Summary and Key Terms

What Is Lifespan Development?

Lifespan development explores how we change and grow from conception to death. This field of psychology is studied by developmental psychologists. They view development as a lifelong process that can be studied scientifically across three developmental domains: physical, cognitive development, and psychosocial. There are several theories of development that focus on the following issues: whether development is continuous or discontinuous, whether development follows one course or many, and the relative influence of nature versus nurture on development.

Lifespan Theories

There are many theories regarding how babies and children grow and develop into happy, healthy adults. Sigmund Freud suggested that we pass through a series of psychosexual stages in which our energy is focused on certain erogenous zones on the body. Eric Erikson modified Freud’s ideas and suggested a theory of psychosocial development. Erikson said that our social interactions and successful completion of social tasks shape our sense of self. Jean Piaget proposed a theory of cognitive development that explains how children think and reason as they move through various stages. Finally, Lawrence Kohlberg turned his attention to moral development. He said that we pass through three levels of moral thinking that build on our cognitive development.

Stages of Development

At conception the egg and sperm cell are united to form a zygote, which will begin to divide rapidly. This marks the beginning of the first stage of prenatal development (germinal stage), which lasts about two weeks. Then the zygote implants itself into the lining of the woman’s uterus, marking the beginning of the second stage of prenatal development (embryonic stage), which lasts about six weeks. The embryo begins to develop body and organ structures, and the neural tube forms, which will later become the brain and spinal cord. The third phase of prenatal development (fetal stage) begins at 9 weeks and lasts until birth. The body, brain, and organs grow rapidly during this stage. During all stages of pregnancy it is important that the mother receive prenatal care to reduce health risks to herself and to her developing baby.

Newborn infants weigh about 7.5 pounds. Doctors assess a newborn’s reflexes, such as the sucking, rooting, and Moro reflexes. Our physical, cognitive, and psychosocial skills grow and change as we move through developmental stages from infancy through late adulthood. Attachment in infancy is a critical component of healthy development. Parenting styles have been found to have an effect on childhood outcomes of well-being. The transition from adolescence to adulthood can be challenging due to the timing of puberty, and due to the extended amount of time spent in emerging adulthood. Although physical decline begins in middle adulthood, cognitive decline does not begin until later. Activities that keep the body and mind active can help maintain good physical and cognitive health as we age. Social supports through family and friends remain important as we age.

Death and Dying

Death marks the endpoint of our lifespan. There are many ways that we might react when facing death. Kübler-Ross developed a five-stage model of grief as a way to explain this process. Many people facing death choose hospice care, which allows their last days to be spent at home in a comfortable, supportive environment.

Key Terms

adjustment of a schema by changing a scheme to accommodate new information different from what was already known
period of development that begins at puberty and ends at early adulthood
maturing of the adrenal glands
advance directive
a written legal document that details specific interventions a person wants (see living will)
adjustment of a schema by adding information similar to what is already known
long-standing connection or bond with others
authoritarian parenting style
parents place a high value on conformity and obedience, are often rigid, and express little warmth to the child
authoritative parenting style
parents give children reasonable demands and consistent limits, express warmth and affection, and listen to the child’s point of view
avoidant attachment
characterized by child’s unresponsiveness to parent, does not use the parent as a secure base, and does not care if parent leaves
cognitive development
domain of lifespan development that examines learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity
cognitive empathy
ability to take the perspective of others and to feel concern for others
when a sperm fertilizes an egg and forms a zygote
concrete operational stage
third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from about 7 to 11 years old, children can think logically about real (concrete) events
idea that even if you change the appearance of something, it is still equal in size, volume, or number as long as nothing is added or removed
continuous development
view that development is a cumulative process: gradually improving on existing skills
critical (sensitive) period
time during fetal growth when specific parts or organs develop
developmental milestone
approximate ages at which children reach specific normative events
discontinuous development
view that development takes place in unique stages, which happen at specific times or ages
disorganized attachment
characterized by the child’s odd behavior when faced with the parent; type of attachment seen most often with kids that are abused
do not resuscitate (DNR)
a legal document stating that if a person stops breathing or his or her heart stops, medical personnel such as doctors and nurses are not to take steps to revive or resuscitate the patient
preoperational child’s difficulty in taking the perspective of others
multi-cellular organism in its early stages of development
emerging adulthood
newly defined period of lifespan development from 18 years old to the mid-20s; young people are taking longer to complete college, get a job, get married, and start a family
fine motor skills
use of muscles in fingers, toes, and eyes to coordinate small actions
formal operational stage
final stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from age 11 and up, children are able to deal with abstract ideas and hypothetical situations
maturing of the sex glands
gross motor skills
use of large muscle groups to control arms and legs for large body movements
health care proxy
a legal document that appoints a specific person to make medical decisions for a patient if he or she is unable to speak for him/herself
service that provides a death with dignity; pain management in a humane and comfortable environment; usually outside of a hospital setting
living will
a written legal document that details specific interventions a person wants; may include health care proxy
beginning of menstrual period; around 12–13 years old
process of cell division
motor skills
ability to move our body and manipulate objects
genes and biology
newborn reflexes
inborn automatic response to a particular form of stimulation that all healthy babies are born with
normative approach
study of development using norms, or average ages, when most children reach specific developmental milestones
environment and culture
object permanence
idea that even if something is out of sight, it still exists
permissive parenting style
parents make few demands and rarely use punishment
physical development
domain of lifespan development that examines growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness
structure connected to the uterus that provides nourishment and oxygen to the developing baby
prenatal care
medical care during pregnancy that monitors the health of both the mother and the fetus
preoperational stage
second stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from ages 2 to 7, children learn to use symbols and language but do not understand mental operations and often think illogically
primary sexual characteristics
organs specifically needed for reproduction
psychosexual development
process proposed by Freud in which pleasure-seeking urges focus on different erogenous zones of the body as humans move through five stages of life
psychosocial development
domain of lifespan development that examines emotions, personality, and social relationships
psychosocial development
process proposed by Erikson in which social tasks are mastered as humans move through eight stages of life from infancy to adulthood
resistant attachment
characterized by the child’s tendency to show clingy behavior and rejection of the parent when she attempts to interact with the child
principle that objects can be changed, but then returned back to their original form or condition
(plural = schemata) concept (mental model) that is used to help us categorize and interpret information
secondary sexual characteristics
physical signs of sexual maturation that do not directly involve sex organs
secure attachment
characterized by the child using the parent as a secure base from which to explore
secure base
parental presence that gives the infant/toddler a sense of safety as he explores his surroundings
sensorimotor stage
first stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; from birth through age 2, a child learns about the world through senses and motor behavior
socioemotional selectivity theory
social support/friendships dwindle in number, but remain as close, if not more close than in earlier years
first male ejaculation
stage of moral reasoning
process proposed by Kohlberg; humans move through three stages of moral development
innate traits that influence how one thinks, behaves, and reacts with the environment
biological, chemical, or physical environmental agent that causes damage to the developing embryo or fetus
uninvolved parenting style
parents are indifferent, uninvolved, and sometimes referred to as neglectful; they don’t respond to the child’s needs and make relatively few demands
structure created when a sperm and egg merge at conception; begins as a single cell and rapidly divides to form the embryo and placenta


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Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2021 by Southern Alberta Institution of Technology (SAIT) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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