A mother comforts her crying teenage daughter

Gaining a familiarity with child psychology and development is immensely beneficial to any parent’s relationship with their child. Maintaining effective communication with one’s child is a common struggle for parents. The way adults tend to talk about their daily lives and the problems they’re dealing with doesn’t seem to translate well in a conversation with a 3rd grader, and young children often don’t yet have the emotional maturity, self awareness, nor vocabulary to explain their own troubles adequately. 

Parents naturally want to help their child handle problems, and it can be frustrating when the parent doesn’t fully understand these problems. Without an understanding of where the child is coming from psychologically, it is impossible to really help. Luckily, developmental psychology is one of the broadest and most deeply-researched branches of psychology today, so we have some scientific insight into the psychological phenomena that our young ones are undergoing. 

It’s (Probably) Just a Phase: Child Development Stages

Researchers have found a general trend to psychological development that all children go through, noticing that there are ‘stages’ of life. These stages will present certain problems for everyone at that certain age, regardless of the individual’s culture. 

Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development consist of 8 stages, 3 of which occur during the school ages. In each stage, a serious life decision or life-view is developed. This experience is usually something that the individual thinks about every day during the years that they are in the life stage, and each stage has a positive and negative outcome. Having a strong understanding of these life stages can help parents understand the struggles that their children are going through and give them guidance on how to help their children face those challenges.

To summarize each stage of child psychology and development:

  • Stage One (birth–2 years old) is the development of trust. If parents comfort the child when they cry, the child learns that it can trust its caregivers to be there.
  • Stage Two (2–4) is the development of autonomy or self-will. Here, the child discovers that they have the ability to choose what actions they will take, such as deciding when they are done eating and are ready to resume play.
  • Stage Three (4–6) is the development of initiative or direction. This is when the child develops the understanding of how the world around them operates.
  • Stage Four (6–12) is the development of self-direction, where the child learns how they can influence the world they are in. If the child is constantly falling short of expectations, for example, they will develop a prevailing feeling of inferiority to their peers.
  • Stage Five (12–19) is when children become adolescents and develop an understanding of their own identity, who they will be in the world. Until they develop this identity, they will find themselves in a constant state of identity confusion.
  • The final three stages happen after a person is finished with school, so they aren’t entirely relevant to this article. Still, here are short summaries for more context about the full path of development: 
    • Stage Six (19–40) is when individuals develop deep, long-term connections with people outside of their family.
    • Stage Seven (~40–65) is when individuals learn how to “give back” to their community and to the next generation.
    • Stage Eight (~65–death) is when individuals reflect on their life.

Now we’ll look at the stages which are particularly relevant to parents seeking to understand their school-age children.

Stage Three of Development, The “Play Age” (Ages 3–6)

In Stage Three, children discover the boundaries of the world and what it can do. This encompasses many activities: physical, verbal, cognitive, and emotional. Children spend these years finding out how simple matters like gravity, colors, and interpersonal interactions work. Children in this stage will be interested in concepts like numbers and time (and clocks, consequently). It is common for children to show some apprehension when discovering something new, sometimes looking to their parents questioningly to see if they can venture further. Yet, through this period of exploring and learning, children learn courage and independence.

child building tower out of blocks with her mother watchingA common issue experienced by children in this stage is frustration, because their developing understanding of the world is not always progressing as quickly as they’d like. They may have a desire to do something, but do not understand how to realize their desired outcome. Suppose a child sees how their friends build a tower with blocks. Because the child doesn’t have a full understanding of balance, their attempts at a similar tower continue to topple over. The child becomes upset with their inability to achieve something that they know is possible. If this continues, their frustration may evolve into a tantrum.

The caregiver can help the child through this development by helping them understand how things work. Also, it is possible to turn the bad into good—the caregiver could purposely build towers to fall over, to show the child that its tumbling can be fun as well. Eventually, the child will find where to position blocks that will remain sturdy. 

Many of the activities pursued by children this age may seem silly or illogical to adults. To help their child through this stage, parents should be patient, letting the child know what is alright to explore, and helping along where possible. Conversely, when the child is exploring something that is not safe to explore (like an in-use oven or Dad’s tool shed), the parent should not prohibit the child, but rather guide them to an understanding of why something is dangerous. Proper handling can make the danger into something productive. 

Children who desire to explore their environment and are repeatedly denied the opportunity may develop feelings of guilt. They may believe that they are denied from exploring because they should not want to explore (constant denying by parents and teachers can have this effect), but their desires spur them on. This disparity causes feelings of guilt and even shame, which the young child will not likely be able to explain to adults.

