Growing Up with Psychology
Me, You, and Everything in Between
In This Chapter
Exploring and mastering
Building and connecting
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a psychologist as a parent? What if both parents were psychologists? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? You may imagine that the typical dinner-table conversation would sound something like this:
Parent: How was your day today?
Parent: Fine, huh? That’s funny; somebody doesn’t look like he had an all right day. What about it honey? How was your day, really?
Child: I got into a fight with that big, stupid bully at school again. Well, I didn’t really get into a fight. He just took my lunch pail and threw it into the trash can.
Parent: How did that make you feel? Frustrated? Angry? What role did you play in the situation?
Child: You know, just once I’d like to hear you say that you’ll do something about it or protect me somehow. Maybe you could teach me how to defend myself. I’m tired of being in therapy at the dinner table. I’m going to my room.
Parent: Well, I guess I messed that one up. How does that make me feel?
I don’t know if having a psychologist as a parent is necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. Some people seem to think that it would scar a kid because everything she does would be overanalyzed. But that’s not really fair. If a parent is a pediatrician, would people expect her to leave her medical knowledge at the door and not treat her own children if they became ill? Of course not. But anything can be overdone.
One of the largest areas of psychological study is psychological development. Although many people think of children when they hear the term, developmental psychology covers the entire span of human life. Lifespan psychology is the study of human psychological development from conception until death.
I describe some of the areas traditionally covered in lifespan psychology in other chapters in this book. Personality development, for example, is the focus of Chapter 11. Self-development and the development of relationships are explored in Chapter 10. Therefore, this chapter focuses on physical and motor development, cognitive development, and social development.
Beginning with Conception and Birth
The process of psychological development begins with conception. Genetic processes, which play a big part in the future development of behaviors and mental processes, originate with the union of a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm. Each coupling creates a new genetic combination called a genotype — the genetic makeup of an individual.
Through a complex process that’s best understood by geneticists and biologists, genes express themselves in what’s called the phenotype — the actual manifestation of genetic codes in observable biological and psychological processes as shaped and impacted by our environment. So, this means that I may have the genotype for being tall and muscular, but if I suffer from malnutrition and never exercise, I may be letting myself fall short of my genotype potential.
In this section, I introduce you to pregnancy and the process of fetal development.
X’s and Y’s get together . . .
Sperm and eggs are specialized cells in the body that contain half of the genetic material necessary to make a whole person; they’re called sex cells because they are involved in sexual reproduction.
Human beings contain 46 chromosomes. You get 23 chromosomes from your mother and 23 from your father. Non-sex-related cells contain a full set of genetic material with 46 chromosomes. A person’s chromosomes determine the unique aspects of his biological and psychological makeup. They are the genetic building blocks of cellular construction.
The 23rd pair of chromosomes, the sex chromosomes, determines the sex of the child. Sex chromosomes can be either the X or Y variety. Sperm cells can carry either an X or a Y chromosome, but an egg can only carry an X. When the sperm and the egg get together, their unique combination determines the sex of the child.
Boys have a 23rd chromosome pair that contains one X and one Y (XY) chromosome. Girls have two Xs (XX). Because the mother can only give an X chromosome and the father can give either an X or a Y, the father’s sex-chromosome contribution plays the deciding role.
The role of genetics in human behavior and mental processes has been part of the decades-long dispute known as the nature versus nurture debate. Proponents of the nature argument believe that behavior is genetically determined. Biology is destiny, so to speak. The nurture advocates believe that the environments in which a person grows up determine his psychological makeup. This debate has been basically squashed in the last 25 years by the middle-ground position that both biological and environmental factors are involved, with different weight being given to one or the other depending on the psychological process in question.
Uniting and dividing all in one night
Biological development begins with the process of sexual reproduction. So it goes that psychological development begins as well as behavior; mental processes are intrinsically tied to biological development. For more on the relationship between psychology and biology, flip to Chapter 3.
The development process begins after a man and woman have sexual intercourse:
Germinal stage (conception to 2 weeks)
1. The sperm and egg meet, combining their half-sets of chromosomes.
This is fertilization, and it occurs in the fallopian tubes.
