Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Phew! It’s Normal. An Age by Age Guide for What to Expect From Kids & Teens – And What They Need From Us


Phew! It's Normal. An Age by Age Guide for What is Normal Behaviour for Children and Teens

Being a kid or a teen is not for lightweights – it’s tough out there! There are important things that need to be done, that only they can do. The nature of these jobs depends on the developmental stage they are at. Knowing what is normal behaviour for children and teens can help to smooth the path for everyone involved.

Even as adults, we can be prone to tantrums, tears and wanting to give the world (or particular people in it) an almighty spray sometimes. For the most part, we can hang to the dramatics and anything that might land us in trouble, but even with all of our experience, our fully developed brains, and our capacity to see around corners, it’s hard some days. Imagine what it’s like for our kids.

Understanding what our kids are wrestling with and the developmental goals they are working towards will make their more ‘frustrating’ behaviours easier to deal with. Things will run smoother if we can give them the space and support they need to do whatever it is they need to. Of course, none of this means the total surrendering of boundaries around what’s okay and what isn’t in terms of behaviour. What it means is responding with greater wisdom, clarity and with more appropriate consequences. Life just gets easier for everyone when we are able to take things less personally.

Here are some important developmental stages and the difficult behaviour that might come with them. You’ll often find that their behaviour, though unruly and baffling at times, is completely normal and a sign that your child is flourishing and making his or her way through childhood or adolescence exactly as they are meant to.  

The ages of the stages are just a guide. When checking to see whether your kids are on track, read the stages around the actual age of your child. The progression through the stages is more important than the age at which this happens. As long as kids are moving through the stages, it doesn’t matter if they get there slower than other kids. 

Infants & Babies (0-12 months).

  • Everything will go in the mouth – hands, feet, food, toys, shoes – you name it.
  • If they are crying, there is something they need – a sleep, a cuddle, food, changing. They don’t yet have the words to communicate, but crying is a spectacularly effective way for baby humans to get big humans to move mountains for them. One of the beautiful things about babies is that they will never ask for more than they need.
  • Wary of strangers and might get upset when familiar people aren’t close by.
  • Babies will stare. They love faces and will stare at faces in real life, in books and in mirrors. Oh to be at an age where staring at other people is socially acceptable – and cute.
The support they need.

Babies have an important job to do – they need to learn whether or not they can trust the world and the people in it. For their part, they will work hard to give you the opportunities to show them how safe and secure they are. They might not have much of a vocabulary but they are masterful little communicators when it comes to letting you know when something isn’t quite right. Be consistently attentive to their needs so they can feel the world as a safe and secure one for them. Feed them when they are hungry, comfort them when they are scared, cuddle them when they need to be with you.  This will form the foundation for their exploration of the world, their independence, their confidence and self-esteem and their  relationships.

1-2 years.

  • Will become more interactive.
  • No understanding of intentionality – they see, they do without thinking about why or what it means. For example, when they bite, it is not to hurt, when they grab toys from other kids it’s not to cause upset, it’s to … well, everyone knows that things are for grabbing, right. Or eating.
  • Will follow their curiosity and will pull things down or apart to see what happens. Ditto with throwing anything onto the floor.
  • Not developmentally able to share.
  • Might seem bossy and selfish, but keep in mind that anything they are interested in or considers to be theirs will be seen as an extension of themselves. Of course nobody else is entitled to take it!  
  • Beginning to understand possession, and developing a strong sense of self. 
  • Two of their favourite words to say, ‘Mine!’ and ‘No!’
  • Two of their least favourite words to hear, ‘Mine!’ and ‘No!’
  • Will often wake during the night.
  • Towards the end of this stage, they may become more defiant as they start to experiment with their independence. May tantrum because they become frustrated by their lack of words and their lack of ability to communicate.
  • Tantrums will also be driven by their experience of big emotions (frustration, anger, sadness, shame) that they don’t have the words for.
  • Will be more likely to play alongside other kids, rather than with them.
The support they need.
  • Their attention span is still fairly short, so use distraction to direct them away from what you don’t want them to be doing.
  • When you give them a new rule or direction, it’s likely that the old one will be forgotten. Sometimes you will love their short attention span. Sometimes you won’t. 
  • Be positive when you see them doing the right thing.
  • Start letting them know the things that aren’t okay.
  • Ignore the small stuff. There’s so much to learn so it’s best not to overload them. Let them get used to the important things first.
  • Your child will be starting to understand what you are asking but for the sake of your own sweet sanity, let go of the expectation that they will do as you ask. Keep asking and guiding, but don’t take it personally if it doesn’t happen straight up. Or at all.
  • Be kind and gentle when correcting. They are doing their very best with what they have. If you ask for too much you might end up with a more anxious or more defiant or less confident three year old.  
  • Help them put words to what they are feeling, ‘It’s upsetting when you have to pack your toys away and you want to keep playing isn’t it.’

