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Recently, a friend told me, “I just don’t understand why it is so hard for my 5 year old to clean his room!”  It seems every time, I have to stay right there and point to each thing for him to pick up and put away.  If I go out for even a moment, he stops and just plays with toys. Do you think he has ADD? 

Sound familiar?  It should.  Because a 5 year old boy is not really capable of independently cleaning his room without parental assistance and coaching.

Having age-appropriate expectations for our children is not always on our parental radar.  The disparity between what parents expect of their children and the reality of their kids’ capabilities to meet those expectations is called the expectation gap

As I mentioned in my article on this topic, I have found the most frequent issue with non-compliance is not often an issue with the child.  Rather, the issue is with their parents’ expectations of them. Quite literally, this means we parents expect our child to be capable of doing something they have no capacity for, and when the child fails to comply, we mistakenly believe consequences will teach them how to do so.  This is because we naturally believe there are important things that children need to do when we ask.  But obviously, the nature of their ability to perform directly depends on the developmental stage they are in. 

Yet, it is a vital aspect of a compassionate approach to family life to realize that consequences do not inherently equip children with the skill sets they need.  Nor do they intrinsically motivate little people to want to be their best.  Even as adults, we experience disappointment, frustration and a desire to give the world (or particular people in it) an almighty spray sometimes. Even with our fully developed brains and our capacity to see around corners, some days are more difficult than others.  This insight helps us imagine what it’s like for our kids.

Rather, inappropriate consequences for inappropriate expectations communicate unjust blame, instill shame, limit emotional intelligence and can lead to many behavioral problems in later development. Therefore, knowing what is appropriate to expect from children and teens helps to avoid developing the expectation gap.

Having the insight into the developmental goals our kids are moving towards expands our awareness and provides a basis for greater empathy.  Kids need support to be allowed to fail and try again.  Responding to each stage with greater clarity and age-appropriate expectations can make all the difference.

A quick guide with tips

The following is a very basic overview of developmental stages according to age.  It is not by any means exhaustive, and is only a general outline.  Please don’t stop doing your research here. Read widely and deeply, and stick to the experts as often as possible to educate yourself on age-appropriate expectations.

Children’s behavior can be hard to understand, unruly, or serve to activate emotions from our past, having age-appropriate expectations will help you maintain the understanding that most behavior is completely normal and a sign that your child is flourishing exactly as they are designed to.  The progression through the stages is more important than the age at which this happens. As long as kids are moving through the stages, it doesn’t matter if they get there slower than other kids.

Infants & Babies (0-12 months).

  • Everything will go in the mouth – hands, feet, food, toys, shoes – you name it.
  • If they are crying, there is something they NEED – whether its sleep, food, changing or affection.  Or, they are uncomfortable or possibly in pain. 
    • Remember babies are not capable of being defiant. They are not able to try and make you unhappy.
    • Getting angry with them will only scare them & hinder their attachment to you.  The imperative here is to realize that they NEED something. 
      • One of the beautiful things about babies is that they will never ask for more than they need.
  • Babies can be wary of strangers and may get upset when their people are out of sight.
  • Babies will stare. They love faces and will stare at faces in real life, in books and in mirrors.  

How to support them – developing ATTACHMENT.

Children who have secure attachments tend to be happier, kinder, more socially competent, and more trusting of others, and they have better relations with parents, siblings, and friends. They do better in school, stay physically healthier, and create more fulfilling relationships as adults.  There is an overwhelming body of research on attachment, and intentionally cultivating a secure attachment in our children is a vital goal.  Hit the web and learn as much as you can about cultivating a secure attachment.  Here are some rudimentary tips.

  • Realize babies understand what we say long before they’re able to talk.
    • Don’t use “baby talk.”  Little humans learn to talk by mirroring the words we use and they way we pronounce them.  Use normal language.
  • Anticipate their needs.
    • Feed them before they cry for food.
    • Comfort them when they are going to sleep (sleeping is scary for some babies)
    • Hold them frequently and speak in loving tones. 
    • Don’t over-rely on swings and other “baby gear” to replace your body and touch.  (Everyone’s tolerance for this is different, its ok!)  
  • Be consistently attentive to their needs so they can develop trust.  
    • If baby’s needs are met sometimes and not others, (say going back and forth between different caregivers, being in day-care with less than optimal staff, etc.) there is a risk that they will form a insecure attachment style.
    • If Dad is going to be doing some caregiving when mom needs a break, or any other caregiver for that matter, it’s very important to encourage the same level of responding to baby’s needs as their primary caregiver provides.

