It’s incredibly frustrating to try to reason with a toddler who has no concept of logic. We’ve all been there.
Having an understanding of childhood and brain development can work wonders for parents who are struggling with their kids. Knowing what our kids are cognitively and emotionally capable of at any certain age can help us be empathic and understanding when they are struggling.
This isn’t to say that all parents need to attend college level childhood development classes. Just a basic understanding can be incredibly helpful.
We all want to do well at parenting. We want to raise healthy, successful, happy, and well-adjusted adults. To achieve this, we can equip ourselves with knowledge to help us be great parents. We can learn communication skills, relationship skills, and read all about parenting. One particular way we can be the best parent we can be is by having a basic understanding of childhood development.
So often, parents punish kids or get frustrated with their kids over developmentally appropriate behavior. And believe me, I get it. The day-in-day-out of parenting can really get to us. It’s OK to struggle and get frustrated. But I do believe that if we have a better understanding of our kids, we can give them more empathy and have a better understanding of why they respond and act how they do.
Keep in mind:
- Just because your toddler isn’t capable of logical thought, or your teen is prone to emotional outbursts, doesn’t mean you let everything slide. We can still lovingly guide our kids in their growth and allow them to deal with consequences. Loving discipline is important.
- Every child is wonderfully unique. And although researchers and experts have developed a developmental timeline, kids will develop at their own pace. It’s normal to be ahead or behind certain milestones. However, if something is concerning you, reach out to your child’s pediatrician.
Tips to gain an understanding of childhood development:
See the world through their eyes (and brains!). Would you respond well if your spouse hit you when you messed up? Would you want to work for a boss who yells at you when you make a mistake or don’t yet know how to do something? Would you thrive in an environment where most of your life was controlled by someone else? Our kids deserve to be treated like individual humans with their own thoughts and desires. Again, this doesn’t mean we become permissive parents; it means we treat our kids with respect.
Make a mindset adjustment. Our kids aren’t “bad” because they act their age. Sometimes we put unrealistic expectations on our kids. When applying the principles of childhood development to our parenting, we may need to make a mindset shift. Your job as the parent is to guide them with love and support.
The first few years of life are crucial, but it’s never too late to start. Focusing on creating the healthiest environment for our child’s development can start at any age. The first few years of their development are crucial, but it can also be one of the most stressful for parents. We can’t create a perfect environment for growth, but we can provide a healthy one. We also cannot undo past parenting mistakes caused by our frustration. But it’s never too late to repair and focus on our own growth.
Always lead with empathy and understanding, and practice positive discipline. Punishing kids for age-appropriate behavior doesn’t help them learn the correct way to act. Sure, we can get them to stop the undesired behavior, but harsh punishment has been proven to hurt our kids’ development and our relationship with them. Studies have continually shown that harsh punishment impacts their developing brains negatively. Discipline isn’t meant to hurt our kids or make them scared of us. It is our teaching and guidance to lovingly correct and steer them in the right direction. Kids need to know their choices have consequences (good and bad) and that they have a supportive and loving parent who will walk with them through their learning.
Prepare yourself for what’s coming next. Our kids grow up fast. We can have a basic knowledge of what stages are coming next. It doesn’t take a lot of time to research developmental patterns or what to expect in certain stages. We can put in the extra work. Our kids deserve it.
Here’s a BRIEF overview of important parts of childhood development:
Newborns have never experienced any pain or discomfort and to them, hunger or being alone is new and uncomfortable. That’s why they cry. And the more we positively respond to their needs, the more attached they become to us. This attachment is so important to our relationship. One of the biggest relationship builders you can do in this stage is working on attachment. If they cry or need help, we need to attend to their needs lovingly. They need to learn they can trust the world and those who care for them. You cannot spoil an infant.
Infants and babies are developing their senses and getting used to the world around them. They are learning how to be social and that they have emotions. Parents and primary caregivers play such an important role in this stage because our babies do not know how to respond to new things. They will look to us for guidance on how to respond. Being there to show them your smile or your support shows them they are safe.
The biggest thing during this stage is creating a secure attachment.
- They need us to be calm and loving.
- They need us to respond to their needs.
- They need us to read and sing.
- They need us to do whatever we can to form a strong, secure attachment.
