How many times have you heard someone tell you their child’s behavior is just a phase he or she is going through? Go ahead, roll your eyes. Most times, however, it is just a phase. The trick is to know which phase it is, what it means, and whether it should be encouraged or simply endured. After all, loving children — and adults — is easier when you understand them.
Here is a simplified version of the socio-emotional developmental stages defined by renowned child development expert Erik Erikson. Each stage of development offers a critical period, a time when a certain skill must be achieved in order to lay the groundwork for future success.
Keep in mind that each child must learn at his or her own rate. The toddler who seems slow to toddle may be a large baby with extra weight to carry when walking. The child may be busy observing and thinking … in other words, learning. Children develop at different speeds, but in the same general progression.
The initial stage of life is existence, which obviously takes a lot of adjustment. It is amazing how quickly a baby advances during the first year. An infant’s primary behavior is reaching, usually for the caregivers (bonding).
Goal: Emotional security.
Challenge: A baby is hungry and cries. The crying stops on seeing mother or hearing her footsteps because the baby trusts her for food. Mistrust comes from prolonged discomfort and anxiety — waiting too long for needs to be met.
Grandma’s Role: To love, nurture, and be consistent.
Becoming an individual means demonstrating power by doing “by myself”: walking, climbing, grasping, and letting go. The child also learns to control bodily functions. Self-pride leads to strutting, talking, and enjoying jokes.
Goal: Feelings of self-worth lead to healthy curiosity and awe of life.
Challenge: If shamed by others, the child will doubt self, feel worthless, and give up curiosity about the world.
Grandma’s Role: Praise the child. Offer choices to show you respect the child’s opinion. Watch the child practice such new behavior as stacking objects.
As children move from attachment to exploration, they question and seek experience with purpose. Dramatic play teaches about life. When children feel guilty, they often repeat their parents’ voices, telling them what they may or may not do. By now they have developed a conscience. Too much control makes them fearful.
Goal: Curiosity leads to healthy exploration of the outside world, helping to create an understanding of the child’s place within the world.
Challenge: If children are taught that the swimming pool is dangerous, they may develop a fear of water. If they are taught the safety rule of staying away from the pool unless a grownup is watching, then they will be free to explore water play when it is appropriate.
Grandma’s Role: Talk with them, play with them, and encourage their small steps toward independence.
These children want to do things! They are learning what they are capable of: dressing themselves, completing schoolwork, painting, dancing, playing sports, etc.
Goal: Achievement builds confidence.
Challenge: Children who do not feel confident in their abilities, will soon feel inferior in all respects. This unworthiness will create a cycle of nonparticipation that eliminates further opportunity for achievement, leading to a sense of inferiority.
Grandma’s Role: Applaud their accomplishments. Go to the park and to their ball games. When a child is unsuited to a particular skill, encourage participation in alternative activities where another opportunity for achievement exists.
Teenagers need to feel good about their sexually developing bodies. Feeling comfortable with themselves allows them to turn outward and care about things other than themselves. They struggle to find new values and beliefs, while rejecting those that don’t quite fit. Healthy children learn to sympathize with other people. They develop genuine concern and commitment to the world around them.
Goal: To love themselves and know what they stand for.
Challenge: Teens with a poor sense of themselves search for belonging and can be led astray easily.
Grandma’s Role: Show consistent interest in them as they try on new identities despite the outrageous clothing and hairstyles this search might involve.
Love is the dramatic interest of this age group. Each of the previous stages has laid the groundwork: trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, and identity. Young adults can now be truly close to another human being in an intimate, committed relationship.
Goal: The ability to be ethically and emotionally intimate with another.Challenge: Young adults need to allow themselves to be accepted and understood, or they risk remaining isolated all their lives.
Grandma’s Role: Be genuine and provide a shoulder to cry on. Be consistently loving and nonjudgmental as they struggle with major life decisions.
As you can see, your role is essentially the same throughout your grandchild’s life: to love, nurture, and be consistent.
While babies develop, so do the rest of us. Parents, children, and grandparents go through different stages of the life cycle at the same time. Open yourself up to the exploration of you. Grandmas and grandpas are just as important as their grandchildren. Recognizing where you are coming from and where you are going will help you lead the children in the right direction.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.