Monday, June 11, 2012

Early Childhood: Psychosocial Milestones

Between the ages of 2 and 6, baby starts to learn how to express her emotions as her brain matures and the limbic system makes contact with the prefrontal cortex. This emotional regulation is the key to control and happiness in the rest of her life. By age 6 she should be much less explosive than the toddler she was before.

Erikson called this psychosocial stage initiative versus guilt as self-esteem comes out. This crisis has to do with baby undertaking new skills and feeling guilty when she fails. As a part of this stage, she develops a self-concept, or a basic understanding of herself. You will undoubtedly notice as a part of this stage that baby may hold herself in very high esteem, thinking she is attractive, strong, smart, and that almost anything can be done. This pride in her own identity, partnered with a longer attention span, are signs of neurological maturity. This stage involves guilt, meaning that baby blames herself when things go wrong, rather than shame which means she feels that other people are blaming her.

Another part of her development has to do with motivation. At a younger age she will be mainly intrinsically motivated, doing things for the simple joy of doing it. Preschoolers play games without keeping score and might even keep playing when everyone else has given up. Extrinsic motivation comes into play when she starts doing things for praise from someone else. She'll start to control temper tantrums in order to avoid the embarrassment of losing it in front of her friends.

In different societies, young children are expected to act very differently. In the US we expect our children to overcome fear but in China they are expected to temper pride while in Native American communities they are to be patient and cooperative. These formative years go very differently for children all over the world. As you can see, regulation is valued worldwide, but the type of regulation varies greatly.

Most children do well in learning to regulate emotion, but not all are emotionally healthy. Some children have trouble with psychopathology, that is a manifestation of unhealthy behavior issues which stem from the brain. Some children have internalizing problems - they are withdrawn and turn their fears inward. Others have externalizing problems - their feelings burst out. Girls are usually more advanced in their emotional regulation and can regulate externalizing problems, but have a harder time regulating internalizing ones. Emotional sex differences start to become apparent by about age 5 and boys with behavior problems normally get very aggressive while girls while behavior problems are still very likely to try to fix problems by hugging whomever they injured and apologizing.

Quality of care early on has an impact on emotional regulation: children with depressed parents have more trouble regulating emotions. Nurturing care leads the most impulsive infants to become even more competent children than their peers. Negligent care on the other hand worsens such problems. The key is to be patient, warm, and responsive to baby's needs.

One of baby's favorite things about being this age is play. Children the world over have been playing for thousands of years. Toddlers may play by simply bouncing a ball around; by age 5 most children have a play group of sorts. They are learning how to take turns, have a sense of humor, and make and keep friends. They prefer to play with children of the same age and sex for social understanding and they learn the most with peers. It is also important for children to play with their parents, even if the child would prefer to play with friends.

There are all different kinds of play in which children can engage. Culture may dictate whether you take baby to the beach or skiing, but today in developed nations, child-care centers are where she might get most of her play. If you put her in a day care, it is important to find her a program that is child-centered. They will have more trained staff, more space, and more toys.

Mildred Parten, a child development researcher, came up with a list of five types of play: solitary play - child plays alone, unaware of her surroundings, onlooker play - she watches other children play, parallel play - children play close to each other with the same toy in the same way but do not interact, associative play - children share toys and interact but do not play mutually, and cooperative play - children play and create together. The older baby gets, the farther up this scale she will move until age 6 when she can play a game with rules.

Even more types of play include active play - running, climbing, tumbling, etc., rough-and-tumble play - almost like wrestling but they don't hurt each other, and sociodramatic play - acting out roles and following a plot. Rough-and-tumble is most common among boys and you can tell if he is playing or fighting from his face. If he looks happy, it's just play. Sociodramatic is more common among girls, often playing "house" or similar games.

Your parenting style has a huge influence on baby. Diana Baumrind, a researcher, studied a number of children from California and identified main parenting styles. In authoritarian parenting, the parents' word is not to be called into question. Strict punishment follows misbehavior and children are held to high expectations. The rules are clear. Baumrind said that authoritarian parents love their children but do not show affection and the children most likely end up obedient and conscientious but not very happy. They become rebellious adolescents and blame themselves when things don't go well. In permissive parenting there are few demands. Discipline is lax and parents have low expectations. These parents want to be helpful but feel no responsibility to shape their children. Their children lack self-control and end up unhappy and become dependent on their parents even into early adulthood. In authoritative parenting there are rules and limits, but the children are allowed input. They have high expectations, but are forgiving and see themselves as guides. Their children end up successful, happy, articulate, generous and are usually well-liked. A final parenting style is neglectful parenting, in which the parents are indifferent and uninvolved in their children's lives. While Baumrind's sample was small and had little diversity, you probably see a little of yourself or your own parents in these examples.

