Join Date: Aug 2007
Was I a bad kid?: Tracie’s Fabulous Guide to Childhood Development
*Just so everyone knows I’ve got an MSW (Master’s in Social Work). I’ve been on the boards for years, and had jobs with foster kids. So I’m not just some random person writing all this.*
Many people who have been abused as children were told they were badly behaved, or just assume that is why the abuse occurred. However, many children are abused and “punished” for things that are a normal part of growing up. Along with that, many people abuse their children because they are unaware of what children are capable of at certain ages. It is also common for children who are colicky or premature babies, physically/mentally/learning disabled, or developmentally delayed to be abused. Parents are also more likely to abuse children if they themselves have mental illnesses, substance addictions, a personal history of abuse, are single parents, and/or live in poverty.
This thread will discuss what the normal stages of development and behavior are for children. I am listing certain problems in stages where they often start. Some may span several stages but others are exclusive to one or two. When you’re going through it keep in mind that while certain problems are ascribed to certain ages, children are known to regress during major life changes (divorce, new baby, moving, etc.). Also, abused children are often developmentally delayed and regressive. So don’t feel like something is wrong with you if you exhibited toddler or preschool behaviors at age 12, because it’s probably related to being abused.
Infancy (birth-1): I will start off saying that there is NEVER any reason to punish or “discipline” an infant. Babies have no concept of good and bad, or understanding of what others want from them. Therefore, a baby should never be punished because s/he is not capable of misbehaving. Infants require a great amount of money, time, and care. They are incapable of doing much more than making small noises, grasping objects, wiggling about and eventually crawling. Towards the end of their first year most babies will be able to hold their own bottles or stuff Cheerios into their mouths, but they need close monitoring so they don’t choke. Infants are also incapable of holding their bowels and bladder—hence the need for diapers/nappies. Since babies are very messy creatures (they always seem to be oozing some substance or covering themselves in another) they need to be bathed and have their clothes changed regularly.
The environment babies live in must be made safe. Small objects the child could swallow as well as things in the baby’s crib/cot that could smother them must be kept away. While their minds are still primal, infants absorb everything around them. A baby that experienced a gentle, loving environment, will be much better adjusted and developed than a child that experienced a violent, neglectful home. Babies must be given plenty attention and love. People’s voices, gentle touches and games allow a child to make healthy attachments in the future. Neglecting to regularly feed, change, bathe, cuddle, talk to, and play with infants can have severe effects for the child well through adulthood.
Crying & Other Issues: Babies cry, a lot. They cry when they’re hungry, tired, scared, lonely, cranky, in pain, uncomfortable, need to be changed, or sometimes… just because they feel like it. Crying and screaming is an infant’s only form of communication, and if that’s all a person had now, they would cry a lot too! When babies cry, they absorb the reaction. “Will I be picked up when I cry?” “Will I get fed and changed?” “Will I be kept warm and cuddled?” Through this process, babies learn whether or not to trust. Crying also intensifies if the child is sickly or the parent is not very good at interpreting the baby’s needs.
And contrary to the popular belief, you cannot “spoil” an infant. Children this young cry when they need something. When they cry they should be tended to. One of the few exceptions to this rule is if the child was just put down to sleep, and is fussing to be picked up again. Once s/he cries it out for a few more minutes s/he will fall asleep, and all is well. But if that baby starts crying again in two hours, the parents should tend the child’s needs.
Along with crying, babies make huge messes, get into everything and break stuff. This mischief is caused by pure curiosity. Babies don’t cover themselves in oatmeal to misbehave or make their parents’ lives difficult. They do it because they’re trying to see what happens when the bowl tips over, what it feels, smells and tastes like. Parents should understand that this is what babies do, and simply clean the messes and put dangerous or breakable objects out of reach. Some parents are not prepared for the responsibility of a baby, and become frustrated with their children and strike, shout or shake them.
Chances are you do not remember your infancy, but you may have been told by parents that you were “trouble from the start”, or other complaints about your behavior as a baby. But as I said earlier, babies cannot misbehave. If you were perceived as “difficult” by your parents, it’s probably because they did not know how to properly meet your needs. Besides, even if you WERE a fussy baby or difficult to take care of, that’s not your fault. It’s the parents’ job to meet the baby’s needs, no matter how demanding they may be.
Toddler (18 mo.-3 yrs.): This is the age where children present some of the most challenging behaviors, and subsequent physical or emotional abuse begins. In this stage babies learn to talk, walk, use the toilet, terrorize household pets, stick things in light sockets, and other fun stuff like that. Toddlers are beginning to get a sense of autonomy, a separation between themselves and their parents. They are able to do more things on their own, such feed themselves with a fork and spoon and climb playground equipment.
During these years parents should start weaning their children off bottles and pacifiers/dummies, moving them from a crib/cot to a bed, as well as the start of toilet training. Children this age are now beginning to sense and understand what their parents want from them. Approving statements, smiles, hugs and treats (stickers, sweets, toys), are common ways the child knows s/he has pleased the adults. On the other hand, children are able to tell when they have not pleased adults by appropriately receiving time outs (sitting in a spot on the floor/step/chair for a few minutes), having toys taken away, or inappropriately being hit, kicked, shouted at, locked up, etc. It’s very challenging to appropriately discipline a toddler because they are still limited in understanding and their ability to cooperate, but not limited in brute strength.
Interactions with Others: Toddlers can be little monsters. They hit, kick, pinch, grab, push, spit, bite, scratch and pull hair. In the beginning of their toddlerhood, children are basically little animals. Watching a group of children who are 18-24 months with toys or food is almost like watching predators on the Sahara fight over a zebra carcass. They have no concept of finding solutions to their problems, cooperation, or appropriately getting what they want. However, it is this stage where parents must begin to teach their children to be kind to others, not to hurt, how to be gentle, to share, and be polite to others. Of course, it will take a while for all of these to set in, but it’s a work in progress.
Expecting a child younger than 2 ½ to share really isn’t all that practical. In the toddler years the child is still forming an identity and separation of themselves from the rest of the world. A child may consider a favorite blanket or teddy to be a part of themselves, so allowing someone else to have it is unthinkable. Children this age also don’t really engage in play with other children (until they’re closer to three). In the toddler stage they may engage in “parallel play” (i.e., playing beside another child) but they aren’t really playing together. Toddlers should be told verbally and shown how to appropriately interact with others. As the child develops into the latter part of his/her second year some cooperation and sharing might begin. Statements such as, “It hurts Fluffy when you pull her tail” and “It makes James sad when you grab his toys away” can help the child learn empathy.
