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Compare and Contrast Child Developmental Theories

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2020

Psychologists have made tremendous progress in their attempts to explain how development occurs among human beings. Over a long period of time, developmental psychologists have been engaged in controversies in their understanding of development as either continuous or stage oriented (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008).

Those who propose that human development is discontinuous argue that it involves distinct stages which are uniquely identified by significant behavioral differences. Psychological theorists who say that development is a continuous process have very contrary explanations.

There are several theories that have been advanced in support of the stage oriented development. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast three major developmental theories as advanced by Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. The key concepts of the three theories are discussed in the paper. The outstanding similarities and differences of these theories are elaborated.

Moreover, the interactions of cognitive, physical and emotional development on the overall development of the child are discussed. The paper also provides explanations of the importance of understanding the normal child and adolescent development as far as assisting each child to reach their full potential is concerned.

According to Papalia, Olds, and Feldman (2007), theories that explain human development are characterized by models of how individuals undergo transformation (and stay unchanged) over time.

Sigmund Freud is considered the pioneer of the psychoanalytic school of thought of human development. He developed this theory towards the close of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Freud advanced the psychosexual theory of human development with emphasize on sexual drive being crucial in influencing behavior.

According to Freud, human beings have sexual instincts that unfold in distinct stages right from birth (Zerucha, 2003). This sexual drive is referred to as libido. The source of the drive is peculiar to each stage and is called the erogenous zone and shifts with time. This theory has three major components.

The first is the dynamic component or the economic concept. Freud too up the concept of energy and applied it to human behavior (Papalia et al., 2007). He identified the psychic energy which operates the different parts of an organism. This energy is biological based and always available in same form. The source of this energy, according to Freud, is instinctual in nature which implies that it is not learnt. The most powerful of the instincts are those dealing with creation and sustenance of life, the sexual instinct.

He named them Eros. There are other instincts that were identified but the sexual instinct becomes a main life instinct which is necessary for the survival of species (Rayner, Joyce & Clulow, 2005). Sigmund also identified another class of instincts called Thanatos which represented death and aggression.

Libido is the special form of energy used by the Eros. Freud believed that human behavior occurs unconsciously. This means that the development of human behaviour is out of awareness and the unconscious part of the brain stores up all experiences, memories and repressed material and motivations.

The second component of Freud’s theory is the structural component which illustrates three levels of personality. The Id is the inborn, biological structure and its main purpose is immediate gratification and reduction of tension through the pleasure principle (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008).

This part is illogical, blind, demanding, insistent, and unconscious, lacks organization, and cannot tolerate tension. The Id never matures and remains the spoilt part of human personality. The Ego, on the other hand, deals with the interaction between the individual and the environment. It is ruled by the reality principle (Papalia et al., 2007).

This is the part that is responsible for ensuring realistic human behavior and logical thinking. It formulates plans of actions for satisfying individual needs. The ego is the seat of intelligence and rationality since it checks and controls the blind impulses of the id. The third part of personality, according to Feud, is the Superego.

It is the judicial part of personality since it represents the internalized standards, values, and attitudes. The ego-ideal component has the ideal standards while the conscience deals with the judge and punishing agency that leads the child to experience guilt each time the standards of the ego-ideal are violated (Rayner et al., 2005).

The third and the most significant component of psychosexual theory is the stage component. It has five main stages of human development. In this theory, Freud explains the development of child from birth to the adolescence stage. He observed that the demands of each of the stages must be fulfilled, otherwise the individual becomes fixated.

Fixation refers to the arrested development at one of the psychosexual stages because of under or over-gratification of a need (Zerucha, 2003). The following are the five stages of Freud’s model of human development.

The first is the oral stage which starts from birth to one year of age. The primary focus of stimulation is the mouth and lips. The child gets gratification in feeding through the oral cavity. One main source of a child at this stage is breastfeeding.

An adult who show excessive oral needs such as excessive eating, chewing, talking, smoking, drinking, gossip, hostility, aggression, and greediness, according to Freud, may have oral fixation (Rayner et al., 2005). He proposed that children should be breastfed, given food and love if this problem is to be avoided.

The second is the anal stage which is experienced at age 1 to three. The anal area becomes the erogenous zone where the child derives pleasure. Children will get bowel as well as bladder elimination pleasurable (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008). This stage is naturally oriented to coincide with toilet-training and the method of training affects the formation of particular personality traits.

