Concerns about Child Development Stages
Parenting Advice Corner
Question: My son will be 4 in September. He is trying to remain a baby. We do not encourage any type of behavior that he should be past. For example, at daycare he will go into the infant area and ask for a bottle: He tries to get us to rock him to sleep at night and he is practically glued to me when we are home. I only work part time, and make it a point to spend one on one quality time with him. He does not want to try anything new. I have watched the other children in his daycare and most stare at him as if he is really weird. His swimming teacher thinks he has low self-esteem. How do I get him to move on and act more his age? — Frustrated Parents in Florida
Answer: It is common for children to hold onto infancy or babyhood. Not every child is anxious to be a “big” boy or girl! Sometimes it means they have to let go of things they really like, like sucking on bottles, being rocked or not having to stop playing to use the potty. This is a normal part of child development stages.
There are two important rules to remember when dealing with this particular situation:
(a) Never ridicule a child who wants to re-experience babyhood by telling him to “grow up” or “quit acting like a baby.” While the child’s behavior, in itself, is not a sign of low self-esteem, such responses can damage the child’s sense of self-worth. Critical comments cause children to feel more insecure and increases their need for comfort and reassurance – which they try to meet in ways that have worked in the past – wanting to be held more, self-comforting with bottles, etc. This approach almost always backfires and can even lead to power struggles. If you would like information on how to prevent power struggles, read our article on getting more cooperation.
(b) Nudge, but don’t push. Nudging is a firm and gentle encouragement to take the next step. Pushing is an unrealistic pressured expectation to reach the final goal all at once. Being told one has to be a “big” boy or girl can actually feel like pressure to grow up — and many people resist pressure. The natural law of human behavior is to push back or insist even harder when someone is trying to force us to change or to do what they want. It often turns into a power struggle. When children are hesitant and truly scared of new experiences, we can nudge and encourage them to take the next step. We can read their reactions and be ready to back off a bit or slowly ease them into a new situation.
It’s important to understand what’s happening here, developmentally. In an excerpt from The Parent’s Toolshop: The Universal Blueprint for Building a Healthy Family, the author, Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE explains:
“Growth occurs in waves. At each of the major child development stages, children work through certain issues and tasks. There are natural ups-and-downs as children master these new skills. It is necessary for children to go through a temporary period of imbalance before moving to a new level. If they didn’t do this, they would have to immediately jump from one developmental stage to the next, with no transition period. This would be unnatural. Children often step back and regroup between their great spurts of learning. In the early years, these difficult periods often come at approximately six-month intervals, but even this time frame is not a hard and fast rule.”
If things are going smoothly and suddenly our children’s behavior takes a downward dive, we want to consider what is happening with them developmentally. If we can’t identify any traumas or mistakes we are making, there is a good possibility that these children are getting ready to make a developmental leap and are entering this transition period. Many parents are concerned about these regressions when children revert to old, outgrown habits. It is particularly helpful, during these times, to review literature about the developmental issues children face at that age. (The Parent’s Toolshop summarizes all the developmental stages children go through.)
As children prepare to leave infancy behind – forever – they often seek “one last try” at it, sometimes many “tries.” It is very common for children between the ages of 4 and 8 to “play baby.” They talk like babies, suck their thumbs (even if they never did before), and want to drink from bottles. It’s fun! Babies get extra attention and pampering older children don’t – and they miss it! When it seems like the age regression is a “game,” we can let them “play” baby and respond in ways that reinforce their maturity. “It’s fun to pretend you are still a baby, isn’t it?” If we allow them to do it, but put time limits on how long they do it or maybe where they do it (at home but not in public), it helps them “get it out of their system” and behave age-appropriately more often and in more settings.
Something else to consider is whether your son’s hesitancy to try new things is simply his personality. Some children are so comforted by and comfortable with routines, that they have difficulty making transitions. We cannot change someone’s temperament, because much of it is determined by genetic factors, but we can influence how they use or channel their natural tendencies. In another excerpt from The Parent’s Toolshop, I explain several personality traits that can result in difficult behavior and offer suggestions for each. Here is what I suggest for this trait:
Children have a hard time making transitions between activities. These children are uncomfortable with change and become upset in new and unfamiliar situations. Limit the number of transitions children must endure. Have consistent routines and as few surprises as necessary. Explain what will happen next and allow time for children to end one activity before moving to the next. Arrive early or visit ahead of time before expecting children to participate. Be encouraging, but don’t push too hard. With young children, use tangible time references they can understand. Older children with this trait can have difficulty adjusting to classroom changes if they haven’t learned effective coping strategies.
I would also add that you can suggest he “just try” something new and either set a reasonable limit like how many times he tries it, how long he tries it, or when/where he tries it. It’s kind of like trying new foods. Just one bite now and then can help “break you in” to the idea and taste of the new experience. Often, children are just unsure about what to expect, so they would rather sit and watch for awhile to see how things work and get used to the idea. This is part of their learning style. They “wait and see” how it’s done and when they are ready to try it, they do it all at once. Think about when he started walking or finally started using the toilet. Is this what he did? If so, accept that this is his style of learning. He’ll do “it” (whatever “it” is) when he’s ready and is sure he’ll succeed.
Finally, try not to worry about children who still need a great deal of closeness, affection and reassurance at this age. They enjoy it – now. It’s a wonderful sign your child has bonded with you. You’ve done a “good job” as a parent to have a child who feels so reassured by your presence. Allow yourself to be “home base,” for them to touch now and then. And if they still want to be rocked at night or come to you for a dozen hugs in an hour, put things in perspective. Like many things in parenting, this too shall pass. And I guarantee there will come a day when you wish your son would want to give you a hug, sit on your lap or be with you – but it’s just not cool anymore. Save up these deposits in your “emotional paycheck” bank account, for there will be dry spells during the teen years, which also pass. Remind yourself that your son’s present behavior is temporary, typical for his age and nothing to be overly concerned about. I didn’t say it would be easy to deal with or that it will go away overnight. Like most parenting situations, we need to be patient and avoid reactions that can make matters worse. We want to respond in respectful, reassuring ways that nudge children to the next step of their development without coddling or allowing them to become overly dependent. It’s a fine line, but a clear line.
For more information about child development stages, personality traits, building independence, and helping children work through their feelings, I suggest you get and read The Parent’s Toolshop. Not only does it have 100+ skills and tips for 1000+ issues, but it will teach you the basic concepts and practical tools you need to feel more confident as a parent and to figure out on your own how to resolve any problem, using the unique “Universal Blueprint” problem-solving system it presents.
Do follow up with us and let us know how things work out. I’d be willing to bet your son is getting ready to “leap” developmentally and six months from now he will have moved beyond this stage. He’s just having a hard time “getting over the hump,” so be encouraging and reassuring as you nudge him along.
If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about misbehavior check out these recommended resources:
- Listen to a one-hour recording of a live teleseminar called, “Why Kids Misbehave — and What You Can Do to Prevent and Stop it.” Click here for a description or to order.
- Listen to a one-hour recording of a live workshop called, “The Kitchen Stinks! Cut off ‘PU’ Misbehavior Before You Get ‘PO’d.’”Click here for a description or to order.
- Take a look at the 7 Keys to Parenting Success free ebook.
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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