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 | , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

PLACE Parenting for Children with Attachment Disturbance

A mother holds up her child.

A mother holds up her child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

When you have a child with any sort of attachment disturbance, you also have a child that is very good at making you feel like you don’t know what you are doing.  In one training I went to on attachment disturbance, the presenter, Art Becker-Weidman said one of the parents he worked with described it something like this:  ‘It’s like you as the parent are the control station for a radio station, then the kids come up and play with all the buttons until they find one that gets the response they are looking for.  When they find that button that gets them what they want, they just keep flipping the switch over and over again.’  I have used this description with the parents that come through my own practice and find it resonates deeply with them as well.  What to do when you have a child that is constantly pushing your buttons and finding creative ways to make you feel like you don’t have a clue what you are doing?

Daniel Hughes and Art Becker-Weidman are working to popularize a parenting attitude that really can work wonders if parents are able to maintain it when they have an attachment disordered child (or any child for that matter).  It is called the PLACE mentality, it stands for: Playful, Loving, Accepting, Curious, Empathic.  I find that while the words are familiar it can be easy to misinterpret the meanings of those words in this particular context so let’s look at each word to see what we are talking about when it comes to parenting children using the PLACE mentality.

Playful–  The most common misinterpretation of this quality is that parents believe I want them to throw a parade in their child’s honor every time they do something desirable to the parent.  What I mean by playful is just finding an approach that has a less authoritarian tone.  Instead of telling kids where to go to find their glasses, encourage them to play a little game with you where they have to look at your face for them to give you a hint where the glasses are.  When they look into your face and lie, come up with a playful response “That’s a good one.  I’ve always known you were creative.  Tell me another!”  Often being playful can help everyone tone it down a notch.  If you have a child with a history of abuse or neglect, it can also keep them from getting triggered into believing that they are in huge trouble and helps prevent them from going into fight or flight mode so that you have some chance of them hearing some of the words you are saying.  A way to really get playful is to learn from a parent that really gets this stuff.  Christine Moers is a mom raising adopted children with attachment issues.  She posts vlogs on youtube to help other parents (and to keep herself sane).  Her video blog: is a wonderful example of how to discipline in a playful way.   I would recommend you look at her videos when you need help staying sane.

Loving– When I think of saying things in a loving way to children, what really helps me to stay in that place is remembering my purpose for saying the words in the first place. Yes, ultimately I may be asking my child to do a task because I want it done. But the bigger picture reason for asking children to do a task is to teach them so that they know how to do it, to give them a system for tackling problems, to get them into the routine of caring for themselves and planning how to fit everything into a schedule, or something else like that. In the end, our job as parents is to make it so that our children no longer need us in order to make it through the day. When we remember that we are asking our children to do something because we love them and want them to be happy, healthy adults, we can state requests in a more loving way. By remembering this, I believe the primary change is our tone of voice, which makes a world of difference to children with attachment disturbance.

Accepting– One trap I see so many parents walk into is the argument with their child(ren) about whether their child is having a reasonable feeling or not.  Both the child and parent find this is a way to feel crazy pretty quickly and I would like to present an alternative…acceptance.  Here is how it goes, maybe it sounds familiar:

Child comes down to breakfast dressed in a completely inappropriate outfit for school

Parent (being curious):  Wow, is there something going on at school today?  That’s an interesting outfit.

Child: I knew you wouldn’t let me wear it!  You never let me wear anything I want!  You’re such a witch!  You want me to be the ugliest girl in school!

Parent (accepting):  That made you mad.  I can see how you would be mad if you thought I wanted you to be the ugliest girl in school.

It’s that simple- do not engage in an argument about whether you want her to be the ugliest girl in school!  If that is her belief in that moment, accept that her feeling is appropriate for the interpretation.

Curious– In my office, I often frame this curiosity as being a “feelings detective.”  I tell kids I ask lots of questions because I am a very curious person and sometimes it takes me a while to understand things.  Get curious about your children.  In the above example, rather than arguing about who wants whom to look ugly, you might get curious about it.  “I wonder what made you think I wanted you to look ugly when I asked about your outfit.”  Another way to help with getting kids to understand you are curious (not judgmental) is to say something along the lines of, “I’m curious what got you so mad because I don’t want you to feel that way again. ”  When they tell you what got them mad, again make sure you avoid arguing about whether that is really what happened (accepting) and then …empathize.

Empathy– Empathy looks like this,” If I thought someone felt that way about me/ said that to me/said that about me I can see how you would feel mad/sad/ scared too.”  That’s all empathy is being able to see something from the viewpoint of another person.  Empathy does not involve any discussion about whether someone is right or wrong for feeling the way they are feeling.