3 years old.     

  • Will experiment with independence. May lead to tantrums.
  • Will want increased control. May lead to tantrums.
  • Will become frustrated when disappointed. May lead to tantrums.
  • May see an increase in tantrums.
  • Will flip between wanting to be independent (‘I do it!’, or ‘by myself’) and wanting to be treated like a little person (‘carry me’ or ‘you do it’). 
  • Will form a special attachment to the word ‘no’ and will practice it often. Even when they might mean ‘yes’. (Ahhhh toddlers! Fortunately, evolution has given them a profound capacity for cuteness while they are sleeping. This is important for those catastrophic events, such as when you miss the notification that sandwiches are now to be served as little triangles, not little squares as was previously deemed acceptable. If this happens, just go with it – you’ll need your energy for when they realise you haven’t bought the toothpaste with Elsa on the tube.)
  • Might stutter or stammer.
  • Will start to assert control over their environment by wanting to plan activities, do things by themselves, try challenging things.
  • Might keep calling you back when they are put to bed.
  • Might develop sudden fears and phobias.
  • May confuse real and make believe, so may have one or a collection of imaginary friends.
  • Still won’t understand sharing and will often assert ownership, ‘Mine!’.
  • Might show jealousy when parent gives attention to other children.
The support they need.
  • Write this down, ‘It won’t be like this forever’. Now stick it on your mirror where you’ll see it every day.
  • Let them know when they do something well. They want to know that you’re happy with them and that they’re doing okay.
  • Be gentle when they get it wrong. Your child wants to do the right thing but has things to do and places to be along the way. Don’t come down hard on mistakes – they’re still figuring it all out and they have a way to go. Treat mistakes as opportunities to teach them something valuable.
  • Don’t have too many rules and be consistent with ones that you have. Too many rules and consequences that are all over the place will only confuse them and will set the monkey on your back. If you teach them that sometimes they can get away with it, they’re going to keep going. You’d worry if they didn’t.
  • Use ‘no’ gently and in moderation. You want to encourage their exploration and experimentation with the world and their place in it. Guide them, but don’t take away their initiative. And don’t give them any more reason than they have to use it at you.
  • Give them the freedom and space to play and encourage their experimentation with physical and imaginative play. Support their efforts to initiate play so they can feel their own capacity to influence their environment.
  • Encourage decision making but limit choices (‘Would you like to have a bath first or choose your pyjamas first? Would you like to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt today? Would you prefer corn or avocado with your dinner?’ And then, maybe when they’re bigger … ‘Would you prefer to make me a tea or a coffee?’ Oh let’s just indulge the glorious possibility of it all for a moment.)
  • Don’t feel guilty about taking time out for yourself to recharge. The battles will be easier when you’re replenished.
  • Have bedtime rituals. Bedtime at this age can be exhausting for everyone. Have a ritual and let it be lovely for both of you – a story, a cuddle, a spray of lavender around the room, a kiss, and the words, ‘Love you. Night Gorgeous Boy,’ – or something.

4 years old. 

  • Will start to be critical and will define the world in simple terms. Things and people will be right or wrong, good or bad, nice or not nice.
  • They will start to realise the power of their words and will sometimes use them to get their way or to control others. Their command of language will still be loose, so they will often back up what they are saying with actions (hitting, pushing, grabbing) or non-verbals (tone, volume, facial expressions, posture/stance).
  • Will become competitive.
  • Will still blur reality and fantasy sometimes. Might tell lies, extravagant stories, or have imaginary friend/s.
  • Still building their sense of self and experimenting with independence, so might be stubborn, defiant and bossy.
  • Will do all sorts of things to avoid bedtime.
  • Might have bad dreams.
  • Might develop a fear of the dark or become anxious thought of being separated from parent or caregiver.
  • Will start to enjoy playing with other kids rather than simply alongside them.
  • Will test their limits with you but will still be keen to please and help you out when they can.
The support they need.
  • When you set rules, talk to them about why the rules are important. They are curious and developing their ideas about how the world works. It doesn’t mean they’ll ‘get it’ straight away, or that they’ll comply. 
  • Keep your requests simple.
  • They desperately want to make you happy. Let them know whenever you see good behaviour.
  • Don’t argue with a four year old. Just don’t. They’ll out-do you any day and if they don’t have the words or a sound argument, they’ll just keep asking ‘why’.
  • When it comes to less-than-impressive behaviour, ask what happened but don’t ask why they did it. Asking ‘Why did you do that?’ will just encourage a lie because the boundary between fantasy and reality in the world of a four year old is very – very – loose.
  • When they do something wrong, apply gentle consequences but explain why the behaviour is wrong and that you know they can do better next time. They need to know you believe in them – they will do as you do.
  • Be consistent. If you don’t think it’s always important to enforce a rule, your child will, understandably, think it’s not won’t always important to follow it.
  • Encourage their independence but remember they are still young. Let them be little people when they are stressed or tired.
  • Give them lots of kisses and cuddles, even though they are ‘big people now.’

