Developmental Considerations
in Custody Arrangements
Family Mediation
Custody and Child Development
Custody Structures
About Us
Contact Us

Joint Custody Article in Family Mediation News

Erik Erikson - Jean Piaget - Lev Vygotsky

Leading human development theories outline expected stages of growth in almost all areas of progressive human advancement including the psychosexual, emotional, cognitive, psychological, social, and moral dimensions of life

Human Development Considerations
for Child and Adolescent Custodies

An Overview of Human Development

Leading human development theories outline expected stages of growth in almost all areas of progressive human advancement including the psychosexual, emotional, cognitive, psychological, social, and moral dimensions of life. The theorists who created the leading models generally focused on a "normative" infant, toddler, child, adolescent, and/or adult. Major deviations from the norm by any individual may impede or accelerate development in certain areas. For example, a Down's syndrome child is not going to develop cognitively at the same rate as someone with an extremely high IQ. The Down's syndrome child may have very gratifying social relationships, while the genius child that skips several grades in school may have severe problems with socialization. An understanding of human development helps parents and counselors identify age-appropriate stimulus and protection for the children under their care. This understanding can assist in the creation of developmentally appropriate family structures and custodies (more on this on the Discussion of Custody Structures including Joint Custody, Sole Custody, and Primary Custody). Deviations from normative development can identify problems that may stem from correctible environmental influences.

The following discusson focuses on the impact of divorce on the developing individual within the framework of the developmental theories of Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. In this paper the essence of the work of the three theorists is presented sequentially. Then, from the perspective of each of the theorists, an analysis of the impact of divorce on human development is made in relationship to each of the major tenants of the respective theorists.

Eric Erikson's Psychosocial Stages of Development

Eric Erikson was the first to expand the concept of developmental stages past the early childhood years that Freud espoused (Sharkey, 1997). Erikson initially created a theory of eight psychosocial stages that expanded to nine when Erikson personally experienced very old age (Vander Zanden, 2003). Erikson viewed his stages as sequential tasks to be accomplished during certain time periods in life.

Erikson's ideas are particularly relevant to those studying the impacts of divorce and custodies because age-specificity is well defined in each of his earlier stages. If a therapist were to meet with a four year old child the developmental tasks confronting the child should be considered in the course of therapy and in custody arrangements. An eight year old child or a fifteen year old teen would require significantly different counseling techniques and custody arrangements than the four year old child because of the different developmental tasks confronting those children. According to Erikson, if the tasks are not accomplished on time then specific psychosocial consequences occur.

Erikson's first developmental stage called trust vs. mistrust occurs from birth to one year. If an infant gets fed when hungry and comforted in times of upset, then the infant will successfully develop a sense of internal and external trust. If the infant does not have his or her needs met, then the child's mistrust could foster frustration, withdrawal, suspicion, and a lack of self-confidence (Sharkey, 1997).

Erikson's second development stage occurs between two and three years of age. At this stage the young child is struggling to establish autonomy vs. shame and doubt as he or she becomes mobile and asserts his or her will. If successful, the child will "develop a sense of self-control without a loss of self-esteem" (Vander Zanden, p. 43).

Stage three resolves initiative vs. guilt between the ages of four and five. Ideally during these years the child develops a sense of responsibility that boosts his or her initiative. If the child is irresponsible and feels too anxious then guilt feelings will be acquired (Sharkey, 1997).

Starting with Erikson's stage four the stages become longer in duration. Stage four spans the period between six years of age and adolescence (twelve years old). During these years children are concerned with how and why things work and are constructed. If successful the children will develop a sense of industry, if not inferiority will result. The favored outcome is to develop a sense of mastery (Vander Zanden, 2003).

Erikson's fifth stage spans adolescence between the ages of thirteen and twenty four when the adolescent works to figure out a sense of self. The principal struggle is between identity vs. identity confusion (Sharkey, 1997). If identity is not established during adolescence the lingering uncertain sense of self will create problems for the individual as he or she becomes a young adult. Young adulthood is often a time when the impact of divorce is seen as the young adult seeks to build relationships with others (Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004).

From young adulthood on Erikson eschews the further bracketing of chronological ages. Instead, his sixth stage (young adulthood) is defined by the developmental task of intimacy vs. isolation. This is a time of career building and contact with others as the young adult further breaks away from his or her parents (Vander Zanden, 2003). As the adult grows older into the Erickson's seventh stage of adulthood individuals start to become concerned about their legacy to the generations that will follow. Thus, the effort to establish generatively vs. stagnation is aimed at assisting the younger generation. If the individual feels that he or she is not helping the next generation then that individual experiences stagnation (Sharkey, 1997).

