Family Resources
Session Two: Understanding Child Development

“Session Two: Understanding Child Development,” Strengthening the Family: Instructor’s Guide (2006), 11–21

“Session Two,” Strengthening the Family, 11–21

Session Two

Understanding Child Development

Gradual progress is essential to healthy childhood development. As a parent, you can help by providing a secure, nurturing environment.

Session Objectives

During this session, help parents:

  • Understand the importance of teaching children knowledge and skills when the children are developmentally ready to learn them.

  • Understand developmental stages of childhood and adolescence.

  • Be aware of warning signs that suggest a child may have developmental problems.

Paced Progress

Some children develop problems because their parents have unreasonable and inappropriate expectations for them. Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of Twelve declared that “a tutoring God may require difficult things of His children” but He “would never command His children to do difficult things, except [He] first prepares the way (see 1 Nephi 3:7).”1 Heavenly Father doesn’t expect impossible things from His children; mortal parents should not expect the impossible from them, either.

Sometimes parents place unrealistic demands on their children because the parents do not know what to expect of their children at various stages of child development. President N. Eldon Tanner, who served as a counselor in the First Presidency, observed that children “want to live up to the expectations of those who are responsible for directing their lives.”2 When children are unable to meet their parents’ unrealistic expectations, they often see themselves as failures. These children believe they are deficient or abnormal, disappointing to others, and worthless. Long-term effects may include feelings of inferiority, insecurity, anxiety, and depression and an impaired ability to feel empathy for others.

The scriptures indicate an orderly progression in life, including physical and spiritual development. John bore record that Jesus Christ “received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness” (D&C 93:13). Gradual progress is essential to healthy childhood development. At certain times during their lives, children become physically, intellectually, and psychologically ready to master developmental tasks such as learning to walk, talk, and feed themselves. Instead of pushing their children to do things before they are ready, parents can provide a secure, nurturing environment in which their children can learn and progress.

Research suggests that physical and mental capabilities often develop at certain stages; however, each child is unique. Biology, temperament, parental training, and environment all influence a child’s development. Parents should not be concerned if a child takes a little longer to learn some things, and they should not get too excited if a child seems a little advanced. Such differences are often temporary and have little to do with the long-term capability of the child. A better approach is to enjoy the gradual development of each child.

Readiness to Learn

Readiness is a key concept to keep in mind as children grow and develop. Parents will prevent many problems if they allow children to acquire skills at their own pace. Parents should try to adapt to each child’s needs rather than to make the child adjust to parental expectations.

For example, readiness for walking generally occurs around age one. Parents can watch for indications that the child is ready to walk. The child may pull himself or herself up to furniture and stand or walk while holding to the furniture. Parents can play with the child by holding him or her in a standing position and letting the child take a step or two. This play may help the child learn to walk sooner than if he or she is left alone. On the other hand, if the child is not physically able to support his or her weight, playing this game will not be helpful and may frustrate the child and may cause physical harm. Children gain no long-term benefit from walking prematurely; they will start walking when they are ready.

Bowel and bladder control training should begin when the child is emotionally and physically ready. Expecting children to be fully trained by age two may place unrealistic, impossible demands on them. Children begin to show readiness when they can understand simple requests that parents make of them, when they begin to push off soiled diapers, and when they imitate the behavior they see when their parents use the bathroom.3 Some children three years old and older lack physical readiness to sleep through the night without wetting the bed or going to the bathroom. Parents who understand and accept this lack of readiness are less upset when bed-wetting occurs. When parents react with anger or by being upset, they risk reinforcing the undesirable behavior. Instead they should be calm and patient, and the child will eventually learn to control his or her bladder.

Similarly, parents should not expect a four-year-old to learn to ride a bicycle without training wheels. Most children of this age lack the coordination to master this skill. By age six or seven, most children can ride a bicycle of the right size without training wheels.

Parents can best teach their children to help around the house when the children show interest in helping, to throw a ball when the children want to play catch, or to fix their hair when the children start wanting to do it by themselves. Parents will also have greater success if they try to make these teaching experiences enjoyable. They should give lots of encouragement and recognition for their children’s efforts. If parents expect too much too soon, their children will often become discouraged and lose interest in learning new behavior.

