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Essay: Critically evaluate the cycle of human development and the significance of diversity in relation to life stages and transitions.

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  • Critically evaluate the cycle of human development and the significance of diversity in relation to life stages and transitions.
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Human Development can be defined as “the scientific study of age related changes in behaviour, thinking, emotion and personality” (Boyd & Bee 2006, p 3). There are many different theories and thus, debates, behind the various stages of human development over the lifespan, as it is rich in complexity. A review of the literature in counselling and psychology traditions reflect many theories that look in to the various processes of human development; particularly influential theorists such as Freud, Erikson and Piaget. These theories have helped to provide a framework for the study of human development that, in turn, have helped explain how findings may be interpreted and to help us identify the major disparities between theorists (Dacey, Travers & Fiore, 2009). From a Counsellor’s perspective, the major theories, can provide a lens to view human development and to guide practice decisions. Effectively, aiding the Counsellor to consider the implications each theory presents for intervention and prevention. This review focussed primarily on the literary work of Boyd & Bee (2006) and Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, (2014).

Ideas around human development began centuries ago, with the Christian Doctrine of original sin teaching that all humans are born with a selfish nature because of the sin of Adam and Eve (Boyd & Bee, 2006). Ideas around human development have evolved considerably since then, particularly from the 19th century when people wanted a more scientific view of development. During this period Darwin became influential as he critically believed that you could understand the stages of human development, by studying child development; effectively he bought the idea of ‘development stages’ to the forefront (Boyd & Bee, 2006). Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) built on these ‘stages’ and highlighted the essential role that childhood played. Freud developed a Psychosexual Theory, which became very important, and is still relevant today.

Freud postulated that a person’s psychological responses and behaviours were reflections of biological instinctual drivers (Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, 2014). The internal drivers largely come from the ‘libido’- an instinctual drive for pleasure – and once each stage has been completed, this leads to developmental change. These drivers were present from birth, which Freud categorised in five Psychosexual stages; starting with the Oral Stage, from 0 -1 years The mouth provides primary interaction with the world through oral stimulation e.g. tasting and sucking. Age 1 – 3 years is the Anal Stage. The focus shifts from oral to controlling the bladder and anus. Toilet training must be done without too much or too little pressure. Age 3-6 is the Phallic Stage. From here the driver (also known as the id) moves to the genitals. Children adopt an attraction to the same sex parent. They also adopt their values and characteristics. 6-12 years is the latency stage, where children further develop values and social skills and relationships outside of the family. The final stage: Genital, from 12 + is where adolescents develop an interest in the opposite sex and puberty takes place. According to Freud, if development has been successful throughout these stages, this will lead to a well-balanced adult. If, however, one (or more) of the developmental tasks have not been passed successfully, for example, toilet training, this could lead to issues in later life such as obstinacy or disorderliness. Freud also stated that if these tasks are unsuccessful and childhood trauma is faced, the brain can remove the trauma from the conscious and put it in the unconscious, which can often cause distress later in life and can even lead to mental illness.

Freud made an important contribution to understanding human development. Particularly that unconscious influences have a powerful impact and, in synergy with Darwin, that the early events in life play a critical role in the developmental process (Cherry, 2018). Many still argue today that an understanding of the psychosexual view of development is essential if a Counsellor is going to successfully work in depth with issues that someone is facing. Particularly Counsellors that use Psychoanalytic counselling techniques. An example of a successful case treated by Freud using psychoanalysis is that of ‘Rat man’. A 20 year old man who had had obsessive thoughts dating back to childhood. He had a major fear about rats and them eating in to his anus. He felt something bad was going to happen to a lady he was fond of and he was tormented with thoughts that his dad would die soon, even though his dad was already dead! Freud used psychoanalysis and took Rat man back to his childhood. Freud established that Rat man had had sexual intercourse with his governess when very young. He therefore associated pleasure with fear and punishment and hostility towards his father – displacement. His analysis last 11 months and he obsessive thoughts were completely cleared.

However, as Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, (2014) illustrate, Freud was criticised at the time by many of his contemporaries for not testing his work scientifically, as he was for much of his work throughout his life. The work he did with Rat Man was one of very few ‘case studies’ that was used as a successful marker of Freud’s work. Freud was also criticised for using fluffy concepts like the ‘libido’, that cannot be measured. Freud based his work almost entirely on male development thus dismissing the idea that female’s may develop differently.

As Boyd and Bee (2006) explored, later theorists looked at ideas that were built on some of the strength of Freud’s theory and were known as neo-Freudians. Erik Erikson (1902 -1994) an influential neo-Freudian, built on Freuds theory by postulating that both internal drivers and cultural demands are important when examining how humans develop. Erikson called his eight stage model Psychosocial Stages. Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, (2014) add that progression through each stage of development is in part determined by the success, or lack of success of the part before. For example, stage 2: autonomy vs shame and doubt (18 months to 3 years), at this stage it is crucial that parents allow kids to explore the limits of their abilities. For example, when children attempt to get themselves dressed. If they are overly controlled or criticised they may become overly dependent on others and lack self esteem. They will then carry this through to the next development stage.