- They need us to protect them (from little things like being cold, to big things like locking cabinets and using baby gates).
- They need us to smile at them and engage with eye contact.
- They need us to provide healthy food and a safe environment.
Toddlers want to do what they want, and our seemingly constant direction of right and wrong can be frustrating to them. At this age, they really only know something is wrong because we tell them. And the gentler we can be in that direction, the better our relationship will be.
They can learn to have confidence in their independence or they can learn to lack confidence in their abilities.
If we are constantly disapproving or take over what they are doing, we send the message of guilt, that they aren’t good enough to do it themselves.
This is a great time to start talking about conflict-resolution and problem-solving, as well as social norms, kindness, and friendship. We shouldn’t expect too much out of them though, because they are still just babies.
Be patient with meltdowns. Many times toddlers have no control. They need our support and help learning how to self-regulate.
After age 2, we see a huge increase in language and kids enter the preoperational stage which will last until about 1st grade. Kids think very concretely, and are able to understand numbers and past and present.
- They need us to provide a safe environment for exploration.
- They need play, play, and more play.
- They need us to provide healthy food and limited screen time.
- They need us to sing and read.
- They need us to talk. Talk about everything. Every color. Every letter. Everything.
- They need routine, safety, security.
- They need loving and firm limits.
- They need us to be patient when they are overwhelmed.
- They need us to be calm and consistent.
- They need us to set a positive example.
- They need us to let them make messes and have fun.
Beginnings of emotional regulation, empathy, and ability to problem-solve.
Kids can take great pride when they figure things out.
We can foster growth by giving independence and responsibility.
Play is still incredibly important.
Transition to school can be hard and exhausting on their bodies and minds.
Be mindful of shaming and criticism.
Before this stage, if you have set the president that we respond with empathy, your kids could easily follow suit. Before this stage, kids couldn’t quite understand the pain or sadness of someone else, but now they can put themselves in other’s shoes.
Additionally at this stage, we can see our kids begin to understand abstract concepts. They are becoming better equipped to mentally think through consequences to actions or abstractly think about how future events or decisions could possibly play out. It won’t be until later in elementary school that kids can truly think out abstract thoughts, so don’t be surprised if their ideas to solve problems aren’t great. Thinking about how something in the future will play out, isn’t something they can truly have grasp on until later elementary years. But it’s good to practice and hone these skills.
- They need us to provide lots of learning experiences.
- They need play.
- They need us to talk and read.
- They need to release physical energy.
- They need us to help them understand social norms.
- They need encouragement and to be able to do things themselves.
- They need loving and firm boundaries and limits.
- They need kind and loving consequences.
- They need us to know that testing limits is part of growing up.
- They need patience.
- They need safety.
- They need to know they are important.
- They need help transitioning into school.
- They need our help with emotional regulation.
- They need us to listen.
Kids now can enjoy being part of the rule making process. So, this is a great time to work on family values and expectations WITH your child. Let them have input. They can really internalize values.
At this stage, they also really want to feel like important and valued members of the family.
They usually seek deeper relationships with their caregivers. Let them know how important they are to the family.
We can see big jumps in empathy, self-control independence, and emotional regulation.
While it’s great to let kids work out their own problems and figure out solutions, remember they are still young and can have trouble minding their tongue when their feelings get hurt. Patiently guide them to acceptable friendship behavior and have open conversations about relationships.
Be mindful of criticism. We can guide them to develop industry instead of feeling inferior, by allowing them to work on things, develop skills and talents, all while we point out their character traits.
- They need everything need by earlier stages.
- They need us to help establish homework routines.
- They need to learn their own ways of learning and being motivated.
- They need opportunities to be responsible.
- They need to learn independence, but still have our support.
- They need patience, conversation, encouragement, firm loving boundaries, to make mistakes, to learn social norms.
- They need less criticism.
- They need a safe place to talk about problems.
- They need us to show interest in them and their interests.
- They need us to work on our relationship.
- They need us to separate them from their actions.
- They need us to teach emotional intelligence.
- They need one on one time and connection.
This is a big age jump. We go from little kids to big kids real fast. Some in this stage are entering puberty. Keep communication open and help them understand what they are feeling. They can take on lots more responsibility and many kids this age like it.