If children are aggressive and hurtful to other children, animals, or even adults they should be reprimanded, separated and disciplined (often in form of a time out or having the desired item removed). Hurting a child for hurting someone else is just as oxymoronic as it sounds. But even adults are animals, and our initial animal instinct is to attack when we are attacked (or see a loved one attacked). When parents forget this and hit or otherwise hurt their children for acting out with others, they are often just exacerbating aggression and negative behavior.
Tantrums: All children have tantrums. They are a normal part of development in this stage, hence the name “the terrible twos”. In the toddler years a child is learning his/her first words, but their vocabulary is quite restricted. It’s not common for toddler to have a wide array of words to describe their feelings. Even attentive parents often neglect emotional development in favor of intellectual. A two-year-old is unable to say, “Mommy, I’m unhappy today because I missed my nap, we had to go to the crowded grocery store and now you won’t even let me have a chocolate.” Usually the child is only able to whine, cry, scream “I WANT IT!” and begin kicking and punching the floor. Even if a toddler is advanced and can say how s/he feels, they are not capable of understanding that the chocolate is not good for them, they will spoil their dinner, or Mom may not have the money for it. Children just know that they want what they want (or want to get rid of what they don’t want), and express that by kicking and screaming. And if they ARE given what they want, tantrums are sure to increase. While they are still quite difficult to deal with, the recommended discipline for toddlers exhibiting tantrums is time outs, helping the child verbalize emotions, and ignoring the behavior. After all, if no one is paying attention, why kick and scream?
If tantrums are not dealt with properly the child will probably continue to exhibit more. These tantrums may increase in aggression and force, which can cause problems with peers and at school. Tantrums and aggression can also worsen if the child still has no way to verbalize or express negative emotions, and/or is experiencing excessive stress or abuse as he grows older. If the child is being abused, this may decrease tantrums while in the presence of the abuser, but increase them elsewhere.
Testing Boundaries: As stated earlier, toddlers are beginning to feel a sense of themselves as an individual in the world. Unlike earlier, they are now free to walk and run apart from their parents. This newfound independence makes the child test both physical boundaries and symbolic ones. Toddlers like to explore new things, so they end up getting into everything, which can end up making messes, breaking things, and even injuring themselves or others around them. Toddlers also take exploration to the full extent. It’s common for a child this age to discover something new and after looking at it, feel it, smell it, taste it, and shake it to see if it makes noise. This curiosity is why parents must keep a very close watch on toddlers, lest they run into the road or try to taste and touch something dangerous.
Along with this extensive exploration, a common first word for toddlers is “no”, and they tend to employ it as much as possible. In the early part of toddlerhood children are still understanding the meaning of words, and may not do as they are told because they don’t know what it means. But as they progress and begin to understand things like “Don’t run out the door” they may test those rules to see what happens. If they are pulled away from the door or hurt for not listening, it will become set in the child’s mind that they cannot run out the door. If they aren’t caught running out the door, they are more likely to continue testing this and other boundaries.
Now while many toddlers are off exploring the backyard, others can become increasingly clingy. Some children this age may develop separation anxiety and rarely go a few feet away from Mom or Dad. This is often related to insecurity, but some healthy children may go through a phase of clinginess as well. The main caretaker(s) in the child’s life are now firmly established, and s/he can tell a stranger from familiar person. Insecure children may be very clingy to their parents, and cry and scream excessively if they are separated from them or handed to another person. For parents with less patience, toddlers’ curiosity and clinginess can create frustration and possible abuse.
Toilet Training: This is the moment every parent anxiously awaits: the end of diapers/nappies! However, many unskilled parents can turn toilet training into a traumatic experience. In fact, toileting issues are one of the top reasons for the beginning of child abuse. Children are usually ready for potty training between 18 and 36 months (girls starting earlier than boys). You can tell a child is ready to graduate out of diapers/nappies when they begin letting you know that they have to go, or show others signs of holding their bladder and bowels. Unfortunately some parents just hear that children should be potty trained “around two”, and assume their child must be ready because of age alone. Sometimes children’s muscles have not developed enough for them to hold it, or they do not yet understand the signals their body sends them when they need to relieve themselves.
Parents may assume the child is just not listening and punish them, but this is wrong. Even when a child gets the idea and begins to use a potty they will inevitably have accidents. And while a child may master toilet training during the day, they will probably take longer to do so while asleep. So during the months the child is learning to use the potty, s/he should be in training paints (i.e., Pull Ups) rather than cloth underpants. Immediately changing a child from diapers/nappies to underpants is only setting up the child for failure and embarrassment, and the parents for lots of unnecessary cleaning. Children should not be disciplined or punished for toileting accidents, or lack of understanding how to use their potty. They are still very young, and this is a physical, intellectual and emotional rite of passage.
For effective toilet training parents should first supply the child with information about their switch from diapers/nappies, and a small potty or toilet seat adapter (children this small will fall into an adult toilet). After they are sure their child is physically capable of toilet training and gets the basic concept, they should go about this little journey with patience and understanding. Abusive parents can go a bit haywire on children with toileting issues. They may force children to sit in soiled clothing or have that dirtied item pulled over their head/face or other body parts as punishment for accidents. If parents are abusive and cruel like this, the children may enter a catch-22. It’s very common for children who are abused or under immense stress to wet and soil themselves. This can result in further abuse, which then results in more accidents which may continue into grade school, teenage years, or even young adulthood.
Preschoolers (3-5): Children are now morphing from babies into little people. They are making great strides intellectually, socially, physically, and emotionally. By age three children usually enter daycare or some form of nursery school. They understand much more about the physical world around them. Most preschoolers are able to carry on small conversations, sing songs, draw pictures, tell stories, and name colors and shapes. They are prime for learning counting, reading and writing. Preschoolers’ minds and attention spans are now developed enough so they can focus on children’s shows, video games and books.
