Understanding a child’s development can be a difficult and confusing process, especially for new parents. From as early as the first month of life, a child will begin to explore and practice the social norms that adults take for granted. Parents and caregivers alike can better help the children in their care develop if they know how each stage of a child’s life is shaped. Physical development is easy enough to notice – there will be changes in the length of a child’s limbs, in the rigidity of their bones, and in the length of the face. Psychological changes are much more difficult to accurately pinpoint and identify. Fortunately, there is an ample pool of research available to help demystify the psychological development of children.
The first year of a child’s life is devoted largely to understanding the difference between themselves and other individuals. A baby will explore how its own body works and will practice engaging in social interaction through games and rudimentary language, such as the child’s name. By five years of age, a child is capable of understanding basic morality and designing more realistic games with their peers. As the child ages, their ability to understand and empathize with other people increases, which simultaneously helps them accumulate experience in social settings. By the time a child reaches puberty, they have an understanding of themselves as an individual and an appreciation for others as individuals. It is when puberty occurs that a child begins to explore the less easily discernible mental difference between children and adults, and this understanding of the mental self reaches its peak in the teenage years.
- The Psychological Development of the Child
- Social and Emotional Development
- Adolescent Growth and Development
Development Through Infancy
For the first three months of a child’s life, the child is primarily devoted to developing their senses. The child will examine and play with their hands – and with the hands of volunteering adults – to figure out how they work and to determine where their hands end and someone else’s hands begin. As the child ages to four or five months, they may begin to actively seek social interaction through smiling, laughing, or playing basic games. By eight months of age, the child can not only show preference for one person over another but can respond to and differentiate between different emotions. When the child is a year old, they will be able to help feed themselves, actively control their arms and legs, and mimic physical actions and expressions.
Development in Play
When children are still in their first year of life, “play” can be counted as simply interacting with their parents, viewing pictures, and handling colorful, easy-to-hold toys. Play, at this stage, is a way of helping them explore the world. As a child ages, play begins to take on a more important role as a way to develop social skills. Play can also increase brain development and encourage new neural connections, as playing happily with other children requires an understanding of others’ feelings and emotional cues.
- Play in Children’s Development, Health, and Well-Being (PDF)
- Child and Adolescent Development in Sport Participation (PDF)
- How Babies Learn Through Play
- What Babies Learn Through Play
The first few years of a child’s life are spent figuring out emotions: how to recognize them, how to deal with them, and what a specific emotion means. As a child enters puberty and the early teenage years, emotions can become more difficult and complex, and the child will have to learn how to handle more intense emotions. Interaction with new and perhaps older friends will lead to closer scrutiny as to what constitutes “right” and “wrong.” Children will become more aware of both others’ feelings and their own and may still be in the process of connecting potential consequences with their actions.
- Emotional Learning in Infants: A Cross-Cultural Examination
- Emotional Development – Baby
- Babies’ Social and Emotional Development from 0-6 Months
- Social and Emotional Development: The First Six Months
- Social and Emotional Changes: What to Expect
- Teen Social and Emotional Development
A child’s senses and motor skills are the primary tools through which they explore the world until about two years of age. It is also at this age that the child will develop an idea of object permanence (that is, that an object continues to exist even when it is out of view). Once the child begins talking, at two or three years of age, the next stage of psychological development is largely tied into the child’s immediate self and surroundings. Concepts like the past and future may still be foreign ideas, and the child might not yet have the ability to actively empathize with others. By age six or seven, however, the child will have reconciled these earlier concepts and will now be able to think logically about cause and effect in the physical world. Abstract thought is the next progressive step, in which the child can begin to question and explore complex ideas like morality.