Did you sign up for those “Your baby is 17 weeks today” emails when your kids were born? They were great unless your child didn’t line up with the recommended milestone.
And what about now that your child is older? Do you ever wonder if they are on track? Or worry that they will be delayed forever?
Ashely Soderlund, a child psychologist, will help you think about child development in a different light.
Three Things About Child Development Every Parent Should Know
When people find out I am a child developmental psychologist, they jokingly ask me if I can tell them the secret to parenting. I know they are half joking, but at the same time, they are wondering if I do somehow have special knowledge.
I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have secret knowledge or some ultimate guidebook for parents (wouldn’t that be nice!). But there are a few things that I do hold onto as a parent that came from my years studying child development.
These are things that have shaped my focus as a parent and that also give me a little peace — a sense of “it will all work out.”
And every parent could use a little of that, right?
1. There are a lot of chances to “catch up” in development.
Development does not, contrary to popular belief, happen on a clear-cut timetable or in concrete stages. And what appears to be true at one age can change over time.
For example, brain development occurs earlier in girls than in boys, hence, the saying that girls mature faster than boys. But boys do catch up. Or for example, babies born prematurely often show some developmental delays, but many catch up to their peers by the time they are in adolescence. And we don’t really know how or why this happens developmentally. Each child is on his or her own course.
There are many times in development when the brain is open to change and when development adjusts itself based on experience. For example, sensitive and warm parenting has even been found to change how their child’s genes are expressed. Some children are extra sensitive to their environment, including a parent’s care.
Parenting Takeaway: The only constant in development is change. Warmth, love, and sensitivity can affect development in a deeply positive way. Know that you matter to your child.
2. The idea of “everything in moderation” is key in development.
Imagine this: You are studying for a test and you are really stressed out about it. So stressed you can hardly focus. Or, what if you have a big test coming up and you just really don’t care. You aren’t stressed at all and hence don’t study at all.
Normally we think of stress as bad. But, in this scenario, a little bit of stress is good. It is enough to motivate you to study, but not so much that you can’t focus and not too little that you don’t try. A little challenge, a little stress, a little frustration, even a little anger – these are all good things ultimately.
The 20-Second Rule
When I studied emotion in babies we had the “20-second rule,” which is a common rule most researchers follow. If a baby was crying, we would always wait 20-seconds before we stopped the task (moms, of course, were told they could stop any task at any time). If we didn’t have that rule, then we would have prevented the babies the opportunity to regulate emotion, which was the very thing we were trying to study.
It’s the same for parents. If we swoop in too fast, we never give our children a chance to practice emotion regulation. Twenty-seconds isn’t long. But to a new mom trying to do tummy time with her baby? It’s an eternity! In the beginning of tummy time with my son, I would literally count to 20 and I hated it (and I wouldn’t always make it to 20)! But that frustration my son had on his tummy motivated him to hold himself up and that’s exactly what tummy time is designed to do.
A little bit of frustration is good; it actually fuels motivation and accomplishment in children.
Parenting Takeaway: Don’t protect your children from experiencing negative emotions. Instead, help your child to work through challenge and stress. That is a skill that will stay with your child through their whole life.
3. Self-regulation is the most important skill for children to learn in early childhood
Self-regulation underlies pretty much everything else we focus on as parents. A well-regulated child will do better in school, be better able to pay attention, get along well with others, and be empathetic. As parents, it’s also something we face daily with young children. Tantrums, big emotions, high-energy, impulsiveness — all of these things are due to the immature self-regulation system in children.
This is because self-regulation is one of the main things that in early childhood – both in terms of behavior and in the brain. Self-regulation in the brain does not fully organize until age 3 and does not fully mature until about age 5. Then the whole system reorganizes and goes through further development in adolescence. Some estimates place final “adult” maturation of this system occurs when someone reaches his or her early 40s! But the foundation for all of that occurs in early childhood.
Parenting Takeaway: Helping your child regulate stress, frustration or any other emotion is one of your main tasks as a parent. It’s a big job for them and for you.
Think of emotion as raw energy and little kids are learning how to harness that energy. At the right level, even some negative emotions, like frustration, can have a positive effect– like fueling motivation. Here are some more tips for fostering self-regulation in kids.
Knowing about child development and research studies can help parents in practical ways. It certainly isn’t the only way to make parenting decisions — I’m also a big believer in gut instincts and self-reflection when it comes to parenting. But, research can give us a lot of tools for our parenting toolbox!
Ashley Soderlund is a child psychologist with a passion for understanding why kids develop the way they do. Join her on her quest to understand emotions, behavior, and how best to communicate and connect with your kids. Let’s nurture them and watch them thrive! Check out her website.