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Developmental Theories: Background on Therapeutic Models

Parents often ask where did things go wrong?  So, where do maladaptive behaviors stem from? Is it from being raised in broken households? Statistically, “no”. The contextual framework that most theorists support is rooted in psychodynamic stage theory. Sigmund Freud postulated that it was sometime during infancy. Erik Erickson claims maladaptive behaviors can form at a crossroads at any stage in a person’s life. Existential theorists contend that the here and now is where to find incongruence an individual’s life.  Behaviorist John B. Watson stated that given the correct environment, he would be able to groom a child to be anything he wished. Here are some of the tenets of development.

The question “what is development?” implies that there is an end goal, which is not the case. Developmental psychology has a childhood connotation to it. We now know that development is from birth to death. Every experience, perception and memory will shape an individual’s development at every point along the way. The psychosocial theory emphasizes interaction among the psychological and societal systems. Due to cognitive, emotional and developmental variables throughout each stage, individual beliefs about oneself and one’s worldview changes dramatically. Through developmental psychology, we are able to observe and predict some outlines that are typically based on bio-psycho-social considerations (B.M. Newman & P. R. Newman, Development through life: A psychosocial approach, 1999)

As humans live longer due to medical science advances, developmental psychology has to adapt to stay current with psychological trends of aging. Accordingly, there are four significant research designs: retrospective designs, cross-sectional studies, longitudinal studies, and cohort sequential designs.

By reevaluating the perspective of human development Erickson challenged Freud’s psychosexual stages. Rooted into psychoanalytic theory, Erickson proposed eight stages that have two outcomes, favorable versus unfavorable. Freud initially proposed that mental illness rooted from failed advancements in one of five stages. The oral phase in which the libido develops while a baby suckles. All pleasure that is achieved is done so through the mouth.

The anal phase is where the ego begins to develop. In this phase potty training will influence conflict from within the human psyche. If the child is trained in a harsh regimented fashion the child is likely to develop obsessive-compulsive disorders and have a tendency towards tidiness. Conversely, if the training is liberal in nature then the child may be disorganized and messy.  The phallic stage is concentrated on pleasure being obtained by an exploration of the genitals. Freud believed that this when the Oedipus and Elektra complex formed. During this stage the boy develops castration anxiety from the fear of losing his sense of pleasure. During this stage the girl develops penis envy. Not having a penis creates tension between mother and daughter and the daughter represses her feelings (Newman, B. M. & Newman, P. R., 1999).  



Erickson based psychosocial development upon Freud’s psychoanalytic stages. Unlike Freud’s five stages, Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development contains eight stages that have two outcomes of either strengthening the ego or punctured ego.  Freud believed that once genital maturity occurred, a barren desert of ego directed years were to follow (Corsini & Wedding, 2014). From years 1936 to 1984, Erickson continued to observe human development and establish developmental psychology as being more than another term for child psychology.



Ecological Systems Theory states that human development is influenced by an integrated system. The ecological systems that influence human development include microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010). According to Gardiner et al, 2010, the ecological systems theory consists of societal, psychological, and biological systems.  The ecological systems theory states that individuals approach various situations during development that help shape human development and behavior (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010).

The first level is the microsystem, the layer that consists of the most basic interactions of a child’s life e.g. family, preschool, home, church, school hospital, and peers. This is the environment that encourages human development through social context. The second level is the mesosystem, which is the layer that points out that the systems are interrelated and influence one another. The mesosystem that links or ties together behavior or development in another environment.  The exosystem is the layer that the child may not have a direct interaction with, but nonetheless development is impacted within the structures in the child’s life. An example of this would be the parent’s place of work or hospital setting. (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010).

The macrosystem is referred to as the most complex system of human development as it pertains to the customs, values and laws associated to the child’s culture.  “The form and function of the setting such as playgrounds, post offices, shopping malls, and restaurants impacts all of the previous layers.” Essentially, the macrosystem pertains to the customs, values, and laws of a child’s culture, which determines social norms for human development. The chronosystem is the designing of ecological layers and transitions over the course of life, which contains socio-historical conditions (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010).



Jean Piaget established the early beliefs regarding child psychology. Piaget studied children and their thought patterns. Piaget stated “ development is a dynamic process that results from an individual’s ability to adapt thinking to meet the demands of an ever changing environment to form new ideas.” Piaget supported both biological and sociological models for human development. According to Piaget, there are four periods of cognitive development. Infancy (birth to two years) is the sensorimotor period; during this period a child develops “object permanence”.

Early childhood according to Piaget occurs from ages two to six. During this period the child develops pre-operational skills such as egocentric thinking and use of symbols. Symbol and theme games are the most important aspect of this period. It helps strengthen the developing mind.

Middle childhood is six to twelve years in which concrete operations such as conservation occurs. An example of conservation is when two different sized beakers are used to demonstrate the transferring of liquid and how a long thin tube and a short round tube can transfer the same amount of liquid. Adolescence is twelve years and older. During this period formal operation such as abstract thinking occurs. Piaget admits to not taking into consideration ethnicity and cultural differences and how they might impact development (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010).


Stages of Development

Erik Erickson’s Developmental Theory begins with Trust versus Mistrust. This stage is referred to the oral-sensory stage that occurs from approximately birth to two years. During this stage, infants learn whether they will trust others based on whether their needs are being met based on breastfeeding. If disruption occurs due to breast-feeding or diaper changing the ego will not strengthen and the weakened ego will enter into further stages not fully matured. Erickson (1950) stated, “we are without motor skills and communication is limited to crying and limited facial expressions.” As infants, humans are defenseless and reliant upon caregivers. If the caregivers meet the needs, trust will be developed.