They still need to be physically active and have healthy social relationships. But nothing is more important than having a strong healthy family relationship.
They need to know they have our love and support no matter what. They don’t need our teasing or sarcasm, but our support and encouragement.
These kids are growing fast and often want to be treated with the same respect as adults. It will do our relationship with them well to discuss reasons for decisions instead of just saying, “Because Mom said so.”
Growth in prefrontal cortex means there is an increase in problem-solving abilities, impulse control, memory, and physical abilities. We can see them start to use more logical thinking, but can struggle with scenarios that are unfamiliar to them.
Around 11, we see a shift from concrete thinking to more abstract thinking. This is a big step being able to problem solve and reasoning.
Tweens often know that following the rules is best because values have been internalized, not just because they don’t want to get in trouble.
Puberty will begin for most kids, although at different times. Girls usually show signs before boys and both sexes can feel self-conscious about their body and emotional changes. Be open and compassionate.
This is a hard stage for a lot of kids, and they need our support. They don’t really understand why they are crying or why they are angry or what’s going on in their bodies.
The more supportive we are, the more likely they will be to come to us with their big problems.
Kids often want to be individuals, but they will also often want to conform to social standards and what their peers think. They often care a lot about their self-image and can be very self-conscious. The more supportive we can be as their exercise their self-direction, the better.
When we see our kids hit the early teens we see them enter Formal Operations Stage, where they can think hypothetically, abstractly, morally, and use deductive reasoning. Parents often joke that teens and toddlers are a lot alike. And there is some truth to it. Kids in these stages are going through brain pruning. This means their brain with “prune off” cells they don’t use, like when we prune a tree or shrub. So, brain cells that aren’t being used, will be lost. For teens, this can lead to more specialized thinking, but it can be determinantal if they aren’t expanding their learning and thought process or thinking healthy, growth mindset thoughts.
Technology is an amazing thing, but it comes with its dangers. Tweens aren’t usually aware of the dangers, from sexual predators to bullying, to sexting. As their parent, it is your job to guide them through using this technology if you choose to allow it. They need our protection and our help.
- They need everything from earlier stages.
- They need independence.
- They need respect.
- They need social relationships.
- They need a loving adult who will set boundaries and listen to their problems.
- They need help understanding hormones and emotions.
- They need help seeing mistakes are learning experiences.
- They need to solve problems.
- They need loving consequences.
- They need encouragement.
- They need us to be a positive force and love and support.
- They need our respect and to talk to them how we want them to talk to us.
Technology can be addictive and dangerous, but it is also very beneficial. Set and enforce boundaries based on your family values. Be careful to protect your kids from the dangers and how to use it responsibly.
Teens also have an increase in executive functioning and prefrontal cortex control. But these are still not fully developed and we often see teens struggle with impulse control and future orientation.
Research shows that many teens experiment with drugs or drinking. The best way to prevent this kind of behavior to having a strong attachment to parents and home.
Adolescence has always been a difficult time, but we are seeing more and more teens suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental troubles. Kids from all backgrounds are dealing with pressures their brains can’t handle alone. If you believe your child is suffering, please talk with them about reaching out to a therapist, counselor, or pediatrician for help.
Being an effective parent of a teen will involve a balance of connection and separation. We can easily interfere in their development of autonomy, but we can also easily give them too much responsibility or freedom.
- They need emotional intelligence.
- They need freedom.
- They need to know we support and love them.
- They need us to trust them, but also keep them safe.
- They need us to protect them from dangers they don’t understand.
- They need connection and relationship with us.
- They need our patience with hormones.
- They need us to be interested in them and their interests.
- They need us to allow them to find their identity, while also living out our family values.
- They need us to reach out for help if they are struggling with depression, eating disorders, or abuse.
- They need us to relate to the way they see the world, while also helping them put things in perspective to the big picture.
- They need us to teach them life skills. Both basics like cooking, laundry, and car maintenance, but also social, emotional, and relational skills.
Our kids deserve us doing the best we can to create a healthy environment for them to grow.
By: Emily Scott, PhD
31 Days to Renew Your Parenting – Daily Reflections to Renew Your Heart for Parenting available on Amazon
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