Is My Child’s Behavior Normal?
At some point, you’ve probably wondered, “Is my child's behavior normal?” And most likely you were told, “Don’t worry…he’ll grow out of it. It’s just a phase.”
There are, in fact, different phases (or stages) of development that the typical child goes through. Each stage requires that the child becomes skilled at certain “tasks” in order to grow — physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally — before moving on to the next.
If you’ve ever heard someone say it’s a toddler’s “job” to test limits, it’s true! Developmentally, saying “NO” helps toddlers learn about themselves and their relationships. Children at every stage have their own “jobs” to do.
When there’s little knowledge or awareness of this information, parents may overreact to behavior that’s common by becoming impatient, taking things personally, or worrying. On the other hand, they might minimize or ignore signs of behavior that actually requires their attention.
By having a basic understanding of child development, you can better support your child during each stage.
Below are some tasks related to each developmental stage from toddler to teenager, and strategies for effectively parenting through them:
Toddlers (18 months – 3 years old)
Toddlers need to explore the world and discover who they are in relation to others. During this stage, they quickly develop their communication skills and learn the basics of self-control. They want to do everything by themselves to become more independent.
Give toddlers freedom to explore safely and do things on their own so they can develop a sense of autonomy. Avoid the temptation to do things for them just because it’s easier or more convenient for you. At the same time, be careful not to push them to do things they may not be ready for (if your child consistently resists doing something, that’s a clue that your expectation may be unrealistic). Provide two or three choices whenever possible, so they can feel capable and in control of some aspects of their lives.
Because toddlers don’t have the language skills they need to express themselves yet, they can become frustrated very easily. Tantrums are considered normal and healthy for this age and are not displays of intentional disrespect.
Validate their emotions, while remaining firm in your limits. Teach them suitable ways of expressing feelings through role play and modeling the kind of behavior you want them to demonstrate. For instance, when you get frustrated and feel a meltdown of your own coming on, announce that you’re taking a “time out” for yourself, and calm down before returning to the situation.
Preschoolers (3-5 years old)
Preschoolers seek approval from their parents and enjoy imitating adults. So it’s important to model desirable behavior and use encouragement to reinforce it. Introduce responsibility and age-appropriate tasks, such as putting clothes away, getting the mail or feeding the family pet.
Preschoolers have active imaginations and insatiable curiosities. Be patient, and appreciate that they’re learning how to distinguish between fantasy and reality, not deliberately trying to annoy or anger you.
Use playtime to connect with them, and give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality. For example, have them role-play an authority figure (i.e. parent, teacher, doctor) and let them tell you what to do for a change.
School Age (6-9 years old)
The main tasks of school-aged children are to develop a sense of accomplishment and to learn and apply new skills.
School-aged children are very concerned with rules and fairness. They’re eager to learn new skills and may develop a competitive spirit, so you might consider signing them up for organized activities in sports or clubs. Just be sure to focus more on their effort, improvement, and enjoyment of the activity over winning and performance.
Kids at this age are sensitive to criticism and blame, and may find it difficult to accept responsibility. Parents can help by taking responsibility for their own actions, as well as regarding mistakes (their children’s and their own) as opportunities to learn, rather than as personal failures.
Tweens (10-12 years old)
Tweens experience many changes in a short period of time. Their bodies are rapidly developing as they enter puberty. They need to adjust from being the oldest in elementary school to the youngest in middle school, and to having an increased amount of schoolwork and other responsibilities.
A main target for marketers, many tweens are introduced to violence, sex, drugs, and other negative influences through the media. It’s critical to have ongoing discussions with tweens about these topics and teach them to be safe and responsible when using technology. It’s also a good idea to monitor their overall media use and enable parental controls whenever possible.
During this time of transitioning from a child at play to a teenager, tweens often shift between being friendly and hostile. They resent being told what to do and can be dramatic. Try not to overreact or get pulled into arguments. Respect their privacy and provide plenty of personal space.
Tweens become more self-conscious as their peers take on more importance. They may try to project their feelings of inadequacy onto you. Don’t take it personally or get defensive when your tween criticizes your style of dress, for example. Instead, have a conversation about what she thinks her style says about her.
Teens (13-19 years old)
Everyone knows that adolescence can be challenging. Teens struggle with issues around dependence and independence as they establish their own identities. They experiment with different peer groups, explore issues of sexuality, and start to identify their own values and interests.
While people often describe teenagers as moody, impulsive, or self-centered, teens can also be very creative, energetic, and engaging.
The desires to believe in something and to belong to a group become important at this age. Encourage teens to join religious or community groups that provide opportunities for leadership and serve as a transition between dependence on family and independence as adults.
As teens separate from their parents and establish their own identities, peer groups become their central source of support. When they feel more independent and self-assured (usually in late adolescence or early adulthood), they become less dependent on peers and are likely to reconnect with their parents.
Although it’s difficult to experience a child emotionally pulling away from you, the best way to stay connected during this stage is to gradually allow them to make more decisions, while providing consistent support and encouragement.
Keep in mind that the research and data on developmental stages only tell us what’s considered “average.” If you suspect a severe lag in an area of development, consult with your pediatrician sooner rather than later, but remember that every child is unique, and will most likely develop normally at his or her own pace.
Have a question about your child's development? Leave a comment and I'll be sure to reply!
A version of this post was first published in StepMom Magazine in April 2014.