Developmental Stages – The Roller Coaster of Equilibrium and Disequilibrium

Did you ever feel as if parenting your children was like riding a roller coaster?  At one point you are enjoying your offspring and the next you are wondering what ever happened to your sweet little girl or your charming little boy.

rollercoasterWatching children grow and develop is a fascinating process. As parents, you may not notice the changes on a day-to-day basis. However, if you look back over your children’s past years of growth, you may recall periods when their behavior was rather pleasant and smooth, and being a parent felt rewarding. You may also recall times when your children seemed extremely challenging and difficult, and being a parent took all the patience you had just to make it through each day. What you are observing as you reflect on these easy and not-so-easy times is that children’s development is not always straightforward and even, but instead is more like a roller coaster. It cycles up and down and in and out of times when their behavior can be more or less challenging.

Research by the Gesell Institute of Human Development has shown that this pattern of behavior is very common and that children’s growth is not always steady and progressing from less to more maturity. Instead, their development follows a course in which smooth, calm behavior often precedes unsettled, uneven behavior. It is almost as if children need to take two steps backwards developmentally before taking a huge leap forward.

In fact, all children grow through predictable stages of development beginning at birth and extending far into their teen years. Some experts in the field refer to this occurrence as going through periods of equilibrium versus disequilibrium. Children cycle in and out of times when they are more a joy to be with, It cycles up and down and in and out of times when their behavior can be more or less challenging – (disequilibrium). Hence, the “roller coaster” of child development.

The equilibrium periods can be looked at as a time when your child is consolidating learned skills; practicing what he has struggled to master; they are plateaus in development. The disequilibrium periods often occur as the child is entering a new, quick time of growth and development, when he is mastering new tasks and working on new abilities.

So there are times of relative peace, stability and equilibrium followed by a breaking down of behavior pushing the child into times of struggle and disequilibrium. If your child’s behavior seems to take a turn for the worse, if he seems to be more difficult to manage, it may be that a stage of equilibrium has given way to a stage of disequilibrium.

You may prefer one way of being over the other, but both are necessary for the growth and development of your child. It is helpful if you can accept each of these stages of growth as necessary and try not to blame them on anybody.

As you read the following information, remember that it is the order of these stages that is important, not the specific ages at which they occur. Each child has his own twist on how he will go through each stage. Certain children will be more calm and even, so that even their periods of disequilibrium will be rather mild, while other children will be skewed in the direction of more intense temperament and even the equilibrium stages will seem like a struggle (although less so than the periods of disequilibrium).

These phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium begin at birth and often cycle weekly for infants. As children reach the age of 18 months, the stages of development shift, cycling less frequently and changing about every six months. Typically, these six month segments occur until the child reaches the age of 6, when the cycles then begin to take place yearly. The following chart shows these stages:

stages of equilibrium and disequilibrium

 

18 Months to 4 ½ Years

One of the most widely recognized stages of disequilibrium is the one referred to as the “terrible twos.” Most people are aware that having a two year old is almost synonymous with temper tantrums. But as you can see from our “roller coaster” above, disequilibrium occurs even before children reach the age of two. Many times parents will comment that their eighteen-month old is going through the “terrible twos” early. What is really happening is that they have entered a stage of disequilibrium where their behavior is more broken up and out of sorts, and yes, characterized by tantrums.

As children reach two years of age, their behavior typically becomes smoother and calmer, only to take a turn again at age two and a half when those tantrums return and children’s behavior is more rigid and demanding. This phase is the commonly- talked-about “terrible twos.”

Children’s development continues to cycle about every six months. Once again, they enter a phase of equilibrium around three years of age, when they tend to be more easygoing and cooperative as a result of their acquiring a little more maturity than they had at two. When they reach three and a half years, disequilibrium returns and their behavior tends to be more broken up and difficult.

This stage can be quite challenging for parents as it seems they are experiencing their children’s temper tantrums all over again.

These cycles continue as children enter equilibrium at the age of four and disequilibrium at the age of four and a half when they become more physically, emotionally and verbally out of bounds.

