Toddlers, Tantrums & Teens – Oh My!
Tips for Supporting Your Child at Every Stage of Development

Kids are often mistaken for being little manipulative masterminds. But the truth is – they’re not. They’re burgeoning beings who are learning how to navigate the world and interact with people around them.

To better manage your child’s behavior it is instructive to understand why they do the things they do, and every stage of childhood development comes with a set of common behaviors and challenges. Below we’ll give you a brief breakdown of what you can expect during these developmental stages along with pediatric care tips to help alleviate some of the stresses of parenting.

Most importantly, no matter what the behavior or developmental stage, smother your little one with affection. It’ll go a long way.

0-12 months

What to expect?

  • Let’s face it, babies cry. But this is your infant’s way of communicating a need or that something isn’t quite right. Your little one will cry to signal when she’s hungry, tired, needs a diaper change, wants to be held or put down, or is over-stimulated.
  • An oral fixation for everything within reach, including their own hands and feet. It’s the way babies learn about their surroundings.
  • A fascination with (new/familiar) faces and a penchant for staring at them.
  • A possible fear of strangers, which might trigger a good cry if familiar people are not in close range.

Tips:

A baby’s first year of life is a smorgasbord of new sights, tastes, scents, sounds, and textures. They’re born with an innate curiosity, but with that curiosity can also come a fear of the unknown. Tend to your babies immediate needs (food, diapering, swaddling) and offer the continuous comfort and security they need to feel safe and secure in their new world.

Introduce them to all kinds of colors and textures and foods (see our “Baby First Foods” post) – and allow them to explore safely.

Also, pay close attention to what your baby is telling you. Newborns are known to have different cries to express different needs. Over time, you’ll be able to quickly identify your baby’s need based on the type of cry she produces. (See “How to Cope with Crying Baby” for additional tips).

Ages 1-2

What to expect?

  • Increased interaction and independence
  • No sense of intention behind their actions (i.e. biting, hitting, hair-pulling)
  • More curiosity which naturally leads to pulling things down, tearing things apart, climbing, opening, exploring small holes (like electrical outlets) and wrangling with family pets
  • The beginnings of selfishness and defiance
  • Irritability and frustration from insufficient communication skills
  • Tantrums may arise from inability to communicate anger, sadness, shame, etc.

Tips:

The “twos” are deemed “terrible” because this period marks the beginning of toddlerhood ­– the phase commonly characterized by independence, defiance, and boundless curiosity. It’s important to remember that toddlers lack the communication skills and emotional maturity to recognize and manage their feelings. They just act out their bodily sensations by screaming, laughing, hitting, and crying, among others. Do your best to stay calm and be gentle. Help build their emotional intelligence by explaining to them in simple terms the range of feelings they’re experiencing. For example, “I see you’re frustrated because we have to leave the park now.” Or, “You were so joyful when that big fluffy dog licked your face a moment ago!” In time, they will be able to express their emotions using words rather than showing you by tantruming.

Children at this age are completely in the present, so there are moments when you may leverage this to distract from challenging behavior and use positive reinforcement for good behavior. “Look at the beautiful clouds in the sky! Let’s count them.” Overall, be consistent, be repetitive, and be patient. Children are listening and learning all the time, even when they seem to be focused on other tasks, and will surprise you when least expect it.

Age 3

What to expect?

  • Tantrums
  • A tendency to assert independence in many situations while also wanting to be catered to
  • A will to take control of their environment and to test boundaries
  • Possible development of fears and phobias
  • Fickle behavior – your toddler may like something one day and dislike it the next
  • Might confuse reality and make believe
  • A need to learn to share

Tips:

Repeat after me: tantrums happen. As parents, it’s completely natural to lose your patience but try to remember that toddlers are not little adults. They’re experiencing a range of intense emotions (some name them “big feelings”) but without the communication and coping mechanisms to manage them effectively.