In old age Erikson's eighth (and originally last) stage is entered. This is a time of looking back to evaluate one's life to resolve integrity vs. despair. If the previous stages were successful then the person will experience integrity. If not, the person will feel despair (Sharkey, 1997). Erikson's ninth stage is for people who make it past their mid-eighties. Erikson developed this last stage when he was very old. It involves despair vs. hope and faith. As the oldest of the old face their failing bodies they develop a new sense of self. The favored outcome is wisdom and transcendence "to go beyond the universe and time" (Vander Zanden, p. 43).

Jean Piaget's Cognitive Stages of Development

While Erikson focused on psychosocial development other theorists looked at human development through different lenses. Jean Piaget worked intently for six decades on cognitive stages of development. Piaget was a Swiss scholar with a background in biology and philosophy who developed what he called genetic epistemology: the study of how knowledge developed in humans (Adams, n.d.). Piaget looked at the origin of intelligence, ideas of objective constancy, and other cognitive concepts including symbolic behaviors, imitation, and play (Presnell, 1999). Piaget saw development as adaptation to environmental demands involving two processes: assimilation and accommodation (Vander Zanden, 2003).

Piaget said that his cognitive stages are sequential and that individuals progress through the stages at different ages. Piaget's four developmental stages are:

1.      Sensorimotor stage (birth - 2 years old) - The child, through motor actions and physical interaction with his or her environment builds a set of concepts about reality and how it works. This is the stage where a child does not know that physical objects remain in existence when the object is out of sight (On Purpose Associates, 2001a). Children learn from their parents and other care givers by imitating what they see and hear, and they experiment with muscle movements and sounds (Presnell, 1999).

2.      Preoperational stage (ages 2-7) - The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations (On Purpose Associates, 2001a). The child's intelligence at this stage is intuitive in nature (Presnell, 1999) and children are very egocentric considering their point of view to be the only possible one (Vander Zanden, 2003).

3.      Concrete operations (ages 7-11) - As physical experience accumulates, the child starts to create logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences. Abstract problem solving becomes possible. For example, arithmetic equations can be solved with numbers not just with objects. During concrete operations children are capable of taking another person's point of view and to incorporate multiple perspectives simultaneously. The child can see and reason but is unable to develop abstractly all possible outcomes (Presnell, 1999).

4.      Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15) - Not all people reach Piaget's stage of formal operations (Presnell, 1999). If formal operations are attained thinking involves abstractions (Adams, n.d.). In formal operations cognitive structures are adult-like (On Purpose Associates, 2001a) and include conceptual, logical, and theoretical thinking. Adolescents in this stage are self motivated, they learn from reading, trying out new ideas, and from helping friends and adults (Presnell, 1999).  

Lev Vygotsky's Sociocultural Developmental Theory                                                                                                                                                                                                            

A segue between Piaget's cognitive stages and Vygotsky's sociocultural developmental theory is the contrast between Piaget's ideas of children as independent learner's and Vygotsky's assertion that children are not independent learners, rather they learn primarily through social interactions. Language and other cognitive skills, according to Vygotsky, are learned in a social setting (Vander Zanden, 2003).

Lev Vygotsky believed that culture is the primary determinant of individual development. Rather than tie human development to specific age-related stages Vygotsky believed that the mental development of a human is continually evolving. Like Piaget he recognized that children can learn on their own to some degree, which he called the level of actual development. However, he also recognized a significant social element to learning. With the help of others, children can learn much more. This higher level of learning is what he called the level of potential development (On Purpose Associates, 2001b). The difference between the level of actual development and the level of potential development is the Zone of Proximal Discovery (ZPD). Within a supportive cultural setting a child accomplishes a task with the help from a more skilled person that he or she cannot do alone (Gallagher, 1999).

Vygotsky's thoughts are poignant when the impacts of divorce are considered. The importance of the family and society on the development of an individual makes it obvious that a divorce might have a major impact on that individual. If a child's parents are in disarray it is logical that the child's social and cultural environment is likely to be seriously shaken. Vygotsky believed that cognitive functions such as thinking, reasoning, and memory are facilitated through language and that those cognitive functions are anchored in interpersonal relationships (Vander Zanden, 2003). "All of the higher [psychological] functions originate as relations between human individuals" (Vygotsky, p.52). If interpersonal relations are shaken though a divorce, so too may be the higher psychological functions. (Vygotsky, 1978)

With Vygotsky's words as a sendoff into the next section of this paper, the impacts of divorce at various stages of human development are next explored from the perspective of Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Piaget and Vygotsky were both born in 1896 and Erikson was born six years later in 1902. This was well before the divorce craze took off in the late twentieth century. In keeping with the social environment of their day the three featured developmental theorists did not noticeably expound about the impacts of divorce on human development. The literature review for this paper revealed no direct references to divorce by any of the three pioneering theorists. Therefore, to answer this question the writer used deductive reasoning based on the core themes of Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky.

