Overview of developmental theories

While historical views of adolescence are now largely unsupported, themes of this period as a time for attaining “higher human capacities” such as the ability to reason and being characterised by conflict with parents, mood disruptions and risky behaviour, persist in views on adolescence today.  Characterising this period as a time of “turmoil”, “storm and stress” was not even new a century ago, recognised as part of ‘growing up’ as far back as Roman or Greek times (Moore, 2002).

There are varied types of theories about adolescent development that can be useful to understand more about this time for young people.

Staged or ‘building block’ theories

There are several ‘staged’ or ‘building block’ theories of human development.  These include:

  • Havinghurts’s ‘developmental task theory’
  • Erikson’s theory of ‘psychosocial’ development
  • Piaget’s cognitive development theory
  • Kolberg’s (1981) theory of ‘moral reasoning’

The basis of these theories is the understanding that development is a progression through stages, where the movement to each new stages is dependant on successfully completing tasks in the previous stage.

The relevance of these theories has diminished with new research demonstrating that development is continuous rather than staged and that it varies according to socio-cultural and environmental influences.  However they are still useful to understand because of their contribution to the more current theories.

Havinghurst's (1972) developmental task theory

Havinghurst identified six age specific life stages covering birth to old age, each one with a discrete set of developmental tasks.  These tasks are derived from physical maturation, personal values and the pressures of society. For the adolescent period (13 to 18 years old) Havinghurst identified tasks that included:

  • Acceptance of one’s physique
  • Adopting a set of values and an ethical system as a guide to behaviour
  • Developing healthy attitudes towards the self as well as social groups and institutions
  • Developing new and more mature relations with age mates of both sexes
  • Setting on an appropriate social role and selecting an occupation
  • Achieving emotional independence from parents and other adults

The notion that mastery of developmental tasks leads to healthy adjustment still has relevance today, however the idea of typical age-graded stages presented doesn’t fit with current evidence which identifies lots of variation in an individual development over their life.

Erikson’s model of Psycho-Social Development (1968)

This model contained several stages each with discrete tasks.  Erikson believed that the critical task of adolescent development (teens to age 20) is to differentiate from family of origin/society.  This process was seen to involve resolving the ‘identity crises’, with the main question being “Who am I?”.  These ideas have influenced the common understanding of adolescence as a time of “self-exploration” and research has recognised that as adolescents develop, they do evolve more abstract characteristics of themselves.

However, Erikson’s timetable for development has not been supported with criticism about a lack of evidence behind some of the tasks he outlines within the stages.  In fact, it is now argued that only a small minority of young people experience the kind of identity crises described by Erikson.

Cognitive Development Theory – Piaget (1977)

Piaget identified four developmental stages based on rigorous observational research methods.  However with contemporary studies of cognitive development some of Piaget’s basic propositions have been doubted.

What is still relevant, however, is Piaget’s observation that as children transition to adolescence their cognitions develop from “concrete operational thought” (logical but black-and-white or concrete thinking) to formal operational thought (increased ability to think abstractly, beyond the here-and-now, and to better understand the perspectives of others).

Kohlberg’s theory of Moral Reasoning (1981)

This model focused on the development of logic and morality, proposing six constructive stages.  Each stage is more effective than the one before at responding to moral dilemmas.   

Level Stage
Level 1. Pre-Conventional

1. Obedience & punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)

2. Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me?)

Level 2. Conventional

3. Interpersonal accord & conformity (social norms - the good girl/good boy attitude)

4. Authority & social-order maintaining orientation (law & order morality)

Level 3. Post-Conventional

5. Social contact orientation

6. Universal ethical principles (principled conscience)

Some critiques to this have been that moral action is based more on intuition and unconscious processes rather than reasoning as Kohlberg suggests.  Also this theory is about justice while other models equally focus on the ethics of caring.

Further Resources