Chapter 3: Understanding the Stages of Normal Development
When we think of all the things that seemed like king-sized problems at the time but turned out to be just a part of Jimmy’s particular stage, it helps us keep some perspective on our current collection of parental worries.
This statement by a father in a parents’ growth group is probably true to the experience of most families. The vast majority of child problems turn out to be temporary upsets or passing phases. Some parents, though, go into an emotional tailspin about normal developmental problems. By “making a federal case” out of what would ordinarily pass as the child matures, they may actually prevent the problem from passing. The child may remain stuck in negative behavior or attitudes because he has discovered that they get him giant helpings of parental concern and attention. On the other hand, what appears to be a passing problem may actually be the onset of a major difficulty from which the child won’t recover without professional help. An understanding of the kinds of stresses, crises, and difficulties that are “par for the course” for children at successive growth stages in our culture, can help quiet unnecessary parental anxieties and, at the same time, alert you to real distress signals. Knowledge of normal development can provide general guidelines in deciding what is “age appropriate” and when to seek professional help. Knowing about normal development is also valuable in your efforts to facilitate your child’s maturing — a positive approach to preventing problems.
Problems and growing up go together. At each new life stage, a person must learn new, untried ways of relating so as to get his basic needs for love, acceptance, understanding, freedom, and achievement satisfied. This is a risky, threatening task, yet the growth drive that is in everyone also creates a strong desire to move ahead. This is the conflict — whether to stay where you are comfortable and secure, or to risk moving to the next stage. Each life stage has its central task. Serious problems occur when a person doesn’t accomplish the life assignment of his developmental stage. When he moves on chronologically without the inner security of knowing that tasks at the previous stages were relatively well completed, the new stage is more threatening and difficult. It’s like constructing a building without a sturdy foundation. Thus, serious problems stem from blocked growth. Conversely, to the extent that a person fulfills his personality potential, serious problems are prevented. A person who is moving toward the fulfillment of his unique potentialities as an individual, will have problems (like the rest of the human race), but he will be able to handle them and even use them as an opportunity for further growth.
Each person has his own unique growth pattern. Each child matures according to his individual pattern. Anxious parents who unwittingly put pressure on a child to conform to what’s “normal” for his age group forget that such norms are only statistical averages of a wide, wide range of individual differences. Respect for a child’s own inner developmental pattern and timetable is an indispensable ingredient in parent-child acceptance. Each family also changes in its own unique way, as parents and children together evolve that family’s “personality,” its style of relationship and pattern of development.
Let us now look more closely at the developmental tasks, pressures, and problems which are typical of the five childhood-youth stages, 1. remembering that these aren’t developmental boxes but broad generalizations about each life stage.
Stage One: INFANCY (Birth to 15 months). The life task of this stage is developing basic trust, the deep dependable conviction that “life is okay and I’m okay.” 2. Basic trust (or basic mistrust) grows within the parent-infant relationship. A baby with a solid, loving tie with a mothering person, who in turn has a trustful nurturing marriage, will acquire a deep conviction that life and relationships can be trusted to satisfy his basic needs. Erik Erikson, who has explored the life stages most extensively, calls this “basic faith in existence.” Basic trust is the foundation of identity and self-trust, enabling one to form trustful relationships throughout life — in marriage, with children, with society, with God.
The details of child-rearing practices aren’t really the important thing. The quality of the nurturing relationship is important! Parents who take pleasure in nurturing — feeding, cuddling, rocking, cooing to the baby — communicate to him empathetically the deep sense of being okay. The father who is comfortable in his masculinity can enjoy sharing with mother the tender, nurturing of the baby. Security comes to a baby via body love, including abundant sucking and warm body contact with the nurturing ones. The contemporary companionship model of marriage — a relationship of genuine intimacy that is possible only between true equals — frees both partners to enjoy the co-nurturing of the new life they have created together. The concept of responsible family planning means that parents will only have children who are wanted and who can be well nurtured by them.
