How Our Childhood Shapes Us: Multiple Childhood Development Theories

multiple childhood development theories

Our childhood can have a massive impact on who we become as adults. Here are just a few examples of events, experiences, or developments which happen in childhood and may affect you to this very day!

Attachment Style

John Bowlby originally developed the concept of attachment. Bowlby was a British developmentalist influenced by both Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and ethology (a branch of knowledge dealing with the formation and evolution of human character). Bowlby did a great deal of research on how the absence of the mother in the child’s life, otherwise known as maternal deprivation, influenced the child’s perception of interpersonal relationships and how this affected their psychological development.

Bowlby’s ideas and research inspired Mary Ainsworth, a former colleague of his who was studying the nature of infant attachments in Uganda. Ainsworth found that virtually all infants develop some sort of special attachment to the people who care for them. In 1973, Ainsworth developed what is called the “Strange Situation.” In this laboratory experiment, a toddler is brought into a playroom filled with interesting toys. At first, the baby’s primary caregiver (typically the mother) is in the room with the baby. The mother watches while the baby explores and plays with the new toys. Then a stranger enters and talks with the mother. The stranger then attempts to interact with the baby. The mother quietly gets up and leaves the room. The parent then returns, greets the baby, and leaves again. The stranger leaves as well, leaving the baby alone in the room. The stranger returns and gears their behavior to that of the infant. The parent then returns and interacts with the baby. The stranger leaves. Ainsworth was able to identify three different attachment categories that the majority of infants fit into.

The first category is secure. The child plays happily while the mother is in the room, engages with the stranger only while the mother is in the room, shows mild distress upon the mother’s departure, and is happy when she returns.

The second attachment style is known as insecure-avoidant. A baby with this attachment style ignores the mother while she is in the room and plays happily. When the mother leaves, the baby continues to play. The stranger is not treated much differently than the mother. Basically, the baby seems to not care whether they are alone in the room or not. When the mother returns for the last time, the baby may be resistant to being picked up.

The third attachment style is insecure-resistant. Babies with this attachment style cling to their mother when initially brought into the room. When the mother leaves, the baby is extremely distressed. The stranger is ignored. When the mother returns, the baby can be angry, possibly even hitting or pushing the mother away, or cling to the mother but seem unable to calm down.
A fourth attachment style was added by Ainsworth’s colleague Mary Main. It is known as disorganized attachment. Infants with this attachment style have inconsistent behavior. They may seem cautious in the new room, confused and anxious when the mother leaves, and act oddly when the mother returns, hitting themselves, freezing, or screaming.

In the late 1980s, Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver applied this research to adult relationships. They noticed that interactions between romantic partners were similar to interactions between children and their caregivers. Research conducted by Hazan and Shaver as well as other psychologists supports the idea that the attachment style developed during childhood can carry over to adulthood! So how does this affect our romantic relationships as adults? Once again, there are four categories of attachment (identified by Bartholomew and Horowitz, Pietromonaco and Barret), which stem from the attachment style we each had as a child.

The first category is secure. Securely-attached people have positive views of themselves, their partners, and their relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy as well as independence.

An anxious-preoccupied attachment style is characterized by seeking high levels of intimacy, approval, and responsiveness from their partners. People with this attachment style can become too dependent on their partners. They are often called clingy. They typically have a lower self-esteem, blaming themselves for their partner’s lack of responsiveness.

People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style desire a high level of independence. They tend to deny needing close relationships and seek less intimacy from partners. These are the people who would break up with a partner because of fear that a partner is going to break up with them; “I’ll hurt you before you hurt me.”

The last attachment style found in adults is fearful-avoidant. People with this attachment style want close relationships, but are reluctant to trust others completely and can be uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They typically do not see themselves worthy of responsiveness from their partners.

So, how are these attachment styles developed during childhood? Attachments form in infancy and are generally well-developed by twelve months. The type of attachment you form with your primary caregiver (and which is likely to carry on through adulthood) is influenced mainly by how your caregiver reacts to your needs. Insecure attachment styles are fostered by parents who are unresponsive, frightening, controlling, or even abusive or neglectful. The baby’s personality can also play a part in which attachment style they develop. Babies can be characterized as either “easy,” “difficult,” or “slow-to-warm-up.” Babies who are difficult (intense, unhappy, disturbed by every noise, etc) more readily develop an insecure-resistant attachment style. Babies who are slow- to-warm-up (unwilling to adapt to new people or situations but do so with time and patience) are more likely to develop an insecure-resistant attachment style. Part of the problem may be that these babies are more difficult to parent, leading to poor attachment styles.

While you may not have had much control over how your caregivers parented you or the personality you were born with, you are not stuck permanently with the attachment style you developed in childhood. You can take steps, such as counseling, to turn your insecure attachment style into a secure one. Your particular attachment style also affects how you parent your own children, so if you believe you may fit into an insecure category, it’s best to seek therapy before becoming a parent.

