Ages and Stages

Your child may go through various stages. Learn about the typical, some times negative, behaviours, how you can help your child and get tips on general parenting strategies. Remember you can always call our Helpline 0800 568 856 and talk to someone about the issues you are having with your child.

– 6 to 18 Months

– 18 Months to 3 Years

– 3 to 6 Years

– 6 to 12 Years

– 13 to 18 Years

6 to 18 Months

This is the time that children start to explore their world. Their senses are developing, they are gaining new physical skills, and they are learning how to relate to others. They need to feel safe with the people around them, and to be kept safe from things that could harm them. They cannot yet control their emotions or understand logic, but how you respond to them now will make a difference to how they develop these in future.

Typical behaviours and how you can help

Wariness of strangers, and separation anxieties in the later stages: Notice when your baby or toddler is not happy with someone. Ensure they are left only with familiar, trusted faces. Stay with them and help them learn to trust someone new. If possible leave them only briefly at first – they do not yet have a sense of time and need to learn that you will come back. Be very happy to see them when you return.

Crying or throwing a tantrum when frustrated, upset, or ignored: Soothe them, and name their feelings – “I can see you are feeling very disappointed/angry/frustrated right now”. Do not reward undesirable behaviours by giving in, but do cuddle, calm, and distract them. You are helping them to learn how to deal with difficult emotions such as disappointment and frustration. Praise specific good behaviours and actions. Notice if there are triggers for tantrums, such as tiredness or hunger, and address these by changing schedules or having snacks available.

Biting, hitting, scratching, pulling hair: Remove the child from the situation, firmly say “no” and name the behaviour that is unacceptable, but stay close and help them to calm down. These behaviours happen because the child is not yet able to cope with ‘big’ emotions such as jealousy or anger, and needs your help to learn both self-soothing and appropriate ways to express their needs and feelings. Stay with them when they return to the situation, and show them how to behave acceptably.

Reaching for things and putting objects in their mouths, pulling themselves up on things: Provide a range of experiences with different, safe objects to play with and explore. Ensure hot surfaces, appliances and appliance cords, and dangerous or small objects are not within reach. Put gates across the top of stairs and ensure they are kept shut. Try not to interrupt the child while they are exploring unless it is unsafe. Exploring is essential for development, even when it results in bumps and scrapes. They will fall over, but this is how they learn. Be sympathetic, and soothe and cuddle them, but don’t make too much of a fuss over minor hurts.

Repeating the same actions, saying the same things over and over, curious and keen to interact with you: Allow them to repeat things – this is how they learn. Share their enthusiasm, and introduce them to related ideas and actions. Repeat their words back to them correctly, but don’t correct them.

Fussy and messy eating: Encourage children to try lots of different foods. They may spit things out at first, but keep trying. Cutting things into different shapes can make children more interested in trying things, and letting them ‘help’ you prepare food (put the grapes in the bowl, take the peel off the banana etc) can also make them more likely to try something. Let them start to feed themselves at snack time, and expect mess – they do not yet have the fine motor skills to do this tidily.

General parenting strategies

  • Ensure consistency – children this age are confused by change.
  • Consequences teach children positive behaviours. Use lots of positive reinforcement and modelling of acceptable behaviours such as sharing and empathy. Say ‘no’ firmly, and remove them from the situation for negative behaviours. Provide soothing, cuddling, and understanding to help them deal with disappointment or frustration, but don’t give in to unacceptable behaviour.
  • Establish routines, especially around meal and bedtimes. Children this age feel safe when they know what to expect, and will settle more easily and eat better if there are clear routines in place.
  • Play, smile, talk, sing, read them stories, share their enthusiasms, take them for walks and to the park, and cuddle them.

18 Months to 3 Years

In this stage children need to start learning to think and solve problems, and how to appropriately express and handle feelings. They are developing a sense of themselves, and learning empathy and how to cooperate with others. How you interact with them and the others around you will influence how they develop these skills and abilities.

Typical behaviours and how you can help

Wanting to play with other children, but also protective of their own space and toys: Encourage social contact, show them how to share, and teach respect for other people’s special possessions and space by respecting theirs. Allow a special toy that they don’t have to share, though this may have to be put away when others are around.

Conflict when playing with others: Model positive interactions in your own relationships. Play with your child and show them how to take turns and to use words to express needs, wants, and feelings. Talk about feelings and how to recognise and cope with them. Teach empathy by, for example, talking about why the baby might be crying and what she might need to make her happy again.