Many later problems of children are rooted in inadequacies in this first, trust-forming stage — depression, feelings of unworth, withdrawal from relationships, continued infantile behavior such as thumbsucking and overeating, for example. Some adult problems also have their roots in stage one — alcoholism, schizophrenia, manic-depressive mood swings, excessive smoking, criticizing, and suspiciousness. The experiences of stage one lay the foundation for later religious trust. A child’s most important lessons in theology are learned before his first birthday as he acquires the deep conviction that existence is or is not trustworthy.
Stage Two: EARLY CHILDHOOD (15 months to 21/2 years). The main growth task of a child at this stage is to develop a sense of selfhood (autonomy) as a separate person. A child’s intense wish to choose and his vigorous “No” saying around age two show that his sense of self is emerging, being tested and strengthened in opposition to the wills around him. Feelings about his body and about the demands of society grow strong as he is confronted with the expectation that he become toilet trained. This is an early and therefore a decisive confrontation with the demands of society and the self-discipline required to live together in a social group. The controls by his parents need to be firmly reassuring to protect him from the potential anarchy of his untrained inner urges. Lack of limits and discipline will be experienced as rejection. If discipline is both loving and firm, he will begin to conform without the loss of basic trust and self-esteem. But, if discipline is heavy-handed, arbitrary, unpredictable, or divorced from love, then shame and self-doubt result.
Children who are afraid of dirt and too neat, compulsively organized in every area of life, obsessed by feelings that the body is unclean, or who mess everything they touch, are experiencing problems rooted at the early childhood stage. The issue here is the balance between freedom and control. Children who feel a sense of “self-control without loss of self-esteem” are able to combine good feelings of autonomy and cooperation with others. Parents who have a relatively comfortable feeling about their own bodies and a firm sense of autonomy transmit these affirming feelings to their children during this stage.
Stage Three: PLAY AGE (21/2 to 6). The development of a sturdy sense of self continues as the child becomes aware not just that he is a person (autonomy), but what kind of person. The key life task of this stage is developing initiative — being able to move about aggressively, try out and like the thrust of his personality. Increasing language and muscular abilities give him a good inner sense of mastery. Consuming curiosity is a sign that he is moving out aggressively with his mind to grasp and understand his world.
Sibling rivalry often is intense during this period (perhaps earlier). Preoccupation with sexual differences (discovered in this or the preceding period) is strong. Normally a child’s feelings of his own sexual identity are awakened during this time by a warm relationship with the parent of the opposite sex. Fantasies, often frightening to the child, of taking the place of the same-sexed parent are present. The child’s need is for a dependable, loving relationship with both parents, and for them to have a strong relationship with each other so that he will know that eventually he must move beyond this way of satisfying his needs.
Having been awakened to the wonderful awareness of his sexuality during this period, a child lets go of his fantasies and his close attachment to the opposite-sexed parent. He resolves the oedipal dilemma (of wanting to have an exclusive relationship with the opposite-sexed parent but recognizing that he or she is already “taken”) by identifying with the same-sexed parent in the next stage. However, if the boy’s father (or the girl’s mother) isn’t available (emotionally or physically) the child may become trapped (fixated) in the oedipal attachment. If the opposite-sexed parent is too dependent on the child for emotional satisfactions because of the lack of a satisfying marriage or other adult relationship, the same fixation may occur. When one is stuck in any life stage, blocked growth produces personality and relationship problems. Fixation in the oedipal stage may, for example, result in a “Mama’s boy” or in neurotic anxieties about sex and fear of closeness to either sex.
Stage Four: SCHOOL AGE (6 to puberty). The child’s key growth task during this stage is to achieve a sense of “industry” — derived from beginning to acquire the skills which will be useful to him as a man or woman. School experiences of success are important here, since they give a child a sense of budding competence in language, math, and thinking skills which are essential to subsequent school success and to adequate adult functioning. This is
also the time when a girl absorbs female roles and a boy absorbs male ones.
But in our day definitions of masculine and feminine roles are changing dramatically. Many parents therefore are unsure about what is really appropriate for men and women. During the present transition period and until new definitions of maleness and femaleness emerge (probably allowing for much greater variety in roles among different couples) there is bound to be some confusion for the developing boy and girl. Although past roles were too rigid and constricting, they were more secure and easier to fit into than the present changing and often confused roles. 3.