Five years old.

  • Will understand the importance of rules but might divert from the rules when playing. Rules tend to be ‘flexible’ – for them at least.
  • May accuse others of cheating if they don’t win a game.
  • Will start to show empathy and an understanding that other people might have points of view that are different to their own. 
  • Will be able to share but might still find it difficult, especially when it comes to their special things.
  • Might be afraid of failure, criticism and spooky things like ghosts or monsters.
  • Attention span will start to increase which will impact on the type of discussions you are able to have with them.
  • Might come across as being an ‘expert’ on everything. 
  • Will enjoy joking around and will start to develop ‘potty’ humour.
  • Will be looking to make their own decisions, particularly around what to wear and what to eat.
  • If starting at school, might be moodier, more sensitive or more tired than usual. It’s exhausting having to sit still and concentrate for long periods.
The support they need.
  • Encourage anything that will get your child moving, particularly if it is in a group or a team with others. This will help your child to develop important skills like taking turns, getting along with others, working together, negotiating, compromising, and winning or losing graciously.
  • Set aside time each day to play with your child or spend one on one time together. This will give your child the opportunity to let you into their world, which will always be one of the best places to be. From here you can get a feel for what is going on in their beautifully flourishing minds.
  • Start to expand your child’s emotional literacy by naming and discussing feelings.
  • Connect rewards to responsibilities. ‘How about you help me clear the table and then you can have dessert?’
  • Continue to keep rules simple and try not to have too many.

Six years old.

  • It’s pretty likely that they will know a lot more than you. Just ask them.
  • May start tantruming again.
  • Can start to test the limits but will still want to please you and help out.
  • Will seek praise for their school work and for the good things they do.
  • Will seek to master new skills and to feel competent.
  • Might worry about being away from you.
The support they need.
  • Encourage their efforts and acknowledge when they have worked hard.
  • Encourage effort over outcome to help them develop a growth mindset and a strong self-belief in their capacity to achieve.
  • Ensure they get the support they need if they are struggling at school. 
  • Avoid overpraise or meaningless praise and let them know that they are special, but so are other people.

Seven years old.

  • Might tend towards complaining, usually about their parents or the rules, but also about friends and other kids.
  • Will feel misunderstood by many.
  • Can be dramatic about school, friends or life in general.
  • Will try to use words to talk about how they are feeling but may become frustrated and angry when they are upset.
  • Will be becoming more aware of what other people think.
The support they need.
  • Listen and validate what they are feeling and know that you don’t need to fix their problems.
  • Discuss how they might solve the things that are causing them trouble. Give them space and encouragement to come up with their own ideas.
  • Don’t be drawn into the dramatics.
  • Don’t immediately think that things are a mess because they are saying they are.
  • Jump on the positive.

Eight years old.

  • Will want you to think the way they do and will have little tolerance for your difference of opinion.
  • Will be very sensitive to what you think of them.
  • Will often fight with the mother.
  • There won’t be a lot of grey. Things will be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.
  • This tendency to think in absolutes might cause a little trouble with friendships. Take comfort in knowing that yours won’t be the only small person struggling with this. They’ll be okay – this is the part where they learn about friendships and how to get along with people. 
The support they need.
  • When you’re praising their good behaviour, be clear about what it is they have done.
  • Avoid arguing whenever you can. With their black and white thinking, an argument will just mean that someone is right (them) and someone is wrong (you). Instead, ask them to explain their point of view and encourage them to see things from different angles. 
  • Spend plenty of time together to cement the relationship for the pull away that is coming at adolescence.

Nine years old.

  • Friends will start to be more important than parents, and this will continue through adolescence.
  • What their friends think will start to become more and more important.
  • Will narrow the friendship field by having closer friendships, but less of them.
  • Will share jokes and secrets with friends.
  • Will push against rules and directions and may disrespect you.
  • Will be able to be loving and silly but will also develop the capacity to be selfish, argumentative and abrasive.
What to do.
  • Provide them with opportunities for independence and to make their own decisions.
  • Avoid being too bossy or directive.
  • Encourage them to start thinking about things from another point of view, ‘What would so-and-so say about that?’ ‘How do you think she felt when that happened?’