The second stage explains whether or not a toddler will develop autonomy versus shame and doubt. This stage is referred to as the muscular-anal stage that occurs from approximately ages two to three years of age.  Through the process of toilet training and exploration of one’s body, children begin to advance to independence by asserting themselves. Parental verbal abuse and rigidity will result in shame and doubt thus producing an ego puncturing result. Anxiety and feelings of insecurity will follow the toddler if harsh conditions are not conducive to autonomy. Provided caregivers support autonomy, the toddler will begin to develop autonomic perspectives and confidence.

The third stage consists of whether a child will develop initiative versus guilt. This stage is referred to as the locomotor-genital stage and it occurs from approximately ages four to six. During preschool years, the child begins to frequently assert oneself and begins to display the capability to make decisions for themselves such as food preferences, attire, and play preferences. During this phase of development, leadership skills are formed. If conditions are not conducive to initiative, children will develop guilt based on inability to establish purpose.

The fourth stage consists of whether a child will develop an industry versus inferiority. The stage is referred to as latency or play years and it consists of ages six to twelve years of age. Confidence is developed centered on how regularly the child is encouraged to develop self-confidence. Competence is established based on the child’s response to establish oneself as an individual, separate from the caregiver.

The fifth stage consists of whether or not an adolescent will develop identity or role confusion. This stage is often referred to as puberty or adolescence occurring between the ages of twelve to nineteen. The inability to develop an independent identity will result in role confusion. As the adolescent becomes a young adult, they will face the conflict of establishing relationships with people other than family members.  By participating in cherished connections, the young adult will discover to construct commitment and engagement in social groups and by avoiding intimate connections, solitude and role confusion will develop into maladaptive behaviors. As change occurs physically and emotionally, healthy environments and social groups are necessary for ego and identity to develop.  

The sixth stage consists of whether or not a young adult will develop intimacy versus isolation. This stage is referred to as young-adulthood during the ages of twenty to forty. Loving relationships are the most important aspect of this phase. During this phase of development the ego, id, and superego begin to development lifelong partnerships.  The aim of this stage is to reproduce and position oneself for family. If an individual deviates during this phase isolation will occur. If an individual develops healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners, then intimacy will occur.

The seventh stage consists of whether or not an adult will develop generativity versus stagnation. This stage is referred to as adulthood and occurs approximately between the ages of forty to sixty-four. During this phase of development, the aim is to contribute to society and future generations. Care for the world outside of oneself is what creates a sense of fulfillment. Failure to engage in generating towards society will result in a sense of stagnation.

The eighth stage consists of whether or not an adult will develop ego integrity versus despair. This stage is referred to as Maturity and occurs approximately during the ages of sixty-four to death. During this retirement phase the human begins to reflect on life to determine their perception of one’s life. Should the individual feel that the ego is strong and they successfully completed goals in life, the individual will develop integrity. If one reflects on life and determines unfulfilled, despair will occur (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010),



Lawrence Kohlberg postulated that there are six stages to moral development. The first and second stage is punishment and obedience orientation and instrumental orientation, which implies that humans obey rules either to avoid punishment or to receive rewards. The third and fourth stages are good-child orientation and law and order orientation. These stages imply that humans conform to avoid disapproval or to maintain social order. The fifth stage are the morality of contract, individual rights and democratically accepted law where development accepts and follows laws for the welfare of the larger community. The sixth stage is morality of individual principles and conscience where a person believes in and follow self-chosen universal ethical principles (Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C., 2010).



Most theories are rooted in biological systems, psychological systems and social systems. The role of culture has a huge impact on development. However, many theorists failed to take this into account.  Many theorists were able to determine that it was not a matter of nature versus nurture as is it is matter of nature and nurture. Some theories are gender-specific and therefore incomplete. A bio-psychosocial model for development provides a much more comprehensive view than a limited gender-specific, cultural-specific, and socio-economic specific theory.  



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Burston, D. (2007). Erik Erikson and the American psyche: ego, ethics, and evolution. Lanham, Md.: Jason Aronson.

Craighead, E.W., Miklowitz, D.J., & Craighead, L.W. (2013)Psychopathology: History,    diagnosis and empirical foundations, 2ndedition  Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Crain, W. (2005). Theories of development (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Corsini & Wedding, R. J. (Eds.) (2014). Current psychotherapies. (10th ed). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

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Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton

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

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Hoare, C. H. (2001). Erikson on Development in Adulthood : New Insights from the Unpublished Papers. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated. Retrieved from

Gardiner, H. W., Mutter, J. D., & Kosmitzki, C. (2010). Lives across cultures: Cross-cultural human development. (5th ed.). Boston , MA : Allyn and Bacon.

Lerner, R.M. (2001). Concepts and theories of human development. (3rd ed.). Danvers, MA: Psychology Press.  (ISBN-10: 0805827986)

Newman, B. M. & Newman, P. R., (1999). Development through life: A psychosocial approach. California: Wadsworth Publishing



Adam McLean holds a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and a bachelor’s degree in Marketing. He is working towards his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from California Southern University. Additionally, he is a Certified Intervention Professional (CIP) with the Pennsylvania Control Board. Adam has a wide variety of experience, from community mental health to long term extended care, to an outdoor adventure therapy program with traditional treatment modalities for treatment of substance abuse. Additionally, Adam works with the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) to establish alternative sentencing for chronic drug offenders. He is often a guest blogger for the website.