How And When Does Childhood End?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Some people may look back at their childhood and only consider their pre-adolescence years, while others may consider childhood until the end of their teens. Knowing when childhood ends can be subjective, but some science explores the topic in more detail. To understand childhood, it can be beneficial to look at where this concept begins and ends and the events from childhood that can affect you into adulthood.

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The history of childhood

The definition of childhood has changed over history, with children often being given less rights in the past. For instance, a working-class American child in the early Industrial Revolution would have had a different life than a child today. Many were assigned jobs as soon as they were old enough to walk. They may have had a difficult upbringing and busy schedule. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which controls employment for those under 16 years of age, wasn't passed until 1938.

As society progressed into a more modern and ethical system, psychologists and individuals began to develop a different viewpoint on the innocence of early childhood. This period of life involves significant development, and more research has shown how adverse childhood experiences can impact an individual into adulthood. Modern psychology has given individuals a look into children's brains and evolution. 

What are the stages of childhood?

Many people don't have memories before age three. You may recall your childhood beginning around this age, but your memories could be unclear or accurate. However, you're not alone. "Childhood amnesia" is a term to explain why many people have hazy or disappearing memories before age 10. 

Some psychologists consider the age you reach adolescence to be the end of your childhood. Biologically, this period is when your body begins to mature and eventually stops growing. However, some people consider adolescence an extension of their childhood. In many societies, you're considered a minor until you reach a certain age, and the adult responsibilities you take on may not occur until then. 

Officially, there are three main childhood stages: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence.  

Stage one: Early childhood

Early childhood spans from around birth to age five, in which children constantly learn and develop. During this stage, they learn to speak and experiment with the world around them while their parents guide them. 

Stage two: Middle childhood

Your middle childhood starts at age six and ends around age 12 or when puberty begins. At this stage, you may begin to mature. You make friends, discover your talents, and can take on specific tasks independently. These are signs of healthy growth and development commonly present during the preteen years.

Stage three: Adolescence

Though "childhood" is often thought to end at adolescence, many people consider childhood through age 18. Some sources state that adolescence can start around ten and end around 24, as the brain stops developing at 25. 

Even though a teen's body is still growing and maturing, they may be considered too irresponsible to live independently or complete adult tasks. In this stage, you may also discover more about your sexuality and relationships.

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How does my childhood shape me?

There could be situations throughout your childhood that may have seemed insignificant at the time but may have impacted who you are today. The following examples outline this impact: 

  • A supportive family can improve a child's academic performance. 
  • A child who grew up in an unloving environment with neglectful parents may struggle more with academics and work. 
  • Overprotective parents who micromanage their child's actions may cause them to become too dependent on others as they reach adulthood or risk-takers who want to explore the parts of the world their parents kept them from. 
  • A child whose parents divorced at a young age may struggle with relationships as they grow older. 
  • Children who receive harsh and corporal punishments may develop anger-related challenges or have difficulty performing as they grow older. 

Although each person is unique, upbringing can impact your personality, emotional control skills, and reliability as an adult. For example, your attachment style may be unsure if your caregiver did not meet your emotional and physical needs as a child. 

Childhood psychological theories

There are several psychological theories considered about childhood, including the following. 

Freud's theory of psychosexual development 

Freud's theory of psychosexual development was one of the earliest examples of childhood psychology. He believed that your childhood and unconscious sexual desires would make you into the person you are as an adult. He also believed that childhood was divided into stages, including the following: 

  • Oral
  • Anal
  • Phallic
  • Latent
  • Genital 

Although many of Freud's theories have been disproved or expanded on, he laid the framework for some popular psychological theories in the future. 

Erikson's psychosocial theory 

Erikson's psychosocial theory involves childhood stages that are divided into eight stages. For example, the infancy stage is defined by trust vs. mistrust, showcasing how infants learn to trust their environments based on how their caregivers meet their needs. 

Piaget's theory of cognitive development 

Piaget's theory of cognitive development includes four stages centered around the development of human intelligence. This theory focuses on the age range throughout childhood in which specific knowledge is obtained and used.

How does childhood trauma affect you?

Trauma from past experiences can affect you at any age, but it may have the heaviest impact on you when it occurs during your childhood. Childhood trauma can involve abuse of any type and other traumatic events, like the loss of a home or a parent's divorce. Experiencing trauma may lead to low self-esteem, violence, and other consequences during childhood, with more occurring in adulthood.  

Children's brains are still developing and are, therefore, delicate. If someone is constantly putting you down as an adult, you might be able to discern that their opinion isn't relevant to you and set a boundary to stay away from this person. However, a child who sees this person as an authority figure may believe they are telling the truth and may be unable to escape their maltreatment. 

Childhood trauma is common, with more than half of the US population having experienced some form of abuse or traumatic experience during their early years. Nearly one-quarter of children experience some form of trauma before entering preschool, while approximately 2% may experience sexual assault.

How to cope with childhood trauma as an adult 

Speaking with a therapist might be valuable if you or someone you know is looking to cope better with childhood trauma. If you're not ready to seek traditional counseling, there are a few lifestyle changes you might make to cope with the impacts. 

Recognize your control

For some people, one of the scary aspects of being a child is that they aren't given control over many aspects of life. As an adult, you hold the power to make your own decisions and cope with the obstacles you experience. Recognizing the control you have now as opposed to the lack of control in your childhood may be beneficial. 

Give yourself closure

Traumatic memories can sometimes linger for years or decades beyond the events that caused them. Giving yourself closure might involve a "ceremony" to let go of the memories or working with a therapist to let go of the impacts. 

Keep a journal

A journal can allow you to write down your deepest thoughts and feelings about the past and how it affects you daily. Keeping track of your emotions can lead to positive health effects that may aid you on the road to recovery. In addition, you can look back at past entries when you forget how you might have felt about a topic in the past.

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Get support with online therapy 

Adults who experienced childhood trauma have a higher chance of living with a mental illness like substance use disorders, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Professional therapists can use various methods to help these individuals cope and move forward. In addition, if you're uncomfortable with in-person therapy, several online therapy platforms offer support from home, like BetterHelp. 

Benefits of internet-based therapy, such as cost, the ability to match with a professional faster, and the choice to meet with a provider from home, make online options popular. You can change therapists or cancel your plan at any point on many platforms. 

Several studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals that outline online therapy's efficacy and associated benefits. One study published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology theorized that limited contact with evidence-based psychotherapeutic interventions for PTSD could be resolved by improving availability to online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) interventions. The study involved ten patients who met the criteria for PTSD and were to receive a limited number of treatments via the Internet. Researchers found that clients achieved clinically significant change and remission from post-traumatic stress disorder, with no clients dropping out of the program. 

Counselor reviews

Here are some recent reviews by BetterHelp users with similar issues about their counselors:

"Dr. Baggs has been very helpful in helping me deal with anxiety, and I've been overall satisfied with the experience. She's helped me work through and understand trauma from my childhood, as well as help me realize I'm on the right path to getting help and improving my life. Overall a very good experience."

"Kris has been helping me for over a year and a half now. Whether it's dealing with the day-to-day stresses of work or deep-seated issues from my childhood, she brings sensitivity, insight, and gentle humor. She's also made some great book recommendations, both for the issues we're talking about and for other interests of mine in terms of social issues. She's pretty awesome and I'm happy to be able to connect with her via this platform."


Your childhood is an uphill climb of experience, growth, and development. From infancy to adulthood, it can involve sculpting yourself into the adult you are today and the person you want to be. Moving forward to a fulfilling life with enjoyable relationships is often possible with the right tools. Take the first step by reaching out to a licensed therapist for support.
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