Children of all ages can exhibit behavior that is quite confounding. One thing that can lend perspective is having an overview of developmental norms. It can help to have a lay of the land and know the general milestones as your child grows—from a baby and toddler to a preschooler and school aged child—right on up through teenhood to being a young adult.
It’s often the behavior that you don’t see coming that really catches you off guard. Imagine if you didn’t know that toddlers love saying “no” and are prone to tantrums. That would make things even harder! Another important phenomenon to understand are developmental leaps. When children are about to make developmental leaps, it looks like their behavior is coming off the rails and is easily misinterpreted. Here are some things that are helpful to know about these leaps and a few tips for navigating the rocky waters:
- It’s like a growth spurt in the brain. Developmental leaps correlate to a child’s age and typically look like a period of disequilibrium followed by a jump in growth (and skills!) and then a nice period of equilibrium. A couple examples are how out-of-sorts a baby gets in the weeks leading up to taking their first steps and how cranky a toddler is before a big burst in vocabulary.
- What looks like regression is really preparation. While development is never a straight line and always entails some form of back and forth, leaps can look more like a big step backward before a running jump. The process could also be compared to the necessary function of a slingshot—you have to pull the stretchy part way back to get the distance you want.
- The brain is reorganizing itself and cannot learn as well. It’s important to know that kids are less “teachable” leading up to and during a leap than at other, more baseline times. It’s good to adjust your expectations accordingly. If you’ve been trying to teach your child a new skill, such as learning to use the toilet, it’s better to back off until after the leap.
- Typical parenting approaches stop working. Don’t be surprised if your go-to ways of soothing, guiding, or managing behaviors lose their effectiveness. Be really gentle with yourself so you don’t get too frustrated when this happens.
- The biggest phases for leaps happen in the first few years of life. The first 10 predictable leaps all happen before toddlerhood and can be found at the website: www.thewonderweeks.com and in the book of same title (listed in Resources below). They include things like understanding patterns at 8 weeks and understanding relationships at 6 months.
- Leaps continue to happen throughout childhood and again during adolescence (and beyond). While older children and teens can sometimes better articulate what is happening for them, it’s still common to feel flummoxed by the disorganization. In the teen years it can look like moodiness and other emotional outbursts. Because brains continue to grow, humans can have these brain changes throughout the lifespan.
Keep an eye out for these patterns in your child’s growth and development. Sometimes better understanding of what is going on in your child’s brain can help you bring an extra-large dose of empathy to their grouchy and disorganized behavior. As my grandmother was fond of saying, “This too, shall pass.”
This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Parent & Family.
Ages & Stages: Developmental Descriptions and Activities, Birth Through Eight Years by Karen Miller
The Gesell Institute of Human Development series: Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender, Your Three-Year-Old: Fried or Enemy, etc., by Louise Ames Bates
The Wonder Weeks by Xaviera Plooij, Frans X. Plooij PhD, Hetty van de Rijt PhD
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and the recently launched Raising Humans With Heart. Her writing has also been featured in The Huffington Post. Sarah is a human development nerd who brings over 30 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Reach out for parenting support via her “Get In Touch” page.