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Human Growth And Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 4392 words Published: 16th May 2017

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Human existence is not static and people are developing constantly (Thompson and Thompson, 2008: 83). For this reason, an understanding of development is central to undertaking professional social work at a high level of competence (Ibid.: 99). This case study focuses on Tony and Jan, their adopted nine year old son Sam, new baby and Jan’s mother Dorothy. It is evident from reading this family’s background information that a social worker should consider theories of human growth and development in order to fully assess their circumstances and behaviour. Hence, this is where our attention will now turn but as time does not permit consideration of all family members, for the purpose of this assignment two will be concentrated on; Sam and Jan. 

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Sam was adopted by Tony and Jan at four years old, a move which, despite initial reservations, was successful. However, in recent months Sam’s behaviour has deteriorated and this, alongside other problems, has led to the family seeking support. has long been regarded as significant in children’s development (Aldgate, 2007: 57). Bowlby (1977: 203) described attachment behaviour as behaviour resulting in a person attaining or retaining proximity to another differentiated and preferred individual, usually considered stronger and/or wiser. He considered it integral to human nature, seen to varying extents in all human beings and performed the biological function of protection (Bowlby, 1988: 22). can be affected when separated from a main attachment figure; especially if this happens involuntarily such as when a child is removed from their parents care (Aldgate, 2007: 64). Irrespective of their previous attachment experiences, they will find this frightening because “they do not know who to turn to help them return to a state of equilibrium” (Ibid.). This explains why children who have experienced abuse may still want to be with their parents, even if they are insecurely attached to them (Ibid.) and could illustrate why Sam was recently protesting that he wanted to go back to his real mother. Daniel (2006: 193) asserts children between the ages six months and four years are most vulnerable when separated from attachment figures because:

“during these early years children lack the cognitive skills to comprehend the events leading to separation and this coupled with the propensity for magical thinking, means young children are highly likely to blame themselves for the loss”.

Sam was adopted at four years old and although we know little about the circumstances with his birth parents, importantly his attachment bond was broken at this point. Aldgate (2007: 65) notes children who have lost attachment figures through entering the care system are at risk of further harm by insensitive responses to their attachment needs. Furthermore,  children beginning new placements with insecure attachment behaviour may test the parenting capacity of their carers (Ibid.) which could explain Sam’s recent deteriorating behaviour. Following two decades of research demonstrating that placement breakdown is an ongoing problem in the UK (Ibid.), practitioners working with this family should be especially careful to try to prevent this.

Attachment theory differs from traditional psychoanalytic theories because it rejects the model of development proposing an individual passes through a series of stages, in which they may become fixated or regress (Bowlby, 1988: 135). Instead, this model sees the individual as progressing along one of many potential developmental pathways, some of which are or are not compatible with healthy development (Ibid.). Yet, the role of parents in shaping a child’s personality has been critiqued by Harris (1999: xv; 359), who offers an alternative viewpoint in The Nurture Assumption and proposes it is experiences in childhood and adolescent peer groups that modify a child’s personality in ways that will be carried forward to adulthood. What’s more, O’Connor and Nilson (2007: 319) argue that amongst children in the foster care system, attachment is considered a powerful but diffuse source of behavioural and emotional problems. Almost any disruptive behaviour can be attributed to attachment difficulties in early relationships and the early experiences are often suggested as the only source of their problems, subsequently minimising the role of the current placement experiences (Ibid.). They contend following research demonstrating foster parents attachment and caregiving does influence the child’s attachment to them, it is crucial that the impact of early attachment experiences on later development should not be considered independently of current caregiving environments (Ibid.: 320). Finally, providing that new attachment figures for children can respond to children’s attachment needs sensitively and are committed to handle any behaviour that may test their staying power, it is believed early patterns can be modified or discontinued (Aldgate, 2007: 66).

Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) Ecology of Human Development looks beyond the impact of attachment to caregivers on development and offers much in terms of aiding our understanding of this families situation and behaviour. Bronfenbrenner (Ibid.: 3) developed his broader prospective to development, providing new conceptions of the developing person, the environment and the evolving interaction between them. He focussed on:

   “the progressive accommodation, throughout the life span, between the growing human organism and the changing environments in which it actually lives and grows. The latter include not only the immediate settings containing the developing person but also the larger social contexts, both formal and informal, in which these settings are embedded”. (Bronfenbrenner, 1977: 513).

According to Bronfenbrenner (1979.: 22), the ecological environment is comprised of a nested organisation of concentric structures with each one contained within the next. He labelled these the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem and each layer of a child’s environment affects their development.

When looking at the microsystem, the pattern of roles, interpersonal relations and activities experienced by the developing person in a given setting (Ibid.), there are ways this could have affected Sam’s development. For instance, within the family setting Jan has struggled to cope since the unexpected arrival of their baby, which subsequently could have affected Sam’s relationship with her. He now has to share his mothers attention with his sibling and may be feeling left out or jealous. Furthermore, the expense of IVF has resulted in Tony working more, rendering him absent from the household more frequently. This change may have influenced Sam’s relationship with Tony and he may be missing having his father around as in the past. Additionally, following his adoption, Dorothy felt uncertain whether to regard Sam as her real grandson, a tension which Sam may sensed himself.

Bronfenbrenner  (Ibid.:7) also regarded the connections between other people in the setting of equal importance because of their indirect influence on the developing child through the effect they have on those who deal first hand with that person. Sam’s development could have been affected by strained relations between his parents as a result of Jan not receiving the support she needs from her husband due to his work commitments. Similarly, relations between Jan and Dorothy have become tense since the baby’s arrival with Jan expecting Dorothy’s assistance, which has not materialised. Beyond the microsystem, an exosystem refers to settings that the developing person is not involved in as an active participant but “in which events occur that affect, or are affected by, what happens in the setting containing the developing person” (Ibid.: 25). Bronfenbrenner (Ibid.) offered a child’s parents place of work as an example and with the need for Tony to work as much as possible, any stresses he experiences in the work environment could impinge upon Sam’s development even though Sam spends no time in this setting himself.  

This theory recognises everyone exists within a context influencing who they are and how they respond to situations in life (Phelan, 2004: online). Whilst  the building blocks in the environmental aspect of this theory were familiar concepts in the social and behavioural sciences, the way in which these entities relate to one another and to development was new (Bronfenbrenner, 1979: 8). Hence, before this theory, sociologists, psychologists and other specialists studied narrow aspect’s of children’s worlds (Brendtro, 2006: 163). However, Tudge et al.(2009: 6) evaluated the application of Bronfenbrenner’s theory in recently published work and found only 4 out of 25 papers claiming to be based on his theory had utilised it appropriately.  They contend if theory is to play an important role in developmental studies it must be applied correctly because:

  “a failure to do so means that it has not been tested appropriately; data apparently supporting the theory do no such thing if the theory has been incorrectly described, and… a misrepresented theory is impervious to attack from nonsupportive data” (Ibid.: 206). 

Adoption is required when it is not possible for a child to return home, either because the parents are unable to care for them or change their lives in a way that would be safe for that child (Brent Council, 2010: online). Whilst we are uncertain of the circumstances leading to Sam’s adoption, we can speculate that the care provided by his birth parents was deficient. Infant brain research demonstrated that “if there is grossly inadequate care in infancy, the infant’s brain and other abilities that depend on brain development can be compromised” (Linke, 2000: online). The majority of the critical times for brain development occur before the age of six months and research indicated orphans adopted after this age made less progress than those adopted earlier (Ibid.). Furthermore, parts of the brain that regulate emotions and stress responses are organised early in a child’s life and may not be changeable later (Ibid.). Subsequently, parts of the body and brain that respond to stress may become over sensitive and ready to respond to threat even when a threat is not manifest if the infant is continually exposed to trauma and stress (Ibid.). If Sam experienced  inadequate care in infancy it is possible that he has developed over sensitive stress responses and now regards the new baby as a threat, which could provide an explanation for his defiant behaviour and disinterest in his sibling.