Preschool aged children begin to develop friendships. While previously they just played alongside other children, now they truly have playmates. Earlier in life the infant and toddler’s play is more exploratory, but the preschooler’s play generally has more fluidity and purpose to it. They can engage in simple conversation, games, and rhymes with other children like ring around the rosie. This stage is a very imaginative time for most children, and preschoolers often play make believe and re-enact things they have seen on TV or real life. Physically, the preschooler is stronger and more balanced. The child can walk and run with a stable pace and manipulate objects easier with their hands. Preschoolers can begin to engage in more advanced physical activities like kiddie sports and hopscotch.
Most three-year-olds are still mastering potty training, and may take more time; there are often still plenty of toileting accidents in the preschool years. Self-care begins in this stage. Preschoolers can learn to wash their hands, brush their teeth, dress themselves, and some even learn to tie shoes,. Many three to five-year olds are also very helpful. They like to assist their parents or older siblings with household chores and are eager to do “big kid” activities.
Emotionally, children are still forming their identity. However, they now have a sense of “I’m a good, nice kid people like.” or “I’m a bad, nasty kid nobody likes.”. This self-image will determine the child’s behavior, whether outgoing and friendly, aggressive, or withdrawn. Behavior wise most preschoolers are able to clearly understand the rules their parents set for them. In the preschool years many residual problems from toddlerhood may still exist, especially if they were not dealt with properly.
Bedtime Battles: By three years old children should be out of a crib/cot, and in a “big kid” bed. The problem that most parents quickly notice is that unlike a crib/cot… children can get out of beds! It may be a fight from the time the child has seen his/her pajamas. Children may run, hide or tantrum because they do not want to go to bed. Even once they get into bed, some children may cry and repeatedly run out of their room. Children often get antsy at bedtime because it means the end of fun. After all, they could be missing something while everyone else is up!
In the middle of the night many preschoolers will sneak into their parents’ room for a cuddle or because they want to play. Usually when children do this it’s for attention, but if it persists they should be put in their own bed to sleep until they’re used to it. Sometimes preschoolers are experiencing some fears or bad dreams at night. Fears of the dark and “monsters” under the bed or in the closet are quite common. If a child is experiencing fears or nightmares, the parents should comfort him/her and reassure that they will protect them. A special bedtime routine and expelling of the fears may help a child calm down.
Now, for children that have been abused (particularly sexual abuse) the monsters in the dark may be real. A child like this may scream and run at bedtime and refuse to sleep because s/he is scared. If the person abusing the child this way lives in the home, or parents are also somehow abusive this may escalate the mistreatment of the child.
Interactions with Others: As stated earlier, this is the age where children start to branch out and make friends. They are learning cooperation and social rules in games such as hide-and-seek or tag. The children learn that in order to have playmates they must be nice, fair, and take turns. Many preschoolers struggle with sharing and taking turns. Children this young are very self-centered, not because they are bad, but because their minds have not developed enough to truly understand others’ needs or feelings. Although, with instruction from adults and other children they will slowly understand about proper interactions.
Being pushed away from the group for being bossy, whiny, mean, or selfish quickly teaches the child what behaviors are socially acceptable. Some children will resent this and become withdrawn or angry and belligerent. If either occurs, parents should teach their children how to cooperate and make friends, and even try to facilitate play dates.
While friendships begin to blossom, so too does teasing and bullying. Children are now aware of what makes people different, such as the color of their skin or hair, glasses, weight, and gender. Even if a child is usually kind, they may hold a grudge against a certain group/child, or just join in with everyone else. If parents see their child treating another badly they should be disciplined appropriately, and the parents should also try and teach their child more empathy and kindness toward others.
Abused children often have poor social skills, and other children can see that. Preschoolers who lack in the socialization they should have received at home often do not know how to engage other children in play. It’s not uncommon for abused children to start conflicts with other children (ex: hitting, stealing toys, calling names) because they do not know how to play nicely. Other abused children may just sadly sit on the sidelines watching, also unsure of what to do or say.
Lying & Manipulation: The mind of the child has now developed enough for the child to engage in “sneaky” behavior. Many preschoolers lie, usually to get out of trouble or impress others, (not unlike the reasons most adults lie). With instruction, a preschool child is beginning to see the difference between a lie and the truth. Now that the child knows what adults want, they will often tell them what they want to hear.
Children frequently lie to get out of rules, or avoid punishment for already established rules. A four-year-old child may tell a babysitter she is allowed to and stay up as late as she wants watching TV, knowing very well her parents’ rules are one hour of TV and in bed by 8:00. In the event the child has a very naïve or neglectful babysitter that lets her do this, she may tell her parents it was all the babysitter’s idea, and that the babysitter even “forced” her into it. If a child is lying and manipulating others in this manner, it should be dealt with before it gets any worse. If a child is caught in sneaky lies like this s/he should be disciplined appropriately, as well as taught the importance of the truth. Parents should monitor the child closely with other adults to make sure s/he is learning honesty.
In terms of impressing others, a child may tell other children he has lots of toys, video games and pets he doesn’t have because he wants them to be his friend. If a child is excessively lying to impress others, they are probably insecure and have low self-esteem. Rather than being punished, adults should talk to the child about why he feels the need to lie, and how he is likable just as he is. If a child is actively being abused, lying and manipulation is a horse of a different color.
For the abused child lying becomes a way of life, both inside and outside the home. A child may be instructed from an early age to lie about marks on their body, how their parents treat them, and a number of other things. Inside the home, a child may lie to avoid harsh punishments. A child does nothing wrong if they are lying within an abusive home. Children who lie and manipulate in these situations are only trying to protect themselves from harm. The parents are in the wrong hurting them, so the child is not wrong in lying to avoid abuse.
Picky Eating: Most children refuse to eat certain foods (often vegetables) at one point or another. Young children’s mouths and taste buds are new and tender, very in tune to what’s put on them. As we grow older taste buds become duller, get burnt, and change with habits like smoking, so therefore tastes change. This is why you may enjoy a food you didn’t when you were younger—it literally does not taste the same. For this reason many children reject certain foods that taste “yucky” to them.
For some children, they may refuse to eat simply to exert control or enter a power struggle with their parents. Naturally, these are usually the foods which are the healthiest. When children blatantly refuse what is on their dinner plate many parents get frustrated. Some may try many different tricks to make the food look more appealing, force the child to sit at the table until they eat it, or give up and make a different meal for each child’s preference. Very young children should be given some leniency with picky eating, because they usually go through stages of loving one food for a week and despising it the next. Encouragement to eat a food children deem “yucky” may include giving that food first while the child is hungry, removing a chance for dessert unless that food is eaten, adding “tastier” ingredients to that food, and allowing the child to hold their nose while they eat it. (Inability to smell destroys a lot of the ability to taste so it doesn’t taste as bad.)