May resort to hitting, biting, or hair-pulling when frustrated or angry with others: Remove them from the situation and calm them down. These behaviours are often a result of children not knowing how to express themselves – their language skills are still developing. When they are calm, talk to them about their feelings and appropriate ways of expressing them. Have a consequence for such behaviour – confiscation of a toy or privilege – but allow the child to earn it back earlier with good behaviour. See TIME IN for more information about these strategies.

Wanting to do things themselves, and having their own ideas of what they want: Encourage independence by allowing them to make simple decisions such as whether to walk or go in the stroller, wear a blue or a green top, etc. Be patient and allow the extra time needed for them to do these things. Help them cope with frustration if they can’t do something, and don’t worry if it takes a while to master things like buttons – their fine motor skills are still developing and different children learn these skills at different rates.

Testing boundaries, showing defiance – “no!” “you can’t make me” etc.: Use “yes” more than “no”, even if it is followed by “after…” eg. “Yes, we can go to the park, after we’ve tidied up the building blocks”. Help them with tasks such as tidying – “you put those away and I’ll put these away” – and praise and encourage compliance. Allow them some choice – “will you pick up the dress-ups or the dolls, and what would you like me to do?” Work with their desire to be independent wherever possible, but be consistent about which behaviours are acceptable and which are not.

Developing a sense of humour, responding to the absurd: Encourage humour and use it to help your child through emotional difficulties. Use humour to teach processes – do something in a ridiculous way and allow the child to show you how it should be done. Read and enjoy funny stories and pictures with them. Be exuberant, and enjoy their humour.

Starting to play ‘pretend’ and role-play games: Let them dress up. Provide toys or objects such as plastic plates, cups, and bottles, boxes, blankets, dolls etc. Use different voices for different characters when you read to them.

Keen to climb, run, and explore, and to experiment with crafts and drawing: Provide lots of opportunities for safe physical play. Recognise that undesirable behaviours such as jumping on the furniture can be caused by boredom or the need to let off some energy, and take them to the park to run around. Provide paper and chunky crayons, and keep some playdough in the fridge for them. Drawing and modelling develop their fine motor skills, and this will help them later on when they are learning important skills like writing.

Starting to follow simple instructions, starting to understand cause-and-effect: Be consistent so that they know what to expect. Give very simple, clear directions – they do not yet have the ability to understand more. Help them if they need it. Encourage play with cause-and-effect, such as building blocks and pouring water between vessels. Talk with them about what is happening and what effect their actions are having. Read to them and talk about the stories. Talk about how things work – “the wheels go around and the car goes forward when you push it”, for example.

Learning about time, space, shapes, relative size etc: Read to them, and talk about the stories. Encourage them to tell their own stories – “and then…”. Talk about what you’ve done today, what you did yesterday, and what you’re going to do now/later. Look forward to tomorrow. Provide toys such as shape games, stacking cups, building blocks etc. Allow them to work out what fits where, and what sequence of actions is needed to carry out a particular task. Talk about colours and shapes, and the different ways things can be grouped together.

Fussy and messy eating: Keep providing a range of different foods, even if they have rejected them before. Cutting things into different shapes, and letting them help you prepare and present food can also make them more likely to try something. Let them feed themselves, and expect mess – they still do not have the coordination to do this tidily.

Starting to develop bowel and bladder control, interested in toilet behaviours: Praise dry nappies and offer the potty/toilet in later stages. Ask if they need to ‘go’ when you see the ‘signs’, and encourage both trying and their interest in toilet rituals – washing hands, flushing etc.

General parenting strategies

  • Provide lots of opportunity for play and exploration, and recognise that ‘bad’ behaviour can be caused by a range of things including boredom, hunger, over-tiredness, and high energy. Address the cause of the behaviour, and remember that your child is not yet capable of controlling their emotions or of logical reasoning.
  • Give the child words to name their emotions, and help them to express their feelings – both positive and negative – in appropriate ways. Model empathy.
  • Set clear and reasonable limits, and enforce them consistently. Remain calm and don’t give in to angry outbursts. Help them deal with disappointment through soothing and calming.
  • Use humour whenever possible, but always laughing with, not at. Follow your child’s lead, and encourage their imagination.
  • Use “yes” more than “no”, even if it is “yes, after…”
  • Keep directions clear and simple – they do not yet have the ability to understand more.
  • Encourage understanding of cause-and-effect. Allow the child to safely experience these, remembering that they need to “fall over” occasionally to learn.
  • Encourage independence in dressing, eating etc, and allow time for the child to do these. Offer simple choices, and praise their efforts.
  • Start to provide reasons and information, and answer the “how” and “why” questions. Often children will ask the same question over and over again, but be patient – this is learning. Ask them to explain things to you – encourage them to think and talk about how things work.
  • Have routines, especially around mornings and meal and bedtimes. Children feel safe with predictability.
  • Encourage appropriate behaviours with positive responses, and be specific so that the child knows what they’ve done well. Discourage negative ones with calm, firm, consistent responses. Explain and model the appropriate behaviour.
  • Cuddle them, have fun with them, and make sure they know they are loved even when you disapprove of their behaviour.