Ten to eleven years old.

  • The tantrums of childhood will be calming down by now. Enjoy it because adolescence has heard that you’re relaxing and it’s on its way.
  • Might still argue about rules and the necessity and detail of them.
  • Will try to explain away misbehaviour  through excuses and justifications. They will fight hard to find the loophole in the rule.
  • Promises become important and they will remember EVERYTHING – except when it’s their turn to take out the rubbish.
What to do.
  • Don’t make promises you won’t be able to keep. Once they have something on you, they have you.
  • Avoid arguing with them whenever you can. They will often have an argument for everything. Hear what they have to say, make your decision, then pull out.
  • Let them push against you in safe ways – let them try different things, express their own opinions, and make their own decisions when appropriate.
  • Know where your boundaries are and be ready to implement consequences when they make a bad decision. Make the consequence about their behaviour, not about who they are.


  • Friends will be more important than family. You’re still important, but there’s something they have to do – find who they will be when they step into the world as a healthy, independent adult.  Just like you had to do at their age.
  • What their peers think of them will be a source of stress to them for a while, peaking for girls at age 13 and for boys at age 15. They might go to extra lengths to try to fit in with their peers. This might involve making silly decisions or putting themselves in risky situations. Breathe. It will end.
  • They will become more argumentative and will push against you more. This is perfectly in keeping with their adolescent adventure and their experimentation with independence.
  • May become more emotionally distant from you (don’t worry – they’ll come back but maybe not until they leave their teens).
  • Might not want to be seen in public with you – however cool you are.
  • Will experiment with their image, their identity, and the way they are in the world.
  • They may become sexually active.
  • They might be impulsive and they might start taking risks. (For a full explanation of why they do this, see here.)
  • They will be more creative and will start to think about the world in really interesting, different ways.
  • They will act like your opinion of them doesn’t matter but it does – as much as ever.
  • They will often misread your emotional expressions – reading anger, hostility or disappointment when you feel nothing like any of that (See here to understand teenage emotional flare-ups).
  • Their sleep cycle will change. Their circadian rhythm will move them about three hours past where they were as kids. This means that they will fall asleep three hours past the time they used to and unless they are completely exhausted, it will be biologically very difficult for them to fall asleep earlier. They will need about 9-10 hours sleep so will need to sleep in for later.
  • Will want to make their own decisions about the things that affect them.
What to do.
  • Don’t be judgemental or critical – they need your love and connection more than ever. 
  • Understand that they need to find their independence from you. Give them the space to do this. Over time, their values will be likely to align with yours.
  • Know that your teen isn’t rejecting you, but is finding their own way in the world – it’s an important, healthy part of being an independent adult – even if it feels bad.
  • Let go of control and go for influence. The harder you fight to control them, the harder they will push against you. The truth is that when it comes to adolescence, we have no control – they will decide how much they involve you in their lives, how much they tell you, and how much influence you have. Make it easy for them to come to you when something happens or when they need guidance.
  • Give them information, but don’t lecture.
  • You may or may not know when they start to become sexually active, so it’s important that they have the information and guidance they need to stay physically and emotionally safe. See here for an age by age guide for what they need to know.
  • Don’t buy into arguments – ask them to state their case and talk to you about the pros and cons of what they want. By nature, teens will overstate the positives and underestimate the negatives. Encourage them to tell you some of the cons – nothing is ever black or white.
  • Be the calming force – breathe and wait for the wave to pass over you. It takes 90 seconds for an emotion to be triggered, to peak and to start to fade, provided you don’t do anything to give it oxygen.
  • Help them to plan ahead and see around corners, but without judgement.
  • Encourage their social connections and give them space to strengthen their relationships. An important part of their development is to decrease their independence on the family tribe and to do this. To do this, they will feel an increased need to strengthen their affiliation with a friendship tribe. Encourage and support this wherever you can.
  • Help them find safe ways to take risks such as sports – competitive and non-competitive.
  • Let them know you will always do whatever you can to collect them from any situation when they want to come home – regardless of the circumstances and how late or far away it might be.
  • Let nothing be off limits when it comes to what they can talk to you about.
  • Wherever possible, let them sleep in to catch up on sleep deficits.
  • Listen more than you talk.

And finally …

Know that along the way from infant to adult, there are some important things that need to be done. There are things to learn, mistakes to be made, boundaries to be pushed, independence to be found. It will be a beautiful, exhausting, baffling, sometimes terrifying, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes traumatic adventure for everyone. Be patient and don’t take their opportunities to learn and grow away from them by taking their mistakes and their less than ideal behaviour personally. Their greatest growth will come from the mistakes they make and the boundaries that they push up against.

