Post No.: 0581
Humans have a relatively long infant period – they’re born ‘less polished and finished’ when ‘fresh out of the box’ compared to other known animals. The disadvantage is that they’re helpless for much longer but the advantage is that humans are far more adaptable to learn new things – particularly during the first few years of life – and as a result more flexible to live in a wide range of environments.
Well it’s advantageous when children learn good things but disadvantageous when they pick up bad habits or experiences during their early, formative years. Between 0-2 years old, babies’ brains will be making a lot of new neural connections, but then between 2 years old and adulthood, their brains will undergo a lot of pruning of these connections (‘perceptual narrowing’); although the number of brain cells barely change during this time. So as people grow and become who they’ll become, they are actually reducing the number of connections in their brains – some connections will be strengthened but many others will be lost depending on what skills an individual focuses on and what experiences they experience during this time. After 2 years old is the most critical time of development when one needs much love, tender touch and stimulation – the consequences of a lack of any of these will last a lifetime. A subsequent positive environment may reduce the effects of abuse or neglect but never completely.
A baby should advance through many developmental milestones rapidly. Then between infancy and adolescence, the maturity/developmental phase relative to age can differ by up to 4 years between different individuals.
The brain will already have developed to ~90% of its full size by around age 5-7. Between 6 years old to puberty is a time when physical growth slows down relatively but mental growth speeds up, hence it’s a good time for children to learn new skills.
Puberty is a time of massive changes too, both mentally and physically. Peak physical performance generally occurs between 20-35 years old, depending on the sport. And although general decline starts from ~35 years old onwards, elderly decline is rapid from ~70 years old onwards. As an adult, fluid intelligence (which is dependent on one’s working memory capacity) gradually declines but crystallised intelligence (which depends on the knowledge one has acquired through past learning and experience) remains or even improves.
Our individual developmental phase or biological age will affect us mentally and physically as we age. People of all ages need to understand this – we must be sensitive to and accommodate the elderly for not being as sharp as they used to be; and the elderly (or when we become elderly ourselves) mustn’t get automatically defensive if they’re accused of making mistakes due to their age. It’s a natural part of life. (Not that if one reaches an old age it’s a terrible thing because it means that one luckily didn’t die young, which many people around the world unfortunately do.)
2-year old children can be quite uninhibited and self-centred – get a group of them together and they’ll often demonstrate a great lack of cooperation because they don’t find it easy to share things! It’s only when their brains develop do they shed a lot of that self-centredness, gain better empathy with others and are able to work productively with others.
According to some experiments and conclusions, signs of ‘theory of mind’ and empathy start to exhibit around 18-24 months old; although most scientists would say that a sense of self and others might take up to 5 years to truly develop. ‘Mentalisation’ is related but concerns reflecting upon the affective mental states of another person (‘I wonder what they’re feeling?’) whereas theory of mind encompasses thinking about another person’s beliefs, intentions and persuasions (‘I wonder what they’re thinking?’) They’re both related to empathy however.
So young children can appear extremely selfish because they’ve yet to develop the ability to see things from the perspectives of others. But by 4-5 years old, a child should have developed a firm theory of mind and should now feel empathy for others, unless they have a developmental disorder such as autism, or a personality disorder such as psychopathy. A child should definitely recognise that the person in the mirror is him/herself. Nevertheless, at this age, they still have much to learn, or unlearn, because, for instance, kids at school can be quite cruel to their poorer, less-privileged peers (e.g. laughing at and ostracising them for their cheaper shoes and clothes) whilst mature adults have learnt to understand that such poorer kids ought to really receive our empathy and compassion, not ridicule, because it’s not their fault (and maybe not their parents’ fault either). Empathy appears to be innate, but what we do about our empathic feelings seems to be learnt (e.g. an attitude of helping the unfortunate or an attitude of schadenfreude?) Immature minds also tend to see things as relatively more black-or-white.
If a child misses a ‘critical period’ of development, it could have a permanent effect on them, although this extreme conclusion is currently controversial. What’s less controversial though is if a child misses a ‘sensitive period’ of development, it will delay or make it more difficult for them to learn a skill, whether a cognitive or physical skill. Hence the need for enriched environments during these times of development before adulthood. Neural connections in the brain will be pruned – if you haven’t exploited a potential fully, it will be essentially missed. So there are windows of opportunity for optimal development, which must be taken in order for one to reach one’s full genetic potential. Neuroplasticity generally declines with age too thus skills get increasingly harder to develop when older. But it’s not the case of ‘cram in as much as possible when young’ though – trying a wide variety of games, activities, languages and sports when young is ideal, whereas aggressively training at the wrong age when bodily resources would be better used for growth and maturation could permanently affect the natural biology of a child (e.g. bodybuilding exercises before the end of puberty). So age-appropriateness still matters for optimal development.