Strategies for normal but negative behaviour

  • Avoid conflict over eating. Children will eat adequately as long as food is offered. Make sure there is a variety of healthy food available when they are hungry, and remember that it can take many re-presentations of a food before a child will accept it. This is normal.
  • Tantrums are a normal behaviour for this age group, because children are not yet able to regulate their emotions. Disappointments that seem small to an adult can be overwhelming for a child. Stay calm, don’t try and reason with them, and don’t give in. See TANTRUMS.
  • Use TIME IN rather than Time Out as a method of calming a child down, and not as punishment. Help the child to self-soothe. Enforce consequences for problem behaviour after the child has calmed down and is able to understand what is happening and why.
  • Use consequences as both punishment and reward. Remove a privilege or a favourite toy (but never the toy they go to for soothing) as a consequence for negative behaviour, but for a short time only. Remember that time is only just starting to have meaning at this age. Enable the child to earn their treasured item or privilege back earlier through good behaviour that is related to the behaviour you are trying to change. If the consequence is for hitting their sibling while playing, for example, they can earn it back earlier by playing nicely, not hitting or otherwise hurting, and seeking help from you if they feel they are getting angry again. See TIME IN.

RETURN TO TOP

3 to 6 Years

In this stage children become very aware of themselves and of the people and things around them. They play actively and are very imaginative. They are curious and constantly exploring their world. Their communication, social, and motor skills are developing rapidly.

Typical behaviours and how you can help

May ‘test’ adult reactions by trying out different behaviours such as screaming or “silly talk”: Have a low-key reaction to “silliness” – eg. roll your eyes and turn away. Have rules about particularly irritating or intrusive behaviours, and enforce them calmly and consistently. Talk to them about feelings and appropriate behaviours – in this stage they are learning to recognise, express, and control their emotions. Reward positive behaviours with notice and praise.

Learning to make friends and play with others, may struggle with appropriate ways of doing this – exhibit shyness, bossiness etc: Talk about feelings and how others might feel, and encourage the child to express themselves verbally. Treat them in the respectful way that you expect them to treat others, and support them in their efforts to make friends.

May have separation anxieties when starting kindy, day-care, or school, or at the start of a new term: Establish a routine and keep to it. Arrive a bit early if you can so that you can see them settled into a task or play. See that they are left with someone they are happy with – another child or a teacher. Talk to the teacher about ways they can help your child feel comfortable when you arrive – a task ‘helping’ the teacher can be effective. Reassure them that you’ll be back at the end of the day/session.

Exerting their own identity and preferences: Let them make simple decisions for themselves – what they’re going to wear, for example – and give them choices about what to do, what snack they prefer etc. Talk about your decisions – why you are doing this now, for example – and enable them to participate – what would they like to do after this is finished? Choose your battles – do you need to make this decision, or can you let them have a say in it? Be clear and consistent with the rules and boundaries that you do make.

Keen to help: Give them tasks they can manage, teach them age-appropriate skills, and praise their efforts. Help them if they get frustrated, but leave them if they’re happy – even if they are not doing the task to your standard. They will pick up on your disapproval.

Asking lots of “why?” questions, might try out ‘shocking’ language such as toilet words at inappropriate times: Explain “why”. Encourage them to think about “why” themselves. Talk to them in full sentences, and listen. Respond calmly to ‘shocking’ words but be clear and firm about them being unacceptable.

Starting to play ‘pretend’ and role-play games: Let them dress up. Provide toys or objects such as plastic plates, cups, and bottles, boxes, blankets, dolls etc. Use different voices for different characters when you read to them.

Keen to climb, run, and explore: Provide lots of opportunities for safe physical play. Recognise that undesirable behaviours such as jumping on the furniture can be caused by boredom or the need to let off some energy, and take them to the park to run around.

Starting to draw recognisable figures, and learning to use scissors etc. May do these things inappropriately, eg drawing on walls, cutting hair or clothing: Give clear boundaries and simple explanations of why something is unsafe or unacceptable. Encourage creativity in acceptable ways – painting, collage, drawing, play-dough. Drawing and modelling develop their fine motor skills, and this will help them later on when they are learning important skills like writing.

Starting to follow simple instructions, starting to understand cause-and-effect: Be consistent. Give very simple, clear directions – they do not yet have the ability to understand more. Help them if they need it. Encourage play with cause-and-effect, such as building blocks and pouring water between vessels. Talk with them about what is happening and the effect their actions are having. Read to them and talk about the stories. Talk about how things work – “the wheels go around and the car goes forward when you push it”, for example.

