Social and emotional milestones in child developmentWritten by Focus on the Family Canada
What's inside this article
Why does your 2-year-old have a tantrum when he has to share his toys? Does it mean he has a selfish streak?
Why does your 3-year-old so often put her shoes on the wrong feet? Is she lagging behind in matching shapes, or in understanding left and right?
If your 5-year-old still wets the bed, is that normal?
Why is your 8-year-old suddenly paranoid about house fires? Is he regressing?
You may be worrying needlessly about your kiddo. So many parents do.
Parents worry when, in actual fact, there’s nothing wrong with their child – it’s just that the parent is expecting too much too soon.
Just as we can be impatient for our child to crawl or to walk as a baby, we can continue to have unrealistic expectations of our child in the following years too. We might make quite inaccurate assumptions about the age at which our child should be able to treat others appropriately, or about when they should be able to master specific skills and abilities.
Save yourself unfounded worry and unnecessary frustration by making sure you understand what your child is really capable of at each developmental stage.
As you review the list of typical social and emotional milestones included here, however, keep in mind that these are just general guidelines based on the average age that kids reach each milestone; kids can show considerable variation in their development, with some reaching a milestone much sooner or much later than the majority of their peers.
2 years old
- Self-centredness, jealousy of others and a desire to be the centre of attention is normal at this age.
- Expect tantrums, frustration and strong emotions, which are also normal at this age, as 2-year-olds are still limited in their ability to communicate or to understand.
- Begins to mimic the behaviour of their parents in their play. Will play alongside other children, rather than with them.
- Does not yet understand the concept of sharing. In their mind, something taken from them is lost forever.
- Will be distressed when separated from parents.
- Is showing increasing independence and developing a sense of personal autonomy. Exercising self-will is a novelty, so “no” has become a favourite word!
- Simply saying “Don’t touch” won’t safeguard your child or your belongings at this age so make sure your home is child safe, keep cherished objects out of reach, and be vigilant about supervising your child.
- May become fearful of scary sounds, darkness or dark shapes in the closet. Night terrors can start anywhere from age 2 to 4 years.
- Self-exploration and fondling of their genitals is common in two and three-year-olds; simply affirm their curiosity and provide gentle instruction in more appropriate behaviour.
- Is able to learn the correct names of body parts, including “penis” and “vagina” – an important first step in a child’s sex education and in protecting them from sexual abuse.
- Is beginning to gain control of their bladder and bowel movements and may make it through the night without a bowel movement. Most youngsters however, are not ready for potty training until they are close to 3 years old.
3 years old
- A three-year-old’s imagination is kicking into high gear. They enjoy pretend play and dressing up, and often have imaginary friends.
- At some point during this year, your child will no longer need a daytime nap (provided they are getting 12 hours sleep at night).
- Needs help to learn to manage their strong impulses and overwhelming emotions, and will often need help to calm down.
- Frequently uses the word “Mine!” as they start to understand ownership – what belongs to them and what belongs to others.
- Will need help to transition happily from one activity to another and needs a heads-up to prepare them for changes in routine or unusual events.
- Is showing interest in other children and will play simple games with them. This is the time to start teaching your child to share and to take turns.
- Growing more used to being separated from parents, and shows less distress.
- Can follow simple two- or three-step instructions.
- Is interested in helping with simple chores alongside you, but can’t be expected to do them without accidents and spills and will have a short attention span.
- Can now dress and undress themselves, but may put clothes on backwards and will need help with buttons and zippers.
- Although they may use words like “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” a 3-year-old still doesn’t correctly understand the passage of time, or what these words really mean.
- Beginning to understand your rules (provided they are consistent) and will be helped by simple explanations for why the rules are in place. This is the age to start short discussions about your family values, such as telling the truth.
- Needs consistent routines for getting ready for bed, getting up in the morning etc.
- Becoming aware of their gender, and by 3½ will understand that they are a boy or a girl.
- May be curious about pregnancy, childbirth, and where they or their siblings came from.
- Ready to be taught about modesty and keeping the “bathing suit” areas of their body covered.
- While many children are potty trained by age 3, some may not be potty trained until 4.
4 to 5 years
- Imaginative play is still a favourite pastime. Younger members of this age group may have trouble understanding what is real and what is make believe.
- It’s normal for children at this age to be self-absorbed – in their mind they really are the centre of the universe!
- Curiosity about the world goes into overdrive. Your child may pepper you with Why? questions all day long.
- At this age, children who have lost a pet or a family member may ask many questions about death and dying as they struggle to understand how death can be permanent. (Learn more about different reactions to death in different age groups here.)
- May develop a number of new fears and have frequent nightmares.
- Interested in and initiates play with other children.
- Is fiercely competitive – will always want to win.
- Frequently imitates what he or she sees on TV.
- Is beginning to understand the difference between past, present and future.
- Can follow simple, three-step instructions.
- By age 5, with coaching, should be able to master simple self-care routines like brushing teeth and going to the bathroom, and should be able to do up buttons and zippers on their own.
- At 5 years old, at least 10 to 20 per cent of children still occasionally or regularly wet their bed.
6 to 7 years
- Baby teeth begin to fall out and permanent teeth start coming in.
- Enjoys demonstrating skills they have mastered, but at the same time may also be very insecure and self-critical. May need help to develop self-confidence.
- Now understands that a conversation is two-way, involving listening as well as talking.
- Beginning to show empathy for others and an awareness of hurting others' feelings.
