Child Development 101: Different, Not Pathological
An understanding of the basics of typical development can prevent caregivers from panicking if something about their child seems unusual, says clinical psychologist Joan Maltese, co-founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Child Development Institute (CDI). CDI supports families and developing children through early intervention services.
"All children develop behaviors that may be perceived by parents as a challenge, whether it's getting a child to eat, sleep or quiet down after they've been upset," Maltese says. "The first relationship is with the parent. That parent needs to really tune into their child and find the reason behind the behavior."
In most cases, children displaying seemingly atypical behavior are merely experiencing development in their own unique way. The key to supporting a child whose behavior is different is for parents to suspend judgment, seek support and build confidence. And one way to boost confidence is to learn as much as possible about childhood development. Simply talking to other parents and caregivers may help clarify whether a certain behavior is typical and offer insight on navigating a particular stage of a child's development.
Maltese adds that spending time with young children is crucial. "Get to know what works for the child, and what doesn't. Are they highly sensitive? What kind of learner are they? Is it just a difference between the parent's style and the child's?
If a preschooler persistently displays severely challenging behavior despite a parent's best efforts to intervene, Maltese recommends turning to a pediatrician or mental health professional for advice. A developmental screening may help determine whether a child needs professional help, and may offer parents and caregivers new ways to support their child.
Maltese adds that there are resources available online, in print, or through organizations like First 5 LA, which among many programs offers a helpline (888-FIRST5-LA) parents can call for advice.
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