Developmental Stages

Social-emotional development may be seen as a series of stages that occur around certain ages. The successful completion of each stage is important for healthy childhood development. The developmental information in this session serves only as a general guideline. Children progress at their own rates, and their early progress is not a reliable indicator of their later success in life. Parents who get to know and love their children as individuals will be best equipped to help them develop into mature and competent adults.4

Learning to Trust (infancy)

Caring parents respond to their newborn baby’s needs. They recognize cues for hunger and distress. The most frequent distress signal is crying. Parents can help by holding the child, giving affection, and meeting the child’s physical and emotional needs. They should comfort the child long enough for the child to calm down and feel secure.

When parents recognize and lovingly respond to their newborn baby’s cues for hunger and distress, their baby learns to trust and to develop faith and confidence that the parent will respond to his or her needs in the future. The baby will form an attachment to the parent and will feel secure in his or her environment. The parents’ love for the child will also grow.

When parents fail to respond to a child’s needs, the child feels insecure and anxious and has difficulty learning to trust others. A parent who often turns a distressed child over to the other parent is much less likely to form a secure attachment to the child.

Children of unresponsive parents often feel unwanted, unloved, and unable to accept themselves as persons of worth. Children who grow up feeling this way often have difficulty in relationships and are overly dependent on others for validation. They sometimes turn to alternate sources of gratification, such as excessive TV watching, compulsive eating, sexual indulgence, or drug abuse.

Developing Independence (ages 1 to 3)

The term “terrible twos” is often used to characterize the vigorous exertions of children to be independent. (Independent behavior often does not begin until about age two.) Children begin to learn self-control, including bowel and bladder functioning, and how to cope with the world. In this stage, children learn to run, feed themselves, drink from a cup, pull toys, open doors, climb on furniture, and wash and dry hands. By age 21⁄2, they are often quite rigid and demanding and have difficulty adapting or waiting for what they want. Most go through this stage no matter how they are raised.

During this developmental stage, children tend to exert their independence at mealtime, at bedtime, and during toilet training. Children are often curious about body parts, which is normal. This is a good time for parents to teach appropriate names for genitals.

The “terrible twos” can be enjoyable if parents have the right attitude. Parents can help by being patient, by allowing the child to act independently within acceptable limits, and by giving choices (see session 8) as a way of preventing power struggles. They should recognize that the phase is temporary but significant for their child. With help and understanding, their child can gain a sense of self-control that can lead to a lasting sense of self-respect and good will.

Parents should organize their house so children can run and explore without hurting themselves or damaging anything. Parents should enjoy their children, spend time with them, teach them how to play with others, and read to them at bedtime. They should be firm but loving when disciplining them. Saying “no” should not require an explanation at this age. “Because I said so” is usually sufficient.

When parents discipline children in this developmental stage, ignoring misbehavior or imposing consequences usually works well.

These early formative years are an ideal time for increased spiritual instruction.

Channeling Initiative (ages 3 to 6)

During these years, children have a surplus of energy and try to learn and master tasks that will bring a sense of competence and connection to their world. Childhood fantasies are often exaggerated, involving themes of power and aggression, and may result in children feeling bad. When positive outlets are unavailable, the child may feel powerless, unhappy, and anxious.

By age four, most children can hop, stand on one foot, ride a tricycle, kick a ball, and go up and down stairs unassisted. They begin to play cooperatively, ask many questions, and engage in fantasy play.

Children of this age tend to tell tall tales and even believe in their own imaginings. They are sometimes out of bounds and defy their parents; they may hit, kick, break things, use shocking language, or run away. They are often surprisingly responsive when parents communicate their expectations clearly but are not overly strict, giving their children some latitude.

By age six, most can ride a bike, tie their shoes, bounce and bat a ball, and count to 100. These children are usually active and eager to do things. Their emotions are sometimes tumultuous, and children in this stage often express variations of love and resentment. They tend to take center stage but lack a secure sense of self. They like to get their way. They can be rude and argumentative when told to do something.

