Human Development

Stages of Human Development



In this paper, I will compare the child development theories of Margaret Mahler with those of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, and Jean Piaget. I have chosen to concentrate on Mahler’s object relation theory because, as an MFCC, I found her theories on separation and individuation (described below) extremely valuable. Another reason I chose Mahler is that the work of J. Masterson closely follows Mahler’s model of child development, and it is through the work of Masterson that I came to appreciate Mahler’s theory.

Each of these theorists is prominent in the field of child development, and each has a different name for his theory:

Developmental models
Theorist Model Number of stages
Mahler Object Relation  
Freud Psychosexual  
Erikson Psychosocial  
Piaget Cognitive development  

Each of these theorists divides the development process into stages. Not surprisingly, each has his own ideas concerning the number of stages, the duration of the stages, and development that occurs during the stages. There are, however, some interesting similarities, which I will also examine.


Mahler examines child development between birth and age three (more or less), and divides them into two stages; one with two sub-phases and the other with four. I say “more or less” because her last stage has no definite endpoint.

Freud and Erikson recognize that the development process starts at birth, but they follow it into the child’s later years. Erikson goes so far as to define developmental stages up to and including the age of sixty. Up to age twelve, however, both Freud and Erikson agree on both the number and duration of stages (five), although each interprets them differently. In addition to these five stages, Erikson also defines development after puberty, dividing it into three stages.

Piaget, like Erikson, considers the whole of human life as part of the development experience. Unlike Erikson, he sees four stages, the first two of which have sub-phases.


Mahler and Freud define goals for child development that are at some point attained by the healthy individual, at which time development is more or less stopped. Erikson and Piaget, in viewing the whole of human life as included in the development process, have more open-ended “goals,” the realization of which never stops for the healthy individual.

Mahler believes the goal of development to be the child’s separation and individuation from the mother.

Freud believes the goal is emotional maturity. This means having relative freedom from the conflicts of childhood, which are anxiety-producing, being able to have a satisfying love relationship, and being able to work effectively with others.

Erikson emphasizes identity formation as the goal of development. The child gradually learns to shift his identity formation from mother-focussed to world-focussed.

Piaget sees the goal as the intellectual development of the child. During this development, the child’s knowledge of the world around him takes different forms.


In Mahler’s portrayal of the developmental sequence, the infant exhibits different modes of behavior and has a different frame of psychological organization in each sub-phase. The successful negotiation of one sub-phase paves the way for the next. In Freud’s theory, the child can go on to the next stage without fully resolving conflicts of the previous one. In Erikson’s theory, the struggle between the negatives and positives must be fought through successfully before the child can go on to the next stage, although the resolutions may not be complete nor permanent. Piaget believes the stages are continuous, and each stage is built upon the previous ones. No child can go on to the next stage without completing the previous stage, and no stages may be skipped. Development is accomplished by schemes of action, in which the child establishes relationships between similar objects or between objects that are increasingly dissimilar, including relationships between those objects and his own body.

Early Childhood: Birth to month 5

Let’s first take a look at the ideas that make up the developmental framework of early childhood, the period of time between birth and the fifth month. I will examine this period in two parts: birth through month one, and month one through month five.

Birth through month 1

Starting at birth, Mahler’s first stage is called child development (the first sub-phase of which is called normal autism), Freud’s first stage is called oral, Erikson’s first stage is called basic trust vs. basic mistrust, and Piaget’s is called sensorimotor (the first sub-phase of which is called reflex exercises). Both Mahler and Piaget offer sub-phases that last only until month one. Both Freud’s and Erikson’s first stages continue until month 24.

Mahler: Normal Autism

In this period, the baby’s major “activity” is sleeping. When awake, his primary interest is in being fed. The infant’s state of mind is referred to as “absolute primary narcissism.” This Mahler characterizes as “hallucinatory omnipotence.” The infant has no awareness of another or an outside.

Freud: Oral

As previously noted, Freud’s first stage lasts from birth until the child is 24 months old. The concentration is on eating, which to him is a life-or-death issue.

Erikson: Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust

Erikson, like Freud, sees the first stage lasting until 24 months. Erikson concentrates on the helplessness of the infant. The child needs to be able to accept frustration (i.e., his mother not feeding him the minute he becomes hungry) in order to learn to trust his mother. The achievement of this stage is hope and a basic trust of the world (which at this point is limited to the child’s immediate environment).

