What developmental theory in counseling tells us about ourselves

Exploring the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is a great starting point for delving into the field of developmental theory, but it is only the beginning. For centuries, experts from various fields, such as social sciences, …


Exploring the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is a great starting point for delving into the field of developmental theory, but it is only the beginning. For centuries, experts from various fields, such as social sciences, medicine and philosophy, have contributed to forming a discipline dedicated to understanding human development, which continues to be active today.

The developmental theory addresses several queries about how humans evolve into their current identity. The more knowledge that counselors have about the stages of human development, the better equipped they are to provide quality support to those they serve.

What is developmental theory?

Development theory is a set of ideas about the most effective way to bring about positive societal transformation. These theories utilize elements from numerous social science fields and methodologies.

The development process and the resulting inequalities depend on the theory used to examine them. Different views of development identify various types of transformations. The ideas offer an organized approach to reviewing how humans progress from infancy to adolescence, adulthood and, ultimately, old age. They also examine the various transformations that humans experience throughout this journey.

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Types of development theory in counseling

Below, we outline the different types of development theories in counseling.

Psychodynamic/psychoanalytic theory

Psychoanalytic theory views psychopathology as an outcome of unresolved issues from earlier stages of development. Mental disorders such as depression often originate from a person’s past, either due to past experiences or as expressions of more basic psychological processes.

Within this framework, psychoanalytic concepts explore how formative childhood experiences with influential people shape one’s development. These factors shape the growth of psychic functioning and construct the individual’s identity.

The self is the combination of mental representations making up the subjective experience of the psyche. These memories of past interactions with others influence how we view ourselves and others in the present.

Cognitive behavioral theory

Cognitive behavioral theory suggests that people’s emotions, thoughts, behavior and physical states are interconnected and that what they do and think can impact their emotional state. Alterations in one of these will lead to other modifications. When anxious or upset, people can become stuck in unhealthy thinking and emotional patterns that can worsen the situation.

This theory explains how people’s thought processes are essential to their emotional wellbeing. From a therapeutic standpoint, altering an individual’s thought process can modify how they perceive their environment. This technique can be beneficial in dealing with negative thought patterns and forming a plan of action to treat neurotic issues.

Unhelpful thinking styles can be obstacles that keep us from reaching our objectives. These thought patterns usually develop without us being aware of them and can be difficult to recognize as we have become accustomed to believing them.

Humanistic/existential theory

Humanistic therapy is the idea that people possess inherent worth and have the potential to fulfill their destinies. Everyone has the potential to become the best version of themselves and to accept themselves, and self-actualization is the ongoing process of doing so.

Humanistic therapy encourages individuals to gain self-acceptance and insight into the factors that form their identity and beliefs. Both external and internal sources of positive regard must foster a beneficial environment.

Showing positive regard is allowing yourself to be imperfect and to forgive your mistakes without feeling ashamed or judgmental. The main aim of humanistic therapy is to support clients in embracing their true selves and striving for self-development, free from outside pressure.

Adlerian theory

Adlerian theory is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s feelings of inferiority and creating a sense of belonging to lead a successful and fulfilling life.

Adlerian therapy is a goal-oriented, cheerful, humanistic and integrative approach tailored to the individual’s needs. Central to this approach is the belief that human behavior is motivated by seeking purpose and meaning in life.

This theory emphasizes the significance of social connections and participation in the community for advancing individual development. Adler’s theory stresses the importance of comprehending how people are impacted by their social environment. It implies that people strongly desire to feel important and be part of a group.

Reality therapy

Reality therapy is a form of counseling emphasizing that individuals are responsible for their decisions and actions. Psychological symptoms result from people selecting certain behaviors to meet their needs rather than causing a mental health disorder.

A therapist aims to assist clients in taking ownership of their behavior and making choices that will help them form relationships with others. Reality therapy encourages you to acknowledge the reality of your choices and make decisions that will result in more positive and productive behaviors.

Family therapy

Family therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on strengthening family relationships and resolving conflicts by improving communication among family members. It typically involves a mental health professional who offers counseling services to a family to address issues or conflicts within the family unit.

Family therapy is typically a brief intervention. It may involve all family members or just those willing or able to participate. The specific approach to treating your family’s issues will depend on the details of your particular circumstances.

Family therapy sessions can equip you with the tools and knowledge to foster stronger family bonds and navigate difficult times, even after the therapy sessions have ended.

What can developmental theory in counseling tell us about ourselves?

Below, we discuss what developmental theory in counseling can tell us about ourselves.

We are naturally curious and creative

A developmental perspective on counseling and understanding human development can provide a natural framework for counseling and clinical work. When we understand the developmental processes, their order, and how they impact individual development, we have a tool that gives us a proper understanding of the people we are working with. Using this knowledge as a guide, rather than something to be overcome or treated, provides a direction for therapy that is more likely effective for all involved.

Genetics and environmental factors in children’s physical characteristics are already determined to some extent by the time they are born. However, children aren’t just born with fixed personalities – their genetic makeup and environmental characteristics shape them.

People learn best through exploration and experimentation

Developmental theories are the idea that people usually develop throughout their lives. Although there is no way to determine when a person develops and changes, we can use age as a rough barometer. People learn best through exploration and experimentation, which is why many developmental theorists emphasize empathy, creativity and a natural curiosity that mature adults lose.