2. Twenty-four to thirty hours pass as a one-celled zygote (the fertilized egg) begins to divide itself.
This occurs in the fallopian tube as well. Through a process called mitosis, each chromosome makes a copy of itself and contributes the copy to the formation of a second cell. Cells continue to divide and multiply, repeating this process throughout fetal development. Fetal development is underway!
3. Three to four days pass while the fertilized egg travels to the uterus.
Upon reaching the uterus, implantation occurs. During implantation, the fertilized egg rests against the wall of the uterus and eventually merges with and becomes implanted in the lining of the uterus.
4. The embryonic period begins.
This period occurs about 14 days after the pre-embryonic stage, or the germinal period starts. The embryonic period lasts until the end of the eighth week of pregnancy.
Embryonic stage (3rd week through 8th week)
5. Cells continue to divide.
The beginnings of a recognizable human take shape. The rudiments of the nervous system and other bodily systems are beginning to take shape.
Fetal stage (9th week through birth)
6. The fetal period begins and lasts until birth.
This begins in the third month of pregnancy. This final stage is an extremely delicate process. Psychological difficulties can sometimes be traced to problems in fetal brain and nervous system development. Intellectual disability, learning disabilities, and other cognitive disorders are sometimes linked to fetal difficulties.
It’s extremely important for expecting mothers to maintain proper nutrition, avoid infectious diseases, and eliminate drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. These behavioral changes won’t guarantee the birth of a healthy child, but they certainly increase the odds.
The biological developments of each period are highlighted in Table 13-1.
Table 13-1 Fetal Development by Stage of Pregnancy
Germinal (Weeks 0—2): What’s There?
Embryonic (Weeks 3—8): What’s There?
Buds (arms and legs)
Eyes and ears
Fingers and toes
Fetal (Weeks 9—36): What’s There?
Organ systems working
Red blood cells
White blood cells
Fetus is very active
Fetus is sleeping like a newborn
Going from Diapers to Drool
About 36 weeks after conception, some lucky woman has just given birth to a healthy child. Infancy is an exciting time in which both physical and psychological developments occur at an unprecedented rate. One minute, children do nothing but sleep, and the next minute they’re playing peek-a-boo.
In this section, I describe early child development including motor and cognitive development and language development.
For approximately nine months as a fetus, a child relies almost exclusively on his mother for survival. This dependence doesn’t end with birth. Although the infant’s basic biological systems are functioning on their own, the maintenance of those systems requires the attentive care of a parent or primary caregiver. Sometimes, new parents can get overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for an infant. The good news is that infants are born with a pretty impressive set of basic skills to help them survive.
In fact, nearly all of the most basic human survival skills are present at birth. When I say basic, I mean really basic — breathing, sucking, swallowing, and eliminating. Babies need to breathe to get oxygen. They need to swallow and suck to eat. They need to eliminate in order to cleanse their systems. You nervous parents-to-be out there can rest assured that you won’t have to teach your infant how to suck on a bottle or a breast. It’s natural and automatic. It’s reflexive.
These skills are part of a broader list of innate reflexes infants are born with that aid in their survival. Here are a few more:
Rooting reflex: Turning their heads in the direction of a touched cheek in an attempt to suck
Moro (startle) reflex: Stretching out their arms and legs and crying in response to a loud noise or a sudden dropping motion
Grasping reflex: Grabbing on to things, such as someone’s finger
One of the most anticipated areas of infant development for a lot of parents is a child’s motor development. Parents can’t wait to watch their child gain more and more prowess in her physical abilities. Infants have very little control over their limbs and head when they’re born. It takes time for the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) to get things coordinated.
The progression of control begins with control of head movements and then turns to control of the limbs and torso, which usually begins around the age of 6 months. Eventually, greater fine motor control kicks in around the 8- to 12-month mark. For example, children may begin to grab things with just two fingers when they are 9 months old. Table 13-2 shows this progression.
Table 13-2 Synopsis of Motor Development in Infancy
Age in Months
Lifting head and sitting up with support
Holding head still and balancing it; looking around; using thumb to grasp; sitting up briefly without support
Coordinating hand activities; controlling trunk and sitting without support; crawling; beginning to favor the use of one hand over the other; sitting to standing position while holding on to something; walking with help, taking simple steps
Standing alone and walking alone without difficulty
Running and tumbling
As infants turn into toddlers, their motor behavior becomes more sophisticated. They can run, kick, throw, ride tricycles, and perform a variety of other complex motor-behavior sequences. Fine motor skills, increased dexterity, and control over the use of their fingers and hands continue to develop as children figure out how to manipulate small objects like cups, crayons, and little toys.