Learning about time, space, shapes, relative size etc: Read to them, and talk about the stories. Encourage them to tell their own stories – “and then…”. Talk about what you’ve done today, what you did yesterday, and what you’re going to do now/later. Look forward to tomorrow. Provide toys such as shape games, stacking cups, building blocks etc. Allow them to work out what fits where, and what sequence of actions is needed to carry out a particular task. Talk about colours and shapes, and the different ways things can be grouped together.

Fussy and messy eating: Keep providing a range of different foods, even if they have rejected them before. Cutting things into different shapes, and letting them help you prepare and present food can also make them more likely to try something. Let them feed themselves, and expect mess – they still do not have the coordination to do this tidily.

Starting to develop bowel and bladder control, interested in toilet behaviours: Praise dry nappies and offer the potty/toilet. Ask if they need to ‘go’ when you see the ‘signs’, and encourage both trying and their interest in toilet rituals – washing hands, flushing etc. Take off the nappy together with sticker charts, praise, and incentives for performance when your child is ready for toilet training. They will usually be ‘dry’ by 3 or 4 during the day, but may take much longer until they are at night. Sometimes removing the night-nappy (make sure you have a water-proof mattress cover) can result in dry nights after a few nights or a week, but don’t worry if it doesn’t. Never punish the child for bed-wetting. If it continues after the age of 6 and concerns you, see your doctor.

Interested in bodies and the differences between boys and girls: May start masturbating, or play ‘show’ games: Stay calm – curiosity is normal! Respond matter-of-factly about sex differences. Talk about boundaries for touching and looking at bodies, including their own. Explain that their body is theirs and though touching it feels nice this is something they do in private, not in the middle of the living room floor! Explain the difference between private and secret, and ensure they understand that it is not ok for anyone to tell them to keep something that they are uncomfortable about secret.

May tell ‘lies’, have difficulty distinguishing ‘real’ from ‘unreal’, become afraid of the dark, or have an imaginary friend: This is their imagination developing. Don’t punish ‘lying’ – their ability to distinguish truth from fantasy is not developed yet. What they want to have happened can seem to them what did happen. Use books, stories, and humour to help them distinguish between fantasy and reality. Talk about fears. Drawing what they are afraid of, and themselves dealing with it, can help. Read them gentle or funny stories at bedtime, have a special toy, get a night-light, and be understanding and patient.

General parenting strategies

  • Provide lots of opportunity for play and exploration, and recognise that ‘bad’ behaviour can be caused by a range of things including boredom, hunger, over-tiredness, and high energy. Address the problem rather than punishing the child.
  • Help the child to express feelings, and to connect thinking, feeling, and appropriate behaviour. Acknowledge their feelings and help them to deal with negative experiences (such as disappointment) and behaviours (such as anger). Model appropriate behaviour in your treatment of them and in your relationships with others, and take time out to calm down yourself if you are angry.
  • Develop a clear and authoritative “NO” voice for behaviours that are not acceptable. Do not negotiate around these, and be consistent. Children need to know where the boundaries are, and unacceptable behaviours often come from uncertainty about what is and isn’t allowed. Remember: testing boundaries is normal for this age, and it is confusing if they move or are unclear.
  • Answer questions matter-of-factly. If you find a subject difficult, talk to your local librarian to see what books or other resources are available to help you focus your conversation.
  • Use humour whenever possible, but always laughing with, not at. Follow your child’s lead, and encourage their imagination.
  • Continue to encourage understanding of cause-and-effect. Allow the child to safely experience these, remembering that they need to “fall over” occasionally to learn.
  • Have routines, especially around mornings and meal and bedtimes. Children feel safe with predictability.
  • Avoid conflict over eating. Children will eat adequately as long as food is offered. Make sure there is a variety of healthy food available when they are hungry, and remember that it can take many re-presentations of a food before a child will accept it. This is normal.
  • Keep reading to them, and talk about the stories and pictures. Listen to their stories.
  • Allow plenty of time for free-play. This is where they learn about themselves and how to relate to others.
  • Look after yourself. To parent well, you need to be well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself when they are elsewhere or asleep.