Many children at this stage have nightmares. They sometimes cannot choose between two things because they want both. Getting their way is important to them.

Parents can help by being patient and loving, using firmness while allowing these children to test themselves within clearly defined boundaries. Parents should set rules to provide structure for watching television, doing chores, completing homework, and going to bed. They should administer discipline in a loving and kind way, using choices and consequences for behavior problems. Parents should spend time with their children, read to them, and take an interest in their activities at home and school. They should arrange time for their children to explore, run outdoors, and play with others.

Learning to be Industrious (ages 6 to 12)

This stage begins after a child has entered school and continues to the onset of puberty. The child feels pleasure and develops confidence through learning, getting good grades, and developing skills. The child enters a broader social culture and feels acceptable and productive when able to compare favorably with others. When the child does not compare favorably, he or she often feels inferior. The outcome of this phase is significant. Those who become industrious often greet life’s challenges with optimism. Those who do not become industrious sometimes withdraw into self-defeating behavior patterns.

By age eight, children can often write. They often have a sense of humor. They know right from wrong. They are usually very active and social and have a best friend. They want to “take on the world.”

Children of this age generally enjoy helping with chores, which gives them a sense of importance and accomplishment. They resist bossiness but generally respond to parental requests.

By age 10, preadolescence has begun and children tend to be calm, compliant, and easy to get along with. They are often social, cooperative, and industrious and helpful at home. They value their parents and the opinions of their friends. They enjoy group activities at church and school.

By age 12, many girls have begun puberty. Overall, these children get along well at home and school, but many experience emotional and behavioral roller coasters, bouncing from childhood to adolescence and back again, being responsible and irresponsible, testing rules and depending on them. Appearance becomes important. Friendships may change abruptly.

Physical changes are important, signaling to these children that they are becoming like their developing peers. Preoccupation with appearance leads some of these children, especially girls, to develop eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia). Most of these children focus on continuing friendships with members of the same sex. However, sudden changes in friendship often cause hurt feelings.

Parents can help their children foster an interest in achievement when they take an interest in their activities and give recognition for jobs well done. Parents should join with their children in projects and activities and help them succeed. They should take time to listen, help their children solve problems, and teach them how to resolve conflicts. Whenever possible, parents should also attend the events in which their children participate.

Parents should involve their children in creating family rules, expectations, limits, and consequences. They should give their children increasing work responsibilities and limit television watching.

Parents need to be particularly aware of the influence of the media on their children during these years. Fashion and model magazines may give a young girl an incorrect perception of beauty. Video games may influence children toward violence and immorality. Parents should discuss with their children the perceptions they are getting from the media and provide corrective teachings. Parents should also get to know their children’s friends and encourage their children to invite their friends to their home. Parents should not criticize the friends of their children.

During these years, children are more likely to accept parental help than when they are older. Parents should view problems and challenges as opportunities to offer help. Nurturing will be very helpful (see session 4). Parents should express love for their children often, encourage them, and praise their accomplishments. While encouraging their children to be industrious, they should protect them from taking on too much. Goals should be realistic and attainable and should not interfere with worthy family goals and expectations.

Parents should encourage their children to have reasonable interests and friendships outside the home. They should respect their children’s privacy and have realistic expectations for conformity with rules.

Seeking Independence and a Sense of Identity (ages 12 to 18)

With the onset of puberty, children’s bodies change rapidly. Sexual feelings surface. These children want to become equal to and independent from others, particularly their parents; at the same time, they value the security and comfort of a stable home.

During these years, children see themselves becoming adults and begin to wonder how and where they fit in society. Their primary developmental task is to establish a sense of identity and a place for themselves in adult society.

By age 14, most children are insecure about themselves, their bodies, and their acceptability. They tend to be idealistic, impulsive, and intense, wanting everything now. They are often self-centered, moody, and argumentative, having more conflict with their parents, whom they see as old-fashioned.

