As Myra cradled her newborn daughter, Emmy, she wondered what life would be like now that her little one had arrived. What would life look like as they navigated the different ages and stages of Emmy’s life? Myra wondered what she would be like as a mother. Would she do the right things? Everyone had different advice for her. It was all so confusing! How would she know that she was doing what was best? Myra knew that she and her husband, Jeffrey, had been raised differently. How much of their experiences with their parents would seep into their child-raising? And how would their actions as parents impact Emmy’s social and behavioral development?
As the worry began to bubble up inside of her, Myra remembered Peter’s instruction to “cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). She let out a breath as she stroked Emmy’s cheek and gave her worries to God. It wouldn’t be easy; parenting never is. But with God’s help, and the guidance of the knowledgable people He had placed in her life, Myra felt more confident that she could positively impact Emmy’s development. “I love you, Emmy,” Myra said as she watched her daughter sleep.
The Ages and Stages of Social and Behavioral Development
1. Your Infant
By providing a safe home and attentive care—and time to snuggle, cuddle, and coo — Myra was already doing things that would encourage Emmy toward healthy social development and behavioral development. Myra knew that, as a parent, she would make mistakes, but she would learn from them. She knew there was no such thing as a perfect parent, or a perfect child, for that matter. There were going to be times when Myra was tired, irritated, and frustrated as Emmy grew through the different ages and stages of her life. There were times when she was going to need the help of others — her husband, her parents, a babysitter.
“Well, baby girl,” Myra said as she bounced Emmy on her knee, “it looks like you’re not the only thing I need to balance. Most days it feels like I’m juggling so many things!”
Myra was a mom, but she was also a wife, daughter, sister, friend, and a person with her own needs and desires. All of the relationships she had helped her to be a complete person, which in turn would help her to be a better parent. For her to pour into her daughter’s life, Myra had to be filled and sustained first. She made a list of priorities that were critical for her to feel refueled — date night with her husband being one of them.
Myra and Jeffrey wanted to ensure they were on the same page when it came to childrearing. They both understood that communicating with each other was vital. As much as Myra shied away from confrontation, they agreed to deal with conflicts quickly and directly. Myra and Jeffrey also decided to present a united front whenever they needed to correct Emmy so that she would not learn to play one parent against the other. Consistency is critical for social and behavioral development, so they wanted ALL of Emmy’s caregivers to be consistent in how they responded to her. Consistency was especially important when it came time to reinforce the rules for appropriate behavior. Myra and Jeffrey invested time and energy to make sure all of Emmy’s caregivers were acting in agreement when it came to Emmy’s behavior and how to address any concerns.
Emmy had increasing independence and penchant for exploring during her toddler years. She continually challenged the boundaries. To navigate this age and stage, Myra and Jeffrey wisely child-proofed their home, putting locks on cabinets and storing dangerous or breakable objects out of reach. He tried to eliminate as many temptations as possible. Myra and Jeffrey tried to focus on positive ways to respond to Emmy’s curiosity to encourage social and behavioral development. There were many times when she could distract Emmy, but other times Emmy needed correction. The main goal of discipline is to teach limits and to demonstrate what is acceptable and non-acceptable behavior.
Myra tried to remain calm, firm, consistent, and loving in her approach to parenting. She had to remind herself that young children have short memories, and because of this, it’s essential to act promptly. If Myra waited for five minutes to correct her daughter, Emmy wouldn’t remember what she had done that needed correction. Emmy would then become confused. It also meant that she found herself repeating and repeating.
Here are some other tips that Myra found helpful as she navigated the toddler age and stage. No one enjoys discipline. When your child cries after being corrected, resist being too quick to comfort them or they won’t think they did anything wrong. The goal of discipline is never to harm your child—physically or emotionally. Myra and Jeffrey agreed on using ‘time-out’ when needed to correct Emmy instead.
Temper tantrums are a normal way for toddlers to deal with conflict and have absolutely nothing to do with your ability as a parent. The key to effective discipline is consistency and calmness. Be selective about which issues you decide to enforce.
When a toddler’s behavior is inappropriate, be sure to separate your displeasure of the action from your displeasure of the child. Please don’t make them think they are a bad kid, but let them know what they did was wrong. Beware of rewarding bad behavior. For example, if a child whines continually and gets their way, he or she will learn to cry until the parent gives in to their whims.