Piaget: Reflex Exercises

The newborn’s behavior is almost autistic, relying on random and reflex action completely.

Months 1 through 5

Early childhood development continues. Between months 1 and 5, Mahler and Piaget’s second sub-phases start and end. Freud’s and Erikson’s stages, which started at birth, carry on to month 24.

Mahler: Symbiosis

At the beginning of symbiosis, the infant’s thought process is referred to as “primary narcissism.” The infant does not differentiate between himself and his mother, although he is aware that he is not meeting his own needs.

About the fourth month, the infant forms a dual unity with his mother. The self and the outside world remain undifferentiated, however, so the infant’s sense of omnipotence centers around himself and his mother. It is during this period that the child first begins to form the idea of “mother,” and as this idea solidifies, he is able to delay gratification.

Mahler feels that the libido and aggression start to form during this sub-phase, due to “splitting.” This occurs when “good” pleasurable experiences and “bad” painful experiences begin to separate out. Satisfying experiences become associated with “good” aspects of self and object, which gives rise to the libido. Frustrating experiences become associated with “bad” aspects of self and object, which gives rise to aggression.

Other important changes occur during this sub-phase, including:

  1. The infant develops the expectation that his needs will be met.
  2. The infant’s identity begins to take form, as displayed in unique patterns of motor activity and drive differentiation.
  3. A shift to sensori-perception that aids the formation of the infant’s body image. The child is becoming increasingly aware that his body is being taken care of and of the sensations emanating from his erotic zones.
  4. The positive perception of the “oneness” associated with symbiosis is like being on a winning team and as it becomes integrated, normal narcissism develops, that is, a healthy feeling of self-love, self-pride, bodily-love, and self-regard.

Piaget: First Habits

This sub-phase is heralded by the beginning of movements relating to the infant’s body, for example, thumb sucking. The infant will now grab for objects he can see, but will not reach for objects outside of his immediate visual field. He can also imitate actions that he can observe. He can’t stick his tongue out in imitation of an adult because he can’t see his own tongue.

Child Development: Months 5 through 24

Although these theories take different paths to get there, all agree that there is a milestone at age two.

In Mahler’s model, the second stage of development starts at five months and continues until the third year. This stage is called separation/individuation, and is further broken down into four sub-phases: (1) differen|tiation, (2) practicing, (3) rapprochement, and (4) consolidation of individuality and the beginnings of emotional object constancy. On entering the “consolidation” sub-phase, the infant begins “psychological birth.”

At the end of month 24, Freud’s oral stage and Erikson’s basic trust vs. basic mistrust stages (which both started at birth) come to an end. So, too, does Piaget’s sensorimotor stage (which started at birth), but Piaget includes four additional sub-phases between months five and 24.

Mahler: Differentiation (Months 5 to 10)

As this sub-phase starts, the infant begins to look more alert. The child begins to practice his eye-to-hand coordination. He begins to understand that he and his mother are separate. The infant stares for long periods of time at the faces of strangers to compared them with the internal and external image the child has of his mother (stranger reaction). The infant will also show emotions ranging from confident expectation or curiosity to anxiety on meeting strangers, depending on the child’s resolution of the symbiotic sub-phase.

The infant also molds his identity in response to reactions he sees in his mother.

Piaget: Coordination of Secondary Schemes (Months 8 to 12)

The infant will now push away obstacles in order to get to an object that is hidden from view, but only if he has seen it being hidden. The infant can now imitate without seeing its own actions.

Mahler: Practicing (Months 10 to 15)

Mahler divides practicing, the next sub-phase of separation/individuation, into two parts: early practicing and late practicing. During early practicing, the infant explores by crawling around, always within sight or ear-shot of his mother.

Late practicing starts when the child learns to walk. The child’s horizons are considerably broadened. The child begins his search for autonomy but continues to need emotional support for his efforts from his mother.

Piaget: Differentiation of Schemes by Action (Months 12 to 18)

The child discovers the means to an end. He will vary his actions, rather than simply repeating actions he has already used. He does this basically by means of exploration and directed groping.

Mahler: Rapprochement (Month 15 to 22)

The child’s interest in his mother is renewed as he becomes aware of his own separateness and powerlessness. He attempts to engage his mother in shared activities because of his need for support in individuating. The conflict between the child’s delusions of grandeur and parental omnipotence are reality are seen in behavior (ambitendency, parallel play, temper tantrums, shyness) that reflects his concern with being separate.