Finding out about full development
Table 13-2 is not a comprehensive list of the development of motor abilities in infancy. For more complete coverage of these abilities and most of the other aspects of development that I mention in this chapter, I highly recommend T. Berry Brazelton’s book, Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development (Perseus Press). Dr. Brazelton is a well-respected pediatrician with a lot of great ideas and observations pertaining to children.
Thinking things through
Cognitive developmental theory is the study of the development and maturation of thinking. A Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget is the father and reigning king of cognitive developmental theory. Piaget began thinking about thinking as he watched his own children grow up, analyzing their behavior and theorizing about the thoughts running through their little heads. I guess having a psychologist for a parent really can be kinda scary.
Piaget is considered to be a mentalist: because his theory holds that a person’s overt behavior is due in a large part to how she thinks about the world. Piaget emphasized how you think, instead of what you know. After all, a dictionary contains a lot of information, but can it solve the equation 2 + 2? Piaget defined intelligence as the collection of mental abilities that help an organism adapt. He also suggested that intelligence involves seeking cognitive equilibrium — a harmonious balance between an individual’s thinking and the environment. You constantly encounter novel situations and stimuli from your environment. These new experiences challenge the human mind, which leads to an imbalance. Thinking is the process that restores the balance.
Flexing their muscles
While infants are beginning to rely on their reflexes and developing more control over their muscle movements, their brains are developing at an extremely rapid rate. Actually, brain development begins during pregnancy and continues throughout childhood and adolescence. The progression of brain development begins with the motor areas of the brain. Without the necessary brain development in these areas, infants would not be able to respond reflexively and gain control over their bodies.
The next stop on the brain-development express is the somatosensory areas of the brain, the areas involved in sensation and perception (the olfactory, taste, pain, auditory, and visual areas). Infants are born with a good sense of hearing. They can discriminate between their mothers’ voices and strangers’ voices, for example, which may be a result of hearing their mothers’ voices throughout pregnancy. Their senses of smell and taste are also keen. Visual acuity is less developed at birth and gradually develops over the course of the first year of life.
Scheduling time for schemata
Like a road map or template, children use what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called schemata, or mental modes of thinking, to represent, organize, and integrate experience. Schemata are basic ways of thinking about the world. Rather than sit passively by as the world presents them with information, children actively construct an understanding and mental representation of the world. There are three basic schemata:
Sensorimotor schemata: These organized patterns of thought are generated from a child’s direct interaction with and manipulation of the objects in their environment.
For example, when a 1-year-old takes everything off her plate and drops it on the floor, she’s not just trying to annoy her mommy and daddy. According to Piaget, she’s developing a sensorimotor schema to understand the relationship between cause and effect. It’s a simple representation of a basic mechanical relationship: “I drop food. Then, mommy and daddy turn red. This is fun!”
Symbolic schemata: With the development of these schemata, a child begins to symbolically represent earlier sensorimotor relationships. He can think about the objects in his world without having to directly interact with them.
Operational schemata: These internal, mental activities involve the manipulation of the symbolic representations of objects. Operational schemata involve the ability to think abstractly and to solve problems without actually having to physically attempt a solution. So, instead of jumping in front of a car to see if it hurts, the child can imagine jumping in front of a car and decide whether it would hurt.
Basically, the three schemata begin with concrete interactions with the world and progress to a more symbolic and abstract thinking process. This is a hallmark of Piaget’s work; remember that you start out with the concrete and then graduate to the abstract. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why I never did well in Sunday school. I couldn’t get past the idea that clouds didn’t seem strong enough to support heaven. Wouldn’t everything fall right through? I still haven’t figured that one out.
People are born with two processes that help further develop thinking:
Organization: Organization involves combining the different schemata already developed with new and more complex schemata. You’re basically constantly shifting your understanding of the world to create a better and more complete picture.
