Adult Development Theory:
An Overview


     Most adult development theory does not specifically treat the issue of older adulthood

     However, the course of adult development can greatly impact status in older adulthood, and many of the same developmental processes continue to apply

     Working with older adults necessitates working with adult children/family members

Frame Issues

    A frame issue is an issue that has the following characteristics:

  1.  It affects all human beings in their development and the broad outlines of their lives.

  2.  Individuals have partial or no control over the issue.

    Power of frames not only in their reality but our perception of them

Frame Issues:  Human/Existential

    HUMAN LEVEL:  Existential frame. 

    The existential frame is comprised of factors that form a universal basis for human development and experience.  In the Modern period they have been discussed at length by existential philosophers (e.g. Jaspers) and psychologists (e.g. Yalom).

Existential Frame (cont.)

    Yalom’s existential frame issues include:

  1.  The inevitability of death.

  2.  The presence of evil and suffering in life.

  3.  The inherent limitations of human activity, such as relationships

  4.  A need to find one’s place in the world, which has implications for personal responsibility, willing and meaning.

Existential Frame (cont.)

     Jaspers’ list of boundary situations (Grenzsituationen--”ultimate situations”) which promote Existenz (participation in Being in a particular historical context) and awareness of “The Encompassing”




   Guilt (related to freedom and responsibility)

Frame Issues:  Sociocultural

     Culture Definitions

   Definition 1:  “a normative system that prescribes how individuals should behave in a given context" (Moghaddam, 1998)

   Culture is thus a set of beliefs about ourselves, human activity and the world around us that affects us at all times

   This set of beliefs is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious

   Defintion 2:  “the uniquely human environment consisting of the residue of the activity of prior generations, existing in the present in the form of artifacts, aspects of the physical world that have been transformed by their inclusion in goal-directed human actions” (Cole, 1996)

Sociocultural Frame (cont.)

     Beliefs in the culture about life’s goals and the way they should be achieved lay out and limit developmental paths

     There is an interaction between culture and the physical environment:  culture structures environment (e.g. land use) which also limits development

     Framework for understanding culture effects

   Individualism-collectivism framework (Triandis)

   Competency framework (Gardner, Ogbu)

SocioculturalFrame:  I-C Model


  Concern with achievement

  Independent but lonely

  Emphasis on exchange relationships

Sociocultural Frame: I-C Model (cont.)


   One is defined by group membership

   Concern about effect on others

   Interdependence and involvement with groups

   Importance of family in collectivist societies makes it an especially important factor in adult development

   Culture influences both the expectations of the family and how it copes with the tasks posed at each stage of the family life cycle (Thomas, 1998)

   Compliant with authority, resistant to outgroups; People in tight collectivist cultures who do not conform will receive very negative evaluations of self

Sociocultural Frame:  Competence Models (Ogbu)

    Universal model (Traditional)

  All cultures have origins of competence in early childhood experience

  The same competencies are acquired in the same way in every culture

    Relativistic model (Gardner)

  Each culture promote different competencies because of the nature of the culture; ability may be culture specific (Searle)

Sociocultural Frame (cont.):  Competence Models

    Cultural-ecological (Ogbu)

  Cultural ecology:  “the study of institutionalized and socially transmited patterns of behavior interdependent with features of the environment

  Competencies determined by cultural and ecological determination of adult tasks, which then determine child-rearing practices

Biological Frame


    Issues include

  Genetic predisposition to longevity

  Health status

  Accidents/illness that reduce level of functioning and/or life expectancy

  Level of self care

Content Issues

    These are basic life issues that are confronted by most if not all people.  Some theories see development as a process in which we deal with various content issues, and one’s development is a function of how one has confronted and resolved the issues.

Content Issues (cont.)

    Eriksonian issues:


  Interpersonal relationships and intimacy

  Life goals


  Meaning and purpose


Content issues (cont.)

     Issues related to spirituality

   Awareness/view of self, other; development of humility

   Spiritual awareness



   Perspective; superficiality of Eriksonian issues

     Issues related to aging

   Time frame:  changed by acceptance of death, aging?

   Life losses and gains

Content Issues (cont.)

    Other issues


  intelligence and abilities

  ultimate goal of development (e.g. Freud, love and work)

Issues of Process

     Focus is on how change happens and issues are dealt with, not the issues themselves

     Key issue:  does development involve construction or discovery of the person

   Traditional psychological theories emphasize construction

   Traditional Christian models of spiritual development/formation emphasize discovery

   Raises issues of how free will operates

Process (cont.)

     Ultimate driving process:  attempt to find unity/harmony in our abilities, view of self, others and the world; to understand experience (Gadamer); awareness of interconnections

   Process goes in cycles of differentiation and integration (or assimilation and accommodation) (Vaillant:  stages alternate with differentiation or integration focus)

   Differentiation = greater complexity, which helps with understanding (de Chardin)

   New integration can involve subtraction of old values/behaviors as well as additions (Vygotsky)

   Once integration happens, there is resistance to change

Process (cont.)