The father’s presence during this time supports the child’s individuation and provides an alternative for the child’s regressive urge for too much closeness with his mother. The child can relate to the father with less confusion because of the father’s position outside of the symbiotic orbit. The child also becomes increasingly aware of the special relationship between his mother and father, and how they as a couple relate to him.

Piaget: Interiorization of the Schemes (Months 18 to 24)

If the direct path to the child’s goal is blocked, he will take another route. He will now reach for objects that he has not actually seen hidden. The child is also able to imitate without an observable model. By the end of this sub-phase, the child has a much clearer understanding of objects and his relationship to them. He is now ready to use his newly-developed powers of symbolization and elementary reasoning to gain a clearer understanding of the world, though his view is egocentric.

Child Development: Years 2 through 4

As previously mentioned, the second year is the watershed in the development of the child. Each of these theorists demarcates stages or sub-phases around the two-year point. For Mahler, it is the start of the consolidation sub-phase. For Freud, it is the start of the anal stage. For Erikson, it is the start of the autonomy vs. shame and doubt stage. And for Piaget, the pre-operational stage starts with the pre-conceptual sub-phase.

The fourth year is also significant for Freud, Erikson, and Piaget. Both Freud and Erikson start new stages at that time, while Piaget starts a new sub-phase in the pre-operational stage.

Mahler: Consolidation of Individuality, and the Beginnings of Emotional Object Constancy

The fourth subphase of separation/individuation is different from the preceding ones because it has no fixed endpoint. Mahler states that normal development will see a close to this stage around year three, but that it can carry on afterward, as well. According to Mahler, the main tasks of this sub-phase are self-constancy and emotional object constancy. Self-constancy is the culmination of the child’s growing awareness of his separateness and gender into a definite, lifelong individuality. Self-constancy must be achieved before the child can achieve emotional object constancy. Emotional object constancy occurs when the good (libidinous) and bad (aggressive) aspects of mother fuse into a tempered representation of the whole mother.

Freud: Anal

The emphasis is on toilet training. This is the first demand that authority places on the child, and can lead to passivity or aggressiveness. The child now begins to have a little ego-based thinking. He is able to think through the consequences of his actions beforehand.

Erikson: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The conflict centers on the child’s need to assert his own autonomy vs. the parents’ demands (such as toilet training). The emphasis, as with all the stages, is centered on conflicts between people, as opposed to conflicts of sexuality/physicality as in the Freudian theory. The achievement of Erikson’s second stage is will-power. The child is able to restrain his own impulses in search of a higher goal.

Piaget: Pre-Conceptual

The child uses some words in a “semi-generic” way to indicate “another of the same type.” Piaget calls this pre-conceptual thinking. The child is unable to form generalizations or abstractions. If the child sees someone in an unexpected place or dressed in unfamiliar clothes, he becomes confused. Language and symbolic play (or imagination) begin to appear.

Child Development: Years 4 through 7

At this point, we depart from Mahler’s model of child development, but continue on with Freud, Erikson, and Piaget. Each of these theorists uses year four and year seven as endpoints to either a stage or sub-phase.

Freud: Phallic

During this stage, boys and girls begin to notice the differences in their bodies, and the development of the super-ego, or conscience, is introduced. This produces an identification (ultimately) with the sex-same parent. According to Freud, the children must go through complexes before this identification occurs. In boys, this is called the Oedipal complex. In girls, this is called the Electra complex.

Erickson: Initiative vs. Guilt

The child learns to synchronize his needs and wishes with society’s demands. The achievement of this stage is purpose. It is also the stage in which conscience is established, as it is in Freud’s model.

Piaget: Intuitive Thinking

The child is now able to solve simple problems involving number, time, space, etc. He now understands how to engage in co-operative play, although he isn’t yet able to verbalize this knowledge. By the end of this stage, his speech develops from egocentric reference to sociocentric. The child doesn’t understand quality permanence. If the child is shown a demonstration in which liquid from a tall, narrow cylinder is completely poured into a shallow, wide dish, he cannot mentally reverse the process. If asked if the liquid can be poured into the tall, narrow cylinder, the child will answer incorrectly. Apparently, the child grasps only one aspect of situations. In the example just given, it might be the height, but not the width, or vice versa.