Even with the strongest supports in place, they are going to make mistakes – sometimes spectacular ones! Provided they have the support they need, their mistakes will be about their growth, not your parenting. 

For our part, it is important that we are there with love, nurturing and a steady hand to guide them and with boundaries for them to feel the edges of themselves against.  Understanding what is normal behaviour for children and teens will make this easier. Growing up is a journey of learning, exploring and experimenting – for them and for us. 

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Love this article so much! We have a 3.5 year old girl and a 1 year old girl and really struggling with our 3.5 year old girl and her behaviour at times. I had to chuckle at the section for the 3 year old.. tantrum.. tantrum.. tantrum.. all sooooo true! xx


3 was THE WORST for us! Our son is 4 now and not that he can’t have the occasional tantrum but it is LEAPS AND BOUNDS better than 3. Hang in there! Now I have to hold on for when my 1 year old girl gets to 3!


I have a 13 year old son who is on the Autism spectrum. He is smart and funny. He struggles so hard to make friends. He did have a best friend who he met in 3rd grade. They stayed close until this year (7th grade) until his friend got a girlfriend. Now my son is struggling more than I have ever seen him. The pain is real and the anxiety it brings with it can be heartbreaking some days. For a young man like this, getting him out of the house is challenging and sometimes impossible. How do I help him to gain a tiny bit of confidence and to help him realize that these teen years, albeit akin to a roller coaster, will not last for ever?

Hey Sigmund

Kalyn it sounds as though your son would really benefit from some outside support. A psychologist or counsellor would be able to help him to develop the social skills and confidence he needs right now. As a place to start, try a national Autism organisation. They should be able to direct you to someone who works in the area and who is familiar with working with kids your son’s age who have autism.


My son is the same way. The Doctor just told us our 11 year old may be in the spectrum. Now that he is entering pre teen years he is becoming aware that he doesn’t make friends the way others do and it is he most heart breaking thing I have ever experienced. I am not sure what the answer is but to know you are my alone and your son is amazing and you are doing a great job.


Dear Kaylin. And other struggling moms.

My daughter is highly functional but due to stress of a marriage breakdown, friends and connections have become a challenge. Does this have to do with Autism? No.
Is she gonna rock? Yes. Someday. And someday your child will too.

Weaves I much pressure to be popular and be certain ways. It is hard. They want friendship and community like everyone

What is it that they can do and create in the meantime? What is inside of them? Music? Theater? Art? Sports?

They will find their way. With love. You two sound amazing as moms. Well done and I’m so very happy to see parents who care so deeply.

Love and support (also ask your and their Angels)



Hi Kalyn,

Our son is 6 but again is borderline ASD. We have found his school’s Special Needs team really helpful – they have spent time with him helping him to learn social rules that he struggles to understand, and I have seen them be a really good sounding board for older children who are finding life tough as they develop into adolescents. The same teams are usually in high schools here too. We are in the UK and I don’t know if your school has anything similar but it’s worth asking them for advice. They would also provide someone to speak to at school when he is finding things difficult to cope with? I hope you and he find a way through this. I guess it’s something that all teenagers struggle with to some extent, but it’s really hard for youngsters who find it so much tougher to build friendships to start with.


Look into martial arts. It’s amazing for kids and teens… builds self esteem, confidence, provides challenge, and he can make friends too.


Can you post an article about post-adolescence/ young adults 18-24, my son seems immature for his age (19 1/2) has social anxiety and is very unsure of his place in this world. It is so upsetting to watch him struggle, he thinks his friends have it all figured out.
What is the best way to support him.

Hey Sigmund

Frankie adolescence lasts until about age 24, so it is completely understandable and very normal for your son to be unsure of where he fits in. He will work this out over the next few years. His friends definitely won’t have things figured out. They might be better at looking as though they do, but they will also be still working out who they are and where they fit in. Your son sounds beautifully sensitive, and and aware of his feelings and insecurities. It is often these people who finish strong. His brain is still developing and until it becomes the full adult version (around 24), things will be wobbly for a while.

The best thing you can do is be the strong, steady presence and be confident enough for both of you that he will come through the other side of his adolescence strong and safe and sound – which he will. When he is wavering, let him know that you understand. Tell him the stories of your own feelings of vulnerability during adolescence and how you came through, even though it didn’t feel as though you would. What he is going through is so normal. Here is an article that might shine some light on things and help him (and you) to feel comforted by the normality of it all http://www.heysigmund.com/theyll-do-what-about-adolescence/.


