An Overview Of Childhood Development

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated December 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Childhood development describes the changes that occur in children as they grow older. The changes can occur in a variety of areas including how they think, speak, move, and interact with others. As children grow older, their parents or caregivers can take steps to help support their healthy development. 

In this article, we’ll cover the key aspects of childhood development, a few prominent theories about childhood development, and how to find additional parenting support through therapy.

Supporting A Child’s Development Can Be Confusing

Key Aspects Of Childhood Development

Since parents and caregivers can play a significant role in the growth and development of their children, understanding some of the key areas of development may help you determine how to support your child in their growth. It is worth noting that all of these areas are connected, and there are also many external and internal factors that can impact a child's development. 

Some of the main aspects of childhood development include physical development, intellectual and cognitive development, social and emotional development, and language development.

We’ll explore these aspects further below: 

1. Physical Development

Physical development involves the maturation of a child's height, weight, strength, and motor skills. Patterns and speed of physical growth can vary depending on the child, but in most cases, growth steadily progresses between birth and before puberty; through puberty, physical growth and maturation often increase considerably. Motor skills can be separated into large motor skills such as sitting, standing, and walking, and fine motor skills such as using hand muscles to grasp, eat, and draw. Other examples of motor skills include crawling, running, swimming, and moving other parts of the body such as feet, fingers, and toes. 

There are several factors that can influence a child's physical and motor development. Genetics and diet are two of the main elements that impact physical growth, and nutrition can also heavily impact motor growth and development. Physical growth and the maturation of various bones, limbs, and muscles can also impact the development of various motor skills. 

2. Intellectual And Cognitive Development

The development of intellectual and cognitive capabilities involves memory, learning, understanding, and problem-solving abilities. Like other forms of development, intellectual and cognitive skills often grow gradually. In many cases, the ability to distinguish live objects from inanimate ones begins during infancy. As infants grow into young children, their intellectual and cognitive skills develop, allowing for more extensive memories and increased speed of internalizing information and learning.

Many factors can play a role in the maturation of cognitive and intellectual development. Parental interactions, food, exercise, everyday experiences, and amounts of received love and care can all greatly affect these aspects of growth.

3. Social And Emotional Development

Social and emotional growth pertains to the development of various feelings, emotions, and relationships. This area of growth involves how children process their own emotions and learn to connect and cooperate with others. 

Environment, experience, and parenting styles can impact the emotional and social development of children. For instance, young children who spend quality time with the adults in their lives may be more able to develop positive social skills than their isolated counterparts. Children who can safely and lovingly bond with their parents and siblings may develop in different ways emotionally from children who grow up in environments of isolation, stress, and turmoil.

4. Language Development

Language development entails the ability to communicate with other people through writing, sounds, and signs. These language development skills can involve pronunciation, speech comprehension, word formation, and the ability to communicate with others through speech, sign language, and/or body language. Parents and caregivers can contribute to the language development of their children in many ways, including by reading to them. 

Supporting A Child’s Development Can Be Confusing

Prominent Theories Regarding Childhood Development

There are a variety of theories regarding childhood development. Examining some of the more prominent theories may offer useful insight into how some aspects of a child’s experience can affect their growth. Below, we’ll summarize three of these theories:

Sigmund Freud’s Theory Of Psychosexual Development

Sigmund Freud's theory suggests that subconscious desires and childhood experiences impact one's conduct and personality. Freud's theory also asserts that children who fail to develop in one area may develop a correlated fascination in their later life. Finally, this theory also suggests that an individual's personality is largely developed by the time they reach five years of age.

Erik Erikson’s Theory Of Psychosocial Development

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development involves eight stages that a person is believed to pass through in their life. While this theory has some commonalities with Freud's theory, there are also notable contrasts. For instance, this theory suggests that various experiences and interactions with others are the main contributors to childhood development. It also asserts that at various stages of growth, children and adults face certain crises which can become significant life milestones.

Jean Piaget’s Theory Of Cognitive Development 

The Piaget Cognitive Development Theory presents and explains various perceived stages of a child's intellectual maturation. The four stages include the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. 

  • The sensorimotor stage occurs between birth and age two, and in this time, infants are restricted to their limited motor skills and sensory consciousness. 
  • The preoperational stage is where infants become children who are beginning to understand language, yet have not developed enough to consider other people and comprehend certain information. 
  • The concrete operational stage occurs between seven and eleven years of age. During this period, children's mental skills develop enough for them to practice logical thinking. However, young people of the ages above are still believed to struggle with understanding hypotheticals and similar situations. 
  • The formal operational stage is where children are around twelve years of age and beyond and can understand abstract notions, while gradually learning how to think logically and plan systemically.

Help Through Online Therapy

Supporting a child throughout their development can be confusing at times, and while understanding some of the key aspects of development and some of the prominent theories can be helpful, some parents may want to find additional support through therapy. 

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of online therapy for a variety of concerns, including parenting concerns. For instance, one research study examined the effectiveness of an online therapy program for parents. It found that the online program had “positive effects” on parents’ psychological flexibility and emotion control, while also helping to improve parents’ mood and coping skills.

Often, being a parent can involve having a very busy schedule that leaves little room for something like therapy. But, with online therapy through BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist according to your schedule and from wherever is most convenient—even from the convenience of your own home.


As children get older, they can experience a variety of changes in how they move, think, communicate, and socialize with others. For parents, understanding the various aspects of a child’s development and some of the prominent theories around it may be useful for supporting a child’s growth. For additional support, online therapy can help.

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