Adaptation: Adaptation is a process of getting adjusted to the demands of the environment. Adaptation is accomplished by two distinct subprocesses:
• Assimilation: Little kids use assimilation all the time. When little Jimmy calls a horse a “doggy,” that’s assimilation in progress. Children attempt to understand novel objects in their environment by drawing upon what they already know and applying that to new objects and situations. It’s kind of like using a template; the child tries to fit everything into that one template. If the child only knows one type of four-legged animal with a tail, then even a horse is a “doggy.”
• Accommodation: Accommodation is essentially the opposite process of assimilation; instead of adding new experiences to old schemata, existing schemata are altered to fit the new information. The child may split a current category in half (“doggy” turns into “big dog” and “little dog”) or create a new category (doggy becomes “dogs” and “horses”) for remembering experiences. Cognitive growth, then, is the ongoing and persistent process of children applying (assimilating) their understanding to the world and making accommodations for new information. This is the overall process of adaptation, which allows for the maintenance of cognitive equilibrium between thinking and the environment.
Getting your sensorimotor running
The sensorimotor stage is the first stage of cognitive development, and it lasts from birth to 2 years of age. During the sensorimotor stage, the problem-solving abilities of an infant grow beyond simple reflexes. Infants extend reflexive behaviors to novel objects in their environment. An infant may suck on a little toy in addition to his mother’s nipple or the nipple of a bottle. It can take some babies a few tries to get used to sucking on a pacifier until he is able apply his natural sucking knowledge and ability to other objects.
Almost accidentally, babies discover that they can have a physical effect on the objects in the world. They gradually build on these accidental discoveries and develop intentional and coordinated responses on a simple scale. Eventually, babies progress to a type of experimentation or trial-and-error learning in which they do things to the objects around them just to see what kind of impact they can have on these objects.
The ability to imitate people also develops during the sensorimotor stage. Babies often smile when you smile at them. One of the most common forms of imitation is cooing. When an infant develops the ability to imitate, she often coos back at people who coo at her. That’s so cute!
A final key development in this stage is the development of a skill called object permanence. If you hide something from a baby who has not yet developed object permanence, he forgets about it. But, when babies achieve object permanence, they remember that the object is still around even if it’s not in plain sight — they try to look for the object when you conceal it. So, if you’re going to hide things from your children, do it before object permanence develops.
Learning within the lines
Sometimes, when I’m playing with toddlers, I catch myself quizzing them and testing the limits of their knowledge. I may read them a book and ask them to point things out on each page, “Where’s the ball?” This sort of toddler homework is perfectly okay, as long as I don’t overdo it, which I have a tendency to do.
A lot of parents begin to teach their children some of the rudiments of knowledge that serve as a foundation for future school learning. Recognizing objects and categories of objects such as shapes, colors, animals, numbers, and letters are basic skills that all children need to possess. Although some level of preexisting skill is present, a child’s ability to recognize objects increases around the ages of 18 months or 2 years. Children love to learn stories, songs, and nursery rhymes at this time in their lives.
Play is a very important part of a toddler’s discovery experience. By the age of 21⁄2, most children can play alongside their peers in both cooperative and independent activities for a sustained period of time. Prior to this age, children may engage in short sessions of independent play or interactive physical play (like patty-cake) with adults or older children. Toddlers and preschoolers prefer more natural toys such as sand, mud, and water. They invent their own games but still don’t do too well with rules and regulations.
Some parents expect their children to learn how to recognize and write letters before they get to kindergarten. But, for most toddlers and preschool-aged children, these skills are too advanced, and very little retention can be expected prior to kindergarten. By the age of 5, children do begin to form letters.
Drawing, however, is a related skill that toddlers and preschoolers do demonstrate some ability in. Most 2- and 3-year-olds can scribble, and by the end of this period, they can easily create straight lines, curves, and loops. Four- and five-year-olds begin to draw representations and pictures with simple designs. They can easily color within the lines.
Saying what you think
A lot of parents remember their child’s first words. When their little one utters the words momma or dada, their hearts usually melt. Ball usually doesn’t get the same reaction.
The dominant position in psychology on the development of language is that language is innate and gradually unfolds as the child’s brain develops. This doesn’t mean that children are born with a language, but that they’re born with the innate mental capacity to learn and grasp the rules of the language community they’re born into. Parents can facilitate language development by providing a supportive and stimulating environment and prompting children to use their words to communicate their needs and desires.
