A Detailed Definition Of Childhood

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated December 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Biologically, childhood lasts until adolescence. However, in some cultures, childhood is considered until a person has reached the age of legality. In the US, this period ends at 18. Childhood experiences can significantly impact who each person grows up to be, and adverse experiences may require the support of a professional. Understanding the definition of childhood can help you on the path to understanding your children or the impact of your childhood on who you are as an adult.

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Childhood Experiences Can Affect You, Even As An Adult

When Is Childhood?

There are two forms of childhood definitions: biological and social. 

Biological Childhood Definition 

Biologically, childhood is the period of growth until adolescence, which starts around ten to 13. At this point, puberty occurs, and the body starts changing to prepare for adulthood. While there may be parts of you that are still not done developing, such as your brain, you may move forward from your childhood body and start to regulate your own emotions and have more autonomy. 

Social Childhood Definition 

Socially, many view adolescents as children until they reach the age of legality. This definition can differ worldwide, but the age of legality is 18 to 21 in many societies. While you may have matured biologically, you may still be experiencing changes and are generally not quite ready to handle adult life as an adolescent. 

What Are The Stages Of Childhood? 

Within childhood, there are multiple stages. Infancy begins from birth to age one to two. Early childhood begins around age two and lasts until age eight. Middle childhood spans the ages of nine to 12. Adolescence covers the teenage years of 13 through 18. However, new studies show that adolescence may extend to age 24. Below are in-depth explanations of each of these stages.

Early Childhood

Early childhood encompasses toddlers to children aged eight. Sometimes, infancy is included in early childhood. However, some argue that, due to a lack of memories from infancy, it is not part of the childhood experience.

The first five years of a child’s life may be some of the most crucial in development. Much happens during this time that can affect that child’s life later. Early childhood often involves gradual learning, as children may discover the world around them and make friends. They may make choices and start to understand consequences, often under the watchful eye of adults. 

Your early childhood can shape who you become as an adolescent and an adult. Your brain is underdeveloped at this stage, and your experiences can impact your general beliefs and attitudes.

Several characteristics can define early childhood, including the following: 

  • Experiencing separation anxiety
  • Improving memory 
  • Toilet training
  • Learning how to walk and run
  • Engaging in pretend play
  • Having mood swings 
  • Talking more often 
  • Gaining social skills 

The five areas of development in early childhood include the following: 

  • Speech and language skills
  • Fine motor skills
  • Social and emotional skills
  • Cognitive skills
  • Gross motor skills

Children often progress at different speeds. As they grow and learn, they may have one or all of the above characteristics. If you’re concerned with your child’s development, consider contacting their pediatrician for further support. 

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Middle Childhood

Middle childhood begins at age nine and continues until prepubescence. At this stage, the child often begins to have more independence. Some parents may feel comfortable leaving their kids at home or letting them complete specific tasks without being monitored. Their talents and personality may begin to show, and they may start to mature. Children in this stage are still young and learning new skills, but they may be starting to show signs of a more defined personality. 

Some common traits of middle childhood can be:

  • Thinking more about one’s future
  • Experiencing peer pressure and caring about what others think 
  • Gaining independence
  • Thinking for oneself  
  • Identifying and understanding emotions 
  • Building friendships with peers
  • Wanting to belong and be accepted
  • Getting better at reading and other school subjects
  • Adjusting to school life and having a routine

Adolescence

Adolescence encompasses the teenage years, from ages 13 to 18. Children may begin to think critically, question authority, and learn about their bodies at this stage. While still minors, they often start to take on adult responsibilities, such as driving a car or having a job.

Some traits of the teen years may include:

  • Thinking more abstractly
  • Creating longer-term goals
  • Experimenting
  • Questioning identity
  • Exhibiting moodiness 
  • Pushing boundaries
  • Challenging or breaking rules
  • Spending more time with friends than family
  • Living with poor self-esteem or overconfidence
  • Obsessing over appearance
  • Following trends 
  • Making independent decisions
  • Questioning the future 
  • Implementing problem-solving skills

Teens develop and act differently. While being a teen can be exciting for some, it can also be stressful and involve more of a risk for peer pressure, mental illness, and substance use. Although teens may gain independence during this stage, they may still rely on their parents for safety. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

Childhood Throughout The Years 

The definition of childhood has developed throughout history. Hundreds of years ago, children were often viewed as adults in small bodies. Many had their own jobs and daily responsibilities. Currently, psychologists understand the psychological and physical differences between children and adults. Children behave and learn differently than adults and may struggle to consider essential topics adults might discuss. 

How Your Childhood Can Influence You

Studies have found that childhood can significantly impact adulthood. For example, a child with a supportive family may have a better chance of succeeding academically and socially. However, children harshly criticized or mistreated by their caregivers may grow uncertain or apathetic. There may be exceptions to this rule, as some children with supportive families grow up to have struggles, and mental illness may have a biological factor. In addition, some children who come from traumatic homes may grow up to be resilient and stable adults. 

In addition, the way a child is disciplined can impact how they behave as an adult. Children with no discipline may have a more challenging time discerning between healthy and unhealthy behaviors and may not fully understand the consequences of their actions. Children who receive harsh punishments may grow up with insecurities and fears that can impact their relationships. 

Different parenting styles can also play a role in a child’s development. Authoritative parenting is the most effective because it combines empathy, honesty, reasonableness, and warmth. Parents can switch their parenting styles over time and learn more about these topics by discussing them with a child psychologist. If a child lives in a two-parent household, it can be helpful for both parents to agree on parenting styles. 

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Childhood Experiences Can Affect You, Even As An Adult

Counseling Options For Adults 

Childhood can be a period of growth and wonder. However, if your childhood continues to affect you adversely into adulthood, you’re not alone, and help is available. You may choose to visit a therapist’s office or try online therapy to connect with a licensed professional from the comfort of your home. 

If you opt for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can outline your goals to speak with a childhood trauma expert and choose a treatment format you’re comfortable with, whether video, chat, or phone sessions.  

One study found that online therapy could be as effective as traditional in-office therapy for various mental health conditions. If you feel that experiences from childhood continue to hold you back, online therapy could be an effective and affordable choice. 

Takeaway

Socially, childhood lasts until the age of legality. However, biologically, childhood ends when a person enters adolescence. However, note that adolescence is not adulthood and is a separate biological state in itself with unique needs. Childhood can contain three stages, including early, middle, and late childhood (adolescence). Often, childhood experiences shape the adults individuals grow up to become. Adverse experiences in childhood may have lasting negative impacts, but it may be possible to work through them with the help of a licensed therapist. Consider contacting a provider to discuss these concerns and how they impact your life.

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