Understanding Your Child's Developmental Milestones

A Brief Overview of Typical Progress

What should you expect as your children advance from pre-K to high school graduation? Consider these markers of emotional and intellectual growth as well as advice for parents.

1. Early School Years: Ages 5 to 8

Children begin to emerge from the family nest into the world of teachers, coaches, and friends. Developing independence is a major issue, as is self-esteem. Even so, home is still a vital refuge and emotional base.
Emotional development
  • Being with friends (usually of the same sex) begins to become important. In these years children average five close friends and, sometimes, an “enemy,” who may change from day to day. Kids are still self-centered but can begin to view what happens from the perspective of others.
  • They are often self-conscious and have their feelings hurt easily. Coping with criticism and failure can be hard.
  • They tend to see issues as black and white, right or wrong. Following the rules becomes very important.
  • Especially as they get older, they test their growing knowledge of the world by rebelling a bit and talking back.
Intellectual development
  • Children are usually eager to learn, do things right, and please adults.
  • The attention span grows, though it may still be hard to sit still for more than 20 minutes. They can see an activity through to the end most—but not all—of the time.
  • They can learn left and right, tie shoes, and tell time and the days of the week. Their speaking and comprehension vocabularies double. Some may still reverse printed letters (such as b and d).
 Suggestions for parents
  • Don’t stop reading aloud, especially books above grade level with plots your children will enjoy.
  • Take time to listen seriously and be sensitive to the feelings behind your children’s actions.
  • To help them separate more easily, let them start staying overnight with grandparents and friends.
  • Allow them to experiment with different activities and materials, even if they don’t always finish things (which won’t happen until adolescence).
  • Because children begin to be interested in the difference between truth and lies, be honest and open. Don’t overdo praise, which children can see through when it’s false.
  • To teach them to be responsible and caring, behave in those ways yourself. Talk about self-control and making good decisions. Help them learn from criticism by urging them to think about how to do things differently next time. 

2. Middle Childhood: Ages 9 to 11

As you’ll see when your children (especially girls) start showing physical and emotional signs of puberty, these years are preparation for adolescence. Children need to feel a sense of achievement and want to be socially accepted, since friends become even more important. Though they may start thinking they’re too big for adult supervision, without it they feel unhappy and even afraid.
Emotional development
  • They’re less likely to have angry outbursts and can defer gratification.
  • They show increased interest in joining clubs and competitive sports.
  • They start to see parents, teachers, and coaches as fallible, so they may begin to belittle or defy adult authority.
  • Child-like wonder and spontaneity are gradually replaced by self-consciousness and guardedness.
Intellectual development
  • They can understand abstract concepts even without direct, hands-on experience.
  • They become interested in fiction, magazines, and how-to project books; collections and hobbies may be a source of great fascination.
  • They may want to discuss careers and fantasize about the future.
Suggestions for parents
  • Realize that as your kids begin to be able to talk through problems, you will need to be available and devote more time to listening and helping them think through solutions. As kids move toward adolescence, however, they don’t necessarily want to be talking more with parents.
  • Have them practice real skills, such as cooking and yard work. Encourage participation in organized clubs or youth groups. But do not overdo this. Children do not benefit from being overscheduled.
  • Give them time and space to be alone to read, daydream, or do homework without interruption. 

3. Adolescence

From 12 to 19, children’s chief developmental job is to separate from parents and forge their own identities. There’s an especially wide variance in what’s considered normal at this age. However, it’s definitely a time of less—teens will spend less time with family, and parents will spend less time caretaking, reading, playing, talking, and teaching. And it’s also a time of more—teens are bigger, more verbal, more likely to take risks, and increasingly judgmental of their parents. Parents must encourage independence but do so within the boundaries of a safe, loving environment for growing up. 