At this age, puberty is underway for almost everyone, and it is complete for some girls. Children of this age look to peers for socially acceptable behavior. While they often avoid being seen in public with their parents, deep down many still love their parents and feel connected to their families.

By age 16, most adolescents tend to be more relaxed and comfortable around family members. They tend to be more secure in their identity but are still sorting through values and beliefs, seeking a clearer sense of self. They are sensitive to social norms and peer groups. They may continue to test rules and question authority.

Parents sometimes feel threatened as their teens strive for independence. Instead of feeling threatened, they should try to feel grateful for their teenagers’ desire to become self-reliant. Control should be relinquished gradually, allowing teenagers progressively to take charge of their lives. Limits and consequences can still be employed when behavior is unacceptable.

Children should be encouraged to think for themselves. Parents should make an effort to accept their children’s traits without becoming defensive or rejecting. They should remain calm and consistent when confronted with the emotional intensity of their teenagers.

Parents should make themselves available to listen when their children are willing to talk, offering suggestions to help them regulate their lives. They should pay attention to the sadness and depression their children might experience. They should listen to the struggles and challenges their children experience. They should teach them ways to deal with peer pressure.

Parents should not feel offended if their children do not want to be around them. Nonetheless, they should expect compliance with family rules without expecting perfection. They should choose battles wisely, imposing consequences when needed.

During this developmental stage, uncertain adolescents become confident young adults with a sense of identity, purpose, and inner direction. Confidence usually develops as teenagers feel accepted, capable, and prepared for the future.

Adolescents who feel incapable and unaccepted are often confused and uncertain about themselves, their role, and their value to society. They may see their parents as an obstacle to their emerging independence. These teenagers may become disrespectful, unappreciative, rebellious, and defiant. Some try to find a sense of belonging by identifying with cliques, gangs, or teenage heroes.

Signs of Developmental and Social-Emotional Problems

The following warning signs suggest the possibility of developmental or social or emotional problems. A child who has any of these signs or symptoms may need specialized help from a pediatrician or professional counselor.

By age two

  • Cannot walk.

  • Cannot say two-word sentences or use at least 15 words.

  • Does not appear to know the use of common objects, such as a comb, cup, or spoon.

  • Cannot push a toy that has wheels.

By age four

  • Shows a warning sign or symptom from an earlier age group.

  • Drools persistently.

  • Speaks unclearly.

  • Cannot understand simple instructions.

  • Shows little interest in others.

  • Has great difficulty in separating from mother.

  • Does not engage in pretend play.

By age six

  • Shows a warning sign or symptom from an earlier age group.

  • Cannot ride a tricycle.

  • Cannot throw a ball overhand.

  • Cries and clings when left by parents.

  • Shows no interest in interacting or playing with other children.

  • Is unable to control self when angry or upset.

  • Does not want to get dressed, go to sleep, or use the bathroom.

  • Is hyperactive to an extent that interferes with school work.

  • Cannot get along with other children; lacks friends.

  • Wets or soils the bed.

  • Is obese.

  • Has recurring nightmares.

  • Is overly aggressive (argues or fights).

  • Appears excessively fearful.

By age eight

  • Shows a warning sign or symptom from an earlier age.

  • Cannot tell time.

  • Avoids school or does poorly in school.

  • Is often disobedient, mouthy, and noncompliant.

At any age

  • Is unable to talk at the expected level (has a limited vocabulary or errors in tense; is unable to recall words or form sentences or use proper sounds; stutters).

  • Is unable to care for self at the expected level.

  • Is unable to form relationships with others (lacks the eye-to-eye contact, facial expressions, and sharing of interests that are part of social relationships).

  • Cannot seem to succeed in school.

  • Is unable to work or to engage in leisure activities at the expected level.

  • Shows impaired ability to follow health and safety practices.

  • Is unable to read, write, or do math at the expected level.

  • Is unable to walk, crawl, sit, throw, catch, or run at the expected level.

  • Has difficulty paying attention, doesn’t seem to listen, doesn’t follow through with instructions, has problems getting organized, or is easily distracted or forgetful.