Child Development: Years 7 through 12

As at age two and four, Freud, Erikson, and Piaget all agree that age seven marks the end of one stage and the beginning of another.

Freud: Latency

This is defined as a rest period. Memories of the Oedipal and Electra complexes are repressed, as is sexuality in general.

Erikson: Industry vs. Inferiority

The child is winning recognition through mastering skills. He learns either to take pride in his accomplishments or else he feels inferior. The child is now in school and is work-oriented. The achievement of this stage is confidence.

Piaget: Concrete Operations

Unlike the two previous stages, this stage has no sub-phases. The child learns certain “truths,” such as conservation (if A=B and B=C, then A=C), relational terms (if A>B and B>C, then A>C), class inclusion (if an orange is a fruit, and fruits are food, then an orange must be a food), and serialization (a loaf of bread is small and light, a bowling ball is small and heavy. A human-sized balloon is large and light, a car is large and heavy). The child’s thinking now shows an equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation. Piaget identifies this as mental growth.

Adolescence: Years 12 through 20

Freud, Erikson, and Piaget also agree on the significance of the twelfth year.

Freud: Genital

This is the last of Freud’s stages and is marked by the onset of heterosexual relationships. The sexuality of the adolescent comes forth after lying dormant in the latency stage.

Erikson: Identity vs. Role Diffusion

The adolescent is trying to establish a sense of identity, commonly called the identity crisis. The child is trying to find a place for himself, an identity, a self-concept, that corresponds to the way others see him. The focus is now widening; the adolescent becomes a part of a group and is fascinated with totalitarian ideologies. The achievement of this stage is fidelity.

Piaget: Formal Operations

This is Piaget’s last stage. In it, the adolescent is able to deal with abstractions. He is concerned with the possible and its relation to the actual. His thinking as also more coherent than in concrete operations. He is now able to think about the future and to manipulate ideas not directly related to the real world. After formulating a hypothesis, the adolescent uses the rules he has learned to evaluate it, and finally either accepts or denies the validity of it. Egocentric thinking reappears. Because he is able to conceive of a situation, the adolescent is apt to believe that things can be as he conceives them. This comes from his belief in the omnipotence of thinking. However, through social interactions, this type of thinking gives way to an understanding of social realities.

Adult Development: Years 20 through Death

As the developmental stages of the others come to a close, it is left to Erikson to continue on. To this end, he proposes stages of development that take place until the individual dies.

Erikson: Intimacy vs. Isolation

Running from the individual’s twenties until his early thirties, this forms the sixth stage of development. The individual tends to avoid being absorbed in a relationship by isolating himself.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

In his late thirties, the individual enters this stage … the stage of his “mid-life crisis.” The individual needs to reassess what he’s doing with his life. He begins to think of himself in terms of society, rather than just as a parent. The achievement of this stage is care.

Integrity vs. Despair

From the age of 60 on, the individual tries to accept responsibility for what his life is, and was, and of its place in history. He develops a self-concept that he can accept, and is pleased with his role in life, and what he produces. The achievement is wisdom.


Freud’s model of early childhood development corresponds well with Mahler’s separation/individuation theory. Where Mahler saw the child being bonded with the mother, Freud saw the child’s early behavior as pleasure seeking. In Mahler’s theory of child development, the child then made the transition to separation from the mother, while Freud saw the transition to a concern with the real world, even if that world was disagreeable. Thus, Mahler’s symbiosis relates to Freud’s pleasure principle; Mahler’s emotional object constancy relates to Freud’s reality principle.

Erikson has a lot in common with Freud, although he approaches his work from a different angle. Where Freud preferred to see development as sexuality-based, Erikson saw it as society-based. The ultimate goal of both theories is successful resolution, which, they believe, will lead to a “normal,” happy, well-adjusted person.

Piaget’s approach is completely different. He calls the skills of the child’s intelligence the goal of development. This intelligence, at first action-based, eventually becomes thinking-based, both in real and in abstract terms. A person is considered mature if he is able to formulate hypothesis, to deduce conclusions, and to think logically about abstract ideas.

Case Background

Billy Jones is a five-and-one-half-year-old caucasian male. Billy came to us because he had a presenting problem of uncontrolled behavior and inability to work in a normal school setting. He was then tested at age five and initially diagnosed as having an oppositional disorder.