Meanwhile, the importance of both male and female adults as models for normal development during this stage cannot be overemphasized. The old way of limiting mothers to home, and fathers to the outside world has often meant that children became too emotionally attached to mothers and too emotionally distant from fathers. Clinging mothers do not free their children to grow. Absentee fathers also have an adverse effect on sons and daughters. A girl in early adolescence, says family life educator Kay Crowe, needs a father who “makes her feel she is a budding woman with great possibilities for the future.” If the father is emotionally or physically missing, the child usually picks up the mother’s anger toward him (and men generally), because of her own unmet needs. Sons feel fatherly deprivation acutely during the oedipal periods and the school years (6 — 12), during which they are searching for a strong sense of their own maleness. Although the changes in male/female roles represented by the women’s liberation movement will undoubtedly cause severe problems in some marriages, and therefore disturb the children, the eventual benefits for marriage, families and parent-child relationships are great.
During the second half of the school age stage, the child normally forms strong relationships with his own sex and age group; this is the so-called gang stage. Peer relationships and the wider society of adults outside the family (teachers, ministers, coaches) become increasingly important as sources of need satisfaction.
Achievement of a firm sense of “industry” (skill mastery) during this stage of learning helps a child enter subsequent stages without nagging feelings of inadequacy. Early school failure may cause the child to feel trapped in a failure cycle-in which each failure increases the probability of another failure. Children who learn to relate with peers in mutually satisfying ways, move into adolescence with feelings of adequacy within relationships.
Stage Five: ADOLESCENCE (Puberty to 20). The crucial life task of adolescence is to complete the sense of identity. Who am I? What am I worth? What can I do that is important? This is the pay-off period, when the successes and failures of previous stages make the adolescent’s task much more or much less difficult. It is also a second-chance stage, when partially unfinished developmental tasks may be completed as a foundation for the life tasks of the three adult stages — intimacy (emotional and sexual) in young adulthood, generativity (being a generator or creator) in the middle years, and ego integrity (making peace with life) in the older adult years.
Several life demands converge during adolescence. The adolescent must achieve a sense of healthy separation from his parents — inner and outer independence. This requires cutting inner dependency ties — a difficult, scary assignment, but absolutely essential if he is to emerge as a full person in his own right and sight. (Parents are often disturbed by the normal withdrawal of their teen-agers which is necessary for private growing.) The adolescent is also wrestling with powerful sexual feelings and fantasies, as a result of the physical maturity of the sex glands in puberty. Guilt feelings and excessive shyness often result from his inner struggles with blossoming sexuality. His sexual identity must be firmed up whether or not he is ready. Crucial and hard-to-reverse life decisions may be pushed on him by social expectations (communicated via parents, teachers and the draft). Choices of vocation, educational plans, life mate, and life philosophy — all of these decisions confront him while he is still struggling to discover who he really is. The way he decides in these choices will have a powerful impact on his eventual sense of self. Some youth “drop out,” take a moratorium, to “find themselves” during middle or late adolescence. In the long run this may be better than making crucial decisions prematurely and unwisely. During early adolescence, the attraction to the opposite-sexed parent is revived. Parents and youth may defend themselves against awareness of their mutual attraction by conflict and rejection. In normal development, these reactivated feelings are transferred to peers of the opposite sex, and eventually to one in marriage.
The normal problems of adolescence are exaggerated and compounded in a period of lightning-fast social change such as ours. The chasm between the world in which the parents grew up and the world of the teen-ager is wide indeed. The models of maleness/femaleness and parenting absorbed by teens from their parents must be reshaped drastically to be useful in the new world of relationships that is emerging. Parents in their middle years also feel a wide gap between themselves and their senior citizen parents who often become emotionally dependent on their middle-aged “children.” With gaps on both sides, parents are anxious and relationships difficult.