So, why does this work?  It works because our children with attachment disturbance find the things we need to do most often, educate, speak with authority, and parenting, to name a few, to be triggers to them of things that remind them of times they were hurt or  neglected.  When kids do not learn the typical role of parents early on, they easily misinterpret the actions of parents.  Using the PLACE mentality is one way of reducing the number of triggers for your child, not to mention that it just makes parenting more fun.  I use it with my own securely attached children as well.  Of course, this is a very quick overview of the PLACE mentality.  It is important that if you feel you are in a position with your child(ren) where you need to utilize the PLACE attitude more and could use support in doing so, that you see a therapist that has an attachment informed practice.

October 18, 2012 Posted by | attachment, attachment disorder, help for parents, parent support/ self improvement | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

An Attachment Therapist on Attachment Parenting

At the Baby Loves Disco party Sunday afternoon.

At the Baby Loves Disco party Sunday afternoon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been a bit more attuned to the media’s interpretation of parents recently but I’ve noticed that there seem to be a lot of people talking about attachment parenting being the newest thing.  I’ve known about attachment parenting for years now.  Just like with any other parenting style, the media reports tend to focus on extremes where in order to say you are an attachment parent you must rigidly follow the tenants of wearing your baby everywhere, co-sleeping, and breast-feeding past the societal norms for the United States.  Attachment parenting becomes just like “tiger moms,” “helicopter parents,” and “back-stage parents,” so that you either you are or you are or are not with no in-between.

I would like to suggest that we all take a breath for a moment.  Put your hand on your heart.  While you are at it, breathe a few times slowly, in and out.  Ask yourself this question.  “Is this true?”  Is it true that so many people subscribe to rigid parenting styles?  Or are we all just trying to get along the best way we know how with the information we have?

I would like us all to dial it down a notch.  Here are the things I care about as an attachment therapist– meaning that I am a therapist that looks at the attachment styles between parents and children and helps to guide children with insecure attachment styles toward a more secure attachment:

Do you have a genuine, loving relationship with your child?

If not, are you working to make your relationship genuine and loving?

Do you care more about your relationship with your child than you care about being right or dominating your child?

Are you playful and loving with your child when you can be?

Do you set appropriate limits?

Does your child look to you for comfort and protection and do they have faith that you will care for them?

Are you empathic toward and accepting of your child’s feelings, even if they are different from yours?

Do you have insight into the parts of parenting that are hard for you and do you work to change the parenting moments or actions you are not proud of?

These are the foundations of parents that form secure attachments with their children.  Dan Hughes, author of several books, including one of my favorites, “Building the Bonds of Attachment,” (you can purchase this book by following the link “Amazon widgets” at the top right of this page*)calls this way of parenting PLACE parenting.  PLACE stands for Playful, Loving, Accepting, Curious, Empathic.  I find using this way of parenting builds a strong bond between parent and child and is especially useful for the children I see with attachment disturbance.

I do my best to use it with my children as well, but, guess what?  I’m human.  Sometimes, like when I take my oldest clothes shopping and she refuses to try on a single item of clothing even though she complains several times a week that she has nothing to wear, I lose it.  If you were in Target with us last Tuesday, I apologize.  Seriously.  But, just like when our children make mistakes, so do we need to gather ourselves together and learn from those things we do that we wish we could take back and move on.  It is my strong belief that the best parenting style for any parent is the one that works best for them!  The style that most truly matches your internal desire and ability to parent, and which models a life you would like your child most to emulate.  I imagine that would be a life in which: they are free to love themselves without being narcissistic, they care for others so that they might experience loving relationships, and they explore their own interests and build on their own talents and abilities, among other things.

What do you think creates a strong foundation in a parent/child relationship?

*see disclaimer page

May 23, 2012 Posted by | attachment, help for parents, parent support/ self improvement | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Two things your kids tell their therapists about you

Peers become important in middle childhood and...

Before I tell you what your children are telling me, let me say, I’m a child therapist and what your children are telling me about you might surprise you.  Keep in mind that I work mainly with children who have a history of trauma and/or attachment issues.  I see children with depression and anxiety too.   Your kids with attachment issues don’t tell me these things with words, but if you have a child like that, you know, they tell you things with actions.   You know your kids that you send to me?  The ones you would do anything for?  The ones you are so worried about?  I’m going to tell you two things they all tell me about you:

  1.  You need to take better care of yourself.  Now, if I had titled this blog “self-care for parents” you probably wouldn’t have read it, right?  But now you are, so please take a moment to remember your own childhood and ask yourself the following questions:
    1. What did you want from your parents that you didn’t get?
    2. Would you have been more likely to have gotten that from your parents had they taken more time for themselves that involved introspection and self-care?