   Change limited by “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky):  the difference between level of learning (potential) and level of development (actual)

   Change in new stages focused on new (Levinson) or old (Kegan) issues

   Openness to experience may be an inborn personality/temperamental trait that influences this process (cf. Big Five theory, Costa and McCrae)

   Need/desirability for unity questioned by recent research on biculturalism; this raises interesting theological issues

Process (cont.)

    In Christian critique, a key is to understand what it is the individual should unify themselves around, not just whether there is unity (God?  The True Self?)

Process (cont.)

     Key sources of development 

   Social learning and example:  source of this broadens over time from family to peers to society


   Self-reflection, although some question introspection as a viable method (e.g. Gadamer)

   Cognitive vs. emotional change (Damasio)

     Development provoked by opening/closing events

   Jaspers:  “boundary situations”

   Searle:  “nonfamiliar experiences”

Process (cont.)

    Key problem:  development can be positive or negative, depending in part on individual plasticity and resilience

Theoretical Systems

     Psychodynamic theories

   Based on psychodynamic views of personality and development; tend to be descriptive, content focused

   Stages are based on the following assumptions

   defined by linear/chronological progression

   everyone goes through all the stages

   stages are in the same order for everyone

   each stage has certain primary tasks or issues

   no stage better than another

   Examples:  Erikson, Vaillant, Levinson

Theoretical Systems (cont.)


   Emphasize cognitive development; try to be more explanatory, process focused

   Stages based on the following assumptions

   defined by hierarchical progression

   not everyone goes through all the stages

   order may vary, people jump back and forth

   each stage has certain characteristics

   some stages more advanced (better?) than others

   Examples:  Kohlberg, Kegan, Fowler; Maslow

Psychodynamic Theories
Erik Erikson
and Daniel Levinson

Erikson:  Definitions

    Crisis--"a set of stresses and strains that force a person to confront a basic life issue"; both internal and external

  Crisis can be resolved (+ or -), or ignored

  How crisis resolved affects later stages

  Senses that are developed are largely unconscious

Erikson:  Definitions (cont)

     Ego identity--"a conviction that the ego is learning effective steps toward a tangible collective future, that it is developing a defined ego within a social reality"--with

   Conscious sense of individual identity

   Continuity of personal character over time with the self and others

   Ego synthesis

   Inner solidarity with group ideals and identity

Erikson:  Definitions (cont)

    Health--outcome of crises promote

  increased sense of inner unity

  good judgment

  increased capacity "to do well" according to the standards of significant others

  health is culturally relative

Erikson’s Theory

    Stage theory of development

    Each stage has a primary crisis or task

    The central feature of each task is also worked on at other stages, but is not the central feature of the stage

Erikson Stages:  Childhood

     1.  Infancy--age 0-2:  trust vs mistrust

   formation of a sense of sameness and continuity

     2.  Toddlerhood--age 2-4:  autonomy vs shame and doubt

    "self-control without a loss of self-esteem"

     3.  Early School--age 5-7:  initiative vs guilt

   is it all right for the child to have their own goals

   conscience develops during this period (cf. Kohlberg)

     4.  Middle School--age 8-12:  industry vs inferiority

   focus is on accomplishment in tasks

Erikson Stages:  Adulthood

     5.  Adolescence--age 13-22:  identity vs role confusion

   a critical stage determined by preceding stages and affecting subsequent stages

   main tasks

   formation of occupation goals, other beliefs and values

   separation from parents

   lack of occupational identity most disturbing

   Identity formation

   develops out of a series of identifications

   gains strength from recognition of real accomplishment (people are not fooled)

   also needs some freedom of expression to develop

   the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Erikson Stages (cont)

     6.  Early adulthood--age 23-30:  intimacy vs isolation

   marriage, family

   formation of mature adult friendships and involvement with others

     7.  Middle adulthood--age 31-50:  generativity vs stagnation

   goal is development of productivity and creativity

   key accomplishment is passing on knowledge and skills, training of next generation; becoming a mentor

Erikson Stages (cont)

    8.  Later adulthood--age 51 on:  ego integrity vs despair

  development of mature ideas about the meaning of life and death

  key task is life review--has the person had a “good” life, accomplished their goals, lived an authentic life

Erikson Stages and Identity

     1.  Infancy (trust): Time perspective vs time diffusion

     2.  Toddlerhood (autonomy): Self-certainty vs identity consciousness

     3.  Early School (initiative): Role experimentation vs negative identity

     4.  Middle School (industry): Anticipation of achievement vs work paralysis

Stages and Identity (cont)

     5.  Adolescence (identity): Identity vs identity diffusion

     6.  Early Adulthood (intimacy): Sexual identity vs bisexual diffusion

     7.  Middle Adulthood (generativity): Leadership polarization vs authority diffusion

     8.  Later Adulthood (integrity): Ideological polarization vs diffusion of ideals

Levinson:  Stages

     Early Adulthood (17-40)