- Identifies with the parent of the same sex. In general, boys will prefer to play with boys, and girls will prefer to play with girls.
- Shows more independence from family and wants to be accepted by their peers. Often becomes attached to a teacher or another adult in their life.
- Has a strong sense of what’s right and wrong, and how the rules should be followed. Often sees things as strictly black or white.
- May “experiment” with misbehaviour, such as lying, as they explore what’s right and wrong.
- Can follow three-step instructions.
- Better able to handle transitions and last-minute changes in plans.
- Correctly understands the concepts of today, tomorrow, yesterday and can tell the time.
- By age 7, knows left from right, and should be able to tie their shoes and brush their teeth well.
- Enjoys jokes and puns as they understand more words, and words that have multiple meanings. Reading fluently by age 7.
- Becoming sensitive about their body and desires privacy.
8 to 9 years
- Despite their blossoming independence, 8- to 9-year-olds often battle insecurity and still have a strong need for their parents’ acceptance, affirmation and guidance. Expect sudden swings between self-confidence and self-doubt, and rapid mood swings in general.
- Is able to show empathy and consideration for how their behaviour may affect others’ feelings.
- Is learning that not everything is black and white, and beginning to have more nuanced opinions.
- Is growing more concerned about their appearance.
- Growing increasingly concerned about peer groups and popularity, and may be strongly influenced by peers. Still typically plays with friends of the same sex.
- Expect requests for sleepovers to become commonplace (even though many children at this age will have trouble making it through the night at a friend’s house).
- By the age of 8, most children can correctly recite the days of the week and months of the year and can focus on tasks for an hour or more; they are beginning to understand the significance and use of money.
- Able to tell the time on a clock, and have a good idea what lengths of time really mean.
- By the age of 9, should be about to competently help out with chores by making their bed, washing dishes etc. and should be learning how to take responsibility for their personal schedules and deadlines.
- An emerging sense of altruism and a desire to be seen as competent and capable make this a good age to start involving your child in service projects in the community.
- Shows a growing awareness of world events that can lead to new fears: common fears for this age group include natural disasters, house fires, nuclear war, burglars, kidnappers and injury or death of a parent. Learn more about fears in different age groups here.
- Girls can start showing breast buds as early as age 8 – the first signs of puberty – but most girls won’t start to show breast buds until age 10. Menstruation usually begins two years after breast buds show (most commonly at the age of 12 or 13).
- In boys, puberty starts a little later, usually between 9 and 14 for males, with 11 to 12 being the most common ages for the first signs to show up: these include enlargement of the testes and possibly swelling of breast tissue.
- Children at this age will benefit from conversations and books that prepare them for the changes of puberty.
- Since children in this age group develop at very different rates, some may be very self-conscious and/or vulnerable to teasing if they’re shorter or taller than most of their peers, or if they begin puberty earlier or later than most of their peers. Conversations that help build a positive body image are important at this age.
10 to 12 years
- Expect struggles with insecurity and self-consciousness to grow even more pronounced at this life stage – and the mood swings too.
- Coaching in dealing with stress will go a long way as they worry about increasingly difficult school assignments, fitting in with friends, and potential embarrassments associated with puberty.
- Begins to pull away from parents and begins to question parental authority and parental rules – a normal process of developing independence and deciding for themselves the beliefs and values they will embrace.
- Acceptance by peers and fitting in with their peer group has become achingly important. Anticipate abrupt changes in clothing, hair styles, choice of music or hobbies as they explore their identity or try to fit in with friends.
- Venturing out in public with a parent may be mortifying to a child at this age – they fear some aspect of their parent’s clothing or behaviour may invite ridicule by their peers.
- Boys tend to go silent about their thoughts and feelings at this age. Though they may seem to be pushing you away, your child still needs your approval and your guidance, so keep trying to initiate conversations. Be vigilant for signs of depression, or of an eating disorder (in boys as well as girls).
- Friendships with the same gender still predominate, but there’s a growing interest in the opposite sex. Flirtation and crushes begin.
- Although you see marked growth in abstract thinking, critical thinking skills and the ability to reason through problems, your child’s frontal cortex is still developing and they will still make impulsive choices and poor decisions from time to time. Increased risk-taking behaviour is common, especially under the influence of peers, coupled with a feeling of invincibility. At this stage your child needs to understand the dangers of smoking, alcohol, drugs, pornography and sexting. They also need to know how to stay safe online, and should understand how their online behaviour can impact their future.
- For most girls, puberty will start at age 10 to 11 (although it could begin any time from age 8 to 13). Breast buds develop, pubic hair begins to grow, and you’ll notice it’s time to teach them to shower often and use deodorant! Two years later, at an average age of 12 to 13, menstruation begins, armpit hair begins to grow and acne may become noticeable.
- For most boys, puberty begins at age 11 to 12 (although it could begin at any time from age 9 to 14). In boys, puberty starts with the enlargement of the testes and, for some, swelling of breast tissue. About a year later, usually at 12 to 13, pubic hair starts to grow, wet dreams begin, and boys start to experience spontaneous daytime erections.
It’s amazing to think about how much a child matures in such a short time, and all the skills that they master. There truly is a miracle unfolding in your home, day by day, as your child grows and changes. Try to remember that when your son or daughter starts to roll their eyes at you, or shrugs off your advice! He or she still needs your support, your guidance, and your intentional parenting much more than they care to admit.
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