Billy’s parents, Sally, 38, and George, 39, have been divorced since Billy was 3 and one-half years old. Billy lives with his mother. Billy spends alternate weekends with his father.

Sally’s and George’s families have histories of severe alcohol abuse. The mother also had a drug and alcohol problem, hospitalized herself in 1967 for detoxification, and has been sober ever since. She was also diagnosed and medicated at one time for being clinically depressed. Other pertinent family medical history includes glucose imbalance on both sides of the family. The father takes daily oral insulin. The mother is hypoglycemic. The maternal grandfather is a diabetic.

Billy is a very bright young boy whose educational achievements are hampered by his social, emotional, and behavioral problems. He displays poor impulse control, a short attention span, and has trouble accepting limits or instructions from others. Billy has a low frustration tolerance. Billy shows minor delays in gross and fine motor activities and slight visual perceptual difficulties. Billy is a raging, oppositional child, with little sense of his own power or his impact on the world; he has very low self-esteem. He has difficulty in appropriately channeling his anger. He has tremendous ambivalence regarding closeness as well as acknowledging his own feeling state.

Our overall impression is that Billy needs firm limits and expectations in order to make transitions from one situation to another. From our observation in the therapeutic classroom, Billy was a controlling, omnipotent, impulsive and angry child who appeared to be depressed.

Many of Billy’s problems seem to be related to the interactional dynamics of the family, the inconsistency and inappropriate setting of limits, the mixed messages he gets from his parents, and their limited level of awareness about Billy’s problems.

Sally has difficulties setting consistent and appropriate limits for Billy, thus a power struggle often dominates their relationship. Billy is very bonded to his father emotionally/psychologically, and his father has a powerful, stern attitude with Billy, who listens to his father well. Neither parent is aware of or addresses Billy’s feelings. This seems to be a fragmented family system due to the divorce, the double-message communications between parents, and each parent having a live-in partner who significantly interacts with Billy. Future therapy needs to focus on integrating incongruent interactional patterns.

Case Excerpt 1

In these excerpts, I will demonstrate my learning through two clinical characteristics: behavioral strategies and clinical process. One aspect of the overall treatment was to teach Billy’s mother parenting skills in dealing with his oppositional behavior. This excerpt will show the mother’s confusion and frustration setting and maintaining limits with Billy at bedtime.

Sally came into the session and said that she was unable to get the child to stay in his room at bedtime. He would come out of his room and tell her he wasn’t tired. After telling him over and over to go back to his room, she would become so frustrated that she would end up screaming. “Have you tried anything else,” I asked. She replied, “Sometimes I promise him that if he goes to bed I’ll take him to a special place on the weekend. This seems to work for one or two days but then it all starts in again. I’ve really had it.” I said, “When Billy is persistent about not staying in his room, does he ever get his way?” “Yes,” she replied, “He wears me down sometimes, and I let him stay up.” I said supportively, “Even though you get angry sometimes, Billy must find it worthwhile to disobey because some of the time he gets his way. Most kids would put up with being yelled at if they could get their way. I would like to help you understand what you are doing that perpetuates Billy’s behavior, and give you some new strategies to see if we can help you improve this. I know that Billy can be very strong-willed, and what I am going to tell you is not to be critical of you, but to help you see the kind of communication that can get in the way of Billy listening to you.

“Sally, I am going to ask that you become more aware of the number of times you tell Billy to follow your rules. From now on, in whatever you request of Billy, you should ask him no more than twice. We will teach you to take an appropriate consequence if he doesn’t follow your rules. Secondly, if you learn to do this, you will not lose your temper, and you will feel more in control. Third, you need to take into account that it is extremely difficult for a five-year-old to wait until the end of the week for a reward. Therefore, any reward must be immediate or the same day. I would like to give you some behavioral strategies and ways of talking to Billy in a firm and caring manner about some new rules that he is going to have to learn to follow in regards to staying in his room.

“The first thing you can say to Billy is, ’Mom has some new rules for you because you have learned to stay in your room at bedtime. The first rule is that I am going to tell you no more than twice to stay in your room. If you don’t try to control yourself after that, I will sit by the door to see that you stay in your room. Each time you make Mom stay by the door, you go to bed fifteen minutes earlier the next night. If you are still having a hard time staying in your room, instead of fifteen minutes, it will be half an hour. So I really hope, Billy, you will try to listen to Mom so you don’t have to go to bed early and lose all your fun time before bed. I really feel that you can learn to do this, and Mom really wants to help you follow these rules.’”

