5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Child Psychology and Development for Dummies

5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Child Psychology and Development for Dummies

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a list of how children develop each year of their life? Can you imagine how much a list like that could help writers? The “for Dummies” series provides a basic overview of subjects including...drum roll please...child psychology.

Writers can use Child Psychology and Development for Dummies to create more realistic characters, connect with their audience (especially children), and better understand people.

Below you’ll find some of the concepts I thought would help writers the most.

NOTE: This book is summarized in a Q&A format; all answers are directly from the book (not lil’ ol’ me).

What childhood experiences and outcomes should writers keep in mind as they try to connect with children?

Today, most child psychologists believe that biological, psychological, cultural, social, and chance circumstances interact to create the unique characteristics of each child, and that the degree to which each of those factors influences a particular child can never been known with any degree of certainty.

Some of the factors that can influence the development of any particular child are:

  • Genetics

  • Accidents

  • Illness

  • Trauma

  • Culture

  • Premature birth

  • Talents

  • Family moves

  • Health

  • Neighborhood

  • Media

  • Temperament

  • Friends

  • Child care

  • Poverty

  • Politics

  • History

  • Relatives

  • Wealth

  • Family changes

  • Siblings

  • School

  • Oppression

  • Parents

  • Appearance

  • Luck

  • Love

  • Learning disabilities.

Good outcomes for kids means mastering the key objectives of childhood:

  • Forming good relationships and discovering how to relate to others

  • Mastering self-control of emotions and impulses

  • Developing healthy self views

  • Achieving one’s potential by finding meaning through accomplishments and education

What process does a child go through to successfully adjust to their variety of childhood experiences?

Erickson’s developmental theories acknowledged the relationship between adult problems and unresolved issues of childhood. He viewed the life cycle as a series of challenges that when successfully met, lead to good adjustment. When challenges are not successfully negotiated, these issues can harm later adjustment. Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development are

  • Trust versus mistrust: During this stage, babies figure out to trust that others will take care of their basic needs. When care is poor, they discover how to mistrust.

  • Autonomy versus shame: Toddlers discover skills during this time such as independent toiling, walking, dressing, communicating, and feeding. Success during this stage leads to feelings of competence. Failure leads to self-doubt.

  • Initiative versus guilt: Preschoolers continue to catch on to new skills. They may also have some conflict with others and can experience guilt when they do not meet the expectations of their caregivers.

  • Industry versus inferiority: During the elementary school years, children develop more feelings of competence as they negotiate how to get along with others and master school-related tasks. If they do not meet demands adequately, they are likely to feel inferior.

  • Identity versus role confusion: Adolescence is the time to develop sexual identity and self-concept an begin to explore occupations. Teens who fail to find their way often become confused about who they are.

  • Intimacy versus isolation: Older teens and young adults begin to form partnerships or find themselves lonely and isolated.

  • Generativity versus stagnation: During the adult year, having activities such as raising children or having a vocation leads to contentment and a sense of having made a contribution. Those who do not have these sorts of activities stagnate.

  • Integrity