What Is Developmental Psychology? Definition And Importance

By: Jon Jaehnig

Updated December 15, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Developmental psychology is an important area of psychology that is committed to understanding human development across the lifespan. It contributes to multiple scientific fields. Understanding what developmental psychology is, why it is important, and how it is applied to the world today can help you understand yourself and your children, as well as the world at large.

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Developmental psychology is often used to explain issues that a person faces in their adult life stemming from experiences—or lack of experiences—when they were younger. Thus, no matter how old you are, developmental psychology can help you understand yourself, including how you think and feel. This article will offer an introduction to developmental psychology. It will also help you get in touch with professionals if necessary to help you live a happier and healthier life.

Developmental Psychology Definition

Developmental psychology is the study of how people grow, change, and remain the same throughout their lifespan. In the past, developmental psychology was primarily used to understand the mental, emotional, and cognitive growth of children. This is because the biggest changes to human beings occur during childhood. However, developmental psychology is also used to understand the development of the individual throughout their entire lifespan, as changes continue to occur in adulthood. Developmental psychology is also important for helping those with developmental disabilities.

Goals of Developmental Psychology

There are three primary goals of developmental psychology. These are to describe, explain, and optimize development. Describing development requires focusing on both patterns of change and individual variations on patterns. While there is a typical path of development that most people follow, every person is different and has a unique developmental experience. Developmental psychologists also must explain their findings and apply them to optimizing development in children, adults, the disabled, and the elderly. They also use theories from developmental psychology to optimize learning.

Developmental Psychology Theories

One way that developmental psychology optimizes development and learning is through developmental psychology theories. There are many theories in developmental psychology, and sometimes they are contradictory. Research is ongoing to determine the best methods for understanding and exploring development.

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

The continuity vs. discontinuity argument is about the stages of life that children and adults go through. Psychologists who believe in continuity assert that normal development is a gradual and continual process. Children develop much in the same way as they grow taller.

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Discontinuity is the more common argument in this debate. Psychologists who believe in discontinuity assert that changes are more abrupt. This is where the term stages comes from. Psychologists who believe in discontinuity hold that everyone goes through the same stages of life, and biological factors prompt those stages. However, not everyone may go through the same stages at the same time. Individuals develop at their own pace, and while there may be norms, everyone is unique and will develop differently.

Nature vs. Nurture

You have probably heard the nature vs. nurture debate. Some psychologists believe that nature, or genetics, primarily dictates a child's development, while other psychologists believe that nurture, or environmental factors, plays a larger role. The truth lies somewhere in between. Nature and nurture interact throughout the lifespan and share responsibility for human development. Ultimately, the debate is about how much weight should be given to nature vs. nurture.

Stability vs. Change

The stability vs. change argument is about personality. Psychologists who are pro-stability believe that there are some aspects of your personality that you are born with that do not change over time. Pro-change psychologists believe that your environment, interactions with family, experiences in life, and other factors can change your personality over time. For example, children who spend their early years in an orphanage and fail to develop normally as babies can become more outgoing and affectionate in a stable family home. Again, most psychologists believe that some combination of the two is the most likely.

History of Developmental Psychology

The Industrial Revolution is responsible for the field of developmental psychology. As it became apparent that an educated workforce was needed, more emphasis was placed on child development and learning. This need led to increasing research into developmental psychology. As the Industrial Revolution occurred in the Western world, developmental psychology is the brainchild of the West. The original goal of developmental psychology was to determine how children learn, to make education more effective, and to create a stronger workforce.

The development of adults is a fairly new area of study, but one that is proving to be fruitful. People living until old age go through many developmental changes. This area of developmental psychology can be helpful in understanding aging populations.

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Two psychologists were responsible for the rise of developmental psychology. Charles Darwin contributed early on with his scientific observations of his son's communication patterns. Later, in 1882, German psychologist Wilhelm Preyer wrote the book The Mind of the Child, based on his scientific observations of his daughter from birth to age two. These two initial works were the kicking-off point for more research and the development of other theories. The three most famous developmental psychologists are Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and John Bowlby, all of whom created developmental psychology theories that are still being used and fine-tuned today.

Applications of Developmental Psychology

The theories and practices brought about by developmental psychology have numerous applications. For example, developmental psychology can be used to determine if a child is developing appropriately or if they have developmental disabilities. Developmental psychology is also used to optimize learning environments, and its theories influence our current public-school system.

In addition, developmental psychologists work in clinical and academic settings to assess, diagnose, and treat adults with developmental disabilities. Those with developmental disabilities, such as autism, are helped to learn skills that contribute to greater well-being and independence. Developmental psychologists may also work with the elderly in nursing homes, hospitals, mental health clinics, and homeless shelters. Psychologists can use developmental theories to help individuals of all ages understand their stage of life and how they can be happier and more productive.

Talking to Professionals

One of the main reasons people turn to developmental psychology is to better understand their children. When you read about human development, you may find that your child doesn't meet normal developmental standards. There could be many reasons for not meeting developmental norms, and there may be something simple that you can do at home to change the way that your child interacts with the world.

One of the best ways to get more information on developmental psychology, especially as it pertains to your child, is to talk to a licensed therapist experienced in developmental psychology. These professionals can examine your child's history and behavior, talk to the child, and discover why they may be lagging developmentally.

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If there is an underlying problem, such as a developmental disability, these professionals can help you determine if testing is appropriate and how to schedule it. They can also help you learn about resources in your community to help you cope. Often when developmental disabilities arise in a family, it puts stress on parents and other caregivers. Your therapist can help you as well as your child.

How BetterHelp Can Provide Treatment

In the past few years, the availability in online developmental psychology interventions has exploded in North America. More and more families are choosing online counseling as a means of treating developmental issues. What’s more, the study of child-computer interaction has increasingly aided the field of developmental psychology. One recent scholarly article praised online counseling’s ability to employ techniques like storytelling and gameplay to better address developmental issues.

If you are worried about your child's development, or how your early development is still impacting you, there are therapists available to help lead you in the right direction. BetterHelp offers reasonably priced and convenient online therapy options for you and your family. With services like BetterHelp, you can get more information on developmental psychology, get help in coping with a developmentally challenged child, and find peace of mind in a topsy turvy world that doesn't always go according to plan. For more information on how online therapy can help you or someone close to you, read the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing a range of life's challenges.

Counselor Reviews

“Nadirah is a great counselor. I especially appreciate her discernment in knowing when to provide counsel and when to listen. She's been a great and extraordinarily key component to my overall psychological development and rehabilitation. I highly recommend Nadirah as a great therapist to prospective clients/patients.”

“Audrey is exceptional! She’s extremely understanding, patient and kind in her approach. She takes time to listen and communicates back effectively. She’s easy to trust with information and has really helped me in just a short period of time in my development. I always look forward to talking to her and putting her recommendations into practice. Anyone paired with her will not be disappointed, but only refreshed.”

Moving Forward

Life changes can be challenging for everyone. Creating a truly fulfilling life with enriching activities and relationships, however, is possible—all you need are the right tools and a little help. Take the first step today. 

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