As pediatric care physicians, we recommend setting a few simple and consistent rules. You want to be sure you are comfortable with these rules because you don’t want to undermine your parenting authority by inconsistently reinforcing them. You may question that you start to sound like a broken record at times but trust yourself and your commitment to consistency – it will help your child feel safe and will make a big difference.

Also, it’s okay to say “no” but do so kindly and sparingly. You want to encourage, not discourage, their appetite for exploration. And if you use “no” too much, it loses its umph.

To nurture your child’s growing need for independence, give them simple choices to make throughout the day, i.e. do they want to wear the blue or green pajamas, to have broccoli or cauliflower for dinner, to read 1 or 2 books at bedtime, etc.

“Connect and redirect” is also a strategy that is highlighted in Dan Siegel’s books Whole Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline, both of which contain helpful science-based information about the developing brain and parenting.

Age 4

What to expect?

  • An increased desire to assert independence, which could look like stubbornness and defiance
  • Assessing people and situations in simple, binary terms: good/bad, right/wrong
  • A stronger command for communication and the use of words to gain control
  • Might express frustrations physically with hitting, pushing, whining
  • Fears around going to bed may develop and also separation anxiety from parents or caregivers
  • Teetering between testing limits and wanting to be little helpers

Tips:

You might be noticing a theme here­: independence. A crucial part of growing up is testing limits. Give your child the space to explore their independence – but always within reason and with the goal of maintaining their safety.

As previously noted, have your set of consistent rules in place, but now begin take the time to explain to your child, in simple terms, the reason for the rule. Arbitrary directives will not help them to learn or develop their sense of right from wrong. Also, when you make requests of your child, be sure they’re easy to follow.

When faced with unfavorable behavior, do not argue with your four-year-old – it’s an exercise in futility. If they make a mistake or break a rule, ask them what happened and explore alternatives to these not-so-great choices. Refrain from asking, “Why did you do that?”

Set simple and reasonable consequences for broken rules, but deliver them with a simple explanation and an encouraging tone. Making mistakes is how they learn, and it’s important to give them the confidence to do better next time by enlisting their ideas and input about what this might look like.

Age 5

What to expect?

  • Feelings of empathy and the discovery that others might have different points of view
  • Longer attention spans
  • A keenness to share ideas and newly learned information
  • Expressions of humor and a possible liking for “bathroom humor”
  • Increasingly choosey about what they want to eat and wear
  • May become more competitive and could struggle with “sore loser” attitudes
  • More likely to share but some may struggle, especially with particularly coveted items

Tips:

Get your 5-year-old out and about and playing with other children as often as possible. Group play is essential for developing interpersonal skills like empathy, problem solving, and teamwork. Luckily, San Francisco offers an array of playgrounds and kid-friendly activities to keep your child sufficiently engaged.

Make a daily effort to spend some quality alone time with your child. The more time you spend with your child, the more likely they are to open up to you, which will pay dividends over the years. This (and any age, really) is an ideal stage to incorporate talks about feelings during these private moments.

Contributing to the family unit by setting the table or sorting laundry is a great way to begin to instill a sense of discipline and responsibility. Remember to thank them for chores and jobs they do. With a little positive reinforcement, your child will likely respond positively to helping out. 

Age 6

What to expect?

  • Possible resurgence of tantrums
  • Will continue to test boundaries but will be more eager to please and help out
  • May experience separation anxiety
  • A desire for positive recognition for the good things that they do, i.e. homework, chores
  • Might exhibit a “know it all” attitude

Tips:

Fill your 6-year-old with the assurance that they’re capable of achieving whatever they set out to do. Be sure to let them know that it’s the effort that matters the most – it’s important to learn from our mistakes and try again. Give encouragement for their hard work, not the outcome, and be specific about your praise. (”You must feel so proud of yourself for helping teacher Nancy,” is better than the generic “good job” which the science shows can be under-motivating.)

Age 7

What to expect?

