Understanding Your Children's Development (pt.2)
by Loretta Maase, M.A.


Growth and Development

Infancy (Birth to 2 years)

The developmental task (need): Babies need to form a strong attachment with someone in their world, usually their mom or dad. This is one of the most crucial stages in a human being’s life. All future stages depend on it.

The crisis (social/emotional lesson): trust vs. mistrust. Infants up to two years of age have one major lesson to learn, or crisis to resolve: can they trust the person caring for them or not? If infants learn that they can trust those around them to really care for them, love them, and meet their needs then they learn that they can trust the world and move into the next stage of development fairly easily. If children learn to mistrust those around them because their needs are not met and they are not consistently cared for, then they learn to be suspicious of others and they carry this unrest with them into all other stages of development.

This should help a parent answer the question of whether you can spoil a baby or not. The real question is, is the baby learning that when he cries because he’s hungry he gets fed, when he cries because he’s hurting he gets helped, and when he cries because he’s lonely he gets comforted?

Central Process (how it happens): mutuality with his caregiver. Babies must have a loving, trusting relationship with a caregiver in order to successfully learn they can trust the world. This relationship provides the basis for all future attachments. Even when children are in daycare they can still learn that there are one or two primary people their world who show up for them faithfully.

Toddlers (2 to 4)

Developmental task (need): Toddlers need to learn to be self-sufficient in many activities: how to tie their shoes, put their own pants on, feed themselves, learn to talk, play with others, and begin to exercise a little self-control (physically, as in learn to use the toilet instead of diapers). They need to learn how to move away from the physical dependence they had on others as infants.

Crisis (social/emotional lesson): autonomy vs. shame and doubt. When toddlers are given the message that they CAN begin to do things for themselves within reason (even if it’s messy) they learn that their autonomy (physically breaking away from others) is a good thing. They learn to feel good about themselves. On the other hand, if toddlers are given the message that they can’t do things for themselves or that their push for independence is a problem for others that gets them into trouble, they’re given the message that they’re not capable. When they’re given this message enough, they learn to feel ashamed of their own natural efforts and abilities.

For example, when a toddler tries to put his shoes on and cries with frustration because he can’t quite get it right AND his caretaker does it for him, the toddler gets the message that he’s not capable. If this happens often enough, the toddler learns to doubt himself. When the toddler’s frustration angers those around him (over and over), he learns to feel ashamed of his efforts.

When he learns to feel embarrassed about himself and doubt his own abilities, he takes these lessons into the next stage of development. This is not to say that the toddler shouldn’t have clear and concrete boundaries around him. Rather, toddlers do best when they are allowed to try and fail…and succeed…within the boundaries set for them. In this situation, it’s helpful to wait until the toddler is over his frustration and show him how to put his shoes on another time so he can practice again later.

Central Process (how it happens): Imitation. Toddlers watch those around them and imitate what they do and say. Fantasy play becomes important as they begin to act out and express things they observe in the worlds. Toddlers try on makeup, pretend they’re driving cars, make cell phone calls, etc. It’s the process of imitation at work.

Early School Age (4 to 6) - The Play Years

Developmental Task (need): In addition to becoming more autonomous and independent, preschoolers begin to observe and learn about the different roles people play in their lives. Their imaginations are in over-drive. Children in this age group learn about others through role-play. “Play is the work of the child” holds true for this stage more than any other. One of the needs or tasks of this stage is for children to learn very simple ways of going beyond themselves to becoming a member of the larger society or group (even if that larger society is one or two other playmates).

Play at this stage is mostly dramatic play as children begin to act out different adult-like roles and activities that they observe in their lives. They role-play being mommy, daddy, or grandma, etc. They play house. They play going to work. They play doctor. This is also the beginning of moral development as children learn (usually the hard way) what it means to treat others the way they want to be treated (the dreadful “I don’t want to be your friend anymore…”).

Four to six year olds learn a lot about gender identification during this stage as well. They observe and learn about what women and men do. This is why dress-up and fantasy play are so common (it’s not until around four or five years of age that a child begins to understand that he or she is going to stay a boy or a girl forever). The development of self-esteem also continues during this stage as children begin to learn more about who they are in relationship to others.

Crisis (emotional/social lesson): initiative vs. guilt. As children grow and become more independent in this stage they begin to initiate more play and more activities. Their thinking increases and their fantasies and ideas expand. Because they pretend to be adult-like they tend to overstep boundaries parents set for them. When children are met with acceptance during this stage, when they’re encouraged to play, fantasize, and make-believe, they learn that their new abilities are positive. However, when children are criticized for their newfound ideas and their creative play, they learn to feel guilty about them. Children who grow up feeling guilty are likely to carry that guilt into their adulthoods.

Central Process (how it happens): Identification. Through fantasy play children often role-play the people and circumstances around them. The stereotype is that little girls identify with the women in their world and boys identify with the men. This is one of the many reasons children truly need to have same-sex adults in their lives – to learn from them. In the absence of a same-sex parent, a close relative or qualified mentor can help to fulfill this role.

School Age (6 to 8) - The Early Years

Developmental task (need): Primary school age development is a time for children to learn new skills- both social and competency. Through school, group projects, sports, etc., children gain basic competency skills they’ll use throughout their lives. Children are also driven during this stage to begin the long-term process of seeking independence from their families in favor of dependence ontheir peer group. Children tend to form groups at this age, even groups of two or three. These groups tend to have their own social rules, norms, and language. Children at this age become more particular about who their friends are and less interested in playing alone.