Pollak and the University of Wisconsin Child Emotion Lab are active in researching how early life experiences affect brain development (see Child Emotion Lab, 2009: online). However, he and his colleagues stress that not all children experiencing neglect develop the same problems (Wismer-Fries et al., 2005: 17239). In their work on the role of early social experience in subsequent brain development they found children experiencing lower hormonal reactivity may go on to develop satisfactory interpersonal relationships and highlighted potentially significant individual differences operating across the control group and the previously neglected group of children (Ibid.). Furthermore, other research led by Pollak has demonstrated how adjustable the brain can be when in the right environment (University of Wisconsin News, 2003: online). Their study of 5-6 year old’s who lived in orphanages during their first seven to 41 months of life found that children performed better in many tests the longer they had lived with their adoptive families (Ibid.). Pollak (quoted in University of Wisconsin News, 2003: online) hopes these findings will encourage children to be placed in families rather than in institutional settings and “offer new avenues for designing more effective interventions that could help children who spent their early years in deprived environments reach their full potential”.  


Erikson’s life cycle approach proposes at certain points in their lives, people encounter life crises creating a conflict within themselves as individuals and between themselves and other significant people in their lives (Gibson, 2007: 74). Each life crisis provides a conflict, characterised by a pull in different directions by two opposing dispositions, and if the individual achieves a favourable balance between these then they are as prepared as possible to move onto the next stage in the process (Ibid.). However, if one does not achieve this favourable ratio, this renders succeeding in subsequent life crises problematic (Ibid.). Generativity vs Stagnation is Erikson’s seventh and penultimate stage of psychosocial development covering middle adulthood and generativity “is primarily the concern in establishing and guiding the next generation” (Erikson, 1965: 258) and represents the major conflict in adulthood (Slater, 2003: 57). As Slater (Ibid.) asserts, everybody has to face the crisis of parenthood whereby:

“mmake a deliberate decision to become parents, but some become parents without conscious decision, others decide not to become parents, and still others want to become parents but cannot. The decision and its outcome provoke a crisis that calls for a re-examination of life roles”.

Successfully achieving this sense of generativity is important for both the individual and society and parents demonstrate it through caring for their children (Slater, 2003: 57). A failure to achieve this leads to a feeling of stagnation and unproductivity (Heffner, 2001: online). Jan spent a long time trying to become a mother to fulfil this stage in Erikson’s model and achieve a “favourable ratio” (Erikson, 1965: 262) of generativity over stagnation. After two years of trying to conceive, three unsuccessful attempts at IVF and two gruelling years of the adoption process, they adopted Sam and have since unexpectedly conceived naturally. However, as Erikson (Ibid.: 259) asserts “ the mere fact of having or even wanting children… does not ‘achieve’ generativity”. Blyth (1999: 730) writing about assisted conception, importantly highlights parenthood after such efforts will not necessarily match expectations and Jan’s feelings of being a useless mother and finding motherhood a struggle may be unexpected after trying for a family for such a long time. Furthermore, in this stage, the importance of adult mature dependency is implicitly inferred and suggests there are psychological rewards for those adults who can meet the needs of others and have other people dependent on them (Gibson, 2007: 83). Jan reports feeling unable to comfort her baby and meet their needs and this should be addressed by a social worker to prevent a “pervading sense of stagnation and impoverishment” (Erikson, 1965: 258) in this stage of the life cycle. 