Whether you realize it or not, you are their role model. The actions you model will set the groundwork for their social and behavioral development. Toddlers are great imitators. If you can remain calm and in control (at least most of the time!), your child will copy your way of dealing with problems.
The Pre-School Years
During Emmy’s pre-school years, her parents allowed her to make simple choices to develop her decision-making skills. For example, they would give her two or three options of what clothes to wear or which snack to eat. At this age and stage, toddlers want to please their parents—and themselves! Emmy began to attempt to bargain with her parents, which was a healthy sign of her budding independence.
By participating in a neighborhood playgroup, Emmy was able to interact with other children and learn to socialize. But, like many children at this age, she also had an imaginary friend—Cookie (as in “Cookie needs a cookie”)—and a favorite stuffed animal named Winky (the poor owl only had one eye).
Myra realized that having an imaginary friend often allowed Emmy to express herself better through Cookie, especially if Cookie was afraid of something. And Winky was technically a transitional object (like a security blanket or a favorite teddy bear) that provides emotional support as a child transitions from dependence to independence.
Here’s a great tip regarding transitional objects: Have TWO identical objects. That way, one can be washed without your child knowing that it’s been swapped. A blanket can be cut in half to make two blankets, as children this age have little sense of size. If it’s a stuffed animal, it’s best to get two. (Please don’t cut Winky in half. One half wouldn’t be able to see!)
Myra and Jeffery found that Emmy did well with an established bedtime routine. Each parent made a practice of spending individual time with her playing on the floor. Even if it was just ten minutes, it was their special “time-in.”
Families benefit from having regular routines and family traditions centered around holidays, birthdays, and vacations. Family recreation, as well as family meetings, are good ways to strengthen the family and encourage social and behavioral development in the kids.
Myra also made sure Emmy had regular doctor visits to monitor her growth and development, and to keep up with her childhood vaccinations.
The School-Age Child
Before Myra and Jeffrey knew it, Emmy was going to school. For you, as a parent, it’s essential to prepare your child to behave within set limits. Help her develop the self-confidence to separate from you and to interact more with people outside of the family circle successfully. It’s time to learn to parent at a distance during this age and stage while continuing to stay involved. Let your child know you are always there for him or her—whether they appreciate it or not!
Continue to be an excellent communicator, the hardest part of which is being a good listener! Please make time to get to know your child and enjoy the unique person they are becoming. Parents are often surprised at how different each child is from the others. Because of birth order and family size, no two children experience the same family the same way. Children need to be loved and respected for who they are, not for how they compare to their siblings. Be aware of the power of your words and actions.
Also, know who your child is spending time with. Who are their friends? Peer influence is becoming more and more of a factor in their social and behavioral development.
And Then There Are the Teen Years…
The teenage age and stage is a time when your child may seem to have abandoned you in favor of everything else. In seeking their independence, they might fight you every step of the way. At the time when you think they most need you to help navigate the pitfalls of life, they lock themselves in their room.
Teens can be unpredictable, moody, and rebellious. As a parent, try not to take it personally! Never stop trying to communicate with them. Don’t interpret a lack of response as meaning that they are not listening. And choose your battles wisely. Be resilient and forgiving. Please respect their privacy, but be aware of what they are up to and with whom they are associating.
Studies have shown that teens who are secure in their parents’ love and respect were far less likely to experiment with tobacco, alcohol and drugs, sex, and violent behavior or to think about suicide. If you are ever concerned about your child’s behavior or development, please talk with their doctor or a licensed Christian therapist. Sometimes it’s scary to be the parent of a teen, but you don’t have to go it alone.
And here’s another thing to keep in mind: A teenagers’ body is changing without their permission. Girls are dealing with fluctuating hormone levels, struggling to understand their emotions. Many teen girls have a component of PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome), and some have a more severe condition called PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder).
After hearing their friends talk about the challenges of the teen years, Myra and Jeffrey were glad Emmy wasn’t at that age and stage just yet. They were gaining more confidence in developing their own parenting style, and realizing that no single approach to parenting works for all families.
One Last Word of Wisdom
One last word of wisdom: Listen to yourself. Do you sound like your own mom or dad? If that’s a good thing, thank them! If not, step back and focus on being the parent you wished you had. Become confident in your parenting skills and make an intentional effort to constantly adapt and improve. You can guide your child through each age and stage of their life and can contribute to their social and behavioral development in vital ways.
© 2020 by Dr. Patricia Landry and Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.