This will form the foundation of their attachment style which affects their independence, their confidence and self-esteem, and their relationships.

1-2 years.

  • Will become more interactive.
  • No understanding of intentionality – they see, they do without thinking about why or what it means. For example, when they bite, it is not to hurt, when they grab toys from other kids it’s not to cause upset, it’s to … well, everyone knows that things are for grabbing or eating right?
  • Will follow their curiosity and will pull things down or apart to see what happens. Ditto with throwing anything onto the floor.
  • Not developmentally able to share.
  • Might seem bossy and selfish, but keep in mind that anything they are interested in or considers to be theirs is seen as an extension of themselves. Of course, nobody else is entitled to take it!
  • Beginning to understand possession, and developing a strong sense of self.
  • Two of their favorite words to say, ‘Mine!’ and ‘No!’
  • Will wake up during the night.
  • Towards the end of this stage, they may become more defiant as they start to experiment with their independence. May tantrum because they become frustrated by their lack of words and their lack of ability to communicate.
  • Tantrums will also be driven by their experience of big emotions (frustration, anger, sadness, shame) that they don’t have the words for.
  • Will be more likely to play alongside other kids, rather than with them.

The support this age needs:

  • Their attention span is still fairly short, so use distraction to direct them away from what you don’t want them to be doing.
  • When you give them a new rule or direction, it’s likely that the old one will be forgotten. Sometimes you will love their short attention span. Sometimes you won’t.
  • Be positive when you see them doing the right thing.
  • Start letting them know the things that aren’t okay.
  • Ignore the small stuff. There’s so much to learn so it’s best not to overload them. Let them get used to the important things first.
  • Your child will be starting to understand what you are asking but for the sake of your own sweet sanity, let go of the expectation that they will do as you ask. Keep asking and guiding, but don’t take it personally if it doesn’t happen straight up. Or at all.
  • Be kind and gentle when correcting. They are doing their very best with what they have. If you ask for too much you might end up with a more anxious or more defiant or less confident three-year-old.
  • Help them put words to what they are feeling, ‘It’s upsetting when you have to pack your toys away and you want to keep playing isn’t it.’

3 years old.

  • The thing I want to say with 3 year olds is that their expression of disappointment and frustration often presents as a tantrum. 
    • They want more independence. May lead to tantrums.
  • Will want increased control. May lead to tantrums.
  • Will become frustrated when disappointed. May lead to tantrums.
  • May see an increase in tantrums.
  • Will flip between wanting to be independent (‘I do it!’, or ‘by myself’) and wanting to be treated like a little person (‘carry me’ or ‘you do it’).
  • Will form a special attachment to the word ‘no’ and will practice it often. Even when they might mean ‘yes’. 
  • Might stutter or stammer.
  • Will start to assert control over their environment by wanting to plan activities, do things by themselves, try challenging things.
  • Might keep calling you back when they are put to bed.
  • Might develop sudden fears and phobias.
  • May confuse real and make-believe, so may have one or a collection of imaginary friends.
  • Still can’t understand sharing and will often assert ownership.
  • Might show jealousy when parent gives attention to other children.

The support this age needs:

  • Write this down on several postit’s:  “This stage won’t last forever.”  Now, put them all over the house so you’ll see them everyday.   
  • Use lots of active recognition. 
    • This is when you let your child know when they do something well, and you want to be specific and keep it short. 
    • “I noticed you came when I called you.”  Or, “I saw that you put your things away just now.” 
    • This is because this age needs to know that you approve of them and that they are pleasing you.  
  • Be gracious when they get it wrong.  They will fail.  They will make mistakes.  Use each one as an opportunity for growth, not shame. 
    • Try not to come down hard on mistakes – they’re still figuring it out just like we did. 
    • Compassion, compassion, compassion.
  • Limit the number of rules and be consistent with the ones that you have.  Too many rules can confuse this age. 
    • If you teach them that sometimes they can get away with it, they’re going to keep going. You’d worry if they didn’t.
  • Use the word ‘no’ gently and force your face into a smile or pleasant expression when you do.    
    • You want to encourage their exploration and experimentation with the world and their place in it.
    • Guide them, but don’t dampen their initiative. 
  • Give them the freedom and space to play and encourage their experimentation with physical and imaginative play.
    • Support their efforts to initiate play so they can feel their own capacity to influence their environment.
  • Encourage decision by always offering limited choices. 
    • “Would you like milk or juice?” 
    • “Would you like to brush teeth or get Pajamas on first?”
    • “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt today?”
    • “Would you prefer corn or avocado with your dinner?”
    • And then, maybe when they’re bigger … ‘Would you prefer to make me a tea or a coffee?’ Oh let’s just indulge the glorious possibility of it all for a moment.)
  • Have bedtime rituals.  Bedtime at this age can be a challenge.
    • Have a ritual and do something enjoyable for both of you.
    • Tell your child a simple story, read to them, have snuggle time, make them giggle and of course, lots of kisses.  