Strategies for normal but negative behaviour

Aggression

  • Have a clear rule that aggressive or violent behaviour is not acceptable. Have a clear consequence for it – loss of screen time, removal of toys etc – and ensure the child is not exposed to aggressive behaviour – including your own or on-screen. Model anger control, negotiation, and respect for others – including your child. Encourage using appropriate words to express feelings, and help your child to find these. Reward positive behaviours with praise and encouragement, and help your child to deal with ‘big’ emotions such as disappointment and frustration. Remember: they do not yet have full control of their emotions, and how you respond to them will affect how they learn this. They need to learn consequences, but they need to be supported lovingly through this learning, and to know that it is the behaviour, not them, that you disapprove of. Use Time In rather than Time Out as a method of calming a child down, and not as punishment. Help the child to self-soothe. Enforce consequences for problem behaviour after the child has calmed down and is able to understand what is happening and why. See TIME IN.

Tantrums

  • Stay calm. While they are having the tantrum, do not try to reason with them. Often, a tantrum is a response to a situation that the child is unable to cope with, such as disappointment or frustration, and they need your help to calm down. Stay near them, cuddle them if they will let you, and speak simply and soothingly to them until they are calm.
  • Don’t give in to tantrums. If you reward the behaviour, it will happen more often. Remember that cuddling and calming is NOT a reward – it is the way you help the child to learn how to self-soothe. Giving in to the demand that may have sparked the tantrum IS a reward. When they are calm, stay firm on your decision but help them to cope with their disappointment. Name their feelings – “I know you are very disappointed / angry / upset” – and acknowledge that this is difficult for them to deal with. With children under 5 or 6, distract them with something else. With older children, talk about ways they could cope with such feelings in the future – taking some time out to calm down, finding their favourite toy to cuddle, etc – and how you might be able to help. See AGES AND STAGES 3-6 Years and 6-12 Years, and TIME IN.
  • Try and work out what is triggering the tantrums. If they are happening when the child is tired or hungry, make sure they are getting enough sleep or that you have more snacks available. Are they getting enough attention from you? Try and make special time to spend with them alone – reading stories together at bedtime, for example – and stop at other times to cuddle and give them undivided attention, even if it can only be for a few minutes. Children need to feel loved and valued, and tantrums can be a cry for attention.
  • Children are very sensitive to your stress, and learn from your behaviours. Ask yourself if there is stress in the home or in your relationship that could be affecting them, or if you or other family members are responding to stress with such behaviour as shouting or slamming doors. Seek help to address these problems if you need to. Call our Helpline – our support workers can talk your problems through with you, suggest strategies that may help, and refer you to local services if there is other support that you need.

Lying

  • Children this age do not have the same view of truth as adults, or the ability to understand logic. Sometimes ‘lies’ are fantasies, and sometimes they are what the child wishes were true. Children will also lie to escape consequences, so avoid cornering them. Do not punish ‘lies’, but help the child to distinguish between what is real and what is not. Talk to them when they are calm, and not in the moment when they are emotionally involved in their story. Encourage their imagination in positive, creative directions. Model truthfulness, and remember that children are quick to pick up when adults tell ‘white’ lies. Do not lie to the child to protect them. Reward them for telling the truth, even when the truth is something you would rather not hear.

Not cooperating

  • Tell rather than ask: “Come inside, it is teatime”, “It is time to get dressed now”. Be specific, and say exactly what you mean – “Put the toys in the toy box” rather than “Tidy up”. Give just one task at a time to start with. Once they are in the habit of cooperating, then other tasks can be added – “Now put your shoes in the cupboard”. Don’t persuade, coax, or discuss your command. If you do, the child gets attention for not doing the task.
  • Observe cooperation: Wait for a short time (20-30 seconds) after you’ve given them the instruction. Depending on what they do:
    • Child cooperates – give positive attention. Be specific and enthusiastic at first. Once the child cooperates regularly then a simple “thank you” is enough.
    • Child doesn’t cooperate – repeat your command in a firmer voice. Tell them in simple terms the consequences of not cooperating – “Or there will be no television today”. Resist the urge to add or explain anything else.
    • Child cooperates on second command – give positive attention, a little less enthusiastically than if they had cooperated the first time.
    • Child still doesn’t cooperate – Don’t give another command. They are not going to do it. Apply the stated consequence, without discussion.

Ways to encourage cooperation

Give a preferred activity after the less preferred one – “Put your pyjamas on, and then I’ll read a story”. Give limited choices until they are in the habit of cooperating – “What will you put away, the blocks or the books?” – and do the other task yourself.

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6 to 12 Years

In this stage children are developing their sense of self. They are learning about rules and the need for them, and how responsibilities and freedoms work. They are learning about, and questioning, the values that rules are based on. They are learning and practising a wide range of new and essential practical, social, and emotional skills.

Typical behaviours and how you can help

Testing boundaries and rules, challenging parental decisions, arguing and expressing preferences, developing interests and friendships: Encourage their interests, support their friendships, listen to their ideas, and talk to them about their opinions. Examine your rules and allow them some input if appropriate, but be firm and clear about rules that are non-negotiable. Be clear about acceptable behaviour and model respectful ways to express and debate opinions. Acknowledge when you are wrong, and make sure they know you still love them even when you disagree with them.

