help4yourfamily

Create the family you want to have

Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age

written by Kate Oliver, LCSW-C

Having a blog on WordPress is so nice in that I got a nice little report for the end of 2012 letting me know which of my posts has gotten the most attention, etc. By far the most popular post was this one! So, in the spirit of sharing and refreshing for the New Year, I thought I would update and repost this blog, since it was one of my earlier ones and may have been missed by some of the folks who are newer to my blog. I keep my comments open and would love to hear if people are getting what they are looking for from this post even if it has been a while since I originally posted. Enjoy!

Chronological age vs. Developmental Age

When figuring out how to best meet the needs of our children, it is important to understand their developmental age.  For many children this can be the same age as the chronological age, the age we typically think of when we talk about our children, however, if you have a child that, among other possibilities:

  • has a history of trauma or neglect,
  • was adopted at an older age (18 months or more),
  • has a developmental disability,
  • has experienced the death or loss of a primary caregiver,
  • has experienced a major change in family structure,
  • or has a parent with a serious illness or addiction,

you may have a child that has a “stuck” part of their development. If you have a child like this, typically you might notice that there are times when he or she acts much younger than you would expect for their chronological age.  What makes this confusing is that your child may be able to do things that are appropriate for their chronological age.  For example, you may have a child that works at or even above grade level in reading and/or math, but in some emotional areas they may be developmentally younger than their chronological age.

Let’s look at an example everyone can relate to, think for a moment about a time when you have been triggered into a younger developmental age, say, when you go to your parent’s house for the weekend.  Even as an adult, you may find that you act differently toward them or your siblings than you would in your day-to-day life.  You may feel younger, angrier, more docile or more or less confrontational.  What that signifies is that there is a part of you that has not left or resolved some of the struggles from your own childhood.  Most of us have something like this. Our children are no different.

Some important questions about an area where your child seems stuck in a younger developmental age are:

1. Is my child capable of meeting the demands of this developmental stage? Developmental delays, learning issues, issues related to physical abilities and early childhood exposure can all add to a child’s difficulty in meeting a developmental milestone.

2. Has my child ever been properly taught how to meet this developmental milestone? For example, if you have a daughter you adopted from foster care at age 5, she may not ever have been properly potty trained and taught to clean herself appropriately after using the bathroom. It may be that while we expect that to be a skill children learn between ages two and four, your daughter may require instruction now, as she has not received it before.

3. Did something prevent my child from being able to learn this skill at the appropriate time? Perhaps you had a child with medical issues, a traumatic situation or something else. At the time when other children were learning to make friends and play nicely with other children, your child was busy managing an internal or external stressor that demanded all of their attention they would otherwise have been able to focus on meeting a developmental milestone.

4. Does your child have a traumatic trigger that remains unresolved which prevents them from moving through a developmental stage? I see children who have experienced trauma. Many of them have memories associated with trauma that prevent them from focusing on a task. Children (and adults) with unresolved trauma have what we call triggers, which remind them of the traumatic incident. Depending on what happened, a trigger could be a bathroom, a car, candy, really anything that reminds them of the trauma. What this means for parents with children who have experienced trauma is that the simple act of making a snack for your child could result in a child acting much younger until the traumatic triggers have been identified and resolved so that the apple you cut is just an apple again, instead of a reminder of a difficult past.

Why is it important to know where your child might have a developmental lag or stuck place?  Knowing that there are areas where your child is developmentally behind their chronological age allows you to make decisions about how to handle their  behavior appropriately.

What to do about a child acting developmentally younger:

After considering the reasons behind the developmental delay, it is easier to figure out how to address the issue. Sometimes it may just be a matter of time, or finding appropriate school or therapeutic support to allow a child’s brain to develop. For children who are delayed due to an external factor, in addition to school and therapeutic support, consider attempting to change your response to match their emotional/developmental age for the issue you are addressing.  What would you do for a two-year old who needs to brush her teeth?  Would you tell her to go brush her teeth and expect that she was going to easily and happy get right over to the toothbrush and begin throughly cleaning her teeth after applying just the right amount of toothpaste to the toothbrush?  Of course not!  Ideally, you would go with them (even if they are grumbling), you might remind them of why tooth-brushing is so important (if you have a child adopted at an older age, please remember it may be that no one ever taught them the importance), you would make brushing fun by singing a silly song to say how long you need to brush your teeth.