Children aren’t born speaking in sentences or giving speeches. Well, at least none of the children I’ve ever met. Children learn to talk little by little. Language develops in stages over the course of the first two to three years of life. Here’s a quick overview of language accomplishments that make parents so darn proud:
0—4 months: Infant speech begins with cooing. For the first few months, infants make sounds that come naturally from the movements of the mouth (feeding, breathing, and sucking) and from crying. Making a “raspberry” sound or humming are good examples of sounds that come from natural mouth movements.
The vocal behaviors associated with crying are experimented with and the use of voice begins. These sounds occur both spontaneously and in response to interaction with others. A baby may coo in response to a mother’s cooing, for example. These interactions often serve as a basis for future social development as well as parent and child engaging in sound-making games, taking turns, and getting a feel for each other’s interaction style.
5—8 months: Infants slightly refine their basic sounds. Around the seventh or eighth month, infants begin to form sounds that resemble syllables. In English, some syllable sounds are easier to utter than others, such as ma or ba. It’s pretty hard to get a 6-month-old to utter a th or l sound. This stage of experimenting with sounds is called “babbling.”
12—18 months: Around the one-year mark, infants begin to use simple monosyllabic words. Early consonant and vowel sounds are then combined to produce early polysyllabic words like momma or boo-boo or bye-bye. This process continues for the next few months, as new words occasionally emerge and mastered words serve as a foundation from which to generalize.
18 months: Language development explodes around the time infants reach the 18-month mark. Building upon their ability to generalize, children begin to form simple two-word sentences (called “telegraphic speech”), and then three-word sentences, and on and on. The next thing you know, you’re answering more “why” questions than you ever thought possible.
Children learn new words at the approximate rate of one word every two hours. That’s staggering! I’ve taken Spanish at different points throughout my life, and I felt super productive if I could learn one word every two weeks. Pretty sad, I know.
This explosion in language development continues until children are about 3 years old. Their language skills expand beyond using one word for many things — ball is no longer every round object, doggy is no longer anything with four legs, and so on.
Most children have learned the greatest portion (the structures, rules, and a great deal of vocabulary) of their native language by the age of 4. By the time they’re ready to enter kindergarten, kids have acquired approximately 8,000 words and learned to use language in a variety of social situations. They can also ask questions and make negative statements. At this point, the rudiments of language are solidly in place, and it’s simply a matter of continued learning and increased sophistication, building upon the existing foundation.
Blooming social butterflies
The earliest relationships infants have are with their primary caregivers. A parent and a baby often engage in simple visual and touching games with each other. Infants also make facial gestures at strangers. The interactions between an infant and her primary caregiver have been likened to a dance in which each partner takes cues from the other in a scene that almost seems choreographed. This process of using feedback from each other to gauge social interaction has been called reciprocal interaction, and it often depends on the primary caregiver’s ability to respond to the cues given by the child.
A good connection between an infant and primary caregiver is often the result of something called the goodness of fit — the fit between a child’s and a caregiver’s temperaments and styles. I’ve often heard parents say that each of their children had a different temperament and that learning to respond differently to each child was a challenge at times. Some children may be very outgoing and seek social stimulation, but others can be shy and may require a lower-key style of interaction. I think part of the art of parenting is knowing how to match up with a child’s temperament; this often represents a significant challenge in therapy with children.
An infant’s social circle gradually expands to include siblings, and she begins to show signs of separation anxiety (fear of being left by a primary caregiver) between the ages of 7 and 9 months. From 16 to 24 months, infants are able to spend time playing and interacting with others without too much significant involvement from their primary caregivers. From the beginning of 3 to 4 years of age, children’s social worlds continue to expand. Sometimes quarreling occurs as they encounter the limitations of dealing with other children. Sharing and taking turns become more important, and simple friendships and fondness for specific children also begin to emerge.
Getting on the Big Yellow Bus
Most children enter kindergarten around the age of 5. This marks a significant turning point in child development — learning, cognitive, and social skills become increasingly important. Children leave their parents and the protective and facilitative environment of the home to begin interacting with a larger and more complex world. School-related skills, such as writing, reading, spelling, and simple mathematics, begin to occupy a great deal of their mental energy and time.