Stage Four of Development, Industry vs. Inferiority (Ages 6–12)

After developing a basic understanding of how the world around them operates, children begin to consider how they fit into that world. In early Stage Four, children will become eager to learn how to read and write, as they start to realize that these skills are necessary to interact with the world around them. 

Building upon their knowledge of their abilities to make objects move and express emotions using their words, elementary and middle school-aged children will now realize that they can do these things strategically to achieve certain ends; hence, lying may become more prominent. On the other hand, children will enjoy seeing their actions having a positive impact on the people in their lives. This is why they enjoy having their drawings and schoolwork displayed on the fridge.

According to child psychology and development, the major issue that can arise during this stage is an inferiority complex. If children receive a great deal of criticism towards their work, or even if they have a lack of any feedback, positive or negative, they will develop a view of themselves as being unable to successfully work within the world. That’s why parents should take care to avoid commenting on negative aspects of their child’s work. Of course, children are rarely proficient at anything during these years, but if parents compliment the quality aspects of what their child does, the child will revel in their success. Seeking more success (and the resultant praise), the child will naturally seek to improve their work.

Parents can assist improvements by carefully wording constructive criticism. “You did a great job building that tower; let’s see if we can build another!” would be a good way to lead with praise, then follow up with a challenge that doesn’t indicate inferiority. In many sentences, replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’ can turn ridicule to praise. This will keep the child interested in developing their skills. Naturally, parents may worry that they are spoiling their children with too much praise. Finding the right balance in the quantity of praise and feedback takes practice and patience.

Stage Five of Development, Identity Formation vs. Confusion (Ages 12–19)

This final school-age stage is perhaps most commonly dreaded by parents, and is the basis for many coming-of-age movies. Erickson’s Fifth Stage of Identity Formation focuses on the individual finding how they are truly unique, as well as finding how they fit into a social group. During this stage, individuals try different groups and affiliations (social, religious, political) to see which groups they can feel a belonging to. In doing so, they develop an idea of who they are and where they are headed in life. Therefore, they also develop an idea of what school and career they would like to pursue.

The confusion involved in this stage can manifest in several negative symptoms: frustration, depression, anxiety, and anger. Because of the desire to seem independent, many teens will repel their parents’ attempts to help. Perhaps the best way to break through this barrier is to ensure your child that you are always available to talk, judgment free. Eventually, the pressure builds up and your child will need someone to vent to. Make sure not to react negatively to what they tell you: doing so will teach them that they can’t trust you to be empathetic to their problems. When they are done talking, ask questions about how they feel, what they think, and what they predict will be the outcome of their issue to help them start thinking about the consequences of certain decisions or situations.

While it may be frustrating to be non-confrontational, remember that confrontation generally causes the other party (the teenager) to become defensive, and then any advice will probably be ignored. Aiding a struggling teenager through their teenage trials is a turbulent and sensitive journey.

Understanding Child Behavior is Key

The stages of child psychology and development present very real issues of concern to young minds. It may seem silly to an adult that their child is experiencing a personal conflict in some of these stages, but all adults went through these stages at some point as well. Try to understand the world from your child’s eyes to see how daunting these issues can be for them—communicating with your child is the best way to help them, but you must first build a foundation of empathy, understanding, and judgment-free curiosity.

It is worthwhile to point out that the briefly-mentioned stage of psychological development experienced from ages ~40-65 is called ‘Generativity vs. Stagnation’; adults desire the sense that they are caring for the next generation and passing on life lessons in a way that will make life better for those that they care for. Caring for your own children in this way is one of the most important ways to prove your own generativity and have a fulfilling middle-age adult life.

Some children, particularly those aged twelve and up, may reject advice from their parents. You can use your past experiences to build a bridge. Remember what happened when you were in your child’s stage of psychological development. Sure, times have changed, but the way people experience these stages is still the same, and relating your experiences can help your children see that you can help them in their experiences.

If you’re a caregiver responsible for helping a child through difficult times and “growing pains”, Piqosity is here to help take a load off of your shoulders. We offer entire online math and English courses for grades 6-11, all reasonably-priced—whether you’re looking for remedial academic support, enrichment to get ahead, or even test prep for an admissions exam (such as the ACT, SAT, or ISEE), look no further for the educational materials your student needs for their academic wellbeing.

This article was originally published on ThesisMag.com and written by Matthew Rottmann. Matthew Rottmann was a tutor for General Academic and student of Psychology and Business at the time, working towards a career in business consulting.

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