How Does Understanding Development Grow Empathy?


It makes sense that we need to understand development when working with children, but what about adults? We know that children grow quickly and experience significant cognitive, physical and interpersonal changes, but why do we need to conceptualize adults through developmental models? With the explosion of developmental theories, which ones help us to holistically understand our clients?

Why Developmental Models Are Helpful

It is important to understand human development for three reasons. First, since we often work with adults with issues that happened or began in childhood, it is helpful to understand where the client was developmentally at the time. Sometimes, it helps us understand why the client copes in certain ways, and what needs are being expressed. The term developmental trauma was coined to formally recognize that early trauma is different (Olson-Morrison, 2017). Knowing this increases our ability to better understand the world from the client’s perspective.

Second, development continues into adulthood. Even though many developmental models lump adulthood into one category, an 18-year-old is developmentally at a different place than a 40- or 65-year-old. Viewing adult clients through a developmental model increases our understanding of where they are now.

Third, the strength of stage models of development is to gain a general understanding of what is normal development and what is not in a variety of areas. Although not a perfect description for every individual, stage models help with an overview of the entire person: physical, social, cognitive, moral, spiritual and identity development. In Creative Play Therapy, we strive for overall healing, not segmented pieces of healing, so knowledge about how people develop optimally and how clients have experienced disruptions in development is important.

Despite the variability in completing developmental tasks, there are consistencies that help us understand how our clients adapt across the lifespan. McCormick et al. (2010) list seven tenets of developmental task theory (p. 124):

  • 1. Developmental tasks emerge and change as a function of development in context.
  • 2. Some developmental tasks are universal.
  • 3. Some developmental tasks are culturally or contextually specific.
  • 4. Developmental tasks include multiple dimensions or domains of behavior.
  • 5. Success and failure in age-salient developmental tasks forecasts success and failure in later developmental tasks.
  • 6. Success or failure in developmental tasks often has cascading consequences.
  • 7. Strategic intervention focused on developmental tasks can promote success and positive cascades while preventing problems and negative cascades.

Limitations of Developmental Models

While developmental models are very helpful, Ray (2011) offers three cautions about misunderstanding them. First, the stages and descriptions of the models may overlook the uniqueness of the child. She writes, “There should be restraint on the part of the play therapist to generalize to every child, in every context. The uniqueness of the child and child’s environment is the play therapist’s first concern” (p. 18). This applies to adults as well, since adults are unique and the therapist empathizes with the client’s world from the client’s perspective. Second, Ray cautions that developmental models offer a conceptualization of average, so those who do not fit those descriptions may be viewed as deviant or pathological. People develop at their own pace, and though they may need additional therapeutic help at times, it does not always indicate abnormality. Finally, Ray cautions about what she calls the “Race to the Top” (p. 19), the idea that higher levels of development are better. Achieving higher levels or stages does not translate to better functioning, sense of belonging or positive emotional state. In fact, being advanced in one area of development can be problematic.

As you progress through the following stage model discussion, keep in mind that these are models of average development. The clients you see may be (or may have been) operating at a higher or lower level of development because of their experiences and understanding of those experiences. For the purposes of Creative Play Therapy, it is less important to identify whether the client is above or below the average than to understand what each stage of development indicates about how clients make sense of their situations and develop beliefs from their understanding, which influences how they act, feel and think.

Five Areas of Development

We have noticed a trend in the field of developmental psychology towards very specific areas of development. We are going to try to do the opposite. Our aim is to provide an overview of five areas of development - physical, social, cognitive, moral and spiritual development - and then pull them together in a concise model to use as an aid to communicate empathy, or understanding of the world from the client’s perspective. Then, we will additionally provide an overview of identity development, which often does not follow chronological age development. The result will at times be an oversimplification of an entire field of study, but the purpose is to provide a helpful, practical framework for you to consider past and present development of your adolescent and adult clients. Most programs in the helping professions require a course on development, so this should be a brief overview and synthesis of a few of the traditional models. As with any learning, our aim is for you to fully understand the basics and then add to that knowledge in ways that are more specific to your experience and understanding. This chapter is not intended to be comprehensive.

Below, we will provide a narrative overview of five stage models of development. Then, we will put them together side by side in tables for quick reference. You are probably most familiar with tables from your development classes, but what we want to do here is use the tables to pull all the areas of development together by age. If you like tables, then you can flip ahead for reference in the next section.

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