Mastering the crayon
During kindergarten, children learn to use tools and writing-related materials with greater skill. Some children may be exposed to such things as scissors, glue, or paint for the first time in kindergarten. They’re also expected to learn how to write letters, their names, and a few simple words during this year in school as well as acquire the basics of reading, including letter recognition and beginning phonics. As children progress through school, these skills are expected to expand with the ability to read and write larger pieces of information.
Mathematical skills begin with counting. By the age of 4 or 5, most children can count with one-to-one correspondence. One-to-one correspondence is when a child can count each object she is presented with. So, if I put five apples out, children at this age will count (“One, two, three,” and so on) for each apple. As children progress from kindergarten through the school system, they develop concepts of addition and subtraction, and eventually they develop more sophisticated operations that extend to advanced multiplication, division, and sometimes, even fractions.
Being preoperational doesn’t mean you’re having surgery
The sensorimotor stage of cognitive development is followed by the preoperational and operational stages. Thinking continues to become more sophisticated, using the gains from earlier stages and applying these to more difficult problems.
The preoperational stage (ages 2 to 7) marks the development of symbolic thought. A child now possesses the ability to allow one object, a symbol, to represent another object. A hallmark of this is pretend play. How can a stick become a sword, or a bathroom towel be a superhero’s cape? Symbolic representation!
The most striking features of preoperational children’s thought processes, however, are the abilities that they don’t possess. Kids at this age have a hard time classifying objects into two or more categories. For instance, if you ask them if there are more total balls or more red balls in a collection of four red balls and three green balls, they usually answer “red balls.” They’ve locked onto one prominent feature of the collection of balls and cannot think abstractly to solve the problem. How much does 50 pounds of feathers weigh? A preoperational child may give some figure less than fifty pounds as his or her answer.
A classic development that sharply marks the difference between a preoperational child and a concrete operational child is called conservation — the ability to understand that something remains the same even though its appearance or surface properties may change.
Get a tall glass of water and an empty short glass. With the child present, pour the water from the tall glass into the smaller short glass. Now, ask the child which glass had more water in it. The child will always say the tall one; it’s bigger. However, after the child gets older and progresses to the concrete operational stage, she can solve this problem.
The concrete operational stage marks the development of a child’s ability to mentally represent a complex series of actions and perform relational logic. At this stage, children use a skill called seriation, which allows a child to arrange objects in a series on some dimension, like bigger to smaller, smaller to bigger, taller to shorter, and so on. Believe it or not, most children can’t do this until they’re about 7 years old.
A concrete operational child still gets hung up on more abstract problems, or problems that are hypothetical. If a problem has no basis in reality, the concrete operational child has a very hard time answering the question. They balk at “what if” questions because these questions require them to abstract concrete knowledge to situations that have never happened. Luckily, they get there in the formal operations stage, which comes in adolescence.
In the zone
Cognitive development does not occur in a social vacuum. At least that is what the famous Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky emphasized. Vygotsky proposed that a child’s social and cultural environment determined the types of and extent of the cognitive skills and abilities that get developed. The demands of the social and cultural environment emphasize what is necessary and important cognitively.
For Vygotsky, cognitive development is particularly shaped by the “teachers” a child encounters during development. A child will adjust to the expectations of those teachers and cognitive mentors, learning from and internalizing their cognitive processes. These “teachers” are referred to as the more-knowledgeable-other (MKO), the person in a learning situation that has more knowledge, cognitive skill, and understanding. Keep in mind that these “teachers” don’t have to be actual teachers or even adults — they can simply be other people who are MKO’s such as other children.
When a child is developing cognitively, there will be gaps between what he can do and what is expected. For instance, a child may be expected to know his times tables up to five but only knows them for 1 and 2. But, with guidance and help, a child may be able to perform above the level achievable independently. The gap between what can be done and what cannot but can be facilitated by a MKO is what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development. He believed that the zone of proximal development is where instruction should be most focused and intense, to push cognitive development along.
Becoming even more social
The primary social-development issues for school-aged children are peer relationships and social functioning outside the home. By the time children enter school, their relationships with their parents are pretty well solidified. These relationships continue to develop, but relationships outside of the home are the primary focus between the ages of 5 and 12.
