Definition and Overview

Child psychology is the scientific study of developmental changes in infants, children and adolescents. The entirety of the growing child is analyzed; from physical growth and development of motor skills to cognitive development to the formation of one's personality and identity. Child psychology looks into several developmental issues, such as the development of the person through stages, the effects of society and the environment to the patient's character and personality, and whether children are born with natural mental capabilities as compared to learning and acquisition of knowledge through experience (nature versus nurture).

Child psychology spans an extensive array of topics that look into the various aspects of a child's growth and development. These include the following:

  • Physical development – looks into the growth of the individual and the development of the organ systems, until the child reaches adulthood. Various measurements, such as weight, height and head circumference, are noted to check if an individual is growing within the normal range.

  • Cognitive development - deals with the development of mental capacities, such as motor skills, language and problem-solving.

  • Emotional development - refers to the way a person responds emotionally to different situations.

  • Social development - is concerned with the way an individual develops relationships and interacts with other people around him.

  • Memory development - is somewhat related to cognitive development and looks at how memory processes work and develop.

The development of an individual begins in the womb. The prenatal stage is the time when senses and primitive reflexes are developed. Injury at this phase of development, which can be caused by teratogenic drugs or infection, can cause serious birth defects. It has been postulated that some psychological disorders manifesting in adults, such as schizophrenia, may be due to injuries sustained in the prenatal stage. This stage is followed by infancy, which covers the time of birth up to the first year of life. At this time, infant perception and senses develop, and language begins. This is then followed by toddlerhood, when gross motor skills and language are learned, and imagination and experimentation are common. The phase of early childhood follows, where children begin to socialize more often, and intelligence becomes prominent. The last phase in childhood is adolescence, where children begin to form their own personal identities and morality, and learn to reason formally.

There are a number of theories formulated by psychologists that aim to describe the characteristics of an individual throughout the course of his childhood. One of the most popular is the theory of psychosexual development by Sigmund Freud. This theory divides an individual's personality into three, namely the id, the ego and the superego. From this, he also described five stages of development of an individual. Aside from this theory, other psychologists also attempted to describe other stages that contribute to the development of a person's character. These include the stages of cognitive development by Piaget, the stages of moral development by Kohlberg, and the stages of psychosocial development by Erikson. Other psychological theories include the attachment theory, the ecological systems theory and the zone of proximal development, among others.

When Should You See a Child Psychologist

In the past, children were thought to be "small adults". However, the study of child psychology has revealed that children are indeed different from their adult counterparts -- they think differently, and they undergo numerous changes as they develop from the prenatal stage up to adolescence. Major advances in individual's physical, emotional, mental and psychosocial development occur during childhood, which all contribute to shaping the person's identity.

It is important to understand that children have psychological needs, as well. The child's environment and the people surrounding him influence his development and general condition. A person's childhood causes a huge impact on the kind of adult he will turn out to be. Child psychology takes into account all the aspects and areas of growth of the individual, and treats problems and disorders in these various aspects.

A child may experience various situations where they may need the professional help of a child psychologist. Delays in reaching developmental milestones, specifically in motor skills such as walking, and in language, may prompt a parent to seek consult with a child psychologist. These children may have developmental disorders, such as autism, which need to be addressed. Learning disabilities also benefit from treatment by a child psychologist. It is important to be in constant communication with your child's teachers, as they tend to pick up learning difficulties earlier. Attention problems, such as in ADHD, and social isolation, or a disinterest in socializing with other people, may be subtle signs that your child needs therapy.

Major life events in a person's childhood can lead to stress, which can result in problems with sleeping, behavior, or functioning. Such life events may include the death of a loved one, divorce, trauma, physical or emotional abuse, and bullying, among others. The stress that a child experiences can lead to depression, aggression or excessive anger. It can also manifest as frequent mood swings, eating disorders or substance abuse. In these situations, the child's coping mechanism may actually be a threat to his own safety and the safety of the people around him. It may result in disruption in his normal functions. In these instances, it may also be beneficial to consult a psychologist.

A child psychologist evaluates and manages developmental issues in children. A Psychologist will work together with the child and his parents, and even his teachers. Parents should not blame themselves for their child's problems; rather, they should do their best to help them cope with the situation, and consult a child psychologist when the need arises. Your child may undergo several psychological tests and assessments to allow the psychologist to gather useful information about the child. Child psychologists are knowledgeable and trained in identifying children's difficulties and formulating individualized interventions. They can utilize different methods of treatment, such as play therapy, in order to reach out to children.


  • Psychology & Behavioral Health – Children’s National Organization:
  • National Association of School Psychologists:
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