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Developmental psychology Essay

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Developmental psychology is a field that studies the different stages of development of human psychology. There are many different models of development – theory of cognitive development by Jean Piaget, psychosexual stages of Sigmund Freud, stages of ego development by Jane Loevinger, model of hierarchical complexity by Michael Commons, stages of faith development by James W. Fowler, stages of psychosocial development by Erik Erikson, stages of moral development by Lawrence Kohlberg, hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow, etc.

Erik Erikson formulated the stages of psychosocial development as an extension of Freud’s stages of psychosexual development. Erikson proposed eight stages of normal human development:

  1. Infancy
  2. Toddler
  3. Pre-school
  4. School
  5. Adolescence
  6. Young adulthood
  7. Middle adulthood
  8. Late adulthood

The primary conflict in infancy or oral sensory age (birth to 12-18 months) is between trust and mistrust. In the toddler or muscular anal age (18 months to 3 years) stage, there is a conflict between autonomy and shame; initiative and guilt in the pre-school or locomotor (3 to 6 years) stage; industry and inferiority in the school latency (6 to 12 years) age; identity and role confusion in the adolescence (12 to 18 years) stage; intimacy and isolation during young adulthood (19 to 40 years); generativity and stagnation in middle adulthood (40 to 65 years); and ego integrity and despair in late adulthood (65 to death).

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In the first stage a baby is totally dependent on its parents and it is up to the parents to develop a relationship of trust between the child and themselves. Such a child will grow up to be a more secure individual. During the second stage children grain more personal control over their lives such as fetching things for themselves, toilet training and asking for what they want. Play is an important component of the third stage. During the fourth stage children develop sense of accomplishment and pride.

In the adolescent stage children are learning to be independent and they attempt to gain a sense of ‘self’. In the sixth and the seventh stages people explore relationships through family, friends and career. The last stage is one retrospection and contemplation. The central element of the psychosocial theory of Erik Erikson is that of ego identity. This identity develops gradually through social interactions. All the conflicts in the different stages of life lead to what is also known as ego quality or ego strength.

While Erik Erikson developed the model of Sigmund Frued, Lawrence Kohlberg extended the theory of cognitive development of Jean Piaget. In Kohlberg’s model there are three levels of moral development – pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. Obedience, punishment and self-interest are the main preoccupations in the pre-conventional level.

The central questions at this level are, “How to avoid punishment?” and “What do I get from this?” Social norms and conformation to authority are the main concerns of the conventional stage. At this level people aspire to fulfil social roles. People are driven by approval and/or disapproval of the group that belong to. It becomes important for them to follow rules and conform to dictums and laws. Being accepted by the group is the most important concern during this level. Universal laws and ethics are more important than group-based laws and ethics in the post-conventional stage. This stage is otherwise known as the principled level.

At this stage laws are not considered to be rigid or irrevocable. They are thought to be social contracts that entail varied views and opinions. The keywords of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development are – obedience, self-interest, conformity, law and order, human rights and universal human ethics.

The mental stages of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development are designed to meet certain criteria:

  1. On a qualitative level, they are different ways of thinking.
  2. They are structured wholes.
  3. The progress of the stages is an invariant sequence.
  4. They are hierarchical.
  5. They are universal across cultures.

Kohlberg uses these stages to explain other cognitive forms, particularly the ability to take roles. In the pre-conventional stage children do not know that there are other viewpoints on every subject. They accept the viewpoint only of the authority figure. They recognize different opinions and viewpoints in the second stage but gravitate towards those views that they themselves hold. People become concerned with the feelings of others during the third and fourth stages.  During the last two stages their worldview expands to include people from other communities and groups. They can identify with the opinions and feelings of ‘other’ people because no law considered absolute and give. Law is a construct and a contract.

Kohlberg’s theory has been used in education to help children become active participants in their own moral development. Children are encouraged to discuss and debate moral issues and reach to conclusions on their own. One of the major criticisms of this theory lies with post-conventional stage. Critics have felt that it would be dangerous for people to place their individual values over group values and would be disruptive to communities. Carol Gilligan criticises the theory on the basis that it is totally male oriented and the women have a different path of moral development. Male development emphasizes authority while women emphasize affiliation.

Erikson and Kohlberg have both provided important theories that expand on the theories of their predecessors. Erikson’s theory emphasizes social interactions while Kohlberg’s theory emphasises individual ideas and rights. Erikson’s ego identity finds fruition in a life of social interactions while Kohlberg’s ego identity transcends itself and group identities. The latter attributes only normative value to laws and dictums.


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

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

Carver, C.S. & Scheir, M.F. (2000). Perspectives on Personality. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

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