Becoming more able to control their emotions, but may still need help with the more difficult ones such as anger and jealousy: Model control and respect for others in your relationships. Acknowledge their negative emotions and talk with them about strategies to deal with them. Encourage them to come up with these themselves. Praise both effort and achievement, and help them to deal with disappointment.

Learning to cope with a wide range of social situations as they move through primary school: Support them in their efforts to make friends, and talk to them about how to handle difficult situations as they arise. Discuss behaviours and feelings with them, and encourage them to think about why people might behave in particular ways. Role-playing can be helpful for working out how to respond to difficult situations. Talk to their teacher if there are problems at school, and be the safe person they can come to with any problems.

Asking lots of questions, and keen to share their achievements. May become frustrated when things seem “too hard”: Support them in their learning – read with them, play games with them, and share their excitement. Encourage them to find their own ways of doing things. Praise effort, and help them break tasks into manageable ‘bites’. Don’t expect perfection, and help them to understand that effort is required for achievement. Teach them skills and responsibility by giving them age-appropriate tasks at home – clearing the table, sorting out and putting away their clean laundry, feeding the cat etc. Appreciate their input into the running of the family.

Developing their imagination, keen to tell stories – both made up and about their experiences – and keen to test themselves with new things: Encourage their interests, listen to their stories, and provide opportunities for them to experience new things. Talk to them and ask them what they think. Allow them to do things their way where possible. Unless it is particularly dangerous, allow them to experience the natural consequences of their actions.

Becoming aware of societal norms about gender relationships, may find that peer pressure makes friendships with the opposite (or same) sex difficult: Talk to them about relationships and feelings, and about coping with peer pressures and the behaviours of others. Support them to be strong in their identity.

From about 10 girls may start entering puberty, boys start a little later. May start to experience physical changes, and become moody or dramatic. May want time alone: Help them to understand what’s happening to them, and begin this conversation before it does. Books are very useful for focussing your conversation and enabling the child to look things up themselves. Respect their space and stay calm in the face of outbursts. The emotionality of this stage is caused by changes taking place in their brains – it is not a deliberate attempt to drive you crazy! Talk to them when they are calm.

General parenting strategies

  • Praise and encourage appropriate behaviour, and talk about strategies for dealing with negative feelings and relating to others. Encourage and model empathy.
  • Help the child to express feelings, and to connect thinking, feeling, and appropriate behaviour. Acknowledge their feelings and help them to deal with negative experiences, such as disappointment, and behaviours, such as anger. Model appropriate behaviour in your treatment of them, and in your relationships with others, and take time out to calm down yourself if you are angry.
  • Set and enforce rules. Be prepared to negotiate on some rules, and expand boundaries as the child matures. Do not negotiate around rules about safety, their welfare, or acceptable behaviours. Be consistent and develop a clear, authoritative “No” voice for enforcing these rules. Children need to know where the boundaries are, and unacceptable behaviours often stem from uncertainty about what is and isn’t allowed.
  • Answer questions truthfully and matter-of-factly. If you find a subject difficult, talk to your local librarian to see what books or other resources are available to help you. There are lots of good books around for children on sex and reproduction, bodies and boundaries, puberty etc. Make use of them – they help to focus your conversation, and enable the child to look things up themselves.
  • Use humour whenever possible, but always laughing with, not at. Follow your child’s lead, and encourage their imagination.
  • Continue to encourage understanding of cause-and-effect. Allow the child to safely experience these, remembering that they need to “fall over” occasionally to learn.
  • Have routines, especially around mornings, homework, and meal and bedtimes. Children feel safe with predictability.
  • Keep reading to them, and talk about the stories and pictures. Listen to their stories.
  • Allow plenty of time for free-play. This is how they learn about themselves and how to relate to others.
  • Look after yourself. To parent well, you need to be well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself when they are elsewhere.

