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Theories of Lifespan Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Childcare
Wordcount: 4622 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Discuss three theories that have impacted our understandings of childhood in terms of social, emotional and/ or cognitive development and how these might be important to the field of counselling.


This paper will discuss three theories of Lifespan Development that may have improved our understanding of childhood development in terms of social, emotional and/ or cognitive development, and how these might be important to the field of counselling.

Three theorists will be discussed along with their relevant theories. Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory, Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory, Attachment Theory covering Mary Ainsworth’s ‘The Strange Situation.

Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Erikson studied under Sigmund Freud and therefore is what’s known as a Neo-Freudian. However, Erikson would come to argue Freud’s theories and had a different view on his psychoanalytical/psychosexual theories. (Shaffer, 2007)

There are two important differences in Erikson’s approach to Lifespan Development. Erikson believed that children are far more involved in their own development and adapt to their surrounding environment accordingly. In Erikson’s theory, the ego is much more than a go-between, between the ID and the Superego. (Shaffer, 2007) The second difference in Erikson’s theory is that Erikson did not focus as much on sexual urges instead focused on the cultural influences that mould a human’s Lifespan Development.(Shaffer, 2007)

Erikson’s theory was based around eight psychosocial stages which he referred to as crises. In his theory personality is based around how one successfully navigates each stage in order to deal with the next stage of their lives. For the purpose of this paper, it is important to highlight the stages Erikson proposed.

A table of Erikson’s ‘Psychosocial Stages’

Approximate Age

Psychosocial Stage

Birth to 1 Year

Basic Trust Vs Mistrust

1 to 3 Years

Autonomy Vs Shame and Doubt

3 to 6 Years

Initiative Vs Guilt

6 to 12 Years

Industry Vs Inferiority

12 to 20 Years

Identity Vs Role Confusion

20 to 40 Years

Intimacy Vs Isolation

40 to 65 Years

Generativity Vs Stagnation

Old Age

Integrity Vs Despair


1: Basic Trust Vs Mistrust

This stage is experienced in the first year of life. A basic sense of trust is required at this stage for the infant to feel that the world is a safe and pleasant place to live (Santrock, 2004)

2: Autonomy Vs Shame and Doubt

This stage is experienced in infancy and young toddlerhood. From the trust felt from their caregivers, children begin to exercise will and gain a sense of independence in this stage. If children are punished too severely at this stage they develop a sense of shame and doubt.(Shaffer, 2007, 2007, 2007)

3: Initiative Vs Guilt

This stage is experienced in the preschool years. Children develop responsibility for their own being, from which initiative grows. A sense of guilt may develop if the child is made to feel anxious or behaves irresponsibly.(Shaffer, 2007)

4: Industry Vs Inferiority

This stage is experienced in the elementary school years. The initiative achieved in the third stage of development introduces the child to a wealth of new experiences. The child will compare him/she to his/her peers. Children focus their energy on mastering knowledge and intellectual skills.(Santrock, 2004)

5: Identity Role Vs Confusion

This stage is experienced during adolescence. Adolescents begin to gain a sense of themselves, what they want out of life, and the value system they will follow. Or they become confused about what direction they will take in life.(Santrock, 2004)

6: Intimacy Vs Isolation

This stage is experienced in early adulthood. Individuals in this stage will develop intimate relationships with others. If intimacy is not achieved in this stage it will result in isolation.(Shaffer, 2007)

7:  Generativity Vs Stagnation

This stage is experienced in middle adulthood. The main purpose is to help the younger generation in their development. The opposite of generativity is the stagnation which occurs if the individual fails to help the younger generation in their development. (Shaffer, 2007)

8: Integrity Vs Despair

This stage is experienced in late adulthood. The individual reflects on their life, either figuring that they lead a meaningful life without regret, or figuring that their life was not well spent. (Santrock, 2004)

Note that Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development differed from Freud’s theories of psychosexual development in that it did not end at adolescence and young adulthood.

