Sping 2014 - Ages & Stages
Parents often worry and wonder if their child is developmentally on track. It can be tempting to compare your child to their siblings, neighbors or friends, but parents should remember to treat each child as an individual. Watch, learn and respond to your child’s specific needs and progress. As they develop, use careful, thoughtful observation to understand your child’s behavior.
Remember the Basics
The types of skills you want to see children develop from ages 3 to 5 include:
- Execute a routine more easily
- Develop a better sense of friendships
- Become more aware of their peers’ feelings
Age 3 to 4
As children get to this age, they should be developing more independence and awareness of others’ feelings. Parents play a role in helping children learn to do these things. Be sure to reassure children and help them articulate their own feelings and help them begin to understand others. It’s normal for children to get emotional, and you can help them talk through why they feel a specific way.
Although it can be challenging at times for families to stick to a set schedule, it is important to remember that 3- and 4-year-olds really do well with routines. “Preschoolers particularly benefit from a routine,” said Melissa Johnson, PhD, pediatric psychologist with WakeMed Children’s. “A routine reduces conflict about daily activities, but it needs to work for your family.”
Regardless of the situation, verbalize challenges when a routine changes and help children understand why something is different from what they are used to. Be sure to highlight something positive about the change and let them know when you will return to a specific routine.
According to Dr. Johnson, the preschool environment has a more routine structure. Kids should start to learn to respond to cues within a daily routine. For example, a tune on the piano in a preschool class could indicate that it’s time to get their coats for outside play. As parents strive to maintain a routine, it’s important to pick battles. If your child doesn’t want to wear their jacket, you may want to let that go if it doesn’t pose a safety issue. “Decide what is most important and focus on things that affect safety, family values or social appropriateness,” said Dr. Johnson.
What to Wear
Arguments about what to wear can really get in the way of a family’s schedule. Dr. Johnson encourages parents to work proactively and give children a few simple alternatives. “Avoid the every morning thing by using a star chart to encourage getting ready on time,” she said. “Set up clothes the night before – put them on the floor in the shape of a person so everyone can agree in advance on the outfit for the next day.”
Caring & Sharing
Children at this stage should be beginning to learn how to reconcile their feelings on their own. “They will start to learn how to work things out themselves, but adults may need to help them label their feelings,” said Dr. Johnson. “For example, a parent can say ‘you look mad and frustrated, but I bet you can figure out a way to have fun’ – give them a simple framework within which they can figure out their own solution.”
By supporting children but not resolving everything for them, you help them identify their own feelings. “When they are upset or disagreeing with others, you can simply provide a little emotional support as they learn to share and adjust to the feelings of their siblings, friends and peers.”
When conflict arises among children, try showing them how to take turns, give them options and avoid forcing them to do anything specific. Remember, this is all new to them. Guidance and patience is key to allow children to work through their emotions.
Imagination Runs Wild
Ever wonder why young children suddenly develop fears? Or make up stories? They’ve probably entered a fanciful stage that is important to understand. As a child’s imagination grows, they will engage in more pretend play. As they explore all the possibilities, they need time to adjust and understand reality from make believe.
“This can be a healthy process with the right perspective from parents,” said Dr. Johnson. “Remember that fears are a result of their active imaginations, and they have difficulty separating real from imaginary at this age.”
Storms, dogs, monsters under the bed and even clowns are common fears for children. Parents shouldn’t worry if their child is afraid of specific things at age 3 or 4. “There’s nothing necessarily wrong, and it’s important not to push them to get over their fears,” said Dr. Johnson. “Something as simple as a funny clown nose, which is very different from what they’ve seen before, needs to be explained.”
Dr. Johnson emphasizes that you shouldn’t force a child into a situation that seems scary for them. Never make them approach a mascot or sleep in the dark. Instead, explain the reality in simple terms but reassure them that you understand they are scared. Make sure they know you are there for them. Give them support and choices. For example, ask them if they want a nightlight or if they prefer to have the door open to see light from the hallway.
