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A quick guide to when kids are just being kids, and what might be cause for concern
Kids can be weird. They can also be loud, rowdy, hyper, charming, stubborn, angelic, frustrating and all the other moods and attitudes that make parenting such a nonstop thrill. Any parent knows, when it comes to kids, “normal” is a myth.
In general terms, here’s what to expect from kids in three major age groups, broken down by what’s typical, and what the warning signs might be that something more worrisome may be going on.
The teen years: age 13-18
Individuation is the name of the game with adolescents: teens want to figure out their own identity, sometimes painfully, as separate from yours. They’ll want space and privacy. They’re figuring out who they want to be and what they want to do, and a lot of what influences their behavior is going to be their peers, not their parents. At the same time, their executive functioning — the ability to process information and make decisions — is not fully developed. That won’t happen until their mid-20s. In the meantime, as everyone knows, they sometimes don’t make the best decisions. They experiment with risk, sexuality and sometimes, even drugs. That’s just being a teen.
“If it gets dangerous or is a crime, that’s something to be concerned about,” says child development expert Marlena Romero, LCSW, a senior behavioral health clinician at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Isolation, social withdrawal, a drop in school attendance, separation from friends or sudden changes in friends can also be signs of trouble. Ask your teen what’s going on. Be open, listen and try not to judge. If the issues persist, it’s not a bad idea to seek evaluation by a trained mental health professional.
“If they don’t want to hang out with you on family game night, though,” says Romero, “that’s pretty typical.”
The school-age years: age 8-12
Ah, those preteen years of attitude and whiplash emotion, when kids begin to feel the pull between adulthood’s promise and childhood’s pleasures. “There’s more pressure to be grown up, to take more responsibility,” says Romero. They’re also starting to form their own identities, but they still look to their parents as important role models.
“They still want some family time,” says Romero. “They want to be recognized by their parents more than teenagers do.”
Kids at this age are often frustrated by their own limitations. They typically experience a big jump in cognitive ability during this stage, and with it, a substantial increase in expectations academically and at home. Kids may have trouble keeping up.
“If grades are starting to go from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s, pay attention to that,” says Romero. “If they’re starting to withdraw, pay attention to that. If your daughter comes home saying, ‘I hate school and I never want to go back,’ pay attention to that.”
Family game night, however, should be a go.
The early years: age 0-8
Children in their early years develop a staggering array of skills, from language ability to muscle control. They’re learning control and autonomy not only over their bodies, but over their relationships as well. Some choppy waters are expected. There will be tantrums.
Experts generally track childhood development by five major factors: social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language. Most kids will develop within a broad average of their peers. Jumping a little ahead or falling a little behind in one or two of the categories — sometimes at the same time — isn’t necessarily anything to worry about.
But it is important to see that young children are reaching developmental milestones, increasingly learning to experience and manage their emotions, form close relationships with important people in their lives and show curiosity about the world around them. “Pediatricians and schools are starting to do more screening around these things,” Dr. Costello says. “It’s important to check in and get developmental screenings to track children’s development and intervene early when needed.”