In Erikson’s model, the influence of the major caregiver is critical to the child’s resolution of the first stages: particularly trust vs mistrust. There must be consistent love and nurture, otherwise there could be withdrawal from the child and this can affect the resolution of later tasks. This is a thread that runs through many development theories. Having personally studied Erikson in the past and other influential theorists like Freud and Bowlby, as a parent I am also acutely aware of the importance of secure attachment in a young child and I have worked hard to try and ensure that my child feels loved and nurtured and I continue to be as consistent in my approach as possible.

Erikson’s positing of the identity vs role confusion during 12-18 teenage years has been particularly influential. According to Boyd and Bee (2006), Erikson states that in order to get to a place of mature sexual and occupational identity, every teenager must look at their own identity and the roles that they must occupy. Failure to do this may lead to confusion and a feeling of not belonging. According to the literature, Erikson later correlated this stage with Freudian Genital stage: a correlation, but not an exact fit. Unlike Freud, Erikson continues the developmental stages right through the lifespan to the late adulthood stage; integrity vs despair. I currently find myself in the 30 to late adulthood stage and I see resemblance with the typical activities and positive characteristics within the Generativity vs stagnation stage: my focus has more recently shifted to becoming a caregiver to my daughter and my husband. Ive revisited the reason behind why I do things, which has led to a different career and creative outlook, in line with Erikson’s model in a basic sense.

According to Boyd and Bee (2006), psychoanalytic theories, such as the above, continue to be influential and many counsellors use these frameworks to influence their thinking and work with clients. However, as with Freud, Erikson was criticised for his immeasurable theory, and for not considering the mental aspects of development, unlike cognitive theorists.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) a highly influential cognitive theorist, examined how humans gather and organise information and how this changes as they grow. He employed constructs of schema that he said were developed after an experience. As Boyd and Bee (2006) explain, if a child sees a dog, they will build up a construct. If they see a few more dogs, they build a schema of what the experience is. If they then see a fox, they will be forced to make sense of a different animal, this is a process of adaptation. These adjustments in the brain take place over different developmental stages. Piaget argues that the environment can accelerate or retard the progression.

Piaget was heavily criticised for having a narrow view of development, however, as Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, (2014) states, Piaget must be credited for discovering that thoughts are a critical component of development, something that major theorists before, including Freud and Erikson, had not focussed on.

These major development theories and others can be used to help us understand human growth and development from both an individual and Counsellors perspective. As Wastell (1996) states “A primary role of professional Counsellors is to assist clients through phases of human development and utilize strategies that facilitate optimum development over the life-span.” We can use the information to provide markers when understanding. For example, as Boyd and Bee (2006) states if a child ‘forgets’ about a bully on the bus as soon as he is safely at home and away from them, this is what Freud called regression – a way of pushing something in to the unconscious. The adult may present with personality distress. Through the use of psychoanalytic counselling, the therapist may be able to recover this memory and understand that it is a defence mechanism that has been placed in the unconscious.

However, as Counsellors we must also consider other factors in life cycle development and how we can use these to aid with intervention and prevention when working with a client. As Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, (2014) states we must also consider many other facets relating to each individual client including their environment, culture and socio economic status. A counsellor must also consider how an individual makes sense of their own environment, how they use their learning experience to deal with stress and how events in life contribute to their own identity. For example, an individual that has grown up in a strict religious setting with three generations in one home is very likely to have a different outlook to a person that has grown up in a single parent, atheist household.

In addition, we must consider that today’s environment is very different to when these theories were initially developed, and we must consider how more modern factors influence the individual’s development. For example, the advance of technology. For many this is positive, as people see themselves as more connected in many ways; and connection is a basic human need. However, for some it has had a detrimental impact. Studies have shown that the pressure young people feel under today to present themselves as ‘perfect’ on social media has had a detrimental impact on mental health for many. Studies have also shown that adolescents are actually connecting less on a face to face level and therefore not developing social skills as they should be.

As the literature presented by both Boyd and Bee (2006) and Wong, Hall, Justice & Hernandez, (2014). state, the major development theories provide a necessary framework for Counsellors to understand themselves and their clients, but we must consider the balance of theory, research and practical application based on who each individual is – from a cultural, environmental and values perspective in order for Counsellors to help facilitate optimum human growth and development with clients.




Boyd, D. & Bee, H. (2006) Lifespan Development. USA: Pearson Education Inc.

Cherry, K. 2018, Freuds Stages of Psychosexual Development (Online), Available.
(2019, Jan. 16)

Dacey, J., Travers, T., & Fiore., L (2009). Human Development Across the Lifespan (7th ed) London: McGraw Hill

Wong, D. W., Hall, K. R., Justine, C. A., & Hernandez, L. W. (2014). Counselling Individuals Through the Life Span. London: Sage Publications



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