Strategies for normal but negative behaviour

Aggression

  • Have a clear rule that aggressive or violent behaviour is not acceptable. Have a clear consequence for it – loss of screen time, removal of toys etc. Ensure the child is not exposed to aggressive behaviour – including your own or on-screen. Enable them to earn back lost privileges etc through appropriate behaviour – this reinforces their learning and encourages their self-control. If there’s no chance of changing the outcome – gaining their privilege back earlier – then there’s no incentive to behave well. Model anger control, negotiation, and respect for others – including your child. Encourage using appropriate words (and tones) to express feelings, and help your child with these. Reward positive behaviours with praise and encouragement, and help your child deal with ‘big’ emotions such as disappointment or frustration. When they are calm, talk with them about how they feel at such times, and what might help them to feel better – eg a cuddle, a little bit of time alone. Help them come up with their own solutions – and to tell you how you can help – and reinforce them with praise when they use them. REMEMBER: They are still just learning to control their emotions, and how you respond to them will affect how they do this. They need to learn consequences, but they need to be supported lovingly through this learning, and to know that it is the behaviour, not them, that you disapprove of.
  • Use TIME IN rather than Time Out as a method of calming a child down, and not as punishment. Help the child to self-soothe. Enforce consequences for problem behaviour after the child has calmed down and is able to understand what is happening and why.
  • Use consequences as both penalty AND reward. Remove a privilege or a favourite toy (but never the toy they go to for soothing) as a consequence for negative behaviour. Enable the child to earn their treasured item or privilege back earlier by engaging in positive behaviours that are related to the behaviour you are trying to change. If the consequence is for hitting their sibling, for example, they can earn it back by playing nicely and seeking help from you if they feel they are getting angry again. In this stage it can be effective to remove something for several days or a week, but to enable its return to be brought closer by a day for every day that they behave appropriately. This reinforces the behaviour you want. Encourage and support them in their efforts to behave appropriately, and look forward enthusiastically to being able to return their toy/privilege to them. See TIME IN.

Lying

  • If your child lies regularly, ask yourself why the child needs to lie. Are you modelling lying yourself? Often parents forget about the ‘little white lies’ they tell themselves, and expect total honesty from their children. Children learn about truthfulness from the adults in their world. They also learn tact and consideration this way. Is your child punished for honesty, eg “Aunty Meg is fat”, when they state facts? Children punished for honesty can become confused and learn to lie to protect themselves. A lie can seem a better option than telling the truth and risking being punished. Praise honesty, particularly if being honest might be to the child’s disadvantage. Lying in this stage can also still be part of the child separating reality and fantasy, trying to make the world the way they want it to be. You can help them by gently pointing out the reality while accepting their need for fantasy – “I know it would have been lovely if things had happened that way, but…”. If they are upset, leave this conversation until they have calmed down and have less emotional investment in their story. Read to them and talk about stories with consequences for untruthfulness, e.g. ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf’. Encourage them to think up their own stories of untruthfulness having bad consequences – this puts their imaginative abilities to use in the positive direction of understanding the need for honesty.
Rule breaking
  • Remember that this is part of the child’s development – it is how they learn. Consider the rule. Is it important? Is it appropriate? Does it need discussion? Could the child have some say in this particular rule? Is the rule fair (put yourself in their position)? If the rule is not open to negotiation, remain consistent with the consequences. Consequences teach children responsibility, and it is confusing if they keep changing. Consequences can be natural or logical, but remember that children are not mini-adults in their ability to use logic. Consequences need to be in the right “currency” for the child. Natural consequences are, for example:
    • Child won’t wear a coat – child gets cold – child learns to dress for the weather.
    • Child not ready for school – child is late and has to explain why to the teacher – child learns to be on time.

Logical consequences can be explained to the child as a series of choices that they must make. Explain what the consequence for a particular behaviour will be, and that they have the choice of stopping the behaviour or experiencing the consequence. For example, a child is unwilling to tidy their room, but wants to go to the park. Provide them with the choice of tidying their room and you will take them, or not-tidy their room and you will not. When using logical consequences:

  • Emphasise that the child made the choice or the decision.
  • Ensure they have the time and ability to do what you have asked them, and know what is expected – eg how tidy their room must be.
  • Do not get into a fight or argue about the consequence, and don’t give in. Example: if you have made it clear that you will take them somewhere if their room is clean at 2pm and it is 3pm before the job is done, at 2pm it is the time to say ‘I see you have chosen to stay home’ and say no more.
  • Generally children want to please, so always recognise and acknowledge/reward their good behaviours.

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13 to 18 Years

In this stage children are developing their emotional, practical, and social independence. They are moving from the dependence of childhood to the interdependence of relating as an adult. Huge changes are taking place in the brain as connections between the prefrontal cortex (logic and control) and the rest of the brain are re-formed. The limbic system (emotion) is very much in the driving seat. Expect moodiness, mood swings, dramatic outbursts, egocentricity, and provocative behaviour. Novelty-seeking and an increased need for social connection with peers make this a time of both risk of harm to themselves and others, and of potential for great personal and creative growth. The risk of harm is increased by isolation from adults, so it is essential to maintain strong, secure relationships and open, respectful, lines of communication with your teen.