4 years old.

  • May start to be critical of things and will understand the world in simple terms.
    • Things and people will be right or wrong, good or bad, nice or not nice.
  • They will start to realize the power of their words and will sometimes use them to get their way.
    • Their command of language will still be very basic, so they will often communicate with non-verbal’s like tone, volume, facial expressions, posture/stance and actions like grabbing for things or pushing, patting you, etc.
  • May become competitive.
  • Blurs reality and fantasy sometimes.
    • May exaggerate, make up what they wish were real, tell extravagant stories, or have imaginary friend’s.
  • Still building their sense of self and experimenting with independence, so expect some stubbornness & defiance.
  • This age still isn’t attuned to their body and doesn’t realize when they need rest.  Bedtime still feels like disconnection.
  • Active imagination, may experience bad dreams.
  • Might develop fear of the dark or become anxious thought of being separated from parent or caregiver.
  • Will start to enjoy playing with other kids rather than simply alongside them.
  • Will test their limits with you but will still be keen to please and help you out when they can.

The support this age needs:

  • Start to expand your child’s emotional literacy by naming and discussing feelings. 
    • Get a list of feeling words from the internet and become familiar with the different range of emotions.
    • Use picture books and point to faces and ask them, “How do you think she feels right now?”
  • When you set limits, explain briefly about why the rules are important.  They are curious and developing their ideas about how the world works.
    • Be CONSISTENT.  If you set a limit, hold that limit.  If you don’t think it’s always important to enforce a rule, your child will, understandably, think it’s not always important to follow it.
    • Let them know you love them too much to let them break the rules.
    • Do not use punishment to enforce the rules.  Rather, explain what they did incorrectly and allow them to TRY AGAIN.  This is called an “action replay” and helps develop neuropathways for compliance.
  • Turn your no’s into yes’s.
    • When this age asks for something, rather than using NO, say YES with caveats. 
      • E.g., “Yes, you may eat a banana right after you’ve finished your lunch.” 
      • “Yes, as soon as you’ve put away your things, you may have one of those.”
  • Keep your requests simple.
  • They crave your approval. Use lots of active recognition.
  • When it comes to less-than-impressive behavior, it’s good to ask what happened but not helpful to ask for why they did it.
    • Asking ‘Why did you do that?’ doesn’t always yield an accurate answer because the boundary between fantasy and reality in the world of a four-year-old is very blurry.
  • Encourage their independence but remember they are still young. Let them be little people when they are stressed or tired.
  • Give them lots of kisses and cuddles, even though they are ‘big people now.’

Five years old.

  • Will understand the importance of rules but might divert from the rules when playing. Rules tend to be ‘flexible’ – for them at least.
  • May accuse others of cheating if they don’t win a game.
  • Will start to show empathy and an understanding that other people might have points of view that are different to their own.
  • Will be able to share but might still find it difficult, especially when it comes to their special things.
  • Might be afraid of failure, criticism and spooky things like ghosts or monsters.
  • Attention span will start to increase which will impact on the type of discussions you are able to have with them.
  • Might come across as being an ‘expert’ on everything.
  • Will enjoy joking around and will start to use ‘potty’ humor.  
    • This is normal and although many parents try to curb this behavior, I encourage parents to laugh with their kids around this type of talk, and even make potty jokes with them.  Believe it or not, they eventually grow out of talking about their butts, poop and farts.  
  • Will be looking to make their own decisions, particularly around what to wear and what to eat.
  • If starting at school, might be moodier, more sensitive or more tired than usual. It’s exhausting having to sit still and concentrate for long periods.

The support this age needs:

  • Encourage anything that will get your child moving, particularly if it is in a group or a team with others.
    • This helps develop interpersonal skills such as taking turns, working together, and being a good sport whether winning or losing.
  • Set aside 15 minutes each day to have special time each child individually. This will give them the opportunity to let you into their world. 
    • Special time is a research proven method to create connection and foster a strong attachment.
  • Give small responsibilities and always offer descriptive praise. ‘How about you help me clear the table?’  “Wow, I noticed how you really tried your best with that!”
  • Continue to keep rules simple.