Theories of people’s abilities to grow and develop are complex, but there are some interesting commonalities between developmental approaches in counseling. One of the shared themes, for example, is that children learn best through exploration and experimentation.

Early experiences shape later behavior

The concept that early experiences shape later behavior is often cited in developmental psychology when discussing how certain environmental factors or traumatic experiences can affect one’s development across the lifespan.

This theory has been applied to many aspects of human behavior, such as experiences with trauma, mental health concerns and addiction. The assumption behind this theory is that our early developmental experiences are crucial in shaping what happens later on in life. For instance, if child abuse occurs during childhood, the individual may struggle to cope with certain emotions and report difficulties with self-regulation later in life.

Social relationships are essential for healthy development

Social relationship development is essential for healthy growth because it starts with forming a bond between the caregiver and their infant or young child. The care given by those around infants or young children is significant to them, as it gives them what they need for healthy development.

The term ‘parenting style’ is used to describe how responsible and involved the parents are in their child’s life. There are four parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and neglectful. The styles change in reaction to the child’s behavior, which can shape them further. Some parenting styles can be harmful, while others can be beneficial. Uninvolved and authoritarian parents typically have children who exhibit more delinquent behavior than other children.

Authoritative parents have children who do well in school and continue their education after high school because they learn more easily than other children. At the same time, permissive parents raise happy but irresponsible individuals who may frequently get into trouble with the police or others around them when they get older.

Individuals are shaped by their environment

Our surroundings and the way that we interact with them have a part to play in our development and make us who we are. How we interact with our environment, how our domains interact with us, and the development of these interactions shape who we are in a unique way.

Development is a continuous, lifelong process

Developmental theory can inform us about how people grow and change. It is a general framework that describes how people develop through growing, learning and evolving.

Children’s development has age-appropriate phases. Each step has challenges and unique growth opportunities to help us understand how people grow through the years.

This theory aids workers and parents in supporting the development of children better. It means that each child is unique based on their growth and expansion at each stage of life.

We are capable of change throughout our lives

Human development theory is a model that explains how we change and grow throughout our lives. The model describes how an individual will progress through periods of development, beginning with infancy and continuing to adulthood.

Developmental theory divides these sequences into stages, each more complex than the last, until adolescence, when it levels off. Counselors can use this theory to help people by identifying their clinical development stage to determine new therapy or treatment techniques.

Individual differences are normal and expected

Individual differences are a natural phenomenon of our society and are typically accepted as a part of life. The average individual strives for social acceptance and does their best to fit into their culture.

However, individuals who struggle with these expectations may be labeled differently. In the context of developmental theory, these individuals strive to maintain some balance between their desires and self-knowledge. At the same time, they are negotiating external environmental influences that can be overwhelming and difficult at times because they lack the support they need to stay on course.

Development is affected by cognitive and social-emotional factors

Development is a complex series of events that begin at conception and continue through life. Yet the path toward neuro-maturation and overall development is affected by biological, cognitive and social-emotional factors.

It introduces us to the idea that what developmental theory in counseling tells us about ourselves influences nearly everything we do during childhood. Considering the enormous role that our personal beliefs have on our decision-making skills, we must recognize that what we believe during childhood can impact how well we develop later in life.

Our experiences are mirrored in the relationships we form

Our experiences are often mirrored in the relationships we form as we grow up. For example, if you grew up with people telling you that you were the center of the world and the universe, then being in a relationship with someone who acts like that will make you anxious.

If you have positive experiences with your parents only when they are with you, you may have difficulty giving up your parents even if they are not helpful. If you have an experience with your parents that could be more positive, you may reject any new person who offers you something similar.

Development occurs in stages

Development occurs in stages, meaning that something fundamentally changes at each location. There are three phases to this theory: self-awareness is the first phase of action; the second is resiliency and transition, which involves a lot of change; and the third is becoming an adult.

Development that is taking place in counseling might look like this. For the first phase, a counselor would start by listening to what the client says about what they need from you during that time. Many people don’t want counselors to make ‘predictions’ because they fear that it will pressure them.

For the second phase, a counselor may explore their dreams and how they might achieve them. In the third phase, they set up treatment plans and strategies to help them with skills training to navigate the world.

Development can be enhanced by positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can enhance development. One component of positive reinforcement is social support.  By providing positive reinforcement, we can influence a person’s behavior positively. It can then help them become more motivated and improve their performance while maintaining motivation because they get rewards with positive attention or praise.

Reinforcement is also how we can motivate children to want to learn and help in their community. It is one of the many ways to influence a child’s developmental growth. Positive reinforcement is a method or process that will seek out something to reward. Something is more likely to occur if the person has learned that there is a reward.

Language development is a vital component of development

Language development is essential because it provides a frame of reference for all conversations and symbolizes the individual’s development. Developmental theory tells us about ourselves and our future expectations.

Language development also shapes behavior. How someone speaks, when they speak and when they choose not to, and how their use of language has developed can give counselors insights into the causes of the patient’s mental state and help them develop strategies to aid the patient.

Final thoughts

Developmental theories view development as a process of advancing from simpler to more intricate perceptions of oneself and the environment as time goes on. Progress can be gradual or occur in steps, but generally moves toward increased knowledge and understanding.

A developmental theory in counseling will be concerned with human behavior, identity and relationships. It will be about human development and human potential. Early detection and intervention of developmental delays are essential to reduce the long-term effects of these delays.

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