The adolescent who asks himself, “Do I really want to be like the square society of my parents ?” is searching for an acceptable model of how to become a young adult. Models to which an adolescent can respond with enthusiasm are hard to come by in our present society with its wide generation chasms and its assassination of youth heroes. “Straight,” boxed-in adults living driven, status-oriented existences can’t expect to attract life-seeking adolescents to join them on their treadmill. Lacking attractive or relevant patterns of how others have handled the next stage in the journey of growth, one is forced to launch out on his own — without a map or a compass — and this is really scary business! Is it any wonder some young people prefer not to make the commitments (vocation, marriage, “settling down,” economic self-sufficiency) which constitute the doorway to adulthood in our society?
Many parents, teachers, and counselors are frustrated by their inability to connect with those young people who are disillusioned with the adult “establishment” values. The only hope of communication between these two groups is to start by recognizing the radical difference in the values affirmed by each. 4. Adults value production; these youth value pleasure as an end in itself. Vivid, here-and-now experience is valued by the youth who reject adult values such as success, achievement, disciplined development of skills. Peace and love are high values for the youth; aggressiveness and acquisitiveness are rejected as qualities leading to violence and exploitation. Instead of the adult valuing of safety, security and restraint, youth value risk, excitement and adventure. Mystical peak experiences are valued over the rationality and control by reason seen by adults as valuable. The authority-centered approaches to ethics are replaced by the youth’s emphasis on love as the only necessary norm. The emphasis on the value of experiencing pleasure, love, and peak experiences, makes for a whole new and freer approach to sex on the part of many young people, an area which is particularly distressing to parents who view the new morality of youth as immorality. It is worth noting that there is an intense ethical concern present in many youth in the “way out” group. They feel a deep revulsion at the world of adults which they see as a world of war, economic exploitation, depersonalization, racism, and sexual hypocrisy. Their urgent efforts to change these injustices are impressive. Their concerns face our society with the urgency of finding a new ethical sensitivity with respect to interpersonal values.
At each age and stage of their child’s growth, parents experience themselves differently. They relive, often without realizing it, their own comparable growth stage. Old, unfinished inner conflicts from their adolescence, for example, may interfere with relating well with their teen-ager. They may unwittingly try to live out their unlived lives through their child. This reliving process can become a constructive thing, giving parents a second chance to do unfinished growth work with their “inner child of the past.” This happens only if they are aware of what is happening and make the necessary effort, perhaps with an assist from a professional counselor. Looking at why your child at a certain age makes you unreasonably out of sorts, anxious, or overprotective, can be productive. A child’s growth phases and struggles are really an invitation to continuing growth on the part of his parents!
A skilled counselor can be a godsend when a child or youth is negotiating a difficult transition period, even if his services are not absolutely essential. The old idea that “only the sick need psychotherapeutic help” is out! Current thinking recognizes the fact that brief, well-timed professional help can speed up growth and help reduce the pain of a new, baffling life stage. A good counselor can help parents and their offspring use their own inner resources more fully, and thus cope constructively with a rough place on the developmental road. If a child or youth seems to be stuck at an earlier life task and stage, professional help is essential as a means of freeing him for continued growth.
Baruch, Dorothy W., How to Live with Your Teen-A ger (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1953) and New W’ays in Sex Education (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1959). Practical guides.
Missildine, W. Hugh, Your Inner Child of the Past (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963).
For helpful pamphlets on children and youth:
Public Affairs Pamphlets, 381 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10016, and Child Study Association of America, 9 East 89th Street, New York, New York 10028.
1. We are using the first five of Erik Erikson’s “Eight Stages of Man,” in Childh00d and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1963)
2. Thomas Harris, I’m OK, You’re OK (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
3. Girls need no longer be programmed solely as future wives and mothers. Boys need no longer be expected to become sole providers, protectors and defenders of their women and children. The rapidly developing equality of the sexes opens a whole new world of sharing and developing their own pattern of male/female roles. It also means many more possibilities of creative development for both sexes, especially for women. The revolutionary change in roles is long overdue and potentially revitalizing to our society.
4. We are indebted to Paul Pretzel’s paper on “Whales and Polar Bears” for this conception of the radical value contrast between the two cultures.