Case Excerpt 2

In this excerpt, I will demonstrate another example of my skill in the use of behavioral strategies to help Sally deal with Billy’s oppositional behavior.

The mother came into the session and wanted advice on how to handle Billy’s difficult behavior in restaurants. The moment he got bored, he would repeatedly demand to leave in a loud voice, and then he would get out of his seat. The mother would continuously tell Billy to sit down. When she finally does get control of him, Billy pouts and sulks until they finally leave the restaurant. The mother said to me, “It is so frustrating to go through this every time we go out to eat. At least I don’t lose my temper and start screaming anymore.” I said, “I can see how you really feel more in control. You’ve made a lot of progress, Sally. But as you have noticed, you are only managing his behavior. What we need to do is work on strategies to change the behavior.

“First, you need to tell Billy that from now on when you go to a restaurant there will be some new rules, because he needs to learn how to control himself better. Second, you need to tell Billy you know it’s hard for him to sit still when he gets bored, but he has to learn not to feel so upset when he is in the restaurant. Third, if you have to tell him twice to stop the behavior, he must go out and sit in the car for five minutes. You must only tell him twice, and you must wait outside the car while he is inside. After the five minutes, he can tell you if he is ready to go back in and try again. Fourth, you must tell Billy that if you go in and he still can’t control himself, he will have to go to bed fifteen minutes earlier than his regular bedtime. The fifth step is that the next time you go out together you will remind him of the rule, and if he has a hard time following the rule again you will go home again and Billy will go to bed thirty minutes earlier than his regular bedtime. Each time he breaks the rule, he must go to bed earlier and earlier until he finds out that he can control himself. The sixth step is to tell Billy that you really want to go out with him and have a good time, so he must try to control himself so he won’t have to leave the restaurant and go to bed early.”

Sally came back after using these strategies and reported some success using these behavioral approaches, and that they were beginning to have a positive effect on his behavior. She also felt good about herself in that she was in better control of her anger, and that she had a step-by-step procedure to follow in handling these behavior problems.

This approach, combined with Billy’s treatment in the therapeutic school, caused a change in the family dynamics. Prior to the family coming in for treatment at the JASC, Sally would call her ex-husband every time Billy was difficult so George could discipline Billy. This began to change as Sally started taking control of Billy’s acting-out behavior.

Both of these excerpts focus on behavioral strategies in my overall learning experience that demonstrate the following clinical growth:

  1. The ability to analyze the issues involved in Billy’s unwillingness to follow his mother’s rules.
  2. My understanding of the factors that helped the mother see her part in perpetuating the child’s behavior.
  3. The ability to help her accept, through clinical process (i.e. support and empathy), new behavioral strategies to deal with Billy’s behavior.

Through my clinical training I provided step-by-step behavioral procedures that helped us improve Billy’s behavior over a two-year period. These procedures also helped Sally to feel that she was more in control of her anger, and helped develop her self-esteem concerning her parenting skills.

The therapeutic school has helped Billy lessen his school phobias, decrease his performance anxieties, and improve his social relatedness. He is more tolerant of feeling-level processing, although he still requires major behavior modification interventions in the classroom. He remains an angry, omnipotent, at times oppositional child, whose moods swings display a range of effects, from acting-out rage to depression, listlessness, and loss of appetite. He often appears fearful and covers this with shows of bravado. We suspect an underlying androgynous depression.

Professional Insights

The Paper

I found Mahler’s theory of separation/individuation extremely interesting and valuable for an MFCC, and it is my feeling that separation and individuation do not end in childhood. As I thought about some of my clients, I can see why they as children have so much normal anxiety in separating from their parents. It is a profound experience for a child to begin to feel he is on his own and doesn’t need of his parents every step of the way. In my professional experience with adults, I see a continuous struggle to separate and individuate from their parents. It is common to see adults feeling childlike when the parent doesn’t validate them.

I also identified with Erickson’s stages of man, which centers around the need of the child to assert his autonomy versus parent demands. This also helped me develop a way of looking at life stages and conceptualizing the psycho-social development that we go through from birth to death. Erickson’s views take into account the influence of psycho-social factors, such as home, school, and environment, and the impact they have on the child’s development, in contrast to Freud’s which do not. In my own experience with the client, it is much easier to understand a child’s drive for autonomy using Erickson’s concepts.