   Early adult transition (17-22)

   Entering the Adult World (22-28)

   Age 30 Transition (28-33)

   Settling Down (33-40)

     Middle Adulthood (40-60)

   Midlife Transition (40-45)

   Entering Middle Adulthood (45-50)

   Age 50 Transition (50-55)

   Culmination of Middle Adulthood (55-60)

     Late Adulthood (60-)

   Late Adult Transition (60-65)

Levinson:  Early Adulthood

    Early adult transition (17-22)

  moving out of pre-adult world, reforming relationships

  explore adult world; consolidate initial adult identity

    Entering the Adult World (22-28)

  explore possibilities, create a stable life structure; these are antithetical and difficult to balance

Levinson:  Early Adulthood (cont)

     Age 30 Transition (28-33)

   alterations in the initial life structure established at the beginning of young adulthood

   beginning of a sense of urgency--changes must be made soon

   can be easy and gradual or traumatic

     Settling Down (33-40)

   tries to establish a niche in society, develop competence and become valued

   attempts to progress

     Becoming One’s Own Man (36-40)

   attempts to speak with more authority, gain influence

Levinson:  Middle Adulthood

     Midlife Transition (40-45)

   Modifying the dream; beginning of work on resolution of 4 midlife individuation polarities:





   Working out affected by status at age 40

   Advancing within stable life structure

   Serious failure of decline within stable structure

   Breaking out

   Advancement that produces change in structure

   Unstable life structure

Levinson:  Middle Adulthood (cont.)

    Entering Middle Adulthood (45-50)

    Age 50 Transition (50-55)

    Culmination of Middle Adulthood (55-60)

    Late Adult Transition (60-65)

Neo-Piagetian Theories

Kegan:  Basic Concepts

     Kegan “constructive-developmental”, “neo-Piagetian”

     ego—“the zone of mediation where meaning is made” or organized, which he equates with self, person

     organization of meaning requires physical, social and survival (practice) activities

     Coherence of the organism the underlying goal

Kegan:  Basic Concepts (cont.)

     adaptation the “master notion in personality” an “active process of increasingly organizing the relationship of the self to the environment” though differentiations and integrations

     “the way in which the person is settling the issues of what is ‘self’ and what is ‘other’ essentially defines the underlying logic (or ‘psychologic’) of the person’s meanings”

Kegan:  Developmental Process

     Development a series of differentiations and reintegrations that create new subjectivities

   Piaget-decentration and recentration ( loss and recovery of a center) with new subject-object balance (e.g. concrete operations)

   Process of balance-imbalance-new balance

   Finding and losing

     Different stages involve different ways of doing reciprocities, of what is self and what is other

     Cognition and affect come from this process

Kegan:  Process (con.t)

     Process a social process

   Two greatest yearnings in human experience—yearning to be included, yearning to be independent; “Our experience of this fundamental ambivalence may be our experience of the unitary, restless, creative motion of life itself.”

   Cf. Kohlberg, who extended Piaget in personal construction of the social world

     Correspondence with object relations theory

   Object—that which has been differentiated

   Relations—that which is integrated

   Narcissism—the emotion of nondifferentiation between self and non-self

Kegan:  Supporting Environment

     Holding/Bridging environments

   life has a succession of holding environments (cf. Winnicott) that occur in an expectable sequence (cf. Erikson)

   functions of “culture of embeddedness” holding on and letting go

   “every development seems to require its own culture”

   cultures that support transition beyond the institutional are rare

   necessary cultures

   bridging environment doesn’t hold hands

   culture can affect the kinds of support available for transitions to higher levels

Kegan:  Transitions

     in transitional differentiation, “I must for a time be not-me before I can reappropriate that old me as the new object of a new self”

   disequilibrium a crisis of meaning and identity

     we feel our integration is best, so loss is difficult

   differentiation involves disappointment and disillusionment, loss

   pain and ecstasy can coexist during transitions

   “pain … is about the resistance to the motion of life”

Kegan:  Transitions (cont.)

    when assimilation occurs, contradictory facts are rejected; this is the basis of defense mechanisms

    men more differentiation oriented, women more inclusion oriented

Kegan:  Stages of Integration

     At stage 1 Impulsive Balance I am my impulses

     At stage 2 Imperial Balance I am my needs

     At stage 3 Interpersonal Balance “there is no self independent of ‘other people liking.’”

   Women tend to remain at stage 3?

     At stage 4 Institutional Balance, self identified with the organization (p. 101)

     At stage 5 Interindividual Balance self is separated from all the above

Kegan:  Stages (cont.)

     “every developmental balance involves … an illusion, a built-in falsehood or subjectivity which forms the seeds of its own undoing”

   e.g. strength of stage 4 autonomy weakness embeddedness in autonomy

   as transition begins, another voice appears

     Progress is a helix (spiral) with issues being reencountered in an evovled manner

     Stage 5, postformal thought that looks for tension; “first shift in which there is a self-conscious self to be reflected upon”