Individuals fixated at this stage will display cruelty, inappropriate display of anger, extreme disorderliness, and anal aggressive personality. These behavior characteristics occur when the individual perceives the waste from the body as not useful.

If the waste is perceived as useful, the person will develop extreme orderliness, hoarding, stubbornness, and meanness. In general, the fixated person exhibits anal retentive personality characterized by selfishness.

The third is the phallic stage occurring at between age three to six. The focus is on the genital zone where the child derives pleasure from manipulating its genitals (Papalia et al., 2007).

A child at this stage faces a crisis which must be resolved. A boy-child experiences Oedipus complex where the boy desires to posses the mother as she is possessed by the father. However, the boy fears creating trouble wit the father. According to Freud, the boy develops castration fear or anxiety and resolves this problem by identifying with the father (Rayner et al., 2005).

This implies that the boy possesses the mother vicariously and engages in manly activities. Faced with similar conflict, the girl-child experiences Electra complex; the penis envy. To resolve this problem with the mother, she identifies with the mother and posses the father vicariously and develops gender roles.

The fourth stage in Freud’s psychosexual theory is the latency stage experienced between age six and 11. At this stage, there is loss of interest in sexual gratification and their energy is channeled to other behaviors like developing affection with others; parents, age mates, school mates, and sports (Zerucha, 2003). This marks a period of socialization.

The last is the genital stage which sets off at puberty to 18 and beyond. This stage is characterized by the maturity of sexual interests. The old sexual themes of the phallic stage are revived.

The adolescents develop interest in the opposite sex and there is some sexual experimentation (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008). The individual assumes responsibility and the conflicts at the phallic stage have been solved through socialization.

The second developmental theory was advanced by Erik Erikson who was Freud’s student. Erik extended Freud’s work and emphasized the role played by the social and environmental factors in human development. He was also a member of the psychoanalytic school of thought. Erik’s theory is commonly referred to as the psychosocial theory which focuses on the entire life span of an individual. Just like Freud, he examined the consequences of early experiences on later behavior in life (Zerucha, 2003).

Erik also developed the idea of crisis/conflict which must be resolved in constructive and satisfactory manner for the enhancement of human development. He observed that if resolved in an unsatisfactory manner, the negative quality will hinder further development which may manifest itself in psychopathology (Rayner et al., 2005). Eight developmental stages are outlined under the psychosocial theory.

The human development as explained by the psychosocial theory uses the crisis approach where there are two direct opposites to be experienced. The first is the early infancy stage starting at birth to one year of age.

The crisis here is the trust versus mistrust and centers on the development of trust (Zerucha, 2003). The child develops trust through being given support, provision of basic needs, and continuous and prompt response. If there is lack of trust, mistrust will result from inconsistency, frustration and deprivation.

The second stage is the late infancy and spans ages 2 and 3. It starts when the child learns to control and regulate its behavior (Papalia et al., 2007). Activities indicating control include toilet-training. The issue at this stage is autonomy and shame and doubt.

For a child to exercise autonomy, he should not be criticized, ridiculed or laughed at incase of failure to perform some activities as expected. This is because the child will doubt themselves and always seek approval, hence lowering their self-esteem (Zerucha, 2003). If this crisis is not resolved, the child develops defensive behaviors like projection, and drug abuse.

Thirdly, there is the early childhood (4-6 years) stage which is characterized by initiative and guilt crisis. Initiative indicates that the child feels sure to take positive actions of its own, like dressing and feeding oneself (Rayner et al., 2005).

Failure to solve the problems at the autonomy stage will delay initiative or destroy it completely. Parents, according to Erik, should encourage children’s self-initiated behavior. If the child lacks initiative, he will experience guilt, low self confidence and self control.

The fourth stage is the middle childhood or the industry versus inferiority crisis stage (6-11 years). This is a period of learning and mastering more basic skills necessary in the society (Zerucha, 2003). Children ought to learn to take pride in their work through well cultivated attitudes.

Failure to be productive results in inferiority feelings. Children will withdraw and regress to dependent behavior (Papalia et al., 2007). They may direct their energies to socially unacceptable behaviors in defense.

Identity versus role confusion crisis characterizes the fifth stage and occurs at age 12 to 18; the adolescence stage. At this stage, the individual is expected to develop identity and role clarity. Due to physical, emotional, social, and intellectual changes, there is change of expectations.

