Understanding Your Children's Development

by Loretta Maase, M.A.


Some days, knowing all the parenting tips in the world won’t compare to understanding why our children do what they do. We can learn the best parenting strategies and still bang our heads in bewilderment when our children test our resolve once again. On those days in particular, it helps to simply understand what drives our children’s behaviors.




When we understand their ‘drivers’ we’re better equipped to understand how to predict and navigate their behaviors.


Children worldwide move through the same stages of development. They may move through at different rates depending on the culture they’re growing up in, but they all grow in relatively the same ways. Why is this important in a parenting class? Because sometimes we simply need to see our children’s behavior for what it is. It’s easier to get less hooked in emotionally when we remember that: toddlers must frequently say no, four years olds naturally want to practice pouring their own orange juice, and teens are driven to look to their peer group for approval and support instead of yours.


A little understanding of what makes kids tick gives you, the parent, the opportunity to stay one step ahead of them. There are many aspects to development that work together to form the complicated little packages called our children. For our purposes here, though, we’ll look at what’s commonly referred to as ‘psychosocial development’ - which is the interaction between what the individual needs to do and what society expects of him. Understanding a little bit about this interaction helps us know what choices and boundaries we can give our kids in our effort to raise responsible children. If you know a little bit about child development you’ll be able to skillfully determine what the best choices and boundaries are for you and your family.

Tasks and Crisis. This interaction occurs through a series of stages that are very important to understand because it’s this interaction that tends to cause so much grief for parents. Each stage of development has two particular sets of challenges: a developmental task (the need to grow in a specific way) and a psychosocial crisis (the need to adjust to social expectations as we grow – the social lesson).

It’s called a ‘crisis’ because a child must accomplish the task in one stage before moving on to the next. For example, there can be friction between a toddler and his parent when the toddler struggles to put on his own shoe and the parent stops him because he’s putting it on the wrong foot. The child naturally strives to become more independent while the parent strives to keep him from harm. The crisis is this - through the struggle to grow the child learns one of two things about himself: he can be autonomous and independent or he’s a failure and his attempts to do things for himself bring heartache and shame.

Lessons learned in one stage are carried forward into the next. When a child fails to accomplish a task over and over again and resolves the lesson by assuming he’s a failure, he takes that sense of failure with him into the next stage. Take heart though. Most children adjust just fine through each stage. None of us has adjusted perfectly through every stage. The point is, it’s these natural ‘crisis’ or frictions between the individual’s need to grow and the environment around him that tries to control the growth that gives us labels like “terrible two’s” and “rebellious teens”.

Central Processes. We need to add a third piece to the puzzle before moving on. We use the word ‘crisis’ to describe the friction between where children are today in one stage of development and where society says they should be tomorrow – they need to slowly grow up. Growing up and mastering each developmental task is a process. The Central Process is the process through which each crisis gets resolved. It’s the process children go through in order to grow up.

For example, in the illustration given above, the developmental task for a toddler is to develop his or her sense of autonomy, to start becoming his or her own person. Becoming more autonomous means acquiring new skills and abilities. Toddlers learn new skills, in part, by imitating the grown-ups in their environment. Therefore, the central process toddlers use for growing up is imitation.

In the example given above, if the toddler insists on doing things his way (it’s not really a safety issue) it would be effective to allow the toddler to wear his shoes on the wrong feet and show (or model for him) how to do it correctly another time (when he’s not upset).

Please see Part II in the related article: Knowing Your Children


© Loretta Maase, M.A. All Rights Reserved. Loretta Maase, M.A., - Executive Director of Parent Rise. Ms. Maase has an undergraduate degree in child development and a Masters degree in Counseling, with a specialization in child development and parent-education. She is the author of 'The Parent Rise Connection' parenting program for single parents. As former Regional Director of two foster care agencies, clinical director of The Parenting Center of Albuquerque, and therapist in private practice, Ms. Maase has taught parent education to hundreds of parents since the 1980’s. She is the proud parent of two daughters, Lily and Arielle.