3A. Early Adolescence: Ages 12-14

Emotional and intellectual development
  • They struggle with developing a sense of identity and seek privacy. They’re prone to moodiness and may be very sensitive about seemingly small problems, such as hair and weight. They’re more likely to use actions (like door slamming) than words to express feelings.
  • Close friendships are very important; their interests and clothes may be heavily influenced by peers.
  • They’re less attentive and affectionate to parents and may be rude. But under stress, they revert to childish behavior.
  • They can think abstractly and expand their intellectual interests.
  • They focus on today and tomorrow, not far-off careers.
  • They may test rules and limits, and they may begin to experiment with cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol.
Suggestions for parents
  • Resist seeing only the worst in your changing children. Focus on the positive, including their creativity, curiosity, and fresh ideas.
  • View your role as a counselor, not a dictator. Don’t judge every change in hairstyle or clothes as a threat. Impose your will selectively.
  • Even as you set reasonable limits, listen to your teen’s viewpoint and react as respectfully as you can. Realize that teen-agers sometimes argue for the sake of arguing, as a means to articulate what they’re thinking.
  • Remember that the best way to prevent drinking, smoking, sex, and delinquency is parental monitoring. Set guidelines and clear expectations. Know where your children are, who they’re with, what they’re planning to do, and how they will get there and back.

3B. Middle Adolescence: Ages 15-17

Emotional and intellectual development
  • Middle teens tend to be self-absorbed, alternating between unrealistically high expectations and poor opinions of themselves. Girls, especially, may keep a journal to help them examine their inner lives.
  • They lower their opinion of their parents (yes, again) and withdraw further emotionally. They’re likely to complain that parents limit their independence but privately may feel sad at the psychological loss of Mommy or Daddy.
  • They may feel both longing for and fear of romantic relationships. They develop ideals and role models and show more evidence of a conscience and moral reasoning.
  • Intellectual interests gain importance; they grow better at setting goals.
Suggestions for parents
  • Like all parents (especially moms), you must accept the reality that kids (especially boys) will want to share less with you as they grow up. Even so, it is a very good idea to know what your teens are doing and who their friends are.
  • Don’t exclude them from family activities just because they’re older. Continue to invite their friends to your home and on family outings.
  • Use everyday activities—making dinner or running errands—as times to keep in touch and stay close.
  • Maintain a bedtime check-in if possible. Don’t assume they’ve outgrown the end-of-the day opportunity to touch base.
  • And remember that experts strongly urge you to enforce a policy that children cannot have cellphones or laptops in their bedrooms at night. At the very least, set definite limits.

3C. Late Adolescence: Ages 18-19

Emotional and intellectual development
  • Teens have a firmer identity and greater emotional stability.
  • They’re better able to delay gratification, think ideas through, express themselves in words, set goals, and follow through.
  • Most have developed a clear sexual identity. They’re concerned about serious relationships and capable of tender and sensuous love.
  • They have more stable interests and better work habits. They show more concern for the future and their role in life.
Suggestions for parents
  • Recognizing that childhood is behind them, strive to create a new relationship in which you and your offspring relate more as adults.
Sources: These developmental milestones were compiled and adapted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Child & Adolescent Services Research Center in San Diego; Canadian Parents Online; Karen DeBord, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University; National Network for Child Care; and Lesia Oesterreich, family life specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. The material originally appeared in Understanding Your Child, a booklet in the NAIS Independent School Parent Series.

Three Basics All Children Need

  1. Nurture: Children need enough to make them feel they’re part of something—family, school, and the wider community—but not so much that they’re smothered or spoiled. They also need to feel confident that they’re treasured for who they are, not what they are supposed to be becoming.
  2. Structure: Children need boundaries—a sense of what is and isn’t permitted, especially in regard to how to treat people. Where the boundaries lie is not as important as the fact that they exist and are non-negotiable.
  3. Latitude: Children need the freedom to learn from experience. Just as parents need to protect kids from danger, they also need the patience and confidence to let kids struggle at times.
Source: Rob Evans, a clinical psychologist and school consultant and author of Family Matters: The Crisis in Childrearing and Its Impact on Schools and Hopes and Fears: Working with Today’s Independent School Parents.