Crisis (emotional/social lesson): industry vs. inferiority. During this stage children learn that they can become more competent and productive or they end up learning the opposite – that they can do nothing well. Their peer group, teachers, church group, and parents – generally in that order - all work as vehicles for children to learn new skills and to develop their self-image. When children are criticized for their efforts and failures they tend to develop a sense of inferiority –something they tend to carry with them throughout their lives.

Central Process (how it happens): Education - curricular and extracurricular. Through education, school projects, extracurricular activities, church groups, and friends children gain competency and skill during this time or they develop a deep sense of insecurity.

Pre-Adolescence (9 to 12)

Developmental task (need): No one needs to tell parents that this is one of the most confusing stages in children’s development. They are no longer young children; nor are they adolescents. They are in that in-between stage where one moment they will insist on their maturity and need for independence and the next moment break down in needy frustration.

This is the stage where children naturally push for more independence from parents. However, they are far less independent than they appear to be because they have simply shifted their focus from dependence on parents to dependence on their peer group. Children in this stage have become aware of, and sensitive to, differences among people. This recognition often leads children in this age range to look for and bond with peer groups in order to belong and feel isolated when they are not part of a larger group. These groups tend to develop their own culture, with shared ideas, dress codes, language, and rules for behavior. Children in this in-between stage still depend on school and social activities as the means to work out their needs in this stage.

Crisis (emotional/social lesson): Children in this age-range are in the end stage of industry vs. inferiority. As with the younger children in the age range, children are naturally drawn toward school achievements, projects, team sports, scouts, etc. However, preadolescents typically strive to become more industrious and skillful – but within group settings. Children who fail to develop some degree of industriousness or remain outside of groups tend to develop a sense of inferiority. This is where school bullying and ostracizing children different from the norm can become so damaging, and even dangerous.

Central Process (how it happens): Education, school projects, school and extracurricular activities, peer groups, team sports, etc.

Adolescence (13 to 17)

Developmental task (need): Though teenagers’ needs are many, perhaps the most driving need is to figure out who they are. Teenagers struggle with their identity on many levels: who they are in relationship to others, their career interests, and their sexuality. They struggle with body image and wild hormones. They think in new, more abstract ways. They strive for emotional maturity. And (hopefully) begin to plan for financial independence. In other words, teenagers begin to try on roles in preparation for adulthood. Most often, however, these new roles are marked with confusion and turmoil. Adolescents have to make the huge transition from seeing themselves as dependent children to breaking away and seeing themselves as independent adults. It can be very challenging for a parent to allow the independence his or her teenager needs. But, independence is essential if teens are to make it through this stage and into their adulthood.

Crisis (emotional/social lesson): identity vs. role confusion. What is identity? It’s the sense of knowing one’s self as a specific, independent individual, with connection to a past, plans for a present and a future, and identification with a certain group or groups. It’s also a sense of establishing a sexual, moral, political, and vocational identity that’s relatively stable over time.

The infamous adolescent identity crisis is the time of searching and evaluating, often through trial and error. Most teens are consumed, to one degree or another, with this process. They’re naturally self-focused and think others are focused on them as well. The result is a seemingly insecure state of being, with chronic concern with how others view them.

In order to figure out what adolescents believe and how they see the world, they often challenge parents, family members, teachers, etc., with new ideas. They challenge boundaries and curfews as they begin to see themselves as independent adults. They challenge expectations and social values. These challenges are normal and are to be expected. We can handle these challenges effectively by providing fair boundaries and choices – or we can fight them and probably lose the battle in the long run.

If teens don’t adequately resolve this crisis for themselves they run the risk of living a life of alienation and isolation, as they never learn to feel comfortable enough with themselves to allow intimacy to occur.

Central Process (how it happens): Peer groups. Adolescents learn about who they are through relationships with others, primarily through relationships with their peers. The process of growing up means transferring loyalty from previous relationships (such as with the family) to loyalty to a peer group. Teens grow to rely on peer support for approval, mutual interests, companionship, and shared values. It is for this reason that having an internal sense of personal responsibility is so crucial for teens. Because their loyalties change, without a personal sense of responsibility (and right and wrong) they are vulnerable to conforming to attitudes and behaviors they may not want to or that may not serve them well.

Young Adults

Crisis (emotional/social lesson): Intimacy vs. Isolation. Older teenagers and young adults are driven to seek companionship and love with another person or become isolated from other people. Moving from “hooking up” to finding comfort in a committed relationship is a driving factor in young adult life.


Generativity vs. Stagnation: Developmental stages don’t end with adolescence or young adulthood, of course. People go through stages of development throughout the courses of their lives. Parents of various ages, for example, move through developmental stages of their own. Between young adulthood and the twilight years, adults are naturally drawn toward being productive, performing meaningful work, raising families – or risk becoming stagnant and inactive.

Integrity vs. Despair: As we age, adults from middle age on strive to make sense of their lives, either seeking life as a meaningful whole of despairing at goals never reached and questions never answered.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: As we can see, child development progresses through a set series of stages. From infancy on, children learn about themselves and the world around them from their relationships with others. They learn to either trust or mistrust those they love; to feel good about being independent and competent; and to develop their own way of thinking. Through it all, the way we parent them will either encourage their positive development or discourage and confuse them. If we are careful about how we parent them through each stage of development we can help them meet their life challenges with a natural sense of responsibility and integrity. It will pay off in the long run.


© 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.