The adolescents are no longer sure of the roles they are supposed to play. In order to resolve these confusions, identity grows out of identification with parents, teachers, friends, and other role models (Zerucha, 2003). According to Erikson, this is the most sensitive stage since identity grows out of the preceding stages.

The sixth stage is the early adulthood (19- about 40 years). It is marked by intimacy versus isolation crisis. Once the sense of identity has been developed, it is ready to be fused with another identity of another person especially of the opposite sex (Zerucha, 2003).

There is manifestation of true love between two people with intimate/mutual relationship. Failure to achieve intimacy, there is development of feelings of isolation even when married and with children.

Stage seven of Erikson’s theory occurs between the age of 40 and 60 and is referred to as the middle adulthood. The crisis at this stage is generativity versus stagnation. It involves the achievement of productive, purposeful, and creative personality (Zerucha, 2003). The negative aspect of this stage is the feeling of stagnation.

The last stage is the old age at 60 and beyond. It characterized y the ego integrity versus despair crisis. The individuals at this stage look back in their lives and are content because they know that they have done it! Failure to develop a sense of integrity leads to despair and regret (Papalia et al., 2007).

The third human development theory was advanced by Jean Piaget. His theory focuses mostly on human cognitive development and describes four stages of how children think and reason about their environment (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008).

Piaget believed that all children go through these stages in the same way and warned that no skipping of one stage. Differences in the stages are both qualitative and quantitative.

The first is the sensori-motor stage which occurs in children from birth up to 2 years. At this stage, children evolve from reflexive creatures into reflective planful problem solvers (Zerucha, 2003). He divided this stage six other sub-stages.

The second stage is the pre-operational stage (2-7 years) where children are more proficient at constructing and using mental images to think about objects, situations and events they encounter. Piaget divided this stage into two more sub-stages; the pre-conceptual period (2-4 years) and the intuitive period (4-7 years).

The third stage identified by Piaget is the concrete operational stage from age 7 to 11. Piaget believe that children at this stage can apply their operations to objects and events that are real or imaginable (Papalia et al., 2007). The child achieves class inclusion, mental representation and has concrete operation as well as reversibility.

The fourth stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory is the formal operational stage starting at age 12 and above. A child at this stage is able to reason logically, give creative responses, and exhibit systematic problem-solving approaches (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2008).

A number of factors, according to Piaget, play a role in influencing human cognitive development. These include; biological, educational, socio-cultural, and the physical environment.

From the above discussion, it is evident that there are a number of similarities and differences between the three developmental theories.

The theories provide very reach information on the physical, emotional, and cognitive development in human beings. The explanations given are convincing and can be used in guiding the general development of the child from the formative stages. Erikson’s psychosocial theory provides a comprehensive analysis of human development from birth to death.

This enables the handling of life experiences from a knowledgeable perspective and to make necessary amends. In general, it is important to understand the normal child as well as adolescent in order to help them attain full potential in life.

The paper has compared and contrasted three major developmental theories using the block method as advanced by Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. The key concepts of the three theories have been discussed in the paper. The outstanding similarities and differences of these theories have emerged from the discussion.

Moreover, the interactions of cognitive, physical and emotional development on the overall development of the child have been highlighted. The paper has also provided an explanation of the importance of understanding the normal child and adolescent development as far as assisting each child to reach their full potential is concerned.


Kail, R. V. & Cavanaugh, J. C. (2008). Human development: a life-span perspective (5th ed). Cengage Learning.

Papalia, D., Olds, S. & Feldman, R. (2007). A Childs World (11th ed). McGraw-Hill Plc.

Rayner, E., Joyce, A. & Clulow, C. (2005). Human development; psychodynamics of growth, maturity, and ageing (4th ed). Psychology Press.

Zerucha, T. (2003). Understanding human development. Infobase Plc.

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Further Study: FAQ

📌 How were the early human development theories similar?

The first theories divided human development into distinct stages. Each stage is characterized by differences in physical behavior and psychological growth.

📌 What are the five major developmental theories?

The five major theories are as follows:
  1. Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Theory.
  2. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.
  3. Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory.
  4. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory.
  5. Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory.

📌 What is developmental theory?

The developmental theory concerns the psychological, emotional, biological, and social evolution of a human and factors that influence it. It also tries to explain abnormal social behavior.

📌 What are the similarities between Freud and Erikson?

Each theorist bases his developmental theory on different stages of a human’s life and growth, using same age groups as the foundation. Both Freud and Erikson acknowledge the impact of the unconscious on a person’s development.

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