Developmentally Appropriate

One of my favorite, most comforting phrases of parenting is “developmentally appropriate.” Kids behave badly sometimes, or sometimes they’re just mean enough to hurt your feelings, but often, that bad behavior is developmentally appropriate, and framing it that way is an excellent source of solace in hard times. Or, it is for me, at least.

For example, back when I had toddlers, there would be the occasional tantrum. It is difficult to get through tantrums. They are demoralizing and exhausting, and they can make you feel like your kid is just awful or that you are an awful parent or, you know, both. But if you think, “this is developmentally appropriate. This child doesn’t have any control over any aspect of her life and she doesn’t really understand what she needs right now and even if she did, her vocabulary is too limited to communicate what she needs,” then suddenly, a tantrum isn’t a personal failing. And it’s a lot easier to be empathetic. And there’s even something weirdly lovely about it, having the opportunity to be this steady, kind support in the face of outrageous behavior. Those days when my kids acted terribly and I kept my cool made me feel like a superhero.

When they were tweens, they had sudden and urgent needs for items that “everyone” had (like that Vera Bradley lunch bag) and being seen with me was humiliating. This behavior was irritating on good days and hurtful on bad days. But it was developmentally appropriate. I read somewhere that kids at that age are trying to break ties from their family and become identified with their peers on a sort of pathway to forging their own identity, and that’s why dressing in whatever “uniform” is popular in 5th or 6th grade feels so important to them. It’s a stage that they need to pass through before they can figure themselves out. So when you put it that way, instead of thinking, “My kid is uniquely spoiled and self-absorbed and obnoxious,” you can think, “My kid’s priorities are a little out of whack because she’s trying to figure out how to become herself,” and again, it becomes sort of moving and beautiful.

I am thinking about this because we are reaching another developmental stage in this family’s life: the impending departure stage. It’s no secret that M can’t wait to get started with college, and we are excited for her, and she is great. But occasionally I get these little flashes of utter contempt, and I can read on her face, “I can’t stand to live with these idiots anymore. I will never be able to survive six more months in this house.” But you know what? That is developmentally appropriate! She is right where she need to be!

And meanwhile, I am enduring my own personal growing pains as I contemplate her leaving the house. I want to interrogate her about the latest romantic prospects. I want to read her English assignment. I want to make it clear to her that I know that even though she implied she was just hanging out with girlfriends a couple Saturdays ago, I know that she went to that big party at that kid’s house with the lax parents. Which is fine with me! Because she is a second-semester senior, and it’s not just developmentally appropriate–by my own timeline, she is overdue for some fun.

It’s just interesting because I am feeling clingy and needy, and I am low-level panicking–what did I forget to teach her? And then I have to take a breath, and resist these urges. It helps to think to myself, “Katie, what you’re feeling is developmentally appropriate.” It makes it easier to be patient with her and more compassionate to myself.


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