Along with this, parents should take into account that it’s ok to let the child have a few foods they don’t have to eat. Some people just find certain foods naturally repulsive. (I can barely smell asparagus without gagging.) In abusive families refusal to eat may result in the food being forced down the child’s throat, the child being forced to eat large amounts, or the removal of food altogether. If this goes on regularly it can be an unfortunate trigger and fuel to future eating disorders.
Testing Boundaries: While in the toddler years testing boundaries included that of the world itself, in this stage it is exclusive to rules. Preschoolers testing boundaries are usually trying to see if Mom and Dad will really stick to their guns. If they know one caretaker does mean business, they will often misbehave with other adults to see if they can get away with it. Preschoolers are capable of comprehending verbal statements of rules. They understand the meaning of “don’t run in the road” and “you can’t have any cookies now”. While they may understand the immediate danger of oncoming traffic, they probably don’t yet understand the value in a balanced diet.
If properly instructed, preschoolers begin to behave a little better than toddlers. When more misbehavior occurs in the preschool years parents must appropriately discipline their children with time outs, removal of privileges (seeing friends, TV, video games), removal of sweets, etc. If they do not start early in these years, behavior problems are likely to get worse as the child gets older. If parents physically or emotionally abuse their children the child usually has one of two reactions. Some children obey everything to the best of their ability, and do their best to become invisible. Others continue to disobey and “fight” everything the parent says, often resulting in more severe abuse.
Whining, Tantrums &Acting Out: Many preschoolers are whiny, and do so to get their own way. This usually happens either when the child isn’t getting something s/he wants, or s/he has to do something that isn’t fun. Whining and fussing over things like this can be extremely annoying, so parents need to control their tempers not to yell at or hit the child. The best way to deal with whining is not give in to it. If parents give in to whining it will continue. When parents do not listen to the child or respond how s/he wants when s/he whines, it’s more likely to stop. If children are abused they may whine a lot for attention, whether negative or positive. Unfortunately the sound of their whining may also make the parent react angrily. I would also like to state that crying for reasons of genuine upset (physical pain, hurt feelings, sad or frightening events, etc.) is very different than whining or “complaining” sorts of cries.
Tantrums and other acting out (kicking, biting, hitting, etc.) are often still a big problem for preschoolers. Their more developed minds enable them to verbalize better, and they should be taught the words to do so. As a child gets older, parents should teach them other ways to express negative emotions. If parents do nothing about this acting out, or physically abuse and yell at/berate the child, this behavior will intensify. It only makes logical sense that a child who sees a parent deal with anger by yelling or hitting others, they will do the same.
School Age (6-10): We are now smack in the middle of childhood, and most children have a lot going on in their lives. The personality of the child is fairly developed, and s/he probably has areas of interest like hobbies, sports, and TV shows. They have well developed vocabularies and begin to understand metaphors, grammar, sentence structure, and sarcasm. Many school aged children love to tell jokes and riddles by employing their firmer grasp on language. Along with language, children begin to use logic and strategies to solve problems.
Socially, school aged kids should be able to make and keep friendships with others. By this time children usually have one or two “best friends”, and it’s more likely they will have same-sex friends, because as we all know, boys and girls have different kinds of cooties that make touching each other dangerous. Friends become very important for children in grade school, and not having any can cause problems. Parents can facilitate more friendships by getting children involved in sports or clubs like scouts. The play of the school age child gets more advanced. They are able to play team sports, board games, and are much better at following rules. By this age almost all children have begun grade school, and learned to read and write. Their minds are constantly expanding with oodles of information they learn every day.
Self-care increases, as children learn to successfully brush their hair, bathe themselves, tie shoes, and master all sorts of zippers, buttons and snaps. Along with self-care, school aged children are capable of completing simple chores like sweeping, feeding pets, and setting the table. Emotionally, school aged children are often better at hiding their feelings. With their growing minds they are able to feel more complex emotions, and “read” what other people are feeling. A school aged child understands others have different points of view and emotions, and should be able to feel some semblance of empathy. Children develop a concept of “putting others first”, when previously their view was self-centered.
By this point children know the different rules, routines and punishments of home, school and other settings. They are able to predict what will happen if they commit a prohibited behavior. Many school aged children see the rules in their life as concrete, as well as assuming all other children live the same way. It’s common for kids to visit a friend’s house and experience a mini-culture shock associated with observing a different lifestyle. During grade school the self-image of a child is still forming, but they know what they think of themselves. The child can probably name several words to describe him/herself, and has it set in his/her mind whether s/he is a good or bad kid. Like the preschool years, the self-image has a great impact on the behavior of the school aged child.
Academic Problems at School: As school gets more difficult, many children have academic struggles. Everyone has academic strengths and weaknesses, and this usually becomes evident in grade school. Children learn at different paces and they may not pick up the information as quickly as their classmates. This may be exaggerated if the child has a learning disability or ADD/ADHD, especially if it goes undiagnosed. Parents should be patient when their children struggle in school, make sure they help them with homework and get the child extra help or tutoring if needed. If the problems persist despite attempts to help, the parents should check if the child has a learning disability.
For some children the problem isn’t so much that they do not understand, as they do not want to do the work. This is just a result of laziness or boredom, and parents should encourage children to work on their studies. If the lack of motivation persists they might try temporarily removing distractions like TV, video games and time with friends.
If a child is being abused s/he is more likely to have trouble at school. Low self-esteem and lack of parental help or encouragement can make learning more difficult. This makes it worse if the child is hurt for poor grades and receives no help to improve them. It is also difficult for abused children to find motivation for school when they may receive little reward or benefit for it at home. This can create a cycle of a child being abused for poor grades, losing more motivation and comfort at school, and then suffering more abuse.
Behavior Problems at School: Every once in a while children get in trouble at school. It may be a fight with a peer, talking back to a teacher, or breaking the rules at recess. Usually the punishment school gives the child is enough to make them reconsider their actions. For that reason these events are far and few between for most children. However, for some school can be a battleground. When a child exhibits excessive behavioral problems in school, it may be found that s/he has ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities or other disorders that make the rules and routines difficult. If a child has disabilities or aggression problems, parents should seek out professional help and possibly medication. (I personally think medication should only be used in extreme cases, but that’s just me).