Typical behaviours and how you can help

Challenging family norms and values, pushing boundaries, experimenting in the forbidden: Relax. Give them the information they need to keep safe, and let them know you are always there if they need you. Respect their privacy – their room is their space. Use compromise, negotiation, and contracts to help them learn healthy ways of dealing with conflict and difference. Respect their opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. Expect the behaviours you would like, but don’t be disappointed when they don’t happen. Let them know that you believe in them, and give them another chance. Show them that you enjoy their company.

Moodiness, dramatic behaviour, and egocentricity – no-one else has experienced, or can experience the world as they do: Stay calm. Emotions are contagious – if you meet anger with anger, the situation will just get worse. Avoid “you’ll get over it” type advice – however well-intentioned – as they will just assume that you don’t understand. Listen, empathise, support them through their disappointments, and celebrate their successes.

Changed hygiene habits, sleeping late and staying up late, dissatisfied or obsessed with their appearance: Help them with physical needs – deodorant, sanitary items etc. Talk to them about their changing needs and the importance of self-care, including sleep and proper nutrition. Talk about screen time in the hour before sleep, and negotiate reasonable bedtimes. Let them choose their own clothes and hairstyles.

Embarrassment or anxiety about their maturing body, coping with comments from peers about breasts, pimples, uneven voice etc: Talk to them. Ensure they know what is happening to them, and what is going to happen. Help them to be confident in their changing bodies, and to cope with social pressures. Talk to the school if they are getting negative or upsetting personal comments from others – this is bullying. Respect their need for privacy, but make sure they know they can come to you if they need to.

Developing more complex relationships with friends of both sexes, learning to handle sexual impulses in socially appropriate ways, coming up against peer pressure: Talk to them about sex and relationships – both friendships and romances. You may not approve of their relationships, but they will have them anyway. Ensure they have the information they need to keep safe, and be there for them if they need you. They will have more secure relationships if they are secure in their one with you, and will be better able to resist peer pressure if they feel supported by you.

Learning to deal with the pressures and demands of secondary school – homework and exams – and to balance academic and other activities: Help them with timetabling and prioritising. Ensure they are properly fed and getting enough sleep at night. Expect that they will get stressed, especially at exam time, and help them to deal with it. Try not to put your expectations onto them – they are living their lives.

Confusion and uncertainty mixed with the “bullet-proof and know-it-all” mentality: Believe in your adolescent and their ability to work their own life out. If they blow it, give them a second and a third chance. Allow experimentation in safe ways, and don’t belittle their attempts to find their own identity. Ensure they have the information to keep themselves safe while experimenting, because they WILL experiment. Be there for them when they need you.

Wanting privileges of adulthood – going out, learning to drive etc – but may be less enthusiastic about the associated responsibilities: Expect them to be responsible around the house. Have specific chores as well as general expectations such as tidying up their own mess in communal areas. Tie privileges to performance of these, and enforce consequences calmly. Have a written agreement so that there can be no argument – and don’t argue. As appropriate, explain their legal position in regard to behaviours around alcohol, sex, drugs, anti-social behaviour etc.

General parenting strategies

  • Keep your sense of humour – you will need it.
  • Negotiate where you can, and be absolutely clear about what is not negotiable. You are their parent, not their friend, and you are responsible for their safety (at least until they are 16).
  • Think before you speak. If you don’t show them respect, you won’t get it back. Apologise if you get something wrong.
  • Choose your battles.
  • Resist being drawn into emotional arguments, and shrug off dramatic statements about how they feel about you. Remember, their brain is running on emotion – if you react emotionally, they will just become more so. It is enough to say “I’m sorry you feel that way” and leave it at that.
  • Loosen and negotiate boundaries where you can – they need more space – but keep reasonable consequences for breaking rules. Remember that consequences need to be consistent, in the right ‘currency’, and short-term – once you have used it, you need to get it back before you can use it again. As with younger children, shorten the period of the consequence in recognition of specific good behaviour, and remember – only use consequences that you can control. Grounding is pointless if they are going to climb out the window – your problem just becomes bigger. Confiscate devices or cancel social or other privileges, and be clear about how they need to behave to get these things back. Do not negotiate or give in to hysterics once the consequence has been imposed – you set the rules.
  • Respect their privacy.
  • Don’t punish honesty. If they get in trouble for coming to you when they make a mistake, they won’t come to you. You don’t have to approve of anything they’ve done, but do reward their maturity in coming forward, and help them when they need you. You can talk through what’s happened, and what they’ve learned from it, later.
  • Be there for them. Be the one they know they can always come to, any time, for help, support, straight answers, and unconditional love.
  • Look after yourself. Get the support you need to cope.
  • Enjoy them. Help them to become the best adults they can be.

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