During these years, expectations of a child’s social ability grow dramatically. Parents no longer tolerate tantrums and less sophisticated social problem-solving techniques, such as hitting other children. Children are expected to follow rules and instructions, especially in the classroom. Their affiliations with other children increase, and they start to develop a small, core group of friends.
If a child has social difficulties, these problems show up when she enters school. Problems related to getting along with the other children, joining in games, and cooperating with the routines expected of them when they’re away from their parents can sometimes lead to peer rejection, emotional difficulties, or school failure.
Agonizing over Adolescence
Perhaps one of the most significant events in a child’s life is his or her experience with puberty. Puberty is marked by an increase in the sexual hormones of progesterone, testosterone, and androgens. Development of secondary sexual characteristics, such as pubic hair, maturation of the genitalia, menstruation and breast development for girls, accompanies puberty. Interest in sex is markedly increased as boys begin to take interest in girls, and vice versa. Adolescents no longer think that members of the opposite sex have cooties or are gross.
Along with these wonderful physical changes come some pretty profound changes in thinking. By the time children reach the ages of 11- or 12- years- old, they can solve the “what if” problems they are faced with because they reach the cognitive-developmental peak of formal operations. This period is called formal operations because the concrete thought processes of childhood are combined into more advanced concepts such as abstractions.
Children can now reason based on hypothetical questions. They don’t need concrete examples or demonstrations like they did during the earlier stages of cognitive development. They’ve become little scientists, able to conduct mental mini-experiments instead of having to tackle problems by using trial and error.
Keep in mind that just because kids and adolescents can ask and answer these questions doesn’t mean they actually do. When I was a teenager, I repeatedly failed to ask myself, “What if I get caught lying to my parents?” I should have used my formal operational thinking a little more.
Pining over puberty
Exactly when puberty begins is a questionable matter. It can come at different times for different children. But researchers have noticed that the age of onset for puberty has been gradually decreasing. On average, kids are entering puberty at younger ages. This development has been dubbed the secular trend, and researchers believe that it’s due to better childhood nutrition.
The average age of onset for puberty in Western countries is showing a decline of three months per decade.
The timing of puberty can have serious repercussions, depending on when it comes. Boys who develop later than others sometimes suffer from peer ridicule and social setbacks related to popularity and dating. Girls who develop too early sometimes find themselves in situations that they’re mentally and emotionally not prepared for because their bodies make them look older than they really are.
What about sex? A great deal of variation in sexual norms exists across societies, but whether or not a society puts strict limits on adolescent sexual behavior, sexual desire is a primary issue for members of this age group. Most of the time, teenagers learn about sex from their friends and from the media. The old birds and the bees talk doesn’t come up as often as people may think.
Moving away from parents
One striking difference between childhood and adolescence is the diminished importance of parents in a teenager’s life. Prior to adolescence, parents and the home occupy center stage in a child’s life. During the teen years, adolescents begin to express their independence and autonomy by making friendships their top priority.
Social functions that involve parents take a back seat to teen-exclusive functions, such as dances, parties (without chaperones), and outings at this stage in a child’s development. Hanging out, texting, going on Facebook, and staying overnight at friends’ houses are commonplace.
Peers are a major source of self-esteem, and fitting in is often more important than parental acceptance. Teenagers experiment with identity and social roles. Relationship skills and patterns laid down in childhood grow in sophistication at this stage. Romantic relationships become extremely important. Being the star of the household gives way to desires for being popular or well-liked among friends.
Existing as a Grown-Up
Although many teenagers beg to differ, there is life after adolescence. In fact, the majority of a person’s years on this planet take place in what is referred to as adulthood, defined as the years between 18 and death. Adulthood is often divided into three periods:
Young adulthood: ages 18—39
Middle adulthood: ages 40—64
Late adulthood: ages 65+
In adulthood people keep growing, changing, and developing. These years are just as packed with life as the previous 18, simply in different ways. In this section you will be introduced to the developmental tasks of adulthood including marriage, work, and retirement.
Looking at you
Young adulthood covers a wide range of ages; a great many of the impactful experiences of a person’s life happen during these years, including starting and finishing college, beginning a career, getting married, and starting a family. All in all, these can be very busy and productive years. A lot is going on.