Your parenting style should take into account baby's temperament, no one style is better than every other for every child.

You should be careful with baby's exposure to the media. A study done in 2004 showed that children aged 2 to 7 were watching 3 or 4 hours per day of TV. More than a quarter of children in the US have a TV in their own bedroom by age 3. Children who watch violent shows tend to become more violent, less creative, and achieve less in teen years. Children learn from what they see and family time is very important for baby's development emotionally and linguistically as well. Prohibition may not be the best idea, but using your own judgement you should determine a healthy schedule for baby's media intake, counterbalancing that by playing, reading, and talking with her.

Yet another huge part of baby's development at this young age is her moral development. The way she internalizes the standards of right and wrong will shape her throughout her life. As she plays and gains experience among peers, she will start to develop empathy, understanding others' emotions, and antipathy, dislike or hatred. Empathy should lead to prosocial behavior, being helpful and kind, and antipathy can lead to antisocial behavior, deliberate hurting or destruction aimed at another. By 4 or 5, baby should be deliberately one or the other.

Aggression can also develop at this age, which baby should be learning to control through play. Among young children the most common form of aggression is instrumental - hurting others to get what they have without even thinking about it. Reactive aggression is also common, it is impulsive retaliation whether the other person meant harm or not. Relational aggression is a social attack, involving insults or rejection , and becomes more harmful as children get older and form more social networks. Bullying is the worst of all these, involving unprovoked and repeated attack on someone who may not defend his or herself. Bullies need to learn to control their aggression early or it will continue possibly through adulthood.

To help point baby's moral compass, you need to establish a strong and affectionate bond with her. Stressful situations will still cause problems; life is complex. You need to establish values and teach them to baby. The way you punish her will also have an effect on her later in life. Experts agree that she is eager to do what you want, but doesn't have complete control over her emotions or actions at times. For example, she may wet the bed, but this isn't something she had control over - things like that shouldn't be punished. You should keep this in mind as you decide what to punish and how. Children who are physically punished are more likely to become bullies and delinquents because it teaches that "might makes right."Psychological control is a method of discipline where the parent threatens to take away love or support. The more of this type of discipline used, the lower the math scores of children tend to be. It can also lower creativity, achievement, and social acceptance.

A common form of discipline in the US is the time-out, wherein the child sits quietly without toys for a short time. Experts suggest the time be brief for this punishment, about one minute per year of life (i.e. a 4-year-old sits in time out for 4 minutes). Another is called induction: parents talk to the child to explain what they did wrong. It helps the child internalize right and wrong, but requires patience on your part. When baby is younger, say 3, the explanation should be brief and to-the-point such as, "You made me sad." As the child grows so should the explanation. If you are angry, the point will be lost. Sometimes a time-out is best: you might need it more than she will while you get past your anger and clean up a mess.

A big difference to note is between sex and gender. Sex differences are biological differences while gender differences are those roles society expects a boy or girl to fill based on sex. Young children do not know this difference until about age 5 and it will not be solidified until about age 8. Some young children think that sex can spontaneously change at some point - girls sometimes think they might grow a penis.

All of the major developmental theories have ideas about these differences. Freud called the years between 3 and 6 the phallic stage because of that focus on the penis. Little boys become aware of their penises at about 3 or 4 years of age and he starts to fear castration and love his mother. This is called the Oedipus complex, in reference to Greek mythology. Because of their feelings for mother, boys feel hatred towards their fathers - even wanting to kill them Freud said - and also fear their fathers will discover their secret. The self-defense mechanism that develops in their brains is called the superego, which Freud said is why boys love guns and fighting. He also said that homosexuality, homophobia, and obsession with punishment are all results of an unresolved phallic stage. Girls on the other hand get the Electra complex, also named after a figure in mythology. It is basically the exact opposite of the Oedipus complex - girls fall in love with their fathers and want to kill their mothers. Children cope with these strange fears and guilt by befriending the same-sex parent, which is called identification.

Behaviorists believe that children pick up on the appropriate gender cues through social learning - they are complimented when they dress appropriately for their sex (girls are adorable and boys are handsome) and they identify with peers to fit the prescribed role. Cognitive theorists call it the gender schema - children simply develop a concept of gender based on experience. They categorize themselves into their gender and then choose gender appropriate clothes and actions. 

To break these boundaries, some parents and teachers embrace and teach androgyny - a balance in one person of masculinity and femininity. Trouble with this idea is that androgynous young adults can end up with lower self-esteem.

So what should baby learn about gender? It's really up to you to guide her, and she will most likely take additional cues from her surroundings.

Patience will be your best friend throughout these formative years in baby's life. By helping her know right from wrong and punishing appropriately, your bond will grow for years to come.

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