I know many parents reading this might be saying that your 12-year-old, who acts like a 2-year-old at brushing time is not going to stand for you hovering over her while she is brushing her teeth, and you are not going to talk to her like you would talk to a two-year old.  You are right, I am not recommending that you use the tone you would for a two-year old because you might get the death stare or worse, escalate a tense situation.  No, I am saying to use what you would do with a two-year old as a guideline for figuring out something with your child that is developmentally two during tooth-brushing time but is residing in a 12-year-old body.  To me that would look something like, playfully having a contest to see who can get just the right amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush or offering to get your child started by putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush, then saying a silly poem or singing a silly 12-year-old song, or reading a page out of a joke book to your child while they brush their teeth so they can get an idea of how long to brush.  Only read or sing when they are brushing, stop if they stop and start when they start again, and stay playful. Yes, they may look at you like you are crazy, but are they brushing while they are doing it?

Spc. Elizabeth Jarry shows an Iraqi girl prope...

Yes, I can hear protesting parents, now saying that you do not want to put toothpaste on your 12 year old’s toothbrush because they are old enough to do it themselves!  I know they are chronologically old enough, however, we are talking about something that they experience at a developmentally younger age.  And, here’s the good news, if you speak to your child’s developmental age for a while, their needs for that developmental stage get met, and they move on to the next stage of development for that issue.

For more parenting tips that don’t take a ton of time but do improve the happiness level in your home please see my previous posts:

January 5, 2013 - Posted by | attachment, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. […] Chronological vs. Developmental Age (help4yourfamily.com) […]

    Pingback by Monday is Parenting Affirmation Day! 5-14-2012 | help4yourfamily | May 14, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] hang around with your children even though your children are significantly younger.  Kids who are developmentally younger than their chronological age will still begin sexual development at the same age and if they feel more comfortable with children […]

    Pingback by It’s Not Just Strangers- spotting potential abusers: Part II | help4yourfamily | May 18, 2012 | Reply

  3. […] get that so, guess what, you get to teach them!  This would be a good time to review my post about chronological age vs. developmental age.  No matter the chronological age of your child, their developmental age is quite a bit younger.  […]

    Pingback by Delighting in Children Who are Not Used to Delight | help4yourfamily | June 15, 2012 | Reply

  4. […] Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age (help4yourfamily.com) […]

    Pingback by It’s Not Just Strangers: Protecting Young Children from Abuse- Part I | help4yourfamily | June 20, 2012 | Reply

  5. […] 2. Know the developmental age of your child. You want to make sure you are speaking at their developmental level or you will just sound like the adults from a Charlie Brown cartoon. Think of the words that you use and whether they are words your child will understand. […]

    Pingback by 10 Tips for Guiding Children Through Difficult or Unique Life Circumstances « help4yourfamily | September 27, 2012 | Reply

  6. […] It may be that no one ever taught them how to tell if they need to go. Your child may have a developmental lag in this area because they were not able to “master” the developmental milestones that […]

    Pingback by Older Kids with Bathroom Issues: Why does it happen? How Can You Help? Part 1 – help4yourfamily | January 24, 2013 | Reply

  7. […] to employ natural consequences, i.e. the child has to clean up the mess as appropriate for their developmental age. Remember to use your PLACE attitude, which means that humiliation and embarrassment of your child […]

    Pingback by Older Kids with Bathroom Issues: Why Does it Happen? How Can You Help? Part 2 – help4yourfamily | January 31, 2013 | Reply

  8. […] Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age (help4yourfamily.com) […]

    Pingback by Happy Parent Tip #1 « help4yourfamily | February 28, 2014 | Reply

  9. Reblogged this on Lighter Side of FASD and commented:
    Because this affects so many of the individuals we love – recommended reading.

    Comment by jodeekulp | October 4, 2016 | Reply


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