What Is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is the study of how humans grow, change, and adapt across the course of their lives. Developmental psychologists research the stages of physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development from the prenatal stage to infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Learn more about developmental psychology, including the definition, types, life stages, and how to seek treatment when necessary.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), developmental psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on how human beings grow, change, adapt, and mature across various life stages.1

In each of the life stages of developmental psychology, people generally meet certain physical, emotional, and social milestones.2 These are the major life stages, according to developmental psychologists:

  • Prenatal development: Developmental psychologists are interested in diagnoses, such as Down syndrome, that might be noticed during the prenatal (before birth) stage. They also investigate how maternal behaviors (behaviors of the pregnant parent), such as nutrition and drug use, could affect the developing fetus.
  • Early childhood: Developmental psychologists are interested in whether young children are meeting key milestones, such as walking, talking, and developing fine motor skills (coordination in the hands, fingers, and wrists). They might also be interested in a child’s attachment to their parents and other caregivers.
  • Middle childhood: In this stage, children learn about the world and acquire knowledge through experimentation, questioning, and observation. They begin to develop logical and moral reasoning skills.
  • Adolescence: Adolescence is a time of major strides in terms of personal development and identity formation. Teens and young adults might experiment with various identities, career choices, or areas of interest.
  • Early adulthood: During early adulthood, most people are focused on preparing for the rest of their lives through a focus on education, career, and financial independence. Romantic relationships, marriage, family-building, setting down “roots,” and child-rearing are often a focus of this life stage.
  • Middle adulthood: Middle-aged adults are often focused on helping the next generation, whether in their own family or their community. They are also often interested in the legacy they’ll leave behind.
  • Older adulthood: In addition to physical health challenges, older people might face issues like dementia or cognitive decline (decline in thinking, remembering, and reasoning). Older adults also often need to reflect on their lives, tell their stories, and find meaning and peace within the aging process.

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 grew, so did its focus. Today, developmental psychologists focus on all stages of the human life span.3

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