Six years old.

  • This age begins to have a hard time with disappointment.  
  • Can start to test the limits but will still want to please you and help out.
  • Will seek praise for the things they do.  Offer it generously.
  • Will seek to master new skills and to feel competent.
  • Might worry about being away from you.

The support this age needs:

  • Encourage their efforts and acknowledge when they have worked hard.
  • Encourage effort over outcome to help them develop a growth mindset and a strong self-belief in their capacity to achieve.
  • Provide lots of emotional support through empathy.  If you are not good at empathy, it is imperative you practice and get good at it. 
  • Don’t worry about school work at this point.  Their brain takes a few years to kick into full gear and research shows that too much pressure around school work at a young age has undesirable effects. 
  • Avoid superlative praise such as statements like, “Your amazing!” or “That was awesome.”  Kids begin to mistrust our praise when we do this because they begin to understand that the things they do are not always amazing or awesome.    

Seven years old.

  • Might tend towards complaining, usually about their parents or the rules, but also about friends and other kids.
  • Might feel misunderstood.
  • Can be expressive of emotions.  
    • Will try to use words to talk about how they are feeling.
    • Will become frustrated and angry when they are upset.
  • Will be becoming more aware of what other people think.

The support this age needs:

  • Listen and validate what they are feeling and know that you don’t need to fix their problems.  In fact, you shouldn’t.
  • Discuss how they might solve the things that are causing them trouble.
    • Give them space and encouragement to come up with their own ideas.
  • Try your best not to be drawn into the big displays of emotion.
  • Don’t immediately think that things are a mess because they are saying they are.
  • Encourage focus on the positive. 
  • Teach them how to begin a gratitude practice by saying one thing they are thankful for in the morning and evening.

Eight years old.

  • Will begin exploring original thought.  Validate what they share by summarizing it.
  • More conflict with siblings may begin to happen.
  • 8 yr old’s tend to be sensitive to our opinions of them.
  • There isn’t abstract thought at this age, so ideas tend to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.
  • Strong tendency to think in absolutes may incite conflict with other friends. 

The support this age needs:

  • Lots of validation regarding independent thinking.  Use descriptive praise whenever possible.  Be clear about the positive they have done.
  • Rather than argue with this age, ask clarifying questions. With their black and white thinking, it helps to ask them to explain their point of view and then use questions to challenge their thinking. 
  • Spend plenty of special time together to build strong parental orientation and connection.   A minimum of 15 minutes per day focused on just them and what they want to play or talk about.

Nine years old.

  • Family time may become less of a priority in favor of time with school mates, so having lots of togetherness is foundational.
  • Will tend to become peer oriented, and care more about what friends think of them.
  • May try and conform to peer group behaviors.  
  • Will tend to cultivate closer friendships, but fewer of them.
  • Will want to share jokes and secrets with friends.
  • Will push against rules and directions and may disrespect you.
  • Will be able to be loving and silly but will also develop the capacity to be selfish, argumentative and abrasive.

The support this age needs:

  • Kids spell love T.I.M.E.
  • Help kids choose their friends wisely by discussing character traits that comport with your family values. 
  • Provide them with opportunities for independence and to practice making their own decisions.  
  • Give lots of either/or choices.  Avoid being directive.
  • Encourage empathy by asking questions from another point of view, ‘How do you think she felt when that happened?’ ‘What would so-and-so say in response to that?’

Ten to eleven years old.

  • The tantrums of childhood will be calming down by now. Enjoy it because adolescence has heard that you’re relaxing and it’s on its way.
  • Might still argue about rules and the necessity and detail of them.  Give explanations freely and in the context of your love and desire to protect them.
  • Will try to explain away misbehavior through excuses and justifications. They often see exceptions to rules, so talk about context and thinking through their choices.
  • Promises become important and they will remember EVERYTHING – except when it’s time to put away their laundry or clean the bathroom. 

The support this age needs:

  • Make every effort to follow through with commitments you make to them.
  • When they oppose your decisions, it is vital to LISTEN what they have to say.  Reflect their position back to them and do your best to ensure they feel heard.
  • Let them push against you in safe ways – let them try different things, express their own opinions, and make their own decisions when appropriate.
  • Parental boundaries are of immense importance. Know where your boundaries are and be consistent.
  • Rather than consequences for misbehavior, use action replays. Help them think through their choices by asking them what kind of world they want to live in and then what kind of person do they need to be in order to bring about that kind of world. 
  • Always attached consequences to their choices, i.e., their behavior, not to them personally.  