Your article is a great read and I can identify with the teens. I have a 12 year old girl who just started high school. 3 weeks into school I noticed she has been pulling her hair out on her scalp which is now the size of my palm. She has opened up and said she was so scared of trying to make friends at school at a new school. Her teacher says she is very friendly and contributes, she has made friends and is up early and ready for school each morning. I think now her hair pulling has become a habit.

Hey Sigmund

Sharon it sounds as though your daughter might have something called Trichotillomania. This is a condition which involves pulling out hair, usually on the scalp but it can be on other parts of the body too. It can have anxiety underlying it. There are good supports and treatments available, but it is first important to get an accurate diagnosis. A doctor will be able to help you with this. Trichotillomania is treatable – your daughter will be okay – and like anything, the earlier you can catch it and respond to it the better. Here is a website that will explain more about it http://www.trich.org. If this is what’s happening (and I can only speculate) it is more common than you would think – there are a lot of kids your daughter’s age who would be struggling with the same thing.


Hi .. many Godin lived with us for a year after his mum died .. he was very happy here and Jeff on good terms to go pit flatting with friends and find himself which we encouraged .. he is 18 ..he lost his mum when he was 16 .. he comes home once a week for dinner, at least most weeks and always seems to be happy to be here .. my problem is when he isn’t here his communication is very poor .. ie he doesn’t respond to my texts or messages on fb … am i being too in his face ? I only message him a couple of times a week so don’t think it’s to overwhelming .. I just want him to know we still care and love him and he always has a safe place to land here … what should i do to encourage communication?


sorry .. can proofread it now .. it should read .. my godson lived with us for a year after his mum died .. he was very happy here and left on good terms to go out flatting with friends ….

want to add further that he has left the flat after a short time and has been dossing down at his girlfriends place .. there have been a few lies told and not sure if he is actually ok, hence my intensified worry .. he lost his job and hasnt reenrolled into his tech course until July .. but cant get anything out of him other than he is ok .. he tells me he knows we have his back and that we are here for him .. am I expecting too much to have him respond to my texts/messages?

sorry to go on .. am worried .. and promised my friend on her deathbed that I would take care of him but feel cant do that if I dont fully know whats happening with him …

Hey Sigmund

Linda you’re not expecting too much at all, but what your godson is doing by not responding is actually really normal. I completely understand how worrying it must be, particularly given what he has been through, but it’s not at all unusual. You are doing exactly the right thing by being there and staying in contact with him. This is so important. This is a time of his life where he is being steered towards not relying so much on family or close adults. This is exactly what he should be doing, but I know it doesn’t feel good from your side of things. He will be trying to sort his way through his life on his own. It’s normal and healthy, and as much as you, being an adult who loves him wants to guide him and support him as much as you can, this is something he has to do in his own way. Definitely keep texting him though. It will keep the door open and let him know that he is loved and supported, even if he doesn’t draw on it. It will also stop things from becoming unfamiliar. It will be important to him and it will mean a lot to him that you text, even though he isn’t texting back. He might find it easier to talk to you while you are doing something – maybe seeing if he wants to meet up for a quick coffee or come over for dinner. He might not want to and he might not respond and that’s okay, but you’ll never know when he might be ready to take you up on it. Maybe put the offer out there every couple of weeks but make it really easy for him to say no and make it really clear that you’re completely okay if he’s busy. Just keep doing what you’re doing – you’re doing everything right. He is so lucky to have you in his life. Don’t underestimate the difference you’re making just be being there, and how important your contact is to him even though he might not be showing it. Remember his main job at the moment is to move towards independence. It’s a confusing, challenging time for him and he will need to do it in his own way. He won’t always get it right and that’s okay. What’s important is that he knows that you’re there if he needs you.


sorry .. my son hit send before I had a chance to proofread it .. gotta love his enthusiasm .. and hope it made sense as I cant see it anymore … let me know if you need clarification on anything … 🙂


My six and a hslf year old stiĺl suffers with separation anxiety. I have to tske her all the wsy into ghe classroom everyday and she clings on to me so i cannot leave untill she has the full attention of another adult. Help!

Barb Lees

Thank you for a great article. I will be sure to share it with others.
My main struggle I am having is that I have a 27 year old daughter who has moved back home. There is a lot of stress and she has ADD to complicate things more.
Do you have any articles or advice on how to best help and relate to adults with ADD.

Hey Sigmund

Thanks Barb. I don’t have any articles at the moment about adults with ADD but there is a lot of research happening in the area. One of the really important things to keep in mind is to focus more on what they can do than what they can’t do. It’s the same for any of us but people with ADHD are often directed to focus heavily on the things that need improvement. This tends to start in childhood and carries though to adulthood. The intention of this is to support the development of develop necessary skills, which is important, but the over-emphasis on it can be disheartening. What’s important is that the balance is right – there has to be a lot more attention on the strengths, compared to the things that need more work.