Combining the Stages of Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky

The three theorists worked in parallel but they did not embrace a universal set of developmental stages. Therefore, five stages will be outlined for use throughout the rest of this paper that allow the consolidation of the three theorist's ideas. The five developmental areas that receive focus are infancy/toddlerhood (birth to 2 years), early childhood (2 to 5 years), childhood (6 - 12 years), adolescence (teens to early 20s), and early adulthood (early 20s to early 30s). In this paper the impacts of divorce on the children of divorce receive exclusive focus. Even though the impacts of divorce on the divorced parents are substantial, divorced parents' ongoing developmental issues are not considered in this paper.


Infancy/toddlerhood encompasses Erikson's first two stages, trust vs. mistrust and autonomy vs. shame & doubt, as well as Piaget's sensorimotor and stage. In the earliest infancy, the first two months of life, the child will generally accept care from any caregiver without discrimination. Children at the earliest age have primitive memories and do not recall images of caregivers when the caregivers are out of sight. The malleable character of the child's memory at this age makes it an ideal time for infant adoption, but a bad time for a parent to disappear due to divorce. Parents become strangers to their children during this period of time if regular contact is not maintained (J. B. Kelly & Lamb, 2003). Ideally, this is a time of frequent visitation for non custodial parents.

From two to seven months infants start to prefer interaction with their parents and regular caregivers, but the forming attachments are tenuous. If the parent were to disappear for a long period of time the parent will likely be forgotten; therefore, "if custodial parents relocate before or during this phase, relationships between infants and nonmoving parents are unlikely to develop" (Kelly & Lamb, p. 192) This is in keeping with Piaget's concept of object permanence that is developed during this time period (Vander Zanden, 2003). Erikson writes that this is a time for the development of trustfulness of caretakers as well as a sense of one's own trustworthiness. If a divorce interrupts the ability to trust at this stage excessive mistrust might develop in the child (Sharkey, 1997). Vygotsky stressed, "Learning, language and furthering cognitive development are not tasks that children can accomplish from the privacy of their cribs" (Vander Zanden, p. 239). A divorce that interrupts caregiving will impede the progress of the child's development.

Toddlers up to two years in age show increasing preference for attachments with preferred caregivers. They are not consoled by strangers as well as they are by their preferred caregivers. If both parents are in frequent contact with a child, even if one of the parents is gone more frequently, the child will develop an attachment with both parents (J. B. Kelly & Lamb, 2003). By developing what Piaget called object permanency the child is able to create healthy attachments (Presnell, 1999) with both parents as long as a parent is not separated for excessive periods of time by divorce or other situations. The damage of divorce at this age may be acute if the parent moving out of the child's life on a daily basis is a strong attachment figure because the child will have developed object constancy with that parent. "[T]he loss or attenuation of important attachment relationships may cause depression and anxiety, particularly in the first 2 years, when children lack the cognitive and communication skills that would enable them to cope with the loss" (Kelly & Lamb, p. 195).

Early Childhood

 At the age of about two, in early childhood, children enter Erikson's stages of autonomy vs. shame, and initiative vs. guilt as well as Piaget's preoperational stage. During early childhood children rapidly develop the cognitive and physical ability to manipulate objects, employ symbols, and use language (Vander Zanden, 2003). If the child is successful with these tasks he or she will develop a sense of direction and purpose. This is also a time when children learn to feel guilty, and to develop a sense of responsibility (Sharkey, 1997). Children at this stage are egocentric, they can not figure out why their parents felt the way they did because they base their reasoning on what they know directly. A cessation of a child's parents' marriage during early childhood leads to the risk of damaging the child's sense of self-control and self-esteem. Vygotsky explains that children construct their knowledge in a sociocultural setting (Gallagher, 1999). If their family foundation is shaken by divorce, so too may be their developmental progress because children of divorce run the risk of losing the optimal adult guidance that is critical to Vygotsky's theory.