Acknowledge that they are scared and help them feel safe, but put them in charge of how they want to work through their fears.
Age 4 to 5
Parents can expect children to develop the following skills between age 4 and 5:
- Improve language skills rapidly
- Understand more elaborate concepts
- Describe narratives in longer sequences
Working Through Emotions
Children begin to explore their powers and emotions more between age 4 and 5. This can be a big challenge at times, but parents need to stay in control of situations. Parents should acknowledge and reassure children that they are in control of their own emotions.
“Stomping feet and saying ‘you’re not the boss of me’ is common for children at this age,” said Dr. Johnson. “Set an example and stay calm, but let them know you notice their behavior."
Emotions shouldn’t dictate the family’s ability to enjoy and follow a plan. “It’s important to accept a child’s emotions but don’t let them run the family,” said Dr. Johnson. She offers the following tips and recommendations for staying on track when kids lose control:
- Remember, a child’s emotions are real
- Don’t tell a child their feelings are silly or wrong
- Avoid attempts to stop them from crying
“Sometimes children struggle and get upset when they are asked to stop one activity and move to another,” said Dr. Johnson. “You should help them understand how their choices affect family plans without it feeling like punishment.”
For example, let them know that you have to be on time for a performance. Talk about basic things such as why movies or sports practice are scheduled to start at a specific time, and help them understand why showing up late isn’t fair to everyone else. This should help them work through their emotions and begin to make choices.
Liar, liar? Don’t Add Fuel to the Fire
As the imagination phase develops, some parents become concerned that their child is a liar. The truth is that young children are really just figuring out the difference between reality and fantasy. Parents should exercise caution and be careful not to scold a child who is still learning the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary.
“To address concerns, talk to your child about the ‘amazing story’ they made up in their own head,” said Dr. Johnson. “Explain what is real and tell them you know it is confusing sometimes to know the difference between reality and imagination, but don’t fight it.”
What Did You Say?
“As children develop their vocabulary, ‘potty talk’ can become common,” said Dr. Johnson. “They may just be learning those words, and they may not be sure what is appropriate yet.” She cautions parents not to punish children for using anatomically appropriate vocabulary and suggests talking calmly in private about what the specific words mean.
“Make sure children are comfortable asking you questions, sharing their thoughts and using the right anatomical words with you,” said Dr. Johnson. “This is important for protecting them from various types of child abuse.” It is important for parents to teach their children that they have private, personal boundaries that they are in control of, and they should know they can talk openly about those areas of their body with you.
Make Time & Be Patient
It can be overwhelming for busy parents to sit down and listen to a child at this stage. However, it can make all the difference. “Parents should set aside time to really focus on their child – it is a gift for children and can be very helpful,” said Dr. Johnson. “If the child knows they have undivided attention, they can relax and really share instead of trying to grab your attention at other times in the middle of everything.”
Whenever possible, carve out time and tell children you will spend time talking with them if they can wait until then. Show them that you care and let them know you want to make the time for them. When talking to your child, focus on ways that you can both work on the following:
- Communicate better
- Work together on house projects
- Wait for your turn or for something specific to happen
If a child is in daycare or preschool most of the day, the amount of reinforcement at home can be limited. “Parents should select activities that have multiple benefits,” said Dr. Johnson. “For example, going for a walk gives parents and children emotional and physical time together.”
“Be sure to mix in things you love and that they love doing with you,” said Dr. Johnson. “Make a point to incorporate things that are not electronic and that are simple and direct.”
Make a commitment to curl up together each night before bed with a book for cognitive literacy and family connectedness in your routine.
Most of all, remember to find reasons to smile and make time to laugh together each day.
Stay tuned for more Ages & Stages highlights for the early school years in the next issue of Families First. Are you subscribed? Sign up online at www.wakemed.org/familiesfirst or fill out and return the enclosed card. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.