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To read more information about these ages, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Your One Year Old by Ilg at the Gessell Institute Your Two Year Old by Ilg and the Gessell Institute Your Three Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute Your Four Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute
 
<click here for our list of recommended books about child development

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<click here for more information about child development by age

 

5 Years to 8 Years

Five-year olds can be a joy to live with because they have once again entered a phase of equilibrium. They tend to be much more positive, optimistic and cheerful. Unfortunately, the breakup in their behavior, or disequilibrium, starts up again around age five and a half. Children at this age and all the way through about age 6 ½ tend to be more tense, more negative and more likely to disobey. Parents once again may wonder what happened to their “sweet child.” As you become more aware of the cycles, you may notice children’s behavior beginning to smooth out as they approach the age of six and a half. They also seem to struggle less with everyday decisions and life in general.

Disequilibrium sets in again around age seven and here the cycles begin to last almost a full year. Seven year olds tend to be very moody, melancholy, fearful and critical and to present parents with lots of challenges and frustrations. They worry that others do not like them and they may cry easily. They tend to be critical of their own performances and seem less satisfied with life in general.

The good news is that once children reach the age of eight their behavior once again evens out. They tend to be very energetic and outgoing, making them a joy to be around.

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To read more information about these ages, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Your Five Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute Your Six Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute Your Seven Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute Your Eight Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute

<click here for our list of recommended books about child development

<click here for a list of all our recommended parenting books

<click here for more information about child development by age

 

9 Years to 17 Years

It is not surprising, then, that nine year olds seem to exhibit many worries and anxieties and become more demanding as they cycle once again into disequilibrium. Behavior then becomes more predictable and comfortable as children approach age 10 and, for the most part, really want to be “good” and do the right things. From here on out, you can predictably expect your children to enter cycles of disequilibrium during the odd years and equilibrium during the even years.

Children age 11, 13, 15 and 17 are predictably in a phase of disequilibrium when they can be more negative, more oppositional, less confident, more shy and less happy with themselves, their parents, their peers and their life in general. Children age 12, 14, and 16 tend to be in a phase of equilibrium, when they are more likeable, more energetic, more positive, more cooperative, more friendly and more confident.

 

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To read more information about these ages, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Your Nine Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute Your Ten to Fourteen Year Old by Ilg and The Gessell Institute

<click here for our list of recommended books about child development

<click here for a list of all our recommended parenting books

<click here for more information about child development by age

 

Note to Parents

When learning about child development, keep in mind that the behaviors and stages described for each specific age range refer to those occurring for the “average” child. All children grow and mature through these developmental stages at their own unique rate and in their own unique way. So you may notice your children exhibiting behaviors that may not seem characteristic of those noted above. It is more important to become aware of the cycles of growth that children go through and to recognize where your individual children fall than to know the exact ages and stages listed.

 

What Does This Mean?

Learning about and being aware of how your children are growing developmentally can put you in a better position to understand and cope with those times when your children may seem more agitated, short-tempered and just plain out-of-sorts. It is a gift to your children when you learn to recognize that some of their behaviors are more developmentally related and a normal part of their growth process, and not necessarily because your children are “acting that way on purpose” or are “out to get you”. It helps to remember that all growth occurs like a roller coaster and your children need to go up and down these cycles in order to grow and mature to the next level.

Interestingly, most people believe that the middle years of children’s lives tend to be the easy years, tucked in between the tantrum-laden years of toddlerhood and the so-called “difficult” years of adolescence. Children are supposed to be having fun, playing with friends, able to entertain themselves and generally be less difficult during these years. However, the reality is that children at these ages, just as the toddlers they used to be and the teens they will become, are still going through many developmental changes as they continue to grow, mature, and figure out how they fit into the world.

Knowing this information can help you to view each of your children as unique individuals and can help you to work towards setting more realistic expectations for each child. By doing so, you provide a foundation for your children to learn to appreciate that they are special in their own right and that you appreciate their unique growth. This awareness helps to build their sense of self-esteem, their sense of self-confidence, and their relationship with you.

 

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Child Behavior by Gessell Institute

<click here for our list of recommended books about child development
 
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