of the differences between children were attributed to temperament or constitution. Freud asserted that family experience was the most significant determinant of variations in children's moods, emotions, and symptom development. Freud believed that those experiences in the family increased the child's vulnerability to conflicts over hostility and sexuality. The intensity of the conflict and the defenses the child learns to employ in order to manage those conflicts were viewed as the main determinant of the child's personality. These views were popular in the United States from about 1930 to 1960. Due to the lack of scientific support for Freud's theories of child development, loyalty to them largely eroded after that.
Erik Erikson (1902–1994), who was an ego psychologist, developed an alternate set of psychosocial developmental stages to the oral, anal, phallic and genital postulated by Freud. Erikson's stages covered the entirety of the lifespan and emphasized the importance of culture and society, as well as ego conflicts. His first five stages covered infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and the final three stages covered the remainder of the lifespan after age 18. Erikson was interested particularly in adolescence, as he believed that much crucial personality development occurs during this time.
Erikson's stages were:
Jean Piaget's major contribution was to motivate child psychologists to pay more attention to the child's intellectual and cognitive development.
See also Child development ; Erikson, Erik; Freud, Sigmund; Piaget, Jean.
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