For the abused child, behavior problems in school are very common. If a child is being abused at home his/her behavior is probably showing it, whether or not that’s noticed as a sign by adults. Many children in abusive homes carry around a great deal of anger, and will sometimes take that anger out on classmates and teachers. Physical pain from being beaten or sexually abused may make it hard for a child to sit for long periods, and thus get up from his/her seat. The child may bully others, or have a “short fuse” and get into fights if another child upsets him/her.
Abused children also frequently misinterpret others’ actions and gestures. A child used to being smacked may see a teacher’s upturned hand beckoning him/her to come forward as a threat. Therefore, the child may act defensively or fearfully and attack the teacher, or run and hide. In cases of neglect, children may steal their classmates’ food or belongings because they do not have any of their own. For sexually abused children, they may be in trouble at school for behaving sexually or trying to engage in sexual contact with others. An excess of these behaviors should make the faculty aware that something is not right; but unfortunately many teachers and principals are unaware of the child’s plight, and often call home which furthers the cycle.
Sibling Rivalry: *Sibling rivalry can begin much earlier than this. However, I decided to put it here because it can become extremely problematic in this stage.* All brothers and sisters fight, it’s natural. They argue, yell, tease each other and sometimes get into physical altercations. When people live in the same home they step on each other’s toes and annoy each other, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Firstborn children may be rather put out and annoyed when they must make room for an “intruder” into their life who takes Mom and Dad’s attention away from them.
Early sibling rivalry is usually about toys or snacks. Shouts of, “It’s MY teddy! You can’t touch it!” and “You got the bigger cookie!” may ring through the house. As children get older it becomes about space and privacy. “She’s hogging the bathroom!” “You can’t cross the line into MY side of the room!” Sibling rivalry can be caused by personality clashes or just living close together, but unfortunately it is often caused by parents. When a parent compares, favors or rejects one child over another, this causes problems. The favored child may wield a sense of superiority over the other, and the rejected child will feel a great deal of resentment. This is a recipe for disaster, and lots of fights. Parents should do their best to treat children equally, and help resolve conflicts when they arise.
Occasionally, sibling rivalry can balloon into emotional or physical abuse. If this or any sexual abuse occurs, parents should intervene and make sure their children do not hurt each other. Children in abusive homes can encounter an exaggerated and extreme sibling rivalry as a result of the abuse.
Most abusive homes favor or reject certain children. A rejected child may retaliate against the favored one(s) which results in further abuse. Some favored children may even provoke the rejected ones into an attack, or tattle on them for real or fictitious offenses. In abusive homes children may be forced to witness each other being abused, or even abuse each other. Situations like this can create a host of confusion, anger, sadness and splits of loyalty.
If there is violence in the home, more dominant or older children may take out their anger on smaller or more submissive ones. Some older children may even begin to abuse younger ones on their own. So while sibling rivalry is normal, in abusive homes it can disrupt the relationships between the children in severe ways.
Talking Back: Since school aged children are now verbally savvy, many tend to become mouthy and disrespectful to adults. This behavior usually comes out when the child is scolded, asked to do something s/he doesn’t want to do, or asked a question s/he thinks is stupid. Sometimes the child may just be particularly disrespectful, and give snotty comments to everyone. Parents who have children constantly throwing disrespectful comments usually retort in yelling back or threatening to do something…which doesn’t really work. If parents are trying to eradicate this behavior they need to consistently hop on it when it happens and give an appropriate consequence, like the removal of sweets or putting a penny in a jar every time the child back talks.
In abusive homes, sarcastic and smart aleck comments are usually not tolerated. Some children who may be particularly angry and brazen may regularly make snotty comments to get back at their parents. Often this will result in the child being torn apart by words, beaten or possibly fed soap or hot sauce. Some children may rarely ever make disrespectful comments again after being hurt, but others may find themselves setting their sharp tongue free again and again, despite the result.
Preteens (10-13): *Age 13 is here because while it is a number in the teens, most 13-year-olds are still in this stage* Preteens (or “tweens” as they are now annoyingly called) are going through one of the most difficult stages of childhood: the onset of puberty. Their developing bodies, as well as newfound interest in the opposite (or perhaps same) sex, sets the mood for every element of the child’s life. Some girls may have started to develop breasts, body hair or even started menstruating as young as eight or nine, but on average most begin puberty at ten. Girls develop earlier than boys, and on average boys begin developing (growing facial and body hair, voice cracking, etc.) at age eleven. Along with this, puberty lasts about 2-4 years for girls, and 5-6 years for boys.
For children who are LGBT, the onset of sexual development is when their “differences” become painfully noticeable to themselves and others. Things brushed off as childish play such as a girl’s “tomboy” personality or a boy’s dressing up in girl’s clothing may look more like evidence of trans and/or homosexuality. For a child who is being or has been sexually abused, puberty can be especially confusing and frightening.
In terms of self-care, the preteen should be able to independently complete all basic tasks of personal grooming (bathing, brushing hair and teeth, etc.) However, some (especially boys) may still need parental reminders. Preteens should also be able to complete more involved chores and prepare themselves simple snacks or meals. Emotionally, this is a time of melodrama. Hormones released in the developing child may create violent mood swings that can cause random episodes of depression, rage, or just general crabbiness. For most preteens, embarrassment equals the end of their life. Preteens are struggling with a lot of feelings. Some early bloomers may feel like they stick out among their lesser developed peers, while late bloomers feel embarrassed and childish in front of classmates. Oddly enough, girls who are early bloomers have low self esteem, and late bloomers have higher self-esteem, but it is the reverse for boys.
Socially this is possibly one of the hardest times for children. Friendships are becoming more exclusive as interests change and become more mature. Many children in this stage abandon behaviors, habits and activities they view as “babyish”, even if they still enjoy them. Preteens tend to get very cliquey, and this can result in many children losing long-standing friends or becoming outcasts and victims of bullies. Peer pressure and pressure to “fit in” can be overwhelming. Many kids may find themselves behaving in ways they never would before, just to be part of the group. It can be particularly harder for children who have not yet developed an interest in the opposite sex and other “mature” things (make up, weight-lifting, etc) while all their friends have. The different paces in development and their roller coaster emotions may make children feel as though there is something wrong with them. Most preteens are exceedingly self-conscious, both about their appearance and behavior. Even the self-esteem of an emotionally healthy child can take a nose dive in this touchy stage.