As I thought about some of my adult clients and look at Erikson’s developmental stages, it becomes clearer why they are not progressing, as they have become stuck in one stage or another. What I liked about Erikson’s work is that he appeared to be optimistic in his viewpoint, and saw in the individual his resilience. This contrasts Mahler’s viewpoint that the individual is driven by inner conflicts, which gave me the feeling that these issues could never be resolved.

Piaget’s theories were helpful in understanding the intellectual development of the child, and how the child developed the ability to think logically and abstractly. However, I would like to have a better understanding of how Piaget saw psycho-social factors affecting the development of the individual, even though I realize this was not his major focus of study.

I found the readings of Thomas and Chess on the basic temperament issues of the individual enlightening and informative in understanding how constitutional factors affect development. For example, in one case I had a child who was very active, and who could have been diagnosed as hyperactive. The child, however, came from a chaotic family, and as we worked with the family and developed some structure and order, the little boy’s apparent hyperactive behavior diminished.

The Case Study

This learning experience helped me assimilate and integrate my understanding of human biological, psycho|logical, and social development. It is important to understand that Billy was originally diagnosed as having an oppositional disorder of childhood, as discussed in the DSM III.

After nine months of working with Billy in the family therapy sessions and in the JASC therapeutic classroom, it became apparent that his problems were more severe than indicated in the original diagnosis: Billy had an attention deficit disorder. An oppositional disorder and an attention deficit disorder have some similarities in their clinical symptoms. In my work with this case, the attention deficit disorder seems closely related to the human biological, psychological, and social development of this child. The characteristics of this disorder include inattentiveness (the child doesn’t listen, he is easily distracted, and fails to complete tasks), impulsivity (often acts before thinking), and needs a lot of direct supervision to contain behavior. A secondary diagnosis of depression was part of Billy’s diagnostic profile. The above characteristics can be biological or psychological in nature.

Another issue that may have affected the genetics of the child was the mother’s drug and alcohol consumption while she was pregnant. The father has a background of diabetes and impulsivity in his behavior, as well. Billy was put on medication which positively altered his behavior and this validated our diagnosis that suggests there were some biological factors that caused these behavior deficiencies. Another factor of Billy’s developmental deficiency is related to Billy’s lack of bonding with his mother, which is a major psychological factor that can affect appropriate psychological development. A child with an attention deficit disorder lacks appropriate social development with friends and created for this child serious school problems.

Another aspect of this diagnosis was not initially apparent in a therapeutic office setting because these children appear to function on a much higher level in a one-to-one interaction. Therefore it is important to observe a child with this kind of disorder in a therapeutic classroom situation, where the teachers are able to make observations about the child’s behavior, which lead to this additional diagnosis. Children with inattentive and impulsivity will have many more motivational problems in a group setting. This case helped me develop a great respect for the complexities of diagnosis and treatment and how it can challenge one’s original view of the diagnostic issues.


Freud’s model of early childhood development corresponds well with Mahler’s separation/individuation theory. Where Mahler saw the child being bonded with the mother, Freud saw the child’s early behavior as pleasure seeking. In Mahler’s theory of child development, the child then made the transition to separation from the mother, while Freud saw the transition to a concern with the real world, even if that world was disagreeable. Thus, Mahler’s symbiosis relates to Freud’s pleasure principle; Mahler’s emotional object constancy relates to Freud’s reality principle.

Erikson has a lot in common with Freud, although he approaches his work from a different angle. Where Freud preferred to see development as sexuality-based, Erikson saw it as society-based. The ultimate goal of both theories is successful resolution, which, they believe, will lead to a “normal,” happy, well-adjusted person.

Piaget’s approach is completely different. He calls the skills of the child’s intelligence the goal of development. This intelligence, at first action-based, eventually becomes thinking-based, both in real and in abstract terms. A person is considered mature if he is able to formulate hypothesis, to deduce conclusions, and to think logically about abstract ideas.


