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Lifespan Development

Social Development

Childhood Social and Emotional Development

Genetic and environmental factors influence infant temperament and attachment to caregivers.

At birth, babies differ in temperament—their characteristic patterns of emotional reactivity—and these differences tend to remain stable across the lifespan. Some babies react fearfully to loud sounds or strangers, whereas others react with curiosity. The source of these differences lies in the limbic areas of the brain, particularly the amygdala, which influences fear responses. Babies with a highly reactive limbic system are more likely to have strong reactions to potentially stressful situations.

Attachment refers to the bond that forms between newborns and their primary caregivers. The strength and health of this bond depends on an infant's temperament and the parenting style of their caregivers. These effects are bi-directional. It is easier for a caregiver to bond with a calm infant than an upset one, and it is easier for an infant to bond with a nurturing caregiver than a negligent one. The quality of the infant-caregiver bond strongly influences an individual's social relationships throughout the lifespan.

Stranger anxiety refers to the tendency for infants to feel uncomfortable or frightened when approached by someone they do not know. Separation anxiety involves a developmentally normal fear of being away from a trusted caregiver. These forms of anxiety occur even when the child is with a trusted caregiver or in a safe environment.

In 1978 psychologist Mary Ainsworth introduced a behavioral experiment to measure the quality of infant-caregiver attachment, called the Strange Situation. This task measures stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. In this experiment, a child is brought to an unfamiliar room with their caregiver. Next, a stranger joins the child and caregiver. The caregiver then exits the room, leaving the child alone with the stranger. After a few minutes, the stranger leaves and the child is completely alone. Finally, the caregiver returns.

The child's reactions are observed throughout these changes. Four attachment styles have been recorded over decades of research using this technique. Infants with a secure attachment style may or may not become distressed when the caregiver leaves, but they will respond positively when the caregiver returns. For example, they will smile or hug the caregiver. Infants who show an insecure-avoidant attachment style do not exhibit distress when the caregiver leaves and will not acknowledge the caregiver when he or she returns. Those with an insecure-ambivalent attachment style show distress when the caregiver leaves but will rebuff the caregiver when he or she returns rather than seeking comfort. Infants with a disorganized-disoriented attachment style show no consistent response pattern to their caregiver's departure or return.

Attachment Styles

Attachment Style Child Characteristics Parental Characteristics
Secure Comfortable, confident, willing to explore, tends to use caregiver as a "safe base" Loving, attentive, responsive to child's needs
Insecure-avoidant Indifferent, independent, tends not to seek out caregiver for comfort Dismissive of child's needs, not physically/emotionally available
Insecure-ambivalent Anxious, may be hesitant to leave caregiver, resistant to being comforted Responds inconsistently to child's needs, inconsistently physically/emotionally available
Disorganized-disoriented Fearful, shifts from being highly affectionate to being hostile toward caregiver Severely neglectful (as in the case of clinical depression/substance use), potentially abusive

A child's attachment style reflects the extent to which they feel a strong and stable connection to their caregivers. Parenting style plays a significant role in determining the nature of a child's attachment.

Adolescent and Adult Social and Emotional Development

In adolescence, individuals begin to assert their independence from family and focus more heavily on peer relationships and larger social networks.

In 1958, psychologist Erik Erikson proposed a theory that described psychosocial (social and behavioral) development as a series of stages in which major challenges must be confronted. Infants learn about trust versus mistrust through their caregivers, namely by the extent to which their needs for food, comfort, and security are met. Environments that do not meet their needs will lead infants to mistrust others or doubt themselves. In early childhood, children learn about autonomy versus doubt as they begin to develop preferences and make their own choices, such as for foods, toys, or clothes.

In the conflict of initiative versus guilt, preschoolers (play age) learn to take initiative as they discover the consequences of their actions and interact with others. Harsh reactions to mistakes can lead children to feel guilty or fearful of trying new things. School-aged children confront industry versus inferiority as they learn to engage in focused work and skill-building. Challenges at this stage may lead to low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority.

According to Erikson, adolescents should begin to develop a sense of identity independent from their families. They should also start to develop a sense of their adult role as a member of the community. Difficulty in this stage of identity versus confusion can lead to role confusion (being unsure of who one is). In early adulthood, young adults enter the state of intimacy versus isolation as they begin building lasting intimate relationships and establishing their own families. Challenges during this stage, such as a series of unsuccessful relationships, can lead to isolation.