Darcy Bailey

awesome summary of the developmental stages ! simple, clear and totally to the point. So often (as a therapist) I am needing to moderate the parental worry or frustration of their child’s behavior with age appropriate expectations ~ with that, so often parents are relieved to know their child is ‘normal’ in terms of what is generally happening with kids their ages. This is reassuring and validating. Thank you !

Hey Sigmund

Thanks Darcy. Yes – it can be such a relief to know that our kids are on track, particularly because things can often look so different to the way we thought they would look!


Such an interesting article – my son just turned 3 and is a complete mix of desperate to be independent and then ‘baby’ behaviour. I’m struggling to establish when I should ‘pander’ to it and carry him down stairs/feed him and when I should insist he does things himself/or not in some cases! I’m finding it difficult to maintain consistency and then difficult to join that consistency with my husband. We seem to have different areas of patience so he ‘gets away’ with different things (like whether his light stays on at night/whether he dresses himself) depending who responds which must be confusing to him.

I’m striving for gentle parenting but feel I’m shouting and saying no and being impatient too much. (Having a new baby is adding to the limited patience) Reading the above has helped me understand his behaviour more so I hope I can be more patient and calm. I’d be very interested in any other articles about this age group. Thank you so much for your knowledgable insight.

Hey Sigmund

A new baby can make life all the more colourful! I understand what you mean – it can be difficult to know when to encourage their independence and when to scoop them up. As a general guide, if your son can do it himself, encourage him to do it himself. So, if he is able to dress himself and feed himself, encourage him to do this. There will be times he is beyond it – tired and cranky and things are starting to spin out of control. This is when it might be the time to ‘catch’ what is happening for him and take over. This isn’t the time to teach independence, but he can (eventually) learn the importance of being noticed and noticing, supporting people when they need it, validating what others are feeling etc. Even as adults, sometimes we just need someone else to take over. When he is in this space, Let him know that you can see that he’s tired or frustrated or upset or whatever it is that he’s feeling and if you can, slow things down. Give him a cuddle – this in itself will start to reduce his stress response and calm him down. Then, redirect him to whatever it is you need him to do. In these instances, you can still encourage him to do things himself, but it will be more likely to happen if he can feel as though you get what he is feeling. ‘I can see that you’re not happy right now. It’s been a big day hasn’t it. Let’s get dinner sorted so you can have a story. How about if I sit with you while you eat.’ Or something like that. I know how hard this can be with a new baby and you can only do what you can do. The point is to let him know that you’re there and that you notice what’s happening for him. This helps to put words to his big feelings and even by doing that, it can make sense of things, help him to be seen and help to soothe him. It doesn’t mean he will settle down straight away or jump in and want to do things by himself, but he will feel encouraged and supported which will hopefully make it easier for next time. Otherwise, encourage his independence. When you believe he can do it, he will believe it too.



We have an almost three year old boy who is the light of our life – most of the time, LOL!

I’ve been looking for something like this for a while!


Thankyou for putting this developmental information in a form I can easily share with my husband to help understand and nurture our boys. At times ‘normal’ behaviour can be so hard work!


our 3 yr old boy can be oh so sweet at one point then all of a sudden throws tantrums like the whole world is falling apart on him. I sometimes feel so helpless. It is quite a new experience to us because our elder son, turning 6, was quite a bit more tempered when he was little. it is encouraging to know that we are not alone and that kids will be kids and they will move on and mature as long as we give them the love and support they need

Anna K.

What an excellent post! I really like your “The support they need” recommendations, these are extremely useful for many parents. We actually printed this article and included it in the package of our handouts for parents. Thank you Karen for spending time and effort to write this.


This is really timely!

I’m having trouble with my 4 year old who’s enjoying herself testing the limits. Not really sure I should be more harsh in the discipline side of things or let time take care of this stage…

But based on the recommendations, I guess I haven’t been ‘explaining’ enough and will definitely try that!

Hey Sigmund

Eve – yes! 4 is definitely an age for limit testing! That doesn’t necessarily make it any easier for us parents though does it. At 4, kids are learning so much about themselves and the world and trying to make sense of the way it all works. Think of it like being new to any job – there’s so much to take in and there are going to be mistakes as they experiment with the best way to do things. It’s also going to take time, so don’t be discouraged if your little person is taking a while to learn the lessons. Every time she gets something wrong she will be learning something, with your guidance.

Discipline should always be more about teaching than punishment (think ‘disciple’). The learning will come, but there’s no hurry. It’s why they are kids for such a long time – it takes a while for them to understand how the world works, and the best way they can be a part of it.