Yet it’s normal for childhood development to be bumpy, with patches that are smooth and patches that are sticky or tough. If you notice an adverse change in your child’s behaviour, you’ll need to gather as much information as possible from different sources (e.g. at home and at school), and consider if there have been any major (from the child’s perspective) changes in their life (e.g. a growth spurt, starting in a new school, parental divorce). Don’t jump to any conclusions too soon – see if it’s a normal developmental phase or just temporary behaviour? Ask them, but if your child cannot articulate what they’re going through then experiment to assess whether it’s a particular situation that triggers the behaviour. Don’t assume there is an underlying condition too soon yet don’t let adverse behaviour go on for too long if it doesn’t improve. Consult a paediatrician if needed. The right interventions at the right time might make a significant difference over time, but there are many factors we have limited control over too (e.g. the child’s developing self and unforeseeable future events).
One should not try to forcefully accelerate (or of course decelerate) a child’s development – the appropriate development rate is the optimal development rate, whether mentally or physically. Well if a child isn’t allowed to be a child when he/she is a child then he/she won’t have a healthy and appropriate chance to be a child again when older!
Flow, which has been covered many times before in this blog, is why age or skill-appropriate toys are the best for children – something that’s either too frustratingly difficult or boringly easy for a particular child’s current skill level will hold back his/her maximum rate of skill development. So age-appropriate toys, activities and play are actually best. Frustration can harm enthusiasm and confidence if a child is pushed too hard or too soon. You cannot force a child to become a prodigy, but you can support the opportunity by ensuring that he/she is constantly appropriately stimulated. Education, discovery, practising and play are all about the same thing i.e. learning – the only difference is the method of presentation. Different teaching techniques can work better for different children. Play is a key way for a child to socially bond, develop and grow too.
There’s a highly complex interplay between both risk and protective factors, and both chronic and salient one-off acute events, involving biology (genetics, prenatal, perinatal), personality or temperament, age or stage of development (e.g. adolescence can be a particularly vulnerable time), sex (e.g. boys tend to express more disruptive behaviour and girls tend to internalise problems more), general cognitive/learning ability (e.g. dyslexia or learning disorders), trauma or abuse (e.g. being bullied, neglected, isolation), opportunities, the environment and culture (e.g. socio-economic status, poverty, access to resources), contextual factors (luck or being at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time), life events throughout one’s life, and parenting style (which is accordingly partly affected by a parent’s own parental history e.g. their own upbringing). Therefore developmental psychopathologies and life outcomes aren’t just due to parental attachment (see Post No.: 0311) or parental neglect; although these will still have a notable influence.
A stressor like adversity, misfortune, loss, chronic under-stimulation, confinement, abandonment, maltreatment or trauma – particularly when young – can lead to adaptive behaviours or coping mechanisms in the context of the stressful event (e.g. a violently abusive parent can lead to a child finding it harder to trust others anymore, hiding their emotions and/or being socially withdrawn, in order to cope with the situation and not further attract the parent’s aggressive attention). But whilst this works as an adaptation or coping strategy in the short-term, this behaviour becomes maladaptive in the wider context and long-term (e.g. when amongst peers, not reaching out for help because of distrusting others, hiding one’s emotions and problems too well and self-isolation). This’ll then create a vicious cycle, where the maladaptive behaviour results in even more maladaptive behaviour (e.g. the distrust and preferring to be alone leads to being treated in unfriendly ways by others, which leads to further distrust and loneliness). Stress affects a child’s development and growth, even when in the womb. The early years are critical years for the rest of a person’s life.
If an abused or neglected child is adopted or fostered into a loving, caring family by the age of ~2 then their prognosis will be as good as any non-abused or non-neglected child who is adopted or fostered by the same age. However, if the abuse or neglect occurs or continues beyond ~2 years old and they don’t get adopted into a loving, caring family until later, then the effects of the abuse or neglect will likely have a lasting effect on them developmentally. For instance, they may develop attachment issues (e.g. they may feel fearful of being loved – or if they accept any love, they may feel exceptionally fearful of ever losing that love). The first few years of their lives may not be remembered but they’ll shape them greatly. After ~2 years old, children will start to be able to remember specific events.
Adopting is generally better than fostering – fostering can make a child feel replaceable and that there’s no point in investing in any long-term relationships because they’re just going to eventually move onto another family again. However, the social care system provides support for foster carers, along with regulations and inspections, which adoption doesn’t. A foster carer isn’t fully legally responsible for the child, whilst an adoptive parent is. But perhaps adoptive parents need greater support too?
Woof. Parents don’t need to be stressed about how their children are developing yet they do need to be mindful of such matters. Do the best you can and no one can ask for anything more!