Slater (2003: 53) acknowledges Erikson’s work, whilst grounded in psychoanalytic theory, rejects Freud’s notion that personality is fixed by childhood experiences alone and provides an extension of the stages of development to cover adolescence, adulthood and old age. However, Rutter and Rutter (1993: 1-2) criticised theories such as Erikson’s viewing psychological growth as a systematic progression through a series of stages in a predetermined order, through which everyone moves, taking them closer to maturity represented by adult functioning. This reliance on the universals of development and the notion of one developmental pathway has ignored individual differences (Ibid.). They  believe that whilst this theory made significant contributions to understanding the processes involved in development, Erikson’s approach does not fit with what is known about socio-emotional development and “it is likely that children take a variety of paths, and adult outcomes cannot sensibly be reduced to mere differences in levels of maturity” (Ibid.: 2).

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Goffman (1963: preface- 3) employed the term stigma to refer to a deeply discrediting attribute of an individual that disqualifies them from full social acceptance. Their possession of this attribute that makes them different means they can be reduced in people’s minds from a whole person to a discounted and tainted one (Ibid.: 3). Furthermore, the wider societies standards mean the individual is aware of what others regard as their failing, which can inevitably cause them to believe they fall short of what they ought to be and subsequently shame becomes a central possibility (Ibid.: 7). His work offers insight into how Jan may be feeling about herself after being unable to conceive for such a long time because for many women, “infertility carries a hidden stigma born of shame and secrecy” (Whiteford &Gonzales, 1995: 27). Involuntary childlessness can adversely affect an individuals relationships, their feelings about themselves and their ability to function, develop and participate in society “may be compromised by their inability to undertake conventional roles associated with parenting” (Blyth, 1999: 729-730). Whiteford & Gonzalez’s (Ibid.: 27-35) research on 25 women who sought medical treatment for infertility, demonstrated the hidden burden of infertility reflected in the stigma, pain and spoiled identities of those interviewed. The women in their sample experienced the consequences of their social identity and suffered because they had:

“internalized the social norms expressed in dominant gender roles, and in so doing see themselves as defective. They suffer from being denied the opportunity proceed with their lives as others do” (Ibid.: 35).

Goffman (1963: 9) believed the stigmatised person often responds to their situation by making an attempt to correct their failing. This is evident in Whiteford &Gonzales (1995.: 35) study where the women attempted to remedy their problem and fix the broken part of them, giving all they could to become a  ‘normal’ and ‘whole’ person and remove the stigma of being infertile. Unfortunately, failure is the most likely outcome of infertility treatment (Blyth, 1999: 729-730), as experienced by Tony and Jan, who had three unsuccessful attempts at IVF before withdrawing from the programme. Moreover, Goffman (1963: 9) emphasised that where such a repair is possible, this does not necessarily lead to the acquisition of fully normal status. Instead “a transformation of self from someone with a particular blemish into someone with a record of having corrected a particular blemish” (Ibid.) occurs, which Jan, who has successfully overcome her infertility and become a mother may be experiencing.

One significant criticism levelled at Goffman’s theory is of the apparently helpless role attributed to individuals with stigmatic qualities (Carnevale, 2007: 12). Furthermore, Nettleton (2006: 96) reiterates the importance of recognising stigma is not an attribute of the individual but a “thoroughly social concept which is generated, sustained and reproduced in the context of social inequalities” instead. Nonetheless, Goffman’s model remains dominant and highly respected and his representation of the social difficulties people with stigmatic qualities face is still considered highly valid (Carnevale, 2007: 12).

Whilst attachment behaviour is especially evident in childhood, it also characterises people from cradle to the grave (Bowlby, 1977: 203). Furthermore, the capacity to form intimate emotional bonds in both the care giving and care seeking role is considered a principal feature of effective personality functioning and mental health (Bowlby, 1988: 121). Bowlby (1977.: 206) proposed there was a strong relationship between a person’s experiences with their parents and their later ability to form affectional bonds and that:

“common variations in that capacity, manifesting themselves in marital problems and trouble with children as well as in neurotic symptoms and personality disorders, can be attributed to certain common variations in the ways that parents perform their roles” (Ibid.).

