Human Lifespan Development

Image by, courtesy of Alyssa Miller

Human development is marked by different stages and milestones over the lifespan. It is expressed over three domains: physical, cognitive and socio/emotional. While human physical and cognitive development is universal, socio/emotional definitions and development vary from culture to culture.

Gaining a basic knowledge of human lifespan development will lead to a better understanding of the appearance, perceptions and behaviours of the self and others.

Stages of Human Development

The various stages of human development include the prenatal period, infancy, toddlerhood, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood and late adulthood. Each stage is marked by milestones in physical, cognitive, and socio/emotional development.

Physical Development

Physical development has to do with the way that the human body develops over a lifespan. The most rapid and complex human development occurs during the prenatal period. From infancy to early childhood, the physical milestones include developing motor skills like learning to control body movements, walk, talk, speak, use tools like spoons and forks and use the rest room. From infancy to early childhood, humans grow in height, weight and mass and get their first set of teeth. Middle childhood has only a few physical milestones, such as continued growth at a much slower rate and the gain of permanent teeth.

Adolescence is the second most rapid and complex time of human development and is when the sexual maturation process begins. Females begin to grow breasts, their hips expand and they grow pubic hair and begin menstruation, which marks their physical ability to procreate. They may grow a few inches more in height. Males have significant growth spurts and develop facial and pubic hair, their voices deepen and they begin to have sperm-producing ejaculations, signifying their ability to procreate.

Young adulthood is when humans are at the prime of their physical development. All of the systems are functioning optimally, making this the best time for reproduction. Middle adulthood brings the beginning of physical deterioration, such as the end of fertility in women, or menopause. The decrease in physical abilities and health for both sexes continues through late adulthood.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development has to do with the way humans perceive and experience the world and deals with issues like memory, thinking and decision-making processes and concept comprehension.

During the prenatal period, cognitive development is highly enveloped in physical development as the primary tool for cognition; the brain is still being developed. During infancy and early childhood, milestones like speaking, comprehension and object differentiation occur. Thoughts about the world are simplistic, and judgments are made in an either/or framework. Middle childhood brings the beginning of concrete and logical thinking, and adolescence brings about a phase where cognitive judgments are often overridden by feelings and impulses because of the body's rapidly changing physical and biological climate.

Young adulthood is the human cognitive prime, as the capacity for rapid and accurate memory, thought processing and information analysis function at peak levels. Perceptions of the world, judgment and morality become more sophisticated and complex. During middle adulthood, humans are experts at problem solving, atlthough they begin to experience some signs of decline with speed in processing and recall. Late adulthood signifies the continued deterioration of cognitive abilities.

Socio/Emotional Development

Socio/emotional development has to do with how an individual is able to handle emotions, relationships, social situations, and the various roles demanded of them by society. Some aspect of Socio/Emotional standards, such as social expectations, relationships, and roles vary from culture to culture.

During infancy and early childhood, the primary relationships are with the parents and based on attachment. Environmental exploration, impulsivity, differentiation of self (from others) and the basics of social interaction are learnt. In early childhood, impulsivity begins to give way to control, and awareness of consequences significantly effects behavioural choices. Middle childhood begins the transition from family orientation to peer orientation, which carries on into adolescence.

Issues of identify, sexuality and sexual expression, conflict and resolution and internal stability prevail. By young adulthood, the focus shifts from peers to career, social role, building external stability, finding a mate and starting a family.

Middle adulthood is met with the psychological and emotional challenges of facing the mid-life crisis, and a life analysis and inventory is taken. Late adulthood marks the transition from the mid-life crisis. Life reflection, acceptance of death, and legacy building or making social contributions also occur at this phase.


Having some knowledge about human lifespan development is beneficial for many reasons. It increases self-awareness and understanding, which helps with life planning. If a female is aware of the stages of her physical development, for example, she will know that her natural childbearing years are limited. If she wants to have children, she can use family planning to make choices about her education, career and mate to support this goal. Additionally, this knowledge can be helpful for improving relationships and interpersonal communication and resolving conflicts.