The most important thing is the relationship you have with your daughter – the stronger your relationship, the stronger your influence (though it might not always feel that way!). Influence happens best with clear boundaries, and gentle, steady guidance around those boundaries. It all takes time, and although harsh discipline might seem to have a more immediate effect, it doesn’t necessarily teach the lessons you want to teach. That comes from your influence, your conversation and your gentle, loving guidance. It comes through the relationship. If discipline is too harsh, it runs the risk of dampening your child’s curious spirit and their willingness to explore the world and their place in it. There is no window in which they need to learn the limits. As long as your guidance is steady and strong, your daughter will be well on her way to learning the lessons she needs to learn (even if that takes a while) and growing into the healthy, well-adjusted, curious, brave and strong person that she is capable of being.


Thanks so much for your reply…

What made me wonder if I should be more of a discipline master was when I read about some articles about Asian parenting.

The moms are strict, always involved in every aspect of the child’s life, setting schedules for classes (musical instruments), and setting high expectations academically.

They generally do well and have a close-knit family as grown-ups.

What are your thoughts on that?


My thoughts on that is that while realistically high academic expectations are good, there is a danger of psychological problems as a result of this strict upbringing.
My dad knew a Chinese American kid named Willy Tung who was raised that way, and he always felt he needed to be Number 1. When he got to Harvard, and was not at the very top of the class, he killed himself.
Granted, this type of thing doesn’t always happen, but the risks of such an upbringing are severe. I saw one of those daughters, on TV, on the verge of crying because she got an A minus in calculus – no easy task, but her upbringing made her feel like she was a borderline failure for doing that, and I know that because I have to grapple sometimes with unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies myself.
People can also burn themselves out if the expectations are too high. However, if the expectations are too low, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe it is a good idea to have high expectations, generally a little higher than the kids themselves might have, and definitely higher, way higher, than the doom-and-gloom expectations you will be given if your child is either severely cognitively disabled or incorrectly thought to be so – professionals who evaluate those kids underestimate them alarmingly often, and many parents believe them. Heck, I was evaluated that way when I was very little. That should say something about how rampant these underestimations are; if they can underestimate someone who now has a near-genius IQ that badly, they can certainly wildly underestimate a kid who really does have intellectual disability or else motor disabilities that make them appear so. However, it is also important to not push past the point where kids are starting to show a lot of stress, either, or else are significantly underperforming in an area, and to slow down the pace of expected progress if a kid is having trouble, while at the same time expecting that they can and will progress, at their own pace. And if the method being used is laborious, you might want to see if another one will work; sometimes kids, especially autistic ones, make no progress in one area only to suddenly do it one day in a certain setting (like a theater) or when they reach a certain age; environmental and developmental changes can trigger certain elements they have been implicitly learning all along to suddenly come together, “click”, and be capable of being used. And no, it is not magic, it is a cognitive process common to many autistics, including me (in my experience, those skills were mostly physical and athletic-type skills).


Thank you so much. Really struggling with my 3.5yr old and his tantrums and disobedience. Was being to hate his company and feel that I was doing something wrong. Now I know it’s normal and it won’t last forever.

I feel tearful with relief. Thank you

Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Liz. Sounds like your little man is right on track. Tantrums and disobedience can be so tough can’t they, but they are so normal. I’m so pleased the article was able to give you reassurance.


I have a newly-13 year old son so I was curious to read the adolescent section of this. Could you please clarify what’s being said in this sentence? (Maybe it’s an editing issue?):

“They will need about 9-10 hours earlier so will need to sleep in for later.”

Hey Sigmund

Oh nooo! You’re right – it’s an editing issue. It should have read, ‘They will need about 9-10 hours sleep so will need to sleep in for later.’ Gosh how many times have I read that post and it still slipped through! Thanks for pointing it out. All fixed now. If you have started venturing into adolescence, here is a post that might be helpful for you:
The Adolescent Brain: What They Need to Know http://www.heysigmund.com/the-adolescent-brain-what-they-need-to-know/


Love this article it’s right on point & makes you feel like you are not in fact nuts…AND that your little monkeys are not the only ones causing havoc on a daily basis!!! We have 6 children age range from 20 right down to a 10 month old with 12,8,5 & 2 inbetween so always a tantrum or a child that knows everthing this is brilliant. Thank you

Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Kellie! Wow – 20 down to 10 months – what a wonderful adventure! Tantrums and the knowing-of-everything come from beautiful independent minds – sounds like they are travelling along just the way they’re meant to.


Good post. We have to grow again together with our children, and we are tired, painful, but happy with their childhood time.


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