  • A flare for complaining and dramatics, likely about you, their friends, school, or life in general
  • Feeling misunderstood, either by you, their friends, teachers, etc.
  • Becoming more self-conscious and aware of what others think
  • A stronger ability for communicating feelings but may lash out in frustration or anger if upset

Tips:

Your 7-year-old is still coming to terms with a range of emotions, which are now compounded by school and home life. It’s important to actively listen and begin to guide them into understanding why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and their options for dealing with it.

Don’t buy into their theatrics. Some kids are prone to exaggeration, especially when they’re upset. Instead, encourage them to come up with solutions while steering them towards positive thinking.

Age 8

What to expect?

  • Will care about what you and others think of them
  • May become argumentative and opinionated
  • Very little tolerance for nuance ­– they’ll see the world in right/wrong, good/bad terms

Tips:

You cannot argue with someone who only sees the world in black or white – so don’t even try. Instead, encourage your 8-year-old to talk through their positions and frustrations by helping them to see other points of view. This will help to develop their sense of empathy and a capacity for critical thinking.

Continue to praise good behavior but provide an explanation for the positive reinforcement. Arbitrary praise defies character building.

Continue to carve out as much quality time together as possible to help solidify your close bond and to keep the lines of communication open.

Age 9

What to expect?

  • Family will start to take a backseat to friends
  • An increased concern over what their friends think
  • May become disrespectful toward and intentionally disobey you
  • Might vacillate between being funny and affectionate, and quarrelsome and self-centered

Tips:

Your 9-year-old will crave their own freedom so create opportunities for them to make their own choices. Instead of being overly domineering or critical, continue to get them to see multiple sides of the equation.

Ages 10-11

What to expect?

  • Might continue to test boundaries and question rules
  • A lot of excuses and justifications and a seemingly unrelenting search for loopholes
  • The promises that you make will be taken very seriously…and will never be forgotten

Tips:

Pick your battles and know your boundaries. Be prepared to deliver appropriate consequences when a line is crossed; though make sure your child understands that they are being disciplined for their behavior and why.

But most importantly, hear them out. Give them a chance to make their case and exercise independent thought. Even if you end up disagreeing with them, it’s more productive in the long run than being dismissive.

And don’t make promises you can’t keep. Trust us, you may never hear the end of it.

Adolescence

What to expect?

  • Friends and personal life will take precedence over family
  • Increasingly self-conscious and self-aware, which could lead to personal and social stresses
  • Might take risks in order to fit in with peer groups
  • They will become increasingly argumentative, will push back against you, and might disregard your opinions
  • Experimentation with identity and image
  • Exploration of hobbies, talents, and interests
  • Teenage flare ups that come with misreading your emotions
  • Need for sleep will increase to 9-10 hours/night
  • A desire for independent decision-making
  • May start to experiment sexually and with illicit substances

Tips:

Perhaps the hardest part of raising an adolescent is accepting that pulling away is part of the process. It happens because your child needs the space and freedom to explore and exercise their independence. Remember, you’re not raising little clones, but unique, fully formed people with their own interests and ideas.

Don’t fight for control – that will be a losing battle. It’s all about nurturing a strong and open relationship with your teen. Be there to guide and to listen, but try not to be too critical or overbearing. They’re going to make mistakes, some bigger than others, and that’s ok. Try your best to understand.

Make sure your child is armed with all the knowledge and resources available should they become sexually active. Do not let this be a taboo topic in your household.

Create opportunities for them to take risks (within reason) and be encouraging of their social lives. You want them to grow into well-rounded, independent adults who are capable of thinking critically and building and maintaining healthy relationships.

Let them sleep in whenever possible – a well-rested teen is better than a sleep deprived one.

Last but not least, be their source of comfort and strength. Your child may not always want to open up to you, but it’s all about having nurtured the trust that results in them knowing they can come to you for absolutely anything – no matter the circumstance.

Let GetzWell Guide You – At Every Stage

At GetzWell, we understand that parenting can feel overwhelming and even isolating at times. But please know that you’re not alone! We’re here to guide and educate you through every age and stage of your child’s development. To learn more, please call us at our San Francisco pediatric care offices at (415) 826-1701.