What Can I Expect from My Child?

Child development is tricky. When we zoom out, we notice the trends and various stages most of us passed to become functioning adults. We learned to understand how to use our bodies by moving our hands, smiling, and running. We fumbled through social relationships, making mistakes and missteps but eventually understanding what it means to be a good friend. We learned ourselves – what we need when we are upset, excited, angry, sad, confused, or overwhelmed to meet our goals. Zoomed out, this all seems pretty straightforward!

But yes, I did say that development is tricky. Amidst the examples above, there are so many smaller steps we took to develop appropriately. To learn how to run, we learned that we could control our feet, that we could coordinate our muscles to propel us in a direction, and that we could balance well enough to move fast. This is complex!

While we don’t have all the answers, we know a few things are true: Development is not always linear. Though it seems like everything happens in order when we zoom out, each individual skill and milestone requires practice and persistence. When a child learns to talk, they do not say their first word one day and tell full stories the next. Generally, they accumulate words over time and might revert to “baby talk” when feeling emotional. They may understand words well, but word choices or pronunciation may be difficult. Even if the general map is linear, children may take two steps forward and one step back. It is all a part of the process.

What a child needs differs from skill to skill and day to day.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Mastery may come easy in reading but be such a challenge in math.  A child might be verbal and articulate but have trouble with impulsivity or reasoning.  Even more, bad days are real.  A bad day, which comes with negative emotions, impacts our ability to do our best and to believe in ourselves.  Some days come with gusto and some come with rain.

Development is impacted by what is happening around us like the access to resources, support, nurturance, safety, and the freedom to focus on working things out. Privilege comes in many forms, such as access to finances to feed and house our families, supportive communities that show up when times are tough, and being able to be our true selves without fear. When a child is faced with stressors that take up great space in their minds and hearts, there is less room to focus on new skills. Thus, these skills may take longer, require more help, or may fall behind. Sometimes, we need to shift our focus to improving the child’s situation before we can expect growth.

Development needs support and coaching/guidance. Development does not happen solely within the child. Children are dependent on adults to give them the building blocks to development and teach the child how to use them. We do not expect a child to learn the alphabet when they have not had a parent or teacher in their lives to sit and sing with them. Adults provide the support and pieces a child needs to complete the puzzle. Just as important, caregivers offer children the space to struggle when development is hard and support the process. No teen gets out of middle or high school without having some trouble socially or in understanding who they are; teachers, mentors, and coaches are essential in providing the space for them to figure it out.

Developmental age does not always equal chronological age. Especially when a child has experienced early trauma, development can be behind their peers. While they may be 16 on the calendar, some skills may be at a 10-year-old level. In fact, other skills still may be at an 8-year-old level, and another yet at a 17-year-old level. As caregivers, responding to the child’s developmental age is so important because it reflects where they are in the moment. If a child is 10 but is acting 5, respond as though that child is 5 because that is the support they require right then. As we all know, the next moment may be different, but that is where our attunement, the ability to recognize and meet our child’s needs at any given moment, is paramount.

How to help: be respectful of your child’s path. No two children are alike and, while developmental guidelines are important, we cannot force a child to meet a milestone. We are on the journey with them and can only support them in skill building and tolerance of the experience.

Yes, you can work on pushing your child to grow but no farther than a step or two beyond what they can do now. If you push too hard or expect too much, your efforts might backfire, impacting the child’s self-esteem or the relationship between the two of you.

Attunement to what a child is capable of requires a lot from a caregiver, teacher, or therapist. A child benefits from this entire web of people to help communicate observations, successes, and frustrations. Again, while a child might be able to succeed one day, the next day might be harder. While they can perform well in one subject, another subject is harder.

And let’s be real – while we are talking about child development, learning a skill or reaching a milestone does not change when we become adults. We too require patience, support, and consistency. We too make mistakes and learn through failure. We too struggle when someone expects too much from us or when we expect too much from ourselves. We too deserve grace!