  • Fidgets, squirms, leaves seat at school, runs or climbs excessively, talks excessively, blurts out answers to questions, interrupts, or intrudes.

  • Loses temper or argues; defies adult requests.

  • Is often angry and resentful; blames others for his or her mistakes.

  • Bullies, threatens others, or gets in fights.

  • Destroys property, steals, or violates rules.

  • Is cruel to animals and people.

  • Forces others into sexual activity.

  • Does not eat properly and fails to gain weight or shows significant weight loss.

  • Has tics (sudden, rapid, recurrent body movements or vocalizations).

  • Worries or shows distress when separated from home or parents or anticipates separation.

  • Is depressed (symptoms include feeling sad or down, being unable to find pleasure in doing things, withdrawing, feeling guilt and worthlessness, feeling lethargic, having difficulty thinking and concentrating, lacking energy, having suicidal thoughts and feelings).

  • Shows anxiety (seems uptight, tense, fearful, panicky, terrified; seems to sense impending doom; has shortness of breath or chest pain).

Realistic Expectations

The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve taught: “In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters … accepted [God’s] plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life.”5 For most people, this progress includes the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Parents can help their children through these stages, preparing them for the challenges of life. Realistic expectations and paced progress should be their guiding principles in this process. Parents should get to know their children and treasure them as unique individuals. In doing so, they will show them the love Heavenly Father extends to all of us.

Responding to Behavior

Parents who treasure their children and get to know them as individuals are more likely to respond appropriately to the behavior of their children. They are more capable of teaching their children correct principles.

Children often engage in behaviors parents may not like, such as thumb sucking, climbing, and exaggerating. Such behaviors are sometimes associated with developmental stages and are abandoned as children mature. Knowing that children grow and develop, parents will feel less guilty and worried when these acts occur. Parents may also be able to respond more effectively.

Parents sometimes reinforce unwanted behavior by punishing, ridiculing, or berating the child. Such an emotionally intense focus draws undue attention to the behavior, sometimes provoking the child to feel bad, defiant, or inordinately curious about the behavior. For example, an extreme response to thumb sucking sometimes provokes a child to cling to the behavior. However, when parents respond in an easygoing way or even ignore the behavior, the child is more likely to abandon it when it no longer serves a purpose.

Too much emphasis on age-appropriate behavior can also reinforce it unduly, encouraging the child to repeat the behavior excessively, even in ways that are unsafe. For example, parents who make a fuss over a toddler’s attempts to climb (“he’s so adorable when he does that”) may encourage behavior that could endanger the child’s safety.

Teenagers often withdraw from family involvement and are critical of parents. Parents who take this personally, feel rejected, and try to impose control may provoke the child to rebel, thereby impeding his or her progress through this phase. However, when parents take the child’s behavior in stride without becoming unduly concerned, they enable the child to move through this phase of adolescence. Generally, children become more accepting of their parents as they approach adulthood.

Getting to Know Each Child

The best way for parents to get to know their children—their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears—is to spend time with them. Families can spend time together each day in family prayer and scripture study. They can work together and have simple, pleasant conversation. Parents can involve their children in group activities such as going to a park, building a tree house, going for a drive, going on a hike, planting and caring for a garden, and playing games. Often, the most enjoyable activities cost the least.

Parents should spend time individually with each child, often allowing the child to choose the activities they will do together. The conversations that occur on those occasions should usually center on the child’s interests.


  1. In Conference Report, Oct. 1999, 6; or Ensign, Nov. 1999, 7.

  2. In Conference Report, Oct. 1977, 64; or Ensign, Nov. 1977, 43.

  3. See William Sears and Martha Sears, The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know about Your Baby from Birth to Age Two (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1993), 536.

  4. Some information in this section is adapted from Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1963), 247–63; Frances L. Ilg, and others, Child Behavior (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 12–46; and Louise Bates Ames, and others, Your Ten-to-Fourteen-Year-Old (New York: Dell, 1988), 21–180, 318–23.

  5. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.