Child Development: Factors Of Influence

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This essay aims to investigate and elaborate on different factors that can influence and child’s development while also analysing how early experiences in their lives can also affect their development. This essay will mainly focus on how genetics and environmental factors can intertwine to hinder or enhance a child’s development. It will also analyse how the quality of a child’s attachment to their mother in their earliest days can also influence and affect their development not only in their childhood but also as they move into adolescence and adulthood.

When we look at the word development, what is it that we are speaking about? Development can be defined as ‘patterns of change over time which begin at conception and continue throughout the life span.’ (Keenan, 2002)

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Genetic Factors in Development

There are several different thoughts regarding genetics that can help our understanding of pre-natal and later development. The term ‘genetics’ explains the way in which the idea of development ‘depends on the actions inside of the cell which is known as ‘genes’’. (Mercer, 2018) At conception, sperm from the male fertilises with a female egg to form a zygote. Sperm and eggs are unique cells as they are the only cells in the body that carry 23 chromosomes. (Keenan, 2002). The ‘threadlike chromosomes carry genetic information that helps direct development.’ (Parke & Gauvin, 2009).

Over the years, scientists have been learning more and more about how genes can influence the development of a child. The main thing they have discovered is that ‘genes never work in isolation, but always in combination with environmental influences.’ (Turkheimer, 2000) These interactions between genes and the environment make each child unique, where they continue to shape the individual’s characteristics throughout his or her life. (Parke & Gauvin, 2002)

There are many ways in which genes can influence our development. First, it is important to look at and understand the background of genes. As discussed, chromosomes come in pairs, with one from the mother and one from the father. The way in which we develop can not only be caused by single genes but also by entire chromosomes.

An example of a developmental disorder caused by a defect in the chromosome is Down Syndrome. (Parke & Gauvin, 2002). Down Syndrome occurs when a child has three copies of chromosome labelled 21, instead of two. This extra chromosome causes physical and cognitive defects in children. Children can have a ‘flattened face and somewhat slanted eyes with an epicanthic fold on the eyelid, reduced total brain size and often other physical abnormalities such as heart defects.’ (Bee, 2000)

Psychologists understand that genes also interact with the environment to shape a child’s development. Work has clearly shown how genetic factors help to restrict the range of possible courses that development can take, while at the same time gaining an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how environments have a huge influence on this development, both promoting and limiting it. (Keenan, 2002) Particularly, irregular prenatal development can also result from ‘variations in the environment in which the embryo and fetus are nurtured.’ (Bee, 2000).

‘The concept of teratogenicity refers to the possibility that environmental factors may interrupt or redirect development, resulting in harm to the developing organism.’ (Mercer, 2018) The effect a teratogen can have on a fetus depends on its timing. This means that in some parts of pregnancy, the fetus is more likely to form abnormally than at other times if it comes in contact with a teratogen, such as a drug or a disease that the mother is experiencing. (Bee, 2000). The main idea is that a fetus’ organ system is most vulnerable at the time when it is developing most. (Moore & Persaud, 1993). Of the many teratogens, the most harmful are drugs, smoking, alcohol and any diseases the mother may be experiencing. (Bee 2000)

In terms of smoking during pregnancy, one obvious result that stands out is that infants of mothers who smoke are about half a pound lighter at birth than infants of non-smoking mothers. (Floyd et. al, 1993). The main cause of this tended to be that smoking constricts blood vessels to the placenta which limits blood flow. (Bee, 2000).

Drugs are also teratogens. Although a large number of drugs can bring about feelings of happiness & euphoria to adults, much smaller amounts can be fatal and have very harmful effects on an unborn child’s development, particularly depending on the period of gestation the mother is at. (Mercer, 2018) Cocaine, in particular, can have harmful consequences on fetus development. ‘The best current estimates are that roughly 3% of all babies born in the United States have been exposed prenatally to cocaine. (Bee, 2000). It has also been reported that in some inner-city hospitals, 50% of mothers have taken cocaine during their pregnancy. (Shore, 1997). In and around, a third of all cocaine babies are born prematurely. Some of these babies are also born to show severe drug withdrawal symptoms such as ‘irritability, restlessness, sheer crying and tremors’ (Bee, 2000)

Diseases can also affect the development of the fetus, particularly viruses and bacteria. If the mother is exposed to a contagious disease, it can have major implications on the unborn child, particularly if it is contracted during a critical period of development. For example, rubella usually creates mild symptoms in adults but ‘its teratogenic effects may cause cleft lip or palate, visual disabilities or hearing impairments.’ (Mercer, 2018). The critical period for this disease is usually in the first four to five weeks of pregnancy. (Bee, 2000)

The Development of Attachment

Another factor that can influence a child’s development is attachment. Attachment ‘is a strong emotional bond that forms in the second half of the first year between an infant and one or more of the child’s regular caregivers.’ (Parke & Gauvain, 2002). John Bowlby had a particular interest in attachment and thus formed his theory of attachment. Bowlby felt that human personality depended on a child’s earliest relationships. Significant failure or abuse in these relationships will form the child’s development. He mainly focused on the relationship between the mother and the child as this is usually the first relationship and arguably, the most important. (Bee, 2000)

Bowlby’s main idea was that there were three different phases in the child developing an attachment.

Only in the third phase is where we can see an attachment has occurred. Under stress, the baby usually shows a preference for one of its caregivers. Once this attachment has formed, there are many more related behaviours that begin to form. Social referencing is an example of this where the child will turn to its safebase (usually mother and father) before they move into a particular situation. (Bee, 2000)

At this same stage, is where we see children have a fear of strangers and separation anxiety. Both of these are infrequently seen in children before they are 5 months but can develop in the 6th month and then increase until their 12th and 16th month and then gradually decline. (Bee, 2000). Almost all children have at least mild manifestations of these two types of anxiety, although the reaction frequency varies wildly. Hypertension can also be a reaction to some pressure in the babies life such as a shift in their life. (Bee, 2000)

‘All of the theorists in this tradition share the assumption that the first attachment relationship is the most influential’ (Bee, 2000) However, it is important to look at the quality of this attachment. Variations in this first relationship of attachment are now defined almost uniformly using the care system of Mary Ainsworth. (Ainsworth et al., 1978) Here she distinguishes between attachment as being either insecure or secure. (Bee, 2000)

There are many studies that children who formed a secure relationship with their mothers, compared to those who were insecurely attached are more ‘sociable, more positive in their behaviour toward friends and siblings, less clinging and dependant on teachers, less aggressive and disruptive, more empathetic, and more emotionally mature in their approach to school and other non home settings’ (Carlson & Sroufe, 1995).

Teenagers who were rated as securely attached as a baby seemed to have more strong friendships, are more likely to show leadership and have higher self-esteem. (Black & McCartney, 1995) It was also thought that those who were deemed to be insecurely attached were more likely to ‘become sexually active early and to practise riskier sex’ (O’Beirne & Moore, 1995).

This essay aimed to investigate how genes can affect a child’s development but also how the environment can also work with genes to hinder or enhance a child’s development. As discussed throughout the essay, it is important to recognise how teratogens such as disease, smoking, alcohol and drugs can have detrimental effects on a fetus’ growth and development within the womb. The theory attachment, formed by Bowlby also can be seen to have a huge impact on a child in its earliest weeks and months. From readings, it is clear that the quality of attachment a child has to their parents can continue to affect their development not only in their childhood, but also as they move into their teenage and adult years.


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