Applied Psychology

What is Child Psychology and why is it important?

Jul 14, 2020 | By Saranne Durham
What is Child Psychology and why is it important?

Children have historically been regarded as mini-adults – to the extent that in the past they have been dressed the same as adults and had to work alongside adults in main stream employment. Within this context child psychology was a foreign concept.

Jean Piaget is regarded as the founder of modern child psychology. His work, from the 1920s onwards, supported the idea that children and adults think differently from each other. One of his major contributions was that throughout the course of their childhood, children pass through distinct stages of emotional and mental development. He also proposed that intellectual development is closely linked to emotional, social and physical development.

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. A child psychologist works within this very important life period a specialised branch of developmental psychology called child psychology or child development.

Child Psychology is a specialised branch of Developmental Psychology.

A child psychologist is an expert in childhood development who works with children and adolescents to diagnose and help resolve issues that cause emotional or behavioural problems. Child psychology is important because it can help us better understand how kids tick as well as how best to support them to become well rounded individuals. It is therefore useful in assisting both parents and teachers to better understand and help children in their care.

Child psychology helps parents and teachers better understand kids and how best to support them.

There are 5 main areas covered within child psychology:

  1. Development
  2. Milestones
  3. Behaviour
  4. Emotions
  5. Socialisation

What the 5 basic areas of Child Psychology can teach us

1. Development

Three areas of Child Development:

  1. Physical development refers to physical body changes. These generally occurs in a relatively stable, predictable sequence. It also includes the acquisition of certain skills, such as gross-motor and fine-motor coordination.
  2. Cognitive or intellectual development, refers to the processes children use to gain knowledge. This includes language, thought, reasoning, and imagination.
  3. Social and emotional development are so interrelated that they 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. In addition to different areas of development, research has shown 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.

Behaviour challenges are the most common reason to consult a Child Psychologist.

2. Milestones

Developmental milestones are an important way for psychologists to measure a child’s progress in several key developmental areas. 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 child psychologists understand normal child development and 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 .

Developmental areas are interconnected and influence each other.

4 Main Categories of Developmental Milestones:

  1. Physical milestones: Which pertain to the development of both the gross and fine motor skills.
  2. Cognitive or mental milestones: Which refer to the child’s developmental aptitude for thinking, learning, and solving problems.
  3. Social and emotional milestones: Which pertain to the child’s ability to express emotion and respond to social interaction.
  4. Communication and language milestones: Which involve the child developing verbal and non-verbal communication skills.

Development milestones act as checkpoints in a child’s development.

3. Behaviour

All children can be naughty, defiant and impulsive from time to time. Conflicts between parents and children are inevitable as the children 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, with challenging behaviours that are outside the norm for their age. In fact, behavioural issues are the most common reason that parents seek the help of child psychologists. Child psychology involves looking at all possible roots to behavioural issues, including brain disorders, genetics, diet, family dynamics and stress, and then treating them accordingly.

Behavioural issues can be temporary problems which are usually linked to stressful situations. For example: The birth of a sibling, a divorce, or a death in the family.

Alternatively, behavioural issues 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.

4. Emotions

Emotional development involves learning what feelings and emotions are. Understanding how and why they happen, as well as recognising one’s own feelings and those of others, then 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 it is for others.

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. They tend to be 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. A child psychologist first identifies the reasons the child is having difficulty expressing or regulating his or her emotions. Then they will develop strategies to help him or her learn to accept feelings and understand the links between their feelings and behaviour.

5. Socialisation

Closely related to emotional development is social development. 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. While this is a continuous process, 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. 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. They  acquire 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 or primary caregivers .

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.

Play is an important part of social skills development.

Areas a psychologist will attempt to address when working with children who are battling to socialise, include curbing hostile or aggressive impulses. They will assist a child to learn how to self-express in socially appropriate ways, engage in socially constructive actions (such as helping, caring and sharing with others) and develop 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.

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