Centuries ago, child psychology was a completely foreign concept. During Medieval times, for instance, children were viewed as nothing more than small versions of adults. They were treated the same – and even dressed the same – as grown-ups. Today we know that childhood is a very influential time in a person’s life. Events that happen when we’re young – even small, seemingly insignificant ones – can have a direct impact on how we feel and behave as adults.
The study of the psychological processes of children, and specifically, how these processes differ from those of adults, how they develop from birth to the end of adolescence, and how and why they differ from one child to the next, is a specialised branch of psychology known as child psychology. Child psychologists work with children and adolescents to diagnose and help resolve issues causing emotional or behavioural problems, such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, anxiety and depression. They also evaluate children for developmental delays, signs of autism spectrum disorder and other problems that affect development.
5 areas of child psychology…and what they teach us
The study of child development is often divided into three broad areas: physical, cognitive, and social-emotional. Physical development, which generally occurs in a relatively stable, predictable sequence, refers to physical body changes and includes the acquisition of certain skills, such as gross-motor and fine-motor coordination. Cognitive or intellectual development, meanwhile, refers to the processes children use to gain knowledge and includes language, thought, reasoning, and imagination. Because social and emotional development are so interrelated, these two areas are often grouped together. Learning to relate to others is part of a child’s social development, while emotional development involves feelings and the expression of feelings. Trust, fear, confidence, pride, friendship, and humour are all part of one’s social-emotional development.
While they may be divided into categories for the sake of easier understanding, the physical, cognitive, and social-emotional areas of a child’s development are all inextricably linked. Development in one area can strongly influence that in another. For instance, writing words requires both fine-motor skills and cognitive language skills. And, just as research has made known the different areas of development, it also shows that development follows key patterns, or principles. Understanding these principles has had an enormous influence on how we care for, treat and educate children today.
Developmental milestones are an important way for psychologists to measure a child’s progress in several important developmental areas. Essentially, they act as checkpoints in a child’s development to determine what the average child is able to do at a particular age. Knowing the milestones for different ages helps the psychologist understand normal child development and also aids in identifying potential problems with delayed development. For example, a child who is 12 months old can typically stand and support his or her weight by holding onto something. Some children at this age can even walk. If a child reaches 18 months of age but still cannot walk, it might indicate a problem that needs further investigation.
Child psychologists look at four main categories of milestones, which loosely follow the main developmental areas discussed above. First, there are physical milestones, which pertain to the development of both the gross and fine motor skills. Second, there are cognitive or mental milestones, which refer to the child’s developmental aptitude for thinking, learning, and solving problems. Third, there are social and emotional milestones, which pertain to the child’s ability to express emotion and respond to social interaction. And, finally, there are communication and language milestones, which involve the child’s developing verbal and non-verbal communication skills.
All children can be naughty, defiant and impulsive from time to time. Conflicts between parents and children are also inevitable as the latter struggle, from the “terrible twos” through adolescence, to assert their independence and develop their own identities. These behaviours are a normal part of the growing-up process. However, some children have extremely difficult and challenging behaviours that are outside the norm for their age. In fact, behavioural disorders are the most common reason that parents seek the help of child psychologists.
In some cases, these behavioural issues are temporary problems due largely to stressful situations, such as the birth of a sibling, a divorce, or a death in the family. Other cases involve a pattern of sustained hostile, aggressive, or disruptive behaviours that are not appropriate for the child’s age. The most typical disruptive behaviour disorders include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These three behavioural disorders share some common symptoms, and can be further exacerbated by emotional problems and mood disorders. Child psychology involves looking at all possible roots to these behavioural issues, including brain disorders, genetics, diet, family dynamics and stress, and then treating them accordingly.
Emotional development involves learning what feelings and emotions are, understanding how and why they happen, recognising one’s own feelings and those of others, and developing effective ways of managing them. This complex process begins in infancy and continues into adulthood. The ﬁrst emotions that can be recognised in babies include joy, anger, sadness and fear. Later, as children begin to develop a sense of self, more complex emotions like shyness, surprise, elation, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride and empathy emerge. The things that provoke emotional responses also change, as do the strategies used to manage them.
Learning to regulate emotions is more difﬁcult for some children than for others. This may be due to their particular emotional temperament – some children simply feel emotions more intensely and easily, are more emotionally reactive and ﬁnd it harder to calm down. Emotionally reactive children also tend to get anxious more quickly and easily than other children. It is the work of the child psychologist, then, to identify the reasons the child is having difficulty expressing or regulating his or her emotions and to develop strategies to help him or her learn to accept feelings and understand the links between feelings and behaviour.
Closely related to emotional development is social development. Stated simply, socialisation involves acquiring the values, knowledge and skills that enable children to relate to others effectively and to contribute in positive ways to family, school and the community. Although the process begins shortly after birth and continues into adulthood, the age of early childhood is a crucial period for socialisation.
One of the first and most important relationships children experience is with their parents or primary caregivers and the quality of this relationship has a significant effect on later social development. In peer relationships, children learn how to initiate and maintain social interactions with other children, acquiring skills for managing conflict, such as turn-taking, compromise, and bargaining. Play also involves the mutual, sometimes complex, coordination of goals, actions, and understanding. Through these experiences, children develop friendships that provide additional sources of security and support to those provided by their parents.
Factors that can contribute to an inability to develop age-appropriate social skills include everything from the amount of love and affection the child receives to the socio-economic status of the family. Children who fail to properly socialise have difficulty creating and maintaining satisfying relationships with others – a limitation many carry into adulthood. Areas a psychologist will attempt to address when working with such children include curbing hostile or aggressive impulses and, instead, learning to self-express in socially appropriate ways; engaging in socially constructive actions (such as helping, caring and sharing with others) and developing a healthy sense of self.
Thinking of a career in child psychology? SACAP’s Bachelor of Psychology Degree is a four-year HPCSA-accredited qualification that provides an articulation pathway into a Master’s degree in psychology, with a view to a professional career as a psychologist. For more information, click here.