Intellectual advancement in this stage often takes a backseat to the child’s emotions, social life and physical development. However, problem solving skills begin to increase and the preteen often considers opinions other than s/he was brought up with. By this point the child has a sense of right and wrong, which has usually been scripted by their parents, but as age increases so do questions about what’s right or wrong. The new idea of challenging authority can cause some problems for the preteen’s parents. The child seeks more independence and distance from authority figures. Mood swings may make children act impulsively or overreact to seemingly little problems.
While the self-image of the child is being raked over the proverbial coals, parents should remember this is a tough time for them. (Though this is not to say a child should not be disciplined for misbehavior.) By this point a child becomes too old for time outs and removal of sweets as punishment. However, removal of fun activities like outings with friends, internet or video games or the addition of extra chores can still work. (But parents should also expect an emotional meltdown once this punishment has been given!) For children who have experienced or are experiencing abuse, this can be a particularly traumatic time. Pressure from both family, friends, other peers and even society itself can drive some preteens into deep depressions. As many of you may know this is the stage where some children develop problems with substance abuse, self-harm and eating disorders.
Cursing/Swearing: The preteen years are often the beginning of adolescent rebellion. What better way of starting to rebel than belting out naughty words? For some children who may be surrounded by profanity at an early age, cursing may begin earlier. However, most parents (whether or not they curse themselves) often prohibit certain words in their household. Not to mention, I don’t know of any school that tolerates it. Either way, it’s common for most kids to experiment with standard “four letter” curse words as well as dirty or inherently sexual ones. If a child’s cursing gets to the point where it causes problems in school, home, or with friends’ parents then the child’s parents need to step in and do something. One of the most popular methods are making the child “pay” for every curse word they say with a small amount of money, or have them do a household chore for every swear word.
For children in abusive homes it may become more serious. Along with the regular verbal or physical beating a child may receive, prohibited words may evoke a more unique response. The practice of “washing” a child’s mouth out with soap when they say naughty words is often still practiced in abusive homes. Along with that, some parents take it even further and force hot sauce, pepper, or even more toxic materials like bleach into a child’s mouth. As you can imagine, this can be extremely dangerous and should never be practiced.
Defiance: As stated above, during the preteen years children exhibit some of the most challenging behaviors since they were toddlers. They talk back, refuse to do chores, start fights with their siblings, ignore their schoolwork and don’t follow any of the house rules. Well, they have more important things to do. THE JUSTIN BIEBER CONCERT IS ON! Preteens tend to see their desires and interests (which may include said Bieber concert, boys/girls, appearance, and the “right” clothes and friends) to be more important than…everything. This combined with a need to question authority may make life difficult for parents.
To a point, defiance is just the child trying to separate from his/her parents. However, if the child is not listening to anything the parent says some discipline must be applied. The normal punishments for children this age are “grounding” or taking away fun activities and not allowing the child out, as well as extra chores.
For children in abusive homes normal defiance may be met with angry words and/or fists. By this point in their lives some children may be so programmed and afraid of parents that they never even become defiant. However, defiance may get worse with the onset of raging hormones for children who already behave defiantly. Along with this, defiance against parents will usually intensify in the teen years. The increased feeling of autonomy in the child may even start bouts of running away to avoid episodes of abuse.
Money Problems: At this point children are aware of money and how it works. However, most do not have a good understanding of the value of money or how hard you must work to earn it. Preteens can be irresponsible with money, and it is wise parents do not give their children too much money or (God forbid) a credit card. Since preteens are so preoccupied with fitting in and having the “right” stuff, they may spend hundreds or thousands of dollars/pounds on clothing, electronics, and high end beauty/self-care products to enhance their social status. If parents finds their child easily throwing away money, they might try removing pocket money unless the child earns it, or forcing the child to save some. Many adults are still not good with money, so it’s important for parents to teach their kids the value of currency early on.
Abused children may not even have the option of spending money. However, if they do have the opportunity they may be met with mixed messages of being given spending money, and then punished for spending it (even if they did so conservatively).
Testing Boundaries: Again, the child is at a crossroads of life. Children are in a metamorphosis similar to a toddler, in which they develop more autonomy from their parents. Preteens want to do things with their friends alone, and are frequently embarrassed by the presence of parents. They seek more privacy and often demand more “space”, whether literal or figurative. While this may be a hassle for parents, preteens are just trying to be their own person.
If a child this age shows degrees of independence (and responsibility) parents should allow them to do more on their own, but remind them that they are not yet adults, and in fact not even teenagers. “Yes, you can go to the movies with your friends, but you cannot have a sleepover with no adult supervision.” However, preteens’ tendency to overreact may cause a meltdown as they only focus on what they are NOT allowed to do. Parents best be patient, and only allow the child what s/he is developmentally capable of handling. While preteens complain about parents’ rules, they may sometimes be rather grateful for him. Maybe the idea of going to that friend’s house for a night without adults made the child uncomfortable, but s/he didn’t want to look “babyish” for saying so. Being able to say, “Sorry, my parents won’t let me” can be an easy out for kids who feel a lot of peer pressure.
Abusive homes often don’t adjust rules and privileges with a child’s age (as they should be). This can cause a preteen to feel even more crowded by rules and punishments they feel too mature for. The preteen’s new feelings of being “grown” and desire to rebel may make him/her feel brave enough to challenge his/her parents, which may result in further abuse.
Note: To any RYL members still in the following stage, do NOT take it as a green light to misbehave or engage in any problem behaviors. Just because something is developmentally “normal” does not make it acceptable behavior.
Teens (13-18): Ah the teenage years, or as adults call them, “the best years of your life”. Really, teenage years pose some of the hardest situations you may ever have to deal with. The teenager’s body is usually still in the throes of puberty, but the body is taking on a definitively adult appearance. Most teens are still self-conscious of their bodies and appearance, but as time passes they should become more comfortable in their new forms. By the later end of the teen years, the body has entered its full size and sexual maturity.
Self-care should now come naturally, and teenagers should take initiative in personal grooming and other personal needs. Because of puberty raging in the teen’s body, mood swings are still common. The preteen “overreaction” element often lasts up until about age fourteen, and can go past that.
