Understanding Child Development

Dealing with children can be a challenging task to any well-educated, intelligent and emotionally stable adult. Alike the rules in any interpersonal communication process, knowing the thinking process of the other individual(s) defines much of the interaction’s success.

Just as people learn how to frame their conversational style to suit their interlocutor’s mindset and to oblige to cultural and etiquette-related requirements in normal adult-relationships – anyone should also thrive to learn more about children in order to effectively communicate with them (even if the objective is to make them stop being a nuisance!).

Do you know what goes on in a child’s mind?

The development of a child occurs through a number of stages. Effective parenting requires adults to understand the behaviours associated with each of the stages and how they affect parenting of the child in various situations. In a child’s life, they may encounter many difficult situations, many of which are not a result of the child’s actions.

For example, parents separating or divorcing, creation of a step-family or being the victim of bullying at school. All of these present challenging situations for parents whereas knowledge and appreciation of the child’s stage of development will assist with recognising difficulties and implementing strategies for coping.

In this article, we explore some of the stages of a child’s lifespan. This knowledge should assist you in developing your parenting skills, uncle skills, auntie skills, cousin skills, or, at the most basic level, your ability to communicate with just another interesting group of the broad social milieu.

The Young Infant (Age 0-3)

Children at this age have little or no understanding of their world. The important thing to them is routine and changes to their routine can be bewildering.

Attachments are formed early; therefore the young infant will form attachments to its main caregivers whether they are the biological or step-parent. This means that despite their inexperience, the child’s attachment to them will depend on how much contact they have with him/her.

Signs such as anger, crying, searching and lack of appetite will indicate that a young infant is experiencing difficulties in adjusting to a new or changed situation in their life (for example, separation of parents, primary care-giver returning to work, formation of a step-family). What people do for a child at this age is far more important than what we say. Generally, a young infant needs large doses of tender, loving care… holding, cuddling and stroking.

The Older Infant (Age 3-5)

The older infant has a limited understanding of their world depending on the information that is provided. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 find it hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is imaginary, which means their feelings may include confusion, anger and aggression.

In situations requiring adjustment, regression in behaviours such as sleeping and toilet training may occur together with reverting to baby behaviour and clinging. When talking to children of this age about the new or changed situation, it should be explained simply to avoid confusion. Role playing with animals, toys and puppets can help the child gain an understanding of what is going on.

The Young Child (Age 5 – 8)

Slightly older children have a greater understanding of life; however can find it difficult to understand their emotional reactions such as feelings of guilt or fear when something in their family life or circumstances change.

The child can sometimes feel anger towards either parent for a disruption or they can lash out at others close to them such as siblings. Behavioural problems such as underperformance at school and disruptions in friendships can occur and if they interfere significantly with family life, may indicate signs of distress. Many of these responses can be related to growing up, and do not individually indicate trouble.

Adults can assist the child to cope with a changed family situation by encouraging positive, separate relationships with each parent and providing reassurance, stability and comfort. Talking about their feelings regularly, listening closely and observing their actions also help. It is vital to respond to them with understanding and care.

The Older Child (Age 8 – 12)

Children aged from around 8 years and older have a more realistic understanding about life and begin to place greater importance on their world outside the family. Whilst they understand more, they are still not able to deal emotionally with all they experience. They tend to react with similar emotions to adults such as extreme sadness and anger.

Their anger can often be directed through physical fighting with schoolmates or siblings or in verbal attacks directed at one or both parents.

Children of this age not only need support and comfort but their questions answered about their situation whether it be divorce, death or the formation of a step-family. These answers can be explained in a manner which reflects their level of maturity. Parents should continue to enforce reasonable rules, limitations and curfews as pre-teens need structure and routine in order to feel secure.


The emotionally healthy teenager is learning to define who they are and gain a sense of belonging to the world around them, separate from that of their family. Teenagers try to adapt to change, however, more than ever require emotional support, love and firm guidance.

They might be critical of their parents’ decisions such as separating or forming a stepfamily and react with anger toward either biological parent or step-parent, loyalty to one parent, or even give the appearance that everything is fine.

Teenagers are often overwhelmed by their own anger, and self destructive behaviour such as alcohol or drug abuse may be experimented with as a means of deferring the pain. By communicating openly and honestly with the teenager, they feel their maturity is recognised. It is important to be willing to compromise on some issues, while balancing reasonable limits and respect for their growing independence.

Every child is unique and may or may not fit their age categories exactly. The way each child responds and the way adults react will depend not only on their stage of development but on other factors going on inside and outside the family environment. Like many things in life, success in communication with children is all about resilience, willingness to learn, and a tad of good judgement.