Physically, people peak in strength, reflexes, and stamina in their mid-20’s; upon entering middle adulthood they become more and more aware of the changes in their bodies and how their bodies are less resilient, more susceptible to disease, and overall less youthful than in young adulthood. Women enter menopause sometime in their late 40s early 50s, in which they stop menstruating, are no longer fertile, and experience hormonal changes that can sometimes lead to very unpleasant experiences such as hot flashes and even panic attacks.
Connecting and working
Relationships in adulthood continue to develop. Intimacy is typically sought, sometimes resulting in marriage. Although the divorce rate for first marriages in the United States is about half of all marriages, people still get married. However, people are getting married at later ages — not in their early 20s as much — and nearly half (47%) of the United States adult population is unmarried according to the US Census Bureau in 2012.
Having and raising children can be a large part of young adulthood, although not all adults choose to have children. This is another trend throughout the United States that suggests that cultural and societal mandates to “get married and have kids” is less prevalent than in previous decades.
A significant portion of modern adulthood involves working and achievement. Middle adulthood sparks questions that consider the wisdom of decisions made in young adulthood. If a person goes to college right after high school — or enters the workforce right away — she will likely reflect back and wonder if it was the right choice. Am I doing what I wanted to do? Does my daily life have meaning? Have I met my goals? Did I do what I wanted to do?
As late adulthood approaches, one begins to prioritize what is important in life and what is less important. As people transition to this final phase, they begin to see themselves as old.
Aging and Geropsychology
If old age is upon you, you’re not alone. According to the National Council on Aging, the population of 65+ will grow by 74 percent between the years 1990 and 2020. By contrast, the under 65 set will grow 24 percent during this same period.
Perhaps most obviously, bodies have and continue to age, which means many physical changes occur at every stage of life, especially late adulthood. Hair and skin thin and may gray. Bones become more brittle, and muscle tone decreases. Energy and stamina decrease, and sensory capabilities decline with less acute vision, sight, hearing, and even taste.
Physical decline in aging has been looked at from at least two explanatory models:
Genetic programming theories of aging: Aging is the result of genetic programming in which cells stop dividing and growing and begin a “self-destruct” course toward eventual death.
Wear and tear theories of aging: With time, bodies break down from use, the buildup of waste and toxins take their toll, and the body wears out, like an old shoe.
Of course the body is not the only thing about a person that’s aging. Cognitive changes in late adulthood include some minor changes such as slightly slower processing speeds and less effective and efficient memory. On the upside, people in this stage experience stable and, in some cases, improved problem-solving strategies and information.
Memory, however, remains one of the main concerns for the aging and aged population and their families. Am I inevitably going to lose my memory? The data and research in this area spell out a much more complex picture than one may expect. For some people, memory loss and impairment does not occur. For others, mild forms of memory loss may occur for specific domains such as episodic memory (memory for events) while other forms of memory, such as memory for general knowledge and facts, remains relatively untouched by age (for more about memory, see Chapter 6).
For some, aging comes with an increased risk for actual diseases that leads to cognitive decline and memory impairment generally referred to as the dementias. One of the most prevalent dementias is Alzheimer’s disease. Although not fully understood, Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease that results in gradual and irreversible cognitive decline. Prevalence is estimated to be about 20 percent of people 75 to 84 and almost 50 percent of people over the age of 85. Medication treatments have been shown to help with some cognitive improvement for some people, perhaps slowing the progression of the disease, but there is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s.
Socially, late adulthood can be filled with grandchildren and friendships and, despite the clichés, it does not have to include loneliness. Of course, the specter of death is there and seeing friends and peers die is an inevitable stressor. Some people age quite gracefully; some do not, but is there really a good way to age?
I live in a community that is considered a retirement and resort community for the most part. I see what I refer to as “positive models” of aging around me every day — people in late adulthood exercising (more than me, by the way), working, volunteering, socializing, and looking pretty darn good doing it all. I can only hope to follow their model.
Older adults being social and active is known as the activity model of aging; psychologists postulate that people who age best are those who maintain their interests, activities, and social interaction, and continue to live their lives in line with middle adulthood in most respects.