Erikson believed that the issues faced by young adolescents differed from parents who are raising children or by the elderly who are dealing with retirement and mortality. (Sheldon & Kasser. 2001)

Importance of psychosocial theory to the field of counselling

Erikson’s contribution to the development of psychosocial theory highlights the importance of early experiences in development. (Santrock, 2004) This is relevant to the field of counselling in that in order to understand a person’s development one may have to evaluate their childhood experiences. Personality may also be understood better if it is evaluated through the development of the individual (Santrock, 2004). The unconscious mind needs to be evaluated along with the conscious mind (Erikson) Erikson focused on the identity crisis facing adolescents (Shaffer, 2007), this may play an important role in understanding the issues facing young adults in the appropriate age range.

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It is important to note in this paper that Erikson’s theory comes in for some criticism and despite contributions to the field; it is argued that the propositions are difficult to assess. (Shaffer, 2007) A large amount of data from the studies came from Erikson’s subject’s reconstruction of past life events which are hard to confirm or falsify from a research perspective (Santrock, 2004). More recent studies, for example, a research carried out by Phillip Meilman (1979) measuring the identity status of males in the 12-24 age range found that 12-18-year-olds identities were already in formation. Meilman (1979) found that it wasn’t until the age of 21 and beyond that identities were fully formed. This would highlight the fact that Erikson’s age ranges for identity development were highly optimistic. The mentioned criticisms of Erikson’s theory are important in evaluating the relevance of the psychosocial theory in today’s field of counselling.

Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development


Jean Piaget (1896-1980)


 “Intelligence is a particular instance of biological adaptation...” The Origin of Intelligence in the Child (1936)

Piaget’s contribution to the theories of cognitive development is one of the most influential and played a major role in developments in the field. (Beilin, 1992) Piaget published his first biology paper at the age of ten but later developed a keen interest in epistemology or the study of knowledge. He worked with Alfred Binet in Paris who was developing a standardized IQ test for children. It was here that Piaget became interested in how children think. –Piaget proposed that children are active participants in their acquisition of knowledge rather than passive, children are active in finding knowledge from various sources (Hetherington, 2006)

Piaget proposed four main periods in a child’s cognitive development.

Age Range *







Concrete Operational

11 -

Formal Operational

*Approximate Age Range


Sensorimotor (0-2)

In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the sensorimotor stage corresponds to the period of infancy, from birth to approximately two years. At the beginning of the stage, a child possesses innate reflexes with which to operate. At the end of the period, the infant has developed sensorimotor patterns and is at the early development of a primitive set of symbols   (Santrock, 2004) It is important to note that Object Permanence is developed during this period. Object permanence is the ability to form mental representations of objects that are not visible or actions that are not occurring.

Preoperational (2-7)

The preoperational period of cognitive development is characterized by the child’s development of symbolic function, the ability to represent their world with symbols such as words, images and gestures (Hetherington, 2006). Conservation is the Piagetian term for the understanding that a child obtains that physical quantities remain the same despite changes in their shape or appearance. The child must understand that despite objects change in appearance or shape the properties of the object remain the same, for example, mass, length of volume (Hetherington, 2006) Conservation is absent during this stage.

Concrete Operational (7-11)

During this stage of a child’s Cognitive Development cognitive operations are rapidly acquired and children begin to apply new skills in and around the thinking of objects and events which they have experienced. (Shaffer, 2007, 2007) Children have an increased understanding of reversibility and a greater ability to focus on one dimension of a problem at a time. Conservation is fully developed during the stage and children can easily solve problems of, for example, mass height, volume and the area of objects despite changes in their shape or appearance. Children also obtain the ability to classify objects during the concrete operational phase. During the preoperational stage, a child will gradually become able to classify objects on a consistent basis, for example, characteristics such as size, shape or colour. In the concrete operational stage, the child can sort objects in more complicated classifications. An example of this would be identifying different shades of colours. (Hetherington, 2006)

Formal Operational (11-)

Piaget proposed that the thinking in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development is limited as children can only apply operational schemes to objects, situations, or events which are real or imaginable (Shaffer, 2007) The most significant change in the formal operational stage is the application of hypothesis testing and the entertainment that there are many possible solutions to problems which a child needs to solve. The child also develops the ability to actually think about thinking (Kuhn & Franklin 2006). Children during this stage can also begin to think about social problems and philosophical issues such as truth and justice. (Hetherington, 2006)

