Developmental Skylines

The child I have in mind today is growing so quickly, on every dimension of development … but each area progresses at it’s own pace.

In the preschool years, abilities unfold with staggering speed!  Children move from mouthing their toes to balancing upon them, reaching for heights.  Babbled syllables of every language on earth grow into clear speech in the language(s) of home.   Reasoning extends past peekaboo games to twenty-piece puzzles.

The rapid rise in child abilities leaves us gasping at every turn.  But advance in one area feeds expectation for comparable advance in another.   Growth spurts in another child can generate comparisons with one’s own.

SONY DSCDevelopment, however, is like a city skyline.  Buildings of varied heights mirror multiple abilities in different stages of progress.  Look at a cityscape with a mathematical eye and you can visualize a vertical bar graph.  To a child psychologist, those bars are analogous to normative, uneven growth across developmental domains. These areas are Cognitive (reasoning), Emotional, Social, Speech & Language, Toileting, Fine motor, Gross motor,  etc.  In no child do those developmental areas grow evenly.  Just like the varied heights of downtown.   And what a boring skyline it would be if the structures were uniform in shape!

Expect variation between developmental domains in your child.   Support your young ones where they are.   Lags in certain areas might foretell the need for specialized help, but not necessarily so.  If you have concerns, track your observations with detailed notes and refer to them every few months.  Public school districts offer free developmental screenings. Child psychologists conduct developmental evals.  You may consult your child’s teacher or pediatrician, who follow hundreds and thousands of children, if you are worried.   But all those professionals will say a uniform “skyline” is not the developmental norm.   And the window of typical development is very wide.

Observe your child’s individual skyline. And know that your attentive  support encourages growth in each developmental area.

Regressions: Back to a Safer Time

Regressions – what are they all about? A child with clear speech returns to baby talk  … a potty-trained child reverts to accidents.  Many parents are concerned and frustrated by  backward steps.  After the triumph (and convenience!) of growth forward, regressions can perplex and annoy adults.

Behavioral regressions are temporary steps backward to a safer time, to take a break from uncomfortable challenge. It is a coping strategy. Coping is anything one does to try to manage an uncomfortable state.  Development is tough work!

We adults can no longer remember growing on so many developmental dimensions at once. An adult-world analogy might be: starting a new job (cognitive), resuming exercise (gross motor), learning a foreign language (language), taking piano lessons (fine motor), and mastering a new cell phone (emotional – haha!) all at once.  You too might fall back on an easier skills while your muscles were sore and your brain tired.  You might even throw down your complicated new phone and cry!

Grown-ups may call-out regressive behavior: “Why are you talking like that? You’re a big boy now,” or “Why are we having accidents? You’re not a baby anymore.”  The assumption is that a teaspoon of embarrassment might jog the child back into age-appropriate behavior.  But such responses miss the child message – which is, “I’m anxious, I’m overwhelmed right now, this growing up thing is hard.”  When a child sends a message that is missed, the response is often anger – either internalized (as resentment) or demonstrated (acting out).   Shame never feels good. What to do instead?

1)   Notice the regression and ask yourself, why might this be happening at this moment?  Coping with younger sibling in his life? Working hard on one developmental task (toilet training) may temporarily leave less energy for work on other tasks (puzzles. language, emotional regulation).

2)  Check in with your child.  “Jordan, I notice you are using your younger boy talk lately.  I wonder if something is bothering you today.”  Few young children can answer  How, Why & What questions. So offer your guesses in “wondering” statements like, “I wonder how you are feeling about baby sister these days.”  Offer support and understanding statements. “Yes, I’ve had to hold sissy a lot after dinner.” Your child may offer, “Yeah, and Daddy doesn’t tuck me in like you do!”  

When your child shows a regression, take the cue – something is taxing her capacities.  Child growth does not emerge in linear lines. Knowing this allows us grownups to accept and observe regressions, interpreting them with gentle acceptance and support.