When children move into the childhood stage at the age of six or seven they are attaining the ability to engage in rational activities, logical operations, and hierarchal structures in Piaget's stage of concrete operations. This is also Erikson's stage of industry vs. inferiority when children work to resolve a sense of mastery and competence (Vander Zanden, 2003). Piaget said that as children interact with their physical and social environments they organize information into groups of interrelated ideas. When they encounter something new they must either assimilate or accommodate the new stimulus into an existing scheme or create an entirely new scheme to deal with the change (Plucker, 2004).

Divorce can be a huge event in the life of the child that can significantly change their social environment. Vygotsky contended that all higher mental functions originate in the social environment (Plucker, 2003); therefore a major blow to a child's social system, like divorce, would be expected to impact the rate of a child's rational and logical development as well as his or her sense of mastery and competence.

Children in the childhood stage are able to think and understand things at a higher level than they could when they were younger so they are more able to comprehend and actively interact to a divorce between their parents. Many children react by making deliberate efforts to reunite their parents accepting a (false) sense of personal responsibility for the divorce. Children, faced with a non-functional custodial parent, may accept a caretaking role in the family, while another set of children in the same circumstances may become overwhelmed by the divorce and withdraw or rebel. In all cases, the change to the social environment is significant and life altering (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000).


Adolescence is a turbulent time. Teenagers are faced with the daunting task of figuring out who they are as individuals - increasingly independent from their parents. Erikson called this phase identity vs. identity confusion when the task is to develop a "coherent sense of self" (Vander Zanden, p. 43). This is happening as adolescents enter Piaget's cognitive stage of formal operations. They are now able to deal with abstract and scientific thought. As identity concerns reach a climax (Sharkey, 1997) a divorce can seriously impact this process.

All teenagers need to separate from their parents and identify with peers, but children of divorce carry out this natural rejection with specific intensity. One young woman, who lead a wild adolescence, captured the fusing of past and present feelings when she said, "My mother has never been there fore me. She reacts to what she thinks is my bad behavior but she feels bad because she fucked me up. How can I respect what she tells me? Why should I?" (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, p. 108).

Thoughts and emotions whirl around in an emotionally complex and cognitively high level of adolescent thought. During this time of breaking away from the family a divorce is likely to lengthen the period of adolescence. Children of divorce enter adolescence earlier and exit adolescence later. This is often a developmental consequence of losing a unified set of rules that an adolescent gets from parents who are living in the same household (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2004).

Young Adulthood

As this discussion nears its end an extremely interesting impact of divorce comes to light as young adulthood is investigated. A young adult is fully developed cognitively, but there are still developmental tasks to accomplish, specifically Erikson's stage of intimacy vs. isolation. Erikson believed that intimacy with others is possible only if a reasonably well integrated identity emerged from adolescence (Sharkey, 1997). This is a dilemma for many children of divorce because many adolescent issues are resolved slowly, particularly those issues that relate to the development of long-term relationships (Wallerstein et al., 2000). As a result many children of divorce have a very difficult time establishing and maintaining relationships.

Many men and women raised in divorced families establish successful careers. Their workplace performance is largely unaffected by the divorce. But no matter what their success in the world, they retain some serious residues--fear of loss, fear of change, and fear that disaster will strike, especially when things are going well. They're terrified by the mundane differences and inevitable conflicts found in every close relationship. (Wallerstein et al., 2000, p. 301)

Wallerstein, et. al. (2000) goes on to explain that many children of divorce are able to overcome their fears so they can eventually form strong marriages. When these successful marriages occur it is usually after a series of failed and experimental relationships that allow the children of divorce to learn from their mistakes. This is in contrast to a comparison group in the Wallerstein, et. al. (2000) study of children from intact families who were able to model their relationships on that of their parents who remained married.


As this paper has elucidated, the impact of divorce on children and adolescents is different depending on when in the developmental cycle the divorce occurs. Regardless of when in their lives the divorce happened it is in adulthood that children of divorce often suffer the most as they enter Erickson's stage of intimacy vs. isolation. Unfortunately many young adults of divorce do feel isolated as they long for love, sexual intimacy, and commitment. They do not have stable memories of parents who were able to work out problems well enough to keep the marriage together. They struggle harder than their peers to establish long-lasting positive relationships. Many succeed, but some never do (Wallerstein et al., 2000).

Home| Custody Evaluation| Family Mediation| Custody and Child Development| Custody Structures| About Us|

Copyright, 2005-2010, Christopher P. Hahn, Ph.D., Bozeman, MT