Adolescence

  • This is the age of peer orientation. Hold onto your kids. Read this book.
  • Do. Not. Judge. You want to coach your teens into alignment with the truth, not pit them against it. In order for them to embrace objective values, they have to see their value for themselves.
  • Friends will be more important than family. You’re still important, but they must find who they will be as they move toward becoming a healthy, independent adult.  
  • What their peers think of them will be a source of stress to them for a while, peaking for girls at age 13 and for boys at age 15. They might go to extra lengths to try to fit in with their peers. This might involve making silly decisions or putting themselves in risky situations. Breathe. It will end.
  • They need to make many of their own decisions. Let. Them. Fail.
  • Too many rules and restrictions prevent teenagers from developing the mindset of young adults. Let them question the boundaries.
  • May become more emotionally distant from you. 
  • Will experiment with their image, their identity, and the way they are in the world.
  • They may become sexually active. Help them understand your family values and why you hold them.
  • They might be impulsive and they might start taking risks. (For a full explanation of why they do this, see here.)
  • They will be more creative and will start to think about the world in really interesting, different ways.
  • They will act like your opinion of them doesn’t matter but it does – as much as ever.
  • They will often misread your emotional expressions – reading anger, hostility or disappointment when you feel nothing like any of that (See here to understand teenage emotional flare-ups).
  • Their sleep cycle will change. Their circadian rhythm will move them about three hours past where they were as kids. This means that they will fall asleep three hours past the time they used to and unless they are completely exhausted, it will be biologically very difficult for them to fall asleep earlier. They will need about 9-10 hours sleep so will need to sleep in for later.
  • Will want to make their own decisions about the things that affect them.

The support this age needs:

  • Don’t be judgmental or critical – they need your love and connection more than ever.
  • Understand that they need to find their independence from you. Give them the space to do this. Over time, their values will be likely to align with yours.
  • Know that your teen isn’t rejecting you, but is finding their own way in the world – it’s an important, healthy part of being an independent adult – even if it feels bad.
  • Let go of control and go for influence. The harder you fight to control them, the harder they will push against you. The truth is that when it comes to adolescence, we have no control – they will decide how much they involve you in their lives, how much they tell you, and how much influence you have. Make it easy for them to come to you when something happens or when they need guidance.
  • Give them information, but don’t lecture.
  • You may or may not know when they start to become sexually active, so it’s important that they have the information and guidance they need to stay physically and emotionally safe. See here for an age-by-age guide for what they need to know.
  • Don’t buy into arguments – ask them to state their case and talk to you about the pros and cons of what they want. By nature, teens will overstate the positives and underestimate the negatives. Encourage them to tell you some of the cons – nothing is ever black or white.
  • Be the calming force – breathe and wait for the wave to pass over you. It takes 90 seconds for an emotion to be triggered, to peak and to start to fade, provided you don’t do anything to give it oxygen.
  • Help them to plan ahead and see around corners, but without judgement.
  • Encourage their social connections and give them space to strengthen their relationships. An important part of their development is to decrease their independence on the family tribe and to do this. To do this, they will feel an increased need to strengthen their affiliation with a friendship tribe. Encourage and support this wherever you can.
  • Help them find safe ways to take risks such as sports – competitive and non-competitive.
  • Let them know you will always do whatever you can to collect them from any situation when they want to come home – regardless of the circumstances and how late or far away it might be.
  • Let nothing be off-limits when it comes to what they can talk to you about.
  • Wherever possible, let them sleep in to catch up on sleep deficits.
  • Listen more than you talk.

And finally …

Know that along the way from infant to adult, there are some important things that need to be done. There are things to learn, mistakes to be made, boundaries to be pushed, independence to be found. It will be a beautiful, exhausting, baffling, sometimes terrifying, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes traumatic adventure for everyone. Be patient and don’t take their opportunities to learn and grow away from them by taking their mistakes and their less than ideal behaviour personally. Their greatest growth will come from the mistakes they make and the boundaries that they push up against.

Even with the strongest supports in place, they are going to make mistakes – sometimes spectacular ones! Provided they have the support they need, their mistakes will be about their growth, not your parenting.

For our part, it is important that we are there with love, nurturing and a steady hand to guide them and with boundaries for them to feel the edges of themselves against.  Understanding what is normal behavior for children and teens will make this easier. Growing up is a journey of learning, exploring and experimenting – for them and for us.

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