If your answer is yes to either question, then guess what?  It’s true for your children also.  If you happen to be the parent of a child with attachment issues, you have to know self-care is of the utmost importance for you since those children tend to be, shall we say…very unrewarding.  I know, I know, you are one of those parents that is going to tell me you will take care of yourself when the kids are okay, right?  I have news.  There is this thing called attunement that makes it so that whole idea doesn’t fly.  Basically, when you are not okay, neither are your kids.  You know this is true if you were ever a kid with parents who were not okay.  Your attachment disordered children, if you have them, do not say these words out loud, instead, they tell you with their behavior by being even more miserable to you when you are not okay as a way to show that they are worried about you.  Every parent I have ever worked with who has a child with attachment issues finds that when they are doing better, so are their children.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Interested in learning more about actual ways to feel like you are taking care of yourself?  Stay tuned for more blogs about parental self-care and please- don’t skip them…do it for the kids.

  1. Another surprising one to many parents is this… kids want you to set limits.  I know!  The whining, negotiating, rule breaking and arguments threw you off, didn’t it?  Here’s what kids say behind your back- they know you do it because you love them.  If you didn’t set a limit, they will just keep testing to see when your love for them will kick in.  Here is a quick way to set limits that eliminates some of the arguments…”As your parent, I love you too much to let you do that.  You deserve better.”   This works when you are on the phone and they keep talking to you while you are trying to get self-care by checking in with your friend.  See how I put those together?  It sounds like this “I want to hear what you have to say.  Give me 5 minutes on the phone then you will get my full attention, like you deserve.”  Another example is, “You deserve to be in a safe environment, I love you too much to let you go to a party if I haven’t made sure responsible adults will be present.”  Sure you’ll get eye rolls.  You just blocked what they thought they wanted to do!  You also reinforced your love for them and that’s pretty hard to argue with – even though they will try.

Ultimately, what your children want is what we all know to be true in our hearts, when one person in a family is not doing well it is not just that child that has a problem, it is the entire system and the best way we can heal a hurting system is to heal the parts we can control the best- ourselves.  So, your work in helping your children, your most important work, is to care for yourself and your boundaries with love.  If you find it hard to do that, then it is not just your child that could use help from a therapist.

April 2, 2012 Posted by | help for parents | , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

What is attachment disorder?

Mother and Child watching each other

Mother and Child watching each other (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the areas I specialize in is working with children with attachment disorders.  If that term is new to you, please allow me to explain.  Attachment is the relationship a child forms with their early caregivers that shapes how we form connections to other people throughout our lives.  We are all born relying completely upon adults to meet our needs.  I am no animal expert, however, I believe humans are one of the few species that cannot feed ourselves soon after birth.  For basic nourishment and caretaking, we rely heavily upon adult caretakers for a relatively long period of time.

As infants, while we are relying on our caretakers, we are also building the neurotransmitter systems in our brains.  When babies look into the eyes of their parents, literally thousands of neurons per second get activated and the building of this neuron wiring sets up the building block of our attachment system or structure.  When you think of it this way, it is simple: if baby gets her needs met “enough,” she develops what we would call a secure attachment, if baby does not get her needs met “enough” she develops what we would call an “insecure” attachment.  By the way, “enough” has been studied and it means that we meet our babies/ children’s needs 30% of the time (or preferably more).  That does not mean that 7 out of 10 times are gimme’s!  Think about when a baby is crying.  You try to figure out what is wrong…diaper?  No.  Hungry?  No.  Rocking and singing?  Bingo!  You just got it wrong twice and right the third time.  The trick to this is to keep trying to label and meet a child’s needs and to help them learn to label and name their needs to make it easier for you as they grow.  But I digress…

Securely attached children tend to think more along the lines of:

  • The world is a safe place.
  • I am loving and loveable.
  • I get my needs met.
  • Adults are reliable.
  • If I have a problem, I can usually fix it or get someone to help me.
  • My choices make a difference.

Children with insecure attachments tend to think more along the lines of:

  • I need to get my own needs met.
  • I am bad.
  • When I trust people I usually get hurt.
  • My choices don’t make any difference.
  • I need to fix my own problems.
  • People are not trustworthy.

In the classification of insecurely attached children there are two categories.  I see these categories as insecurely attached with a structure (anxious or avoidant) and insecurely attached without structure (disorganized) .  Why the distinction?  Because if you have a child who tends toward anxious/avoidant, you are more likely to be able to predict behaviors and their response to different challenges.  However, with a disorganized structure, because the child has no system for tackling issues in place at all, it is incredibly difficult to predict what the child will do in a given situation.

To find out more about attachment disorder please visit the website I participate with  There you will find a wealth of information on this topic.

Stay tuned for future posts on attachment as well!

March 31, 2012 Posted by | attachment disorder | , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments


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