Psychological Development Stages

Similar stages may be seen in psychological development as well. Issues such as fears change in a generally predictable pattern as the child gets older. Infants often dislike loud noises, being poorly supported while they’re held, and being uncovered. Within about nine months to a year, they may become anxious when their mothers or other caretakers leave them alone and when they see strangers. By the time they’re toddlers, their fears focus on things they can see and hear, such as dogs or thunder — so-called concrete fears.

Preschoolers have more sophisticated fears that reflect their growing understanding of their own bodies and of abstractions. They insist that cuts and bruises be covered by a bandage and, if one of their parents is around, kissed “to make it better.” They worry about ghosts or being kidnapped by pirates or other bad men. These are fears of abstractions since, unlike the dog or the thunder that frightened them earlier, pirates and ghosts don’t have to be seen or heard to be frightening. Such abstract fears often continue into adolescence, when they are replaced by fears that reflect the child’s self-concept. Teenagers worry about failure and embarrassment — issues that would have made little sense to them a decade earlier.

Telling a preschooler that she shouldn’t be afraid of ghosts or a teenager that he shouldn’t be concerned with what other people think is fruitless. Such statements deny their developmental accomplishments. Being afraid of ghosts when you’re 4 years old is, in many ways, something to be proud of. It is a demonstration of the child’s developing intellectual capabilities. Similarly, being acutely aware of social awkwardness at age 13 reflects the child’s growing skills at empathy.

All Milestones Are Important

The most commonly described developmental markers, such as when a child first sits up, says a complete sentence, or goes out on a first date, reflect only a tiny fraction of the important physical and social changes children are constantly undergoing. Although we attach importance to such developmental milestones, we largely do so because they are easy to observe. Looking for some of the more subtle changes can, quite frankly, be a lot more fun. Unfortunately, children don’t come to breakfast in the morning and say things like, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I now understand the concept that objects can be classified in more than one way!” Such realizations, which as adults we take for granted, are equally important to a child’s development.

Yet children do tell us when they reach these less-obvious milestones. The ways in which they give us that information, however, are often cryptic and require that we shed some of our adult assumptions if we are to decipher them. Looking for and interpreting these clues are among the greatest joys of parenthood. The stories children tell, the things they fear, the games they play — all provide a window through which we can glimpse their developing minds. To dismiss their behavior as simply childish is to do it a great disservice.

Being scared of strangers at 12 months or acting defiantly at age 2 are not simply benign stages through which a child passes on the way to becoming an adult. They are as much a sign of normal development as is toilet training or learning the alphabet. Often, subtle behaviors actually give us more insight into a child’s growth than the obvious milestones, like learning to walk or saying a first word. Be open to seeing these subtle behaviors, for they will bring you great joy as well as appreciation of the changes in your child.