Emotions are pretty much done developing. Most teens are able to recognize, verbalize and express their emotions, but abused children may not yet have this capability. Often, preoccupation with the opposite sex has taken over the child’s life. Dating begins in this stage and so too does romance and the prospect (or reality) of falling in love and becoming intimate. This is a very nerve-racking idea. For many kids this age having a boy/girlfriend means acceptance, popularity, and a lifetime of happiness. Therefore, not having a boy/girlfriend means rejection, being an outcast, and a lifetime of loneliness. This is certainly not the case, but it feels real. The ever looming subject of sex can create a very disconcerting atmosphere. Sexually inexperienced teens feel self-conscious about their greenness, and sometimes more experienced girls (boys are usually proud of experience) worry about what others will think of them. For any child who is being or has been sexually abused, the idea of romantic and sexual relationships may be terrifying. At the same time, sexually abused teenagers may become dangerously promiscuous. If the teen has been sexually abused, s/he is usually terrified of peers finding out.
For teens who are gay/bi/trans, this can also be an unwanted pressure, with the added pressure of whether or not to come out. Socially, other issues come up as well. By this time most children have a few good friends they feel very close with, who they can trust. Often these are people who rode out the rocky preteen years with them. In the teen years friends have usually become the most important relationships in a child’s life. Teenagers are often pressured by peers and society to label themselves and put themselves in a social group. This seems to be a more intense problem in the UK, but the intensity can even vary from school to school. Some kids welcome this and feel good giving themselves and their friends a common identity as a “skater”, “jock”, “goth” or “chav”. (It is “chav” right? *is very American*). But for those who listen to the beat of their own drum, labels can leave them feeling like suffocated outsiders.
Intellectually, the teenager is capable of what most adults are, and sometimes more as they pay less attention to the excessive rules society presses upon us. They can think abstractly, philosophically, solve problems, make judgments and form their own opinions. It’s common for many teenagers to reconstruct their own morals and values, separate from that of their parents. However, there are some missing pieces in the teen’s intellectual development into adulthood. Most teenagers have trouble discerning which thoughts to act on, which makes them impulsive. Frequently they will act on the choice that is more fun—the idea of having sex is so exciting it overrides the possible consequence of STDs or pregnancy. A majority of teens have an “it can’t happen to me” attitude, which can result in tragedies like car wrecks and alcohol poisoning. As for relationships with parents, teenagers are doing as much separation as possible.
Rebellion is usually in full swing at this point, and they may regularly disobey and defy what their parents say. Most teenagers do need a good deal of their own space and privacy to grow and learn. Parents should extend some more rules and privileges as their child grows, and take maturity and responsibility into account. While the child couldn’t spend the weekend at a friend’s unsupervised for the night at 12, maybe s/he can at 15. Parents should allow teenagers plenty of room to grow, but they must also give them the structure and security they need. While many teens will disagree, (I can almost hear the complaints through the screen now), they are not adults, and often not ready for everything it takes to be an adult.
If a child has grown up in an abusive home the teen years can be especially challenging. They are bigger and stronger, and may fight back against physical abuse, which can result in the child or parents becoming severely injured or even the child being arrested. More developed minds may also question the treatment the child and his/her siblings have grown up in. Excessive problems like this and others may result in a teenager running away or being kicked out.
Differences in Opinion/Culture Clashes: Now that teenagers can think for themselves, they will often challenge the morals, values and other opinions they have grown up with. Exposure to new ideas in books, TV, friends and school help the teen develop their own view on how things should be. A teenager may begin to think his/her parents’ prejudices against certain groups are wrong, or that they are politically inclined in a different direction. If the child begins to voice these new opinions, it may cause a lot of arguments.
People in their teens are also developing spiritually (something rarely mention in traditional child development). Now that children are able to think abstractly, and eventually existentially, their beliefs about God/higher powers, religion, rituals and other religious traditions may change. If a child decides s/he no longer believes the religion or all the teachings their parents do, this can cause a lot of conflict, especially in religious families. Despite the conflict, it is natural for young adults to look for a spirituality or religion that feels right. Among other differences in opinion, culture clashes can become big family conflicts during the teen years.
Culture clashes can be literal, in which a teen’s parents have immigrated from country/culture different to that the child has grown up in. However, culture also changes between generations. In the literal culture clash a teen may be very torn between socially acceptable behavior in school and with friends, and socially acceptable behavior at home. For many kids, entering their own home is like entering their parents’ country of origin. It can be very confusing and cause inner conflict as the child struggles with his/her parents’ expectations and rules, and that of their dominant culture, which they may believe in more strongly. For generational clashes, parents usually disagree with how their children view dating/sex, their future, and even music and dress. Parents need to begrudgingly accept that their children have minds of their own, and whether they like it or not they have little to no say on what their kids think. For many parents this is a struggle, but something they must make peace with themselves, and not discipline their children for it.
However, some teenagers use their new opinions to dispute how some house rules are “unfair” or “make no sense”. They may make claims of looking for “justice” when really just looking for ways around the rules. In this case, then parents should put their foot down and state that certain things are not up for discussion.
For abused children, forming their own opinions may be a foreign idea. Many children who have suffered a lot of abuse and “programming” from parents have a lot of trouble distinguishing fairness and making choices. If these children are able to develop their own opinions this can result in a lot of problems. Excessive arguments can escalate abuse, as many abusive parents hate being questioned. These parents only want their children to know what they dictate, as this will allow their control over them to continue into adulthood.
Experimentation with Drugs/Alcohol: Rarely is there a teen who doesn’t experiment with smoking, drugs, or alcohol. (But if you haven’t, good for you! You should be proud.) Drugs and alcohol are a part of Western societies, and most teenagers wonder what they are like. Many teens try drugs or alcohol at parties or other social situations. Sometimes they are pressured into it by peers, other times it’s pure curiosity. If experimentation takes a step further the teen may begin abusing substances or even become addicted. If parents suspect their child is abusing drugs they should take action immediately, and monitor their friends as well as set them up for some drug treatment. The sooner the action the better.