In my learning experience, I will identify the similarities and differences between major theories of child and human development. I studied Freud, who is from the school of the psychoanalytic views on the children’s pleasure principle, and drive theory concern child development. I compared those to Mahler, who is from the psychoanalytic view of separation and individuation. I found Erickson, neo-Freudian, views of psycho-social development (eight stages of man) particularly interesting. In my readings on Piaget, a developmental psychologist, whose cognitive developmental theories were complex and thought-provoking. In contrast in Watson’s view, a behavioral psychologist, theories of stimulus/response leading conditioned behavior, was a very different way of looking at human development. Kohlberg, a developmental psychologist, theories on sequential moral development seemed extremely important in understanding human development. Dr. Fleming also had us discuss the work of Chess, and Thomas, who were developmental psychologists in their views of temperament as it relates to the human biological, psychological, and social development of the individual.

I studied these areas concerning stages of normal development: conception (its physical and psychological implications in the development of a child), pre-natal (including embryonic and fetal stages, such as the activity of the fetus sensory systems), embryonic development (the process of globality to increasing states of differen|tiality). I also studied neo-natal and early mechanisms of learning. I studied oral stages of development, including the vocalization and sucking responses of the infant. Early childhood, including separation and individuation fears, and anxiety of sexual development of the young child, middle childhood, the need for mastery in cognitive development, awareness an understanding of the world around him. Adolescence, the struggle for autonomy and the ambivalence towards growing up, relationships to family and friends, the beginning of development of goals in life, and adulthood, mastering advanced learning the struggle for direction in life, mastery over ones environment, productive work, need for intimate relationships, and the stages of adult development, such as delineated by Erickson.

In our peer interaction seminar and classes with Dr. Fleming, we examined our basic understanding of child and human development. We discussed that no one theory seems to answer all the issues of child and human development. There was some debate among myself and my peers as to the psychoanalytic view of human development vs. the developmental psychological views. I defended my conclusion that the analytic views do not fully satisfy my more eclectic view after reading the different theorists in this field. We debated this view and examined its theoretical basis. Dr. Fleming pointed out one of the most effective ways to think about this material is “what the implications are to our clients, as it relates to these theories.” For example, if my bias is to favor one point of view, I may now do justice to my client.

In one of my clinical cases, by understanding Piaget’s cognitive theories and the study of a child’s learning disabilities, his writings on developmental issues gave me a greater understanding of normal development and of what developmental sequence children must go through to learn. I also learned how disabled a child missing these learning sequences are not prepared to go to the next developmental sequence. Second, my study of Mahler’s concept of separation and individuation helped me better understand a three-year-old’s separation anxiety through his stages of development.


Ambon, S. child development. San Francisco. Reinhart Press. 1975.

American Psychiatric Association. diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Third Edition. Washington, D.C. APA. 1980.

American Psychiatric Association. dsm iii case book. Washington, D.C. APA. 1981.

Bijou, S. child development: the basic stages of early childhood. New Jersey. Prentice-Hall. 1976.

Bowlby, J. attachment. New York. Basic Books, Inc. 1969.

Campbell, R. psychiatric dictionary. Fifth Edition. New York. Oxford University Press. 1981.

Duska, R. and Whelan, M. moral development: a guide to piaget and kholberg. New York and Toronto. Paulist Press. 1975.

Edward, Ruskin, and Turrini. separation/individuation: theory and application. New York. Gardner Press. 1981.

Erikson, E. childhood and society. New York. Norton and Company. 1963.

Erikson, E. identity, youth, and crisis. New York. Norton and Company. 1968.

Freud, S. introductory lectures in psychoanalysis. London. Hogarth Press. 1964.

Furth, H., ed. piaget and knowledge: theoretical founda|tions. New Jersey. Prentiss-Hall. 1965.

Goldstein, M. abnormal psychology: experiences, origins, and interventions. Boston. Little, Brown, & Company. 1980.

Hoshpitz, J., ed. basic handbook of child psychiatry: disturbances in development. New York. Basic Books. 1979.

Lidz, T. the person: his and her development throughout the life cycle. New York. Basic Books. 1976.

Mahler, M., Pine, F., and Bergman, A. the psychological birth of the human infant. New York. Basic Books. 1976.

Mahler, Pine, and Bergman. the psychological birth of the human infant. New York. Basic Books. 1976.

Masterson, J. the narcissistic and borderline disorders. New York. Brunner/Mazel. 1981.

Piaget, J. the psychology of the child. New York. Basic Books. 1969.

Webb, et al. DSM III training guide. New York. Brunner/Mazel. 19