Importance to the field of Counselling

Piaget was somewhat of a renegade and was quite innovative in that he studied cognition, or thinking. He believed that IQ tests only told us what individuals know rather than what they think. (Shaffer, 2007) Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has had an enormous impact in the field of study of children’s development of cognitive skills (Hetherington, 2006) His theory emphasizes the importance of the individuals construction of thinking and understanding of objects and the world around them (Santrock, 2004) Piaget’s theory has also had a great influence on education. Educational programmes are based on the idea that children do not think like adults and are therefore a more hands-on approach, developed around the concept of how children learn in their environment (Shaffer, 2007)

Piaget’s theory has been criticised by researchers who believed that he somewhat underestimated the ability of children attending schools. Children showed a much stronger ability to solve problems when presented with tasks that are more familiar which allowed them to show their competencies (Bjorklund, 2005)

Time magazine hailed Piaget as one of the greatest minds of the century at the turn of the millennium (Papert 1999) In examining the Handbook of Child Psychology editions it is revealed that Piaget is referenced the most within the handbook. His work continues to nourish discussion and experimentation in the field. (Bond & Tryphon 2007).

Attachment Theory

Attachment: “A strong emotional bond that forms between infant and caregiver in the second half of a child’s first year” (Hetherington, 2006)

It takes some time for an infant to develop an attachment to a parent or caregiver. A number of theories have been proposed in order to explain why and how infants become attached to those around them (Shaffer, 2007)

For the purpose of this paper, we will now look at some of the theories proposed to explain attachment in infants.

John Bowlby


One of the most significant applications of theory to the ethological view of human development was John Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Bowlby argued that a child’s attachment to a caregiver in the first year plays an important role in the life span. (Santrock, 2004)

One of his most notable works was the study of juvenile thieves which was his first published work entitled “Forty Four Juvenile Thieves”

This study and its finding will now be outlined.

Aim and Procedure: Bowlby’s aim for this study was to determine if there is a correlation between parental separation in infancy and juvenile delinquency. Bowlby studied a group of 44 juvenile thieves at Canonbury Clinic in which he was working. He worked with a control group of 44 adolescents “who though emotionally disturbed” did not steal.

Findings: Of the 14 thieves who were studied Bowlby classified 14 of the thieves as “affectionless Characters” in comparison with none in the control group. Within the 44 thieves group, 17 had had a separation from their mothers before the age of five, in comparison; only two in the control group had been separated from their mothers.

Conclusion: From his study of maternal deprivation in infancy, Bowlby concluded that there is a correlation between separation from a mother in infancy and subsequent criminal behaviour in adolescence.

Strengths and Weaknesses: The study itself suggests that there is a correlation between maternal deprivation and adolescent delinquency. This suggests that there may be merit in further research in the field.

A criticism of the study is that Bowlby relies on recollections of and the memories of the participants which may not be accurate. Bowlby developed and carried out the study himself which may have lead to experimenter bias.


Mary Ainsworth


Mary Ainsworth was a developmental psychologist who became widely known for her work in the field of attachment theory. Her most outstanding work was the design of a procedure called ‘The Strange Situation”, the aim of which was to observe the emotional attachment between a child and its primary caregiver.

The Strange Situation

Ainsworth’s observation of infants at approximately 1-year-old was valuable. (Ainsworth, 1973, Waters, Vaughn, Posada, & Cibdi Ikemura 1995) The remarkable differences in the behaviour of the infants became known as the Strange Situation. The procedure of this observation was a carefully worked out scenario where a mother twice separates from her child and leaves her baby alone with a stranger, then twice reunites with the child.(Hetherington) For the purpose of this paper, we will outline the procedure in the below table.

Table 1.1


Persons Present

Duration of Episode

Description of Setting


Caregiver, baby, and observer

30 Seconds

Observer introduces caregiver and baby to experimental room, (Room contains many appealing toys scattered about)


Caregiver and baby

3 Minutes

The caregiver is nonparticipant while baby explores: if necessary, play is stimulated after 2 minutes


Stranger, Caregiver and baby

3 Minutes

Stranger enters. First Minute: Stranger is Silent. Second Minute: Stranger Converses with Caregiver. Third Minute: Stranger approaches baby. After 3 minutes caregiver leaves unobtrusively.


