DOM traversal: selecting, modifying, and deleting elements

Anton Ioffe - November 6th 2023 - 8 minutes read

Welcome to this deep dive into one of the most potent tools in a web developer's arsenal - the interaction of JavaScript with the Document Object Model, or DOM. This article is going to take you on a comprehensive exploration of how JavaScript manipulates the DOM. We'll cover everything from the basics of element selection, to more complex tasks like modifying, creating, and deleting elements. You'll get hands-on with practical examples, compare different approaches to common tasks, and even troubleshoot typical issues a developer may encounter. This is your guide to mastering JavaScript's relationship with the DOM, and as we peel back its layers, you'll understand why grasping this interaction is crucial in navigating the modern web development landscape. So let's delve in, shall we?

Foundations of DOM and Element Selection Techniques

The Document Object Model, commonly referred to as the DOM, is the bridge between JavaScript and HTML. Represented as a tree of nodes created by the web browser, it unlocks JavaScript's unique and powerful capacity to interact with and manipulate HTML. Each node within this DOM tree corresponds to a particular part of the HTML document, such as an element, attribute, or piece of text. Individual nodes are associated with properties and methods, which JavaScript leverages to dynamically alter web page behavior, layout, and content.

To visualize this structure, imagine a root node named document, which forms the foundation of the DOM. Branching out from this root are children nodes, including an html element. This html element further branches into sibling nodes such as body and head, and so on down the line. This tree-like architecture of parents, children, and siblings is fundamental to traversing the DOM and selecting specific elements within it.

Among the basic techniques for DOM element selection in JavaScript are methods like getElementById(), querySelectorAll(), and getElementsByTagName(). For instance, the getElementById() method, when called upon the document object, selects and returns the HTML element with the corresponding ID. Here's an example:

let element = document.getElementById('myHeader');

In this case, the element variable now references the HTML element with the ID 'myHeader'. Meanwhile, the querySelectorAll() method returns all elements that match a specified CSS selector. In contrast, the getElementsByTagName() method retrieves all elements with a specified tag. These methods offer flexible and powerful tools for selecting and subsequently interacting with HTML elements via the DOM.

Creation, Modification, Deletion, and Traversal of DOM Elements

Creating, modifying, deleting, and traversing elements in the Document Object Model (DOM) are core operations in JavaScript-powered web development. To begin with, the createElement() function allows us to create new HTML elements in memory without rendering. Simultaneously, we can define attributes and content for this new node. Once an element is created, it’s time to add it to our DOM tree using appendChild(). This method takes a node as an argument and appends it as the last child of the referenced element.

let newElement = document.createElement('div');
newElement.textContent = 'Hello world!';

In this example, we created a new 'div' element, set its text content, and appended it to the body of our document. Now if we wanted to replace an existing node with this newly created one, we'd utilize the replaceChild() method.

let oldElement = document.getElementById('old');
document.body.replaceChild(newElement, oldElement);

The replaceChild() method replaces an old child node with a new one in our DOM tree, accepting two arguments: the new node and the node we wish to replace.

Perhaps we've changed our mind and come to the conclusion that our webpage is cleaner without this element. Yanking an element out of the DOM is, fortunately, as simple as the previous operations with the removeChild() method.


Removing a child involves calling removeChild() on the parent node, passing in the node to be removed as an argument. This does not fundamentally destroy the node, it can be appended back within the DOM if necessary.

Traversing the DOM tree is an equally crucial operation, utilizing properties like parentNode, childNodes, and nextSibling. While .parentNode retrieves the parent node of the element, .childNodes provides a NodeList containing all child nodes of the current node. Lastly, .nextSibling fetches the immediate sibling node whereas .previousSibling navigates our way up against the normal flow. Subscribe to these properties with care as they include text nodes along with element nodes.

let childNodes = document.body.childNodes;
let parentOfOldElement = oldElement.parentNode;
let nextNode = oldElement.nextSibling;
let previousNode = oldElement.previousSibling;

Contrary to common misunderstanding, removeChild() leaves orphaned nodes in memory, creating potential memory leaks if references to these nodes remain elsewhere in your code. Best practice suggests storing a reference to the node to be deleted and nulling that reference once done to assist garbage collection.

Understanding node manipulation, how to traverse the DOM tree, and memory management is key to optimizing JavaScript code and preventing unwanted crashes due to "Out of memory" exceptions. Your UI is bound by how effectively you manipulate the DOM, and with these tools at your disposal, you have full control over the user experience. With JavaScript’s power over the DOM, you can create complex and dynamic web applications with interactive UIs.

DOM Manipulation Through Event Handling

The addEventListener() function in JavaScript plays a pivotal role in manipulating the Document Object Model (DOM). This function creates an interface between user actions and code execution, effectively bridging the gap between users and the DOM. It works in a simple yet efficient way by first accepting three parameters: the type of event to listen for, a callback function to run when the event is detected, and an optional Boolean that indicates the phase when the function should be executed. For example, to listen for click events on a button element, we would use the following code:

let button = document.querySelector('button');
button.addEventListener('click', function() {
    // Code to execute when button is clicked.