Take the test and see which attachment style you have:

Erikson’s Eight Psychosocial Stages

Erik Erikson was a German psychologist who is known for his theory on the psychosocial development of human beings. He coined the phrase “identity crisis.” Erikson was a neo-Freudian (one of Freud’s followers) who modified Freud’s original psychosexual theory of development, which was based on sexual urges at each stage of development and which ended at puberty. Erikson’s eight developmental stages are characterized by a particular challenge at each stage, which corresponds with certain ages. Failure to resolve a crisis can lead to problems later in life. Erikson’s stages emphasize the impact of people’s relationships to their family and culture.

The first stage, Trust vs Mistrust, is experienced from birth to about one year.  Babies learn either to trust that they will be taken care of by caregivers or they learn to distrust if caregivers do not respond adequately. If this stage is not resolved by adulthood, the individual can have difficulties in establishing a close, secure relationship with a life partner.

The second stage, Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt, is experienced from ages one to three. In this stage, the child learns either to be self-sufficient and gains confidence in one’s own abilities, or they doubt themselves and feel shameful. Failure to become autonomous in this stage can lead to an adult who has problems making decisions and who may be impulsive. It can also lead to a low self-esteem.

From ages three to six, the child struggles with Initiative vs Guilt. They learn to either undertake adult-like activities or they fear and are oppressed by the limits set by their parents. Adults who have not resolved this stage can be either ruthless or extremely inhibited.

Industry vs Inferiority is the stage typically experienced between ages six and eleven. Children learn to be competent and develop their skills, or they feel inferior and useless. If someone does not resolve this stage, they may grow to lack any ambition or direction in life, believing that they are “good-for-nothing.”

The fifth stage in Erikson’s model is Identity vs Role Confusion. This is experienced during adolescence. The individual tries to figure out who they are and where they fit in society. If they can’t find their place, they can become confused and isolated from others. Failure to resolve this stage can lead to depression and even suicide in adulthood. Or it can lead to extreme acts of violence against society, such as school shootings.

The next stage, experienced during early adulthood, is Intimacy vs Isolation. Young adults seek intimacy and companionship with another person. If they can’t achieve this, they may learn to fear rejection and always expect disappointment. They’ll either make a decision to give up on love completely or they will become extremely promiscuous, trying to obtain love from physical acts.

The seventh stage is Generativity vs Stagnation. It is experienced during middle-age. Adults work to contribute to society through work, raising a family, and other creative activities. If they cannot do this, they feel rejected by society and hopeless.

The final stage in Erikson’s model is Integrity vs Despair. Older adults either look back on their lives as meaningful or they despair at the goals that they never reached. Failure to resolve this stage leads to a great unhappiness and a feeling that they may have wasted their life.

Getting stuck in one of these stages and being unable to resolve the particular conflict can lead to incredibly high levels of stress, bad health, unhappiness, and stunted emotional and relational development. While each individual experiences these stages at slightly different ages and some may take longer to resolve one stage than another, the majority of individuals finish the stage being somewhere in-between. For example, in the Identity vs Role-Confusion Stage, most people are not entirely sure who they are by the time they are out of adolescence, but they generally have somewhat of an idea.

Working through these stages can be incredibly difficult, so it’s important to have a strong network of support during your life. Build strong relationships and you’ll become a happy, well-developed adult without needing much luck.

Critical and Sensitive Periods

A critical period is a period of time in the life span of an organism during which there is heightened sensitivity to outer stimuli that are necessary for the development of a particular skill. A sensitive period is one in which it is very easy to learn certain skills; past this point, it can be much harder to learn as the information can no longer just be absorbed.
Much research has been done on critical and sensitive periods during childhood. While there is a lot of dispute over when these periods are (and if they are), it is clear that the things we learn or do not learn during early childhood can have a great impact on us in later life.

Linguist Eric Lenneberg developed what is called the Critical Period Hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, language develops most readily during the first few years of life. After this time, it is much more difficult and ultimately less successful to learn language. Lenneberg was able to develop his hypothesis partly through the study of feral children and victims of child abuse who were not exposed to human language.

One of the most famous cases that show support for the Critical Period Hypothesis is the story of Victor of Aveyron. Victor was a French child who was found in the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in 1800 after apparently having spent most of his life in the wild. Victor was taken to the National Institute of the Deaf in Paris (although he was not deaf) where Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard attempted to teach him. He became frustrated with Victor’s lack of progress and Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a medical student, took Victor into his own home and attempted to teach him language. Despite his efforts, however, Victor never progressed beyond a rudimentary level. Some argue that Victor’s years in the wild simply left him unable to acquire language; he had missed the critical period. Others argue that Victor was mentally-disabled, possibly autistic.

While there are good arguments for both sides, it can be clear to us all that some things are much easier learned as a young child than an older adult. Imagine that a grandfather and his young grandson take a Spanish class together. Who do you think would learn the language faster?

While the experiences we have in childhood can greatly impact the rest of our lives, human beings are constantly in a process of development and change. If you are not happy with an aspect of your life that may be connected with your childhood, do not despair. Change can be hard, but it is almost always possible.

About the author

EE Edit@rs