Abused children may use drugs and alcohol differently than their peers. While other kids just want to “get high”, an abused child may be looking for relief from physical and emotional pain. They may be looking for a way to eradicate painful thoughts from their mind, and think they have found the answer with drugs. Unfortunately, thought patterns like this are usually the beginning of addiction. In abusive families the use of alcohol and drugs can go either way. In abusive homes, the child’s use of substances may result in more physical or emotional abuse. However, some parents may have given their children access to drugs and alcohol from early childhood, either because they think it’s funny or to keep the child inebriated during abuse. Some parents who may be dependent on drugs/alcohol may even get high or drink with their teen. While the teen may welcome this as a “bonding” experience or feel close to their parent(s) for the first time, this is very damaging in the long-term as well as short-term. By the way, if you are abusing drugs and know it’s getting out of hand, please seek help. There’s no need to feel ashamed or like a bad kid, it happens to a lot of people. Just please, get help.
Friends & Dating: In the preteen and teen years it’s common for parents to say “I’m not letting that kid in my house again,” about at least one of their child’s friends. Some parents are paranoid (appropriately or inappropriately) about their kids falling in with the “wrong crowd”. They may keep very close tabs on their children and not allow them to go out or do things with kids they don’t know well.
Along with friends, parents are usually suspicious of their teens’ significant others. Many teens begin dating, have their first boy/girlfriends and fall in love for the first time. Some parents have strict rules on who they allow their child to date, what kind of dates, how they can dress, and assign curfews. These are appropriate responses, as the parents want to make sure their child is safe and does not engage in dangerous behaviors or get hurt. Arguments on all these subjects will probably occur. Sometimes parents ban their child from being friends with or dating a certain person (whether for a good reason like drug use or poor reason like ethnicity) and this causes huge fights and rebellion on the child’s part. The teen may end up sneaking out to see these people and get in more trouble for that.
For abused children, these subjects can cause massive problems. For physically and emotionally abused children friends and dating may just become another form of control parents wield over their heads and abuse them for. The parents may not want their children to have close relationships with others lest the abuse be discovered, so they try to keep their teen isolated.
Dating can be particularly difficult for sexually abused children. If the abuser is still in the child’s life or lives with him/her, they may become very possessive of the child who may want to date peers. Abusers may become very threatening and more physically abusive if the child dates or is intimate with peers. The abuser may even threaten to harm the person the teen is dating. On the other hand, an abuser may encourage a teen to have as much sex and partners as possible, whether or not s/he wants to. This person may make more openly sexual comments to the child or perhaps the child’s friends or boy/girlfriends. This can cause major shame and embarrassment for the abused child, as well as the other teens.
Self-Expression: “You’re wearing THAT?!” This phrase may be heard several times a week in a house with teenagers. Parents are often confused, horrified and shocked at things their teens wear, do to their bodies and even do for fun. The teenage years are a time for self-expression, crazy hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, and weird clothing! As the teen begins to create an identity for him/herself, sometimes strange things can emerge. Most parents picture teen years in an “ideal” football playing son and cheerleading daughter. Imagine the look on their faces when a mass of blue hair, piercings, tattoos, heavy make-up, baggy clothes, and an attached tail comes home.
Parents should make some restrictions on how much self-expression is appropriate. In ten years s/he may actually thank them for not allowing that eight-inch Mohawk to their cousin’s wedding. However, unless they are getting complaints for the school or have some restrictions against long-term changes like piercings or tattoos, some things can be let go. Teens usually grow out of extreme looks and habits after a few years. In abusive homes, self-expression is sometimes not permitted. This is usually seen as rebellion, which is rarely tolerated. An abused child may be hurt more or ridiculed for changing their appearance, or prohibited from looking the way they please.
Sex & Sexuality: Hormones are raging, and most teenagers are preoccupied and fixated on the opposite sex. They cover their walls in attractive celebrities, they talk about it with friends, look at attractive classmates, and spend hours thinking of how to make that special someone notice them. While in these new relationships or flings, many teens begin to experiment with sex. Parents almost always (and should) discourage this. While most teens are physically ready to have sex, many are not yet emotionally ready. Sex and intimacy is something that should be shared by people who love each other and truly want to. Unfortunately, many teens only have sex because of impulses or pressure from others. (I know there ARE plenty of teens who truly love each other and feel ready. There are some teens who are ready, but I’m not going to flat out encourage it.) If teens have sex when they are not ready or without protection, it can sometimes result in STDs, pregnancy, or simple broken hearts.
If parents know their teens are having sex (especially younger teens) it’s often appropriate to stop the sexual activity, especially if it is with more than one partner. If a parent finds out their teen is having many partners or going to sex parties they should also seek out counseling, because there may be some emotional troubles going on for the child.
Emotionally and physically abusive parents may react violently if they discover their teen is sexually active. As stated in the dating section, prospects of romance and intimacy can be traumatizing for sexually abused teens. Many have either an aversion to everything sexual, or are hypersexual. Sexually abusive parents or other abusers may take the teen’s sexual maturation as fuel for ridicule, or justification of abuse.
For LGBT teens, dating and sex can be a much deeper issue. Most teens in this situation fear their parents’ reactions to their sexuality (or gender identity) for good reason. Some are lucky and have parents who love and accept them no matter what, or at least uncomfortably accept and tolerate. Others face up to the harsh reality of being disowned. If parents discovers their child is of another sexuality they should deal with it and make peace within themselves. They have no say over their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and despite so much controversy they should still love their child as s/he is.
Alternative sexuality and gender identity issues may also instigate severe abuse (whether or not it previously existed) and even being kicked out. Issues of sexuality and gender identity can cause a lot of mental anguish for sexually abused teens. They wonder what kind of impact the abuse had on how they are feeling, and if it caused their current feelings. This can pose a lot of tormenting from the abuser if s/he discovers, and possibly worsen any current sexual abuse. To end this I implore every sexually active teen reading this to please use condoms and dental dams for both your safety, and that of your partner.
I hope after reading this you not only better understanding of child development, but realize a certain degree of misbehavior is normal. But even more than understanding this, I want you to know that no matter what a child’s behavior, abusing them in any way is never acceptable. So whether you were a well behaved child or not so well behaved, or 7 months, 7 years or 17 years old, it’s not ok for someone to hurt you. No matter what, every child needs and deserves safety, security, and love.
Please feel free to ask questions.
Child Therapy-C. Everett Bailey
Play Therapy with Traumatized Children-Paris Goodyear-Brown
Strategies for Counseling with Children and Their Parents-Geraldine Leitl Orton
Last edited by troubleshooter : 13-01-2012 at 10:25 PM.