Stranger and Baby

3 minutes or Less

First Separation Episode. Stranger’s behaviour geared is geared to that of the baby


Caregiver and Baby

3 minutes or more

First reunion episode. Caregiver greets and/ or comforts baby, then tries to settle baby again in play. The caregiver then leaves saying “ bye bye”


Baby alone

3 Minutes or Less

Second Seperation episode


Stranger and Baby

3 minutes or less

Continuation of second separation. Stranger enters and gears behaviour to that of the baby.


Caregiver and baby

3 minutes

Second reunion episode. Caregiver enters, greets baby, then picks baby up. Meanwhile stranger leaves unobstrusively.

 Table Santrock pg 218

From this experiment Ainsworth was able to establish a classification of attachment.

Secure Attachment

The infant will utilise the caregiver as a secure base to explore the environment. Ainsworth believes that a secure attachment in early life leads to an important foundation for development in later life. (Santrock)

Insecure Avoident

An infant shows and insecurity by avoiding the mother. There is little interaction with the primary caregiver and the infant will also often show distress by crying.

Insecure Resistant

The infant will cling to the mother and then in turn fight or reject the closeness. Infants will cling to the caregiver and are reluctant to explore the playroom.



Insecure Disorganized

Infants show insecure attachment by being disorganized and disorientated. Infants will often be dazed and confused. To be classified as insecure disorganized strong evidence of avoidance and resistance must be present.

Importance to the field of Counselling

Researchers have found that for in some cases early attachment can have an effect on later functioning (Shneider, Atkinson, & Tardif, 2001; Shroufe, Egeland & Carlson 1999), while for other children there is little continuity (Thompson, 2000) This may be an important element to counselling in that understanding early functioning may lead to a greater understanding of adult functioning. The Attachment theory may also have relevance in understanding a child’s development in terms of the family in a child therapy setting. The family set-up is the social system which moulds the child’s development. (Woolfe) Understanding the relationship the child has with its primary caregivers is very relevant in the child therapy arena.Expand

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However there have also been criticisms of Attachment Theory. Some researchers believe that too much emphasis has been placed on the relationship between a child and it’s caregivers in infancy (Jerome Kagan, 1987, 2000) believes that infants are highly adaptive and resilient and are evolutionarily equipped for positive development regardless of the relationship with the primary caregiver. Researchers have also found that there are cultural differences in attachment, for example Japanese infants often show different patterns of attachment to American infants (Santrock)


This paper has reviewed three theories which may be important to the field of counselling. Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory. Finally Mary Ainsworth’s contribution to Attachment Theory. The theories relevance to the field of counselling has been proposed. Further research may be needed to strengthen the proposed relevance of the theories.


  • Beilin, H. (1992) Piaget’s enduring contribution to developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology, 28, 191-204
  • Bond, T, Tryphon, A. (2007) Piaget’s Legacy as Reflected in the Handbook of Child Psychology (1998 Edition)
  • Hetherington E. Parke R. Gauvain M. and Locke V. O. (2006) Child Psychology A Contemperary Viewpoint  6th EditionNew York: McGraw Hill
  • Kuhn, D. & Franklin, S. (2006). The second decade: What develops and how. Handbook of Child Psychology (6th ed., pp. 953-993), New York: Wiley.
  • Meilman P. W. (1979) Cross-Sectional age changes in ego identity status during adolescence. Deveopmental Psychology , 15, 230-231
  • Piaget J. (1930) The Origin of Intelligence in the Child  Routledge
  • Santrock J. W. (2004) Life-Span Development. 9th EditionDallas Texas: Mcgraw Hill
  • Shaffer, 2007, 2007 D. R. and Kipp K. (2007) Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence 7th Edition Belmont CA: Thomson.
  • Sheldon K. M. & Kasser, T. (2001) Getting Older, Getting Better. Personal Strivings and psychological Maturity across the life span. Developmental Psychology, 2001, Vol 37(4) pp. 491-501
  • Woolfe  R. Dryden W. and Strawbridge S. (2003) Handbook of Counselling Psychology. 2nd Edition. London: Sage.


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