Interactivity in modern web pages comes with a catch. Events, when triggered, have a default behavior of propagation or 'bubbling up' through the DOM tree. Event bubbling is the phenomena when an event triggered on an element also triggers on all of its ancestors. For instance, if you have a button inside a div element, and both have click events attached, clicking the button will trigger not only its own event, but also that of the div. This can be an issue when you want only the button's event to fire. To stop this propagation, we use event.stopPropagation() inside the callback function.

button.addEventListener('click', function(event) {
    // Code to execute when button is clicked and stop event bubbling

While event 'bubbling' is the more common mode, there is another interesting aspect named 'capturing'. Unlike bubbling, where events move from the target element up to its ancestors, in capturing phase, event starts from the top parent and goes down to the target element. If the aforementioned third, optional parameter in addEventListener() is set to true, the event handler will run in the 'capturing phase'. While capturing isn't used as often, it can be useful in certain situations to handle events at a higher level before they reach their target.

let div = document.querySelector('div');
div.addEventListener('click', function() {
    // Code to execute during capturing phase
}, true);

Remember, effective use of JavaScript event handlers and listeners creates dynamic and responsive web interfaces. While the default mechanisms of event propagation are usually suitable, understanding and controlling event flow using bubbling and capturing provides greater flexibility and precision in your web applications. Don't be afraid to explore these concepts by applying them to various elements and events and seeing the immediate results of your code in action!

Practical DOM Manipulation Examples & Troubleshooting

Let's dive straight into some practical examples of DOM manipulation involving the selection, modification, and deletion of elements. With careful troubleshooting insights, we will also tackle common issues that may arise, comparing multiple approaches in terms of performance, memory use, and complexity. Let's examine a few scenarios:

Selecting Elements

Common tasks like selecting an <h1> tag from the DOM, can be achieved using document.querySelector('h1'). This method returns the first h1 element. If we wanted to select all h1 tags, we can use document.querySelectorAll('h1') which returns a NodeList of all h1 elements. However, be cautious especially with querySelectorAll(), because it returns a static NodeList. If you subsequently add another h1 tag to the DOM, you'll need to re-run querySelectorAll() to include the new element.

Modifying Elements

To modify elements, we can access their properties directly via dot notation. For instance, document.querySelector('h1').innerText = 'Hello, World!' changes the text within the first h1 tag. A common mistake here is trying to modify a NodeList as if it's a single node. You'll need to loop through the NodeList and modify each element individually. The forEach method is an efficient way to iterate through NodeLists, providing readability and reusability.

Deleting Elements

Deleting an element from the DOM can be done using the remove() method. For example, document.querySelector('h1').remove() deletes the first h1 tag. Prior to the introduction of the remove() method, developers had to use parentNode.removeChild(childNode), a more verbose and less readable approach. Ensure that the target element exists before calling remove(), otherwise, a TypeError will be thrown.

Ask yourself this: Is there a way you could refactor your DOM traversals to more precisely target an element? Could you avoid using querySelectorAll() and instead target a more specific attribute? This would both enhance your code's readability and performance. If you're caught in an innerHTML vs createElement debate, consider the implications of memory usage as well as security risks connected to Cross-Site Scripting attacks. Remember, responsible code tends to be secure code. Enjoy handling the power of DOM manipulation responsibly!

Significance of Understanding JavaScript's Interaction with the DOM

In the densely evolving world of web development, having an intimate understanding of JavaScript's interaction with the Document Object Model (DOM) plays a pivotal role. This understanding allows developers not just to bring their applications to life, but also sparks creativity and precision in them. Being proficient with JavaScript-DOM interaction fosters developers' ability to build applications that offer engaging, interactive experiences for users, making it a core skill in modern web development.

Mastering this interaction is pivotal as it imparts flexibility to the developers, allowing them to cater to unique requirements. They can deviate from the standard script, add dynamism to their applications, and ensure efficient interactions. More importantly, having a deep comprehension of JavaScript's interaction with the DOM can empower developers to reduce their over-reliance on libraries or frameworks. By relying on the fundamental strengths of JavaScript, they can streamline development processes, reduce bloat in applications, and potentially accelerate app performances.

Furthermore, a comprehensive understanding of JavaScript's interaction with the DOM allows developers to keep abreast with the nuances of contemporary web development. Developers, nowadays, are expected to build responsive, engaging, and increasingly complex web applications. This can be achieved efficiently by having a clear grasp on vanilla JavaScript's capabilities, such as DOM manipulation, and leveraging it innovatively to cater to modern-day web development needs.

In a nutshell, understanding JavaScript's interaction with the DOM is more than just a skill—it's a necessity in the present landscape of web development. Grasping it doesn't just enhance the developer's skill set and foster creativity but also provides the flexibility to manage unique requirements and reduce dependencies. It is this understanding that paves the way for applications that are dynamic, interactive, and efficient, setting the stage for the evolution of the modern web.


In this article, the author explores the relationship between JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM) in modern web development. They cover the basics of element selection, modifying and deleting elements, as well as offer practical examples and troubleshooting insights. The key takeaway is that mastering JavaScript's interaction with the DOM is crucial for developers to navigate the modern web development landscape. As a challenging task, readers are encouraged to refactor their DOM traversals to more precisely target elements and consider the implications of different approaches in terms of code readability and performance.

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