During adulthood, people confront the challenge of generativity (concern for people besides self and family) versus stagnation (failure to contribute) as they work to make their mark on the world. In this stage, people may engage with their community through work, parenting, and volunteering. People who have not found a way to make a contribution that feels meaningful to them may feel stuck, or stagnant. In old age, people face the challenge of integrity (pride in one's life path) versus despair as they reflect on their lives and determine their level of overall satisfaction or regret.

Erikson’s Stages of Social Development

Age Conflict
(0–18 months)
Trust versus mistrust
Early childhood
(1–3 years)
Autonomy versus doubt
Play age
(3–6 years)
Initiative versus guilt
(6–12 years)
Industry versus inferiority
(13–19 years)
Identity versus confusion
Early adulthood
(20–25 years)
Intimacy versus isolation
(25–65 years)
Generativity versus stagnation
Old age
Integrity versus despair

Psychologist Erik Erikson suggested that individuals proceed through several stages of development throughout the lifespan. Each stage corresponds to a developmental period and involves a conflict to be resolved.

The boundaries of developmental stages are not as clear as Erikson's stage model suggests. People do not close the door on one task as they move into a new stage. Erikson's theory also depends on the notion of a social clock, a culture-specific timetable for major events to occur, such as going to college, getting married, having children, and career advancement. Much of this timing has changed since Erikson first proposed the concept. For example, first marriages occur much later in life in the 21st century than in the 1950s, and many couples delay having children as they pursue education and careers. Life events can significantly impact development. For instance, a young adult with a life-threatening illness may wrestle with issues of integrity versus despair.

Impact of Parenting on Development

Authoritative parenting typically promotes social and emotional health. Permissive, authoritarian, and uninvolved parenting styles increase the risk for poor developmental outcomes.
Social development is also greatly affected by parenting styles, which are typically divided into four types. Authoritative parents set high standards, are nurturing and responsive, and show respect for children's autonomy. Permissive parents do not impose rules and standards, preferring instead to let their kids regulate themselves. Authoritarian parents demand obedience to parental authority. Uninvolved parents make few or no demands on their children, have little interest in their children's lives, and have little emotional involvement with them. Authoritative parenting leads to social and emotional health; the other styles increase risk for poor outcomes.

Parenting Styles

Parenting styles can be divided into four types based on two dimensions of warmth and control. Authoritative parenting, which balances warmth with clear limits, promotes healthy development.
Children of authoritative parents are usually capable, self-assured, and popular in their social life. Children of authoritarian parents tend to be unhappy, have low self-esteem, and keep to themselves. Children of permissive parents tend to be impulsive, disregard rules, and perform poorly in school. They are also more likely to experiment heavily with alcohol and drugs. Children of uninvolved parents tend to perform poorly in school, have trouble forming peer relationships, and are more likely to experience depression and engage in risky behaviors.

Divorce can affect children negatively in the short run, but most research indicates that children do not suffer lasting consequences. Many studies have compared children of married parents to children with divorced parents. Researchers have measured outcomes such as academic achievement, emotional and behavioral problems, self-concept, and relationships. The studies suggest the vast majority of children handle divorce well. Many problems once attributed to divorce are better explained by poverty or exposure to family conflict.

In the adolescent years, individuals begin to develop a sense of independence from family and pay more attention to peers and larger groups. Peers can have an enormous influence on an individual's behavior and attitudes. For example, having friends who smoke doubles the risk that a youth between 10 and 19 will pick up the habit. Adolescents tend to seek friendships based on the degree of reciprocity (give and take), commitment, and equality. Adolescent peer relations frequently take the form of cliques (small, intimate peer groups) that provide opportunities to explore social identity. Friendships among adolescent girls tend to be more emotionally intimate than those between boys. This is partially because girls tend to spend more time one-on-one engaging in conversation, whereas boys tend to spend more time in groups engaging in activities. Across many studies, research shows that girls have higher expectations than boys for intimacy, acceptance, self-disclosure, empathy, and emotional support within friendships. Boys and girls place similar value on factors like loyalty, commitment, and spending time together.