Subsequently, attachment theory advocates believe many forms of psychiatric disorders can be attributed to failure of the development of attachment behaviour (Bowlby, 1977: 201). This is supported by et al’s. (1996: 310) research which found insecure attachment appeared to impact upon self-esteem and self worth contingencies resulting in depressive symptoms in adulthood. Whilst we know little of Jan’s attachment behaviour as a child, her relationship with her mother is precarious at present and when looking at the symptoms that Jan is displaying they could infer she is experiencing postnatal depression. The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale was developed by Cox et al. (1987) to assist health care professionals recognise postnatal depression. Statements used to identify the condition include: “Things have been getting on top of me”; “I have been feeling sad or miserable”; “I have been anxious or worried for no good reason” and “I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong”, all of which could be applied to how Jan is feeling at present. Moreover, her constant low mood and feelings of inadequacy as a mother match some of the symptoms of postnatal depression described on NHS Direct’s (2008: online) website. Therefore, whilst this is only a tentative explanation of Jan’s feelings, it should be explored by the social worker working with this family. 

Additionally, unresolved childhood attachment issues can leave adults vulnerable to experiencing difficulties in forming secure adult relationships (Evergreen Consultants in Human Behaviour, 2006: online). Attachment problems can be handed down transgenerationally unless the chain is broken and therefore, an insecurely attached adult may lack the ability to form a strong attachment with their own child (Ibid). Subsequently, uthis theory offers the possibility that poor formation of affectional bonds in Jan’s own childhood could explain why she is struggling to form an attachment bond with her own baby. Furthermore, new relations can be affected by expectations developed in previous relationships and there is a strong correlation between insecure adult attachment and marital dissatisfaction (Ibid.). This could offer an explanation for why Jan believes Tony does not provide the emotional support she requires.

Nonetheless, whilst trauma experienced in the early years can be associated with problems in the long term, it should not be assumed this is disastrous for a child’s physical, cognitive and emotional development and will automatically blight the rest of a their life (Daniel, 2006: 195). As Barth et al. (2005: 259) contend, while attachment problems may predispose a child towards later problems, these problems must be evaluated and treated within the context of their current environment. Social work practitioners providing appropriate interventions can make a long-term difference because adversity experienced in the early years can be compensated for and the worst effects ameliorated if support is given (Daniel, 2006: 195).

Evidently, an understanding of human development theory provides more than an interesting background topic and is indispensable to good social work practice (and Thompson, 2008: 139). Whilst no theories providing insights into development are foolproof, in combination they have much to offer to a practitioners understanding of those they work with. Thus, it is imperative a social worker should consider biological, psychological and sociological approaches in order to carry out a full and holistic assessment of this family’s needs. However,as Thompson and Thompson (Ibid.) assert, it is easy for practitioners to wrongly believe the knowledge base will offer off-the-peg, ready-made answers and simply apply theories to practice in a mechanical, blanket fashion. Therefore, it is important for skilled reflective practitioners to be competent at drawing out relevant aspects of the theory base and employ them in a way that is tailored to fit the situation instead (Ibid.).

Moreover, as Thompson (2009: 63) emphasises, there is a danger that when looking at  development across the life course it can be used as a rigid framework that we expect everyone to fit into and then regard those who do not as abnormal or having a problem. Consequently, it must be recognised that this traditional approach taken to development across the the life course can be very oppressive and discriminate against those who do not conform to the trend (Ibid.). For this reason, the life course should be considered as a means of “beginning to understand common stages of development and is not a rigid framework for making judgements about abnormality” (Ibid.). To conclude, as Thompson and Thompson (2008: 99) remind us, understanding development is not making everyone fit into a stereotypical assumption about what is normal but rather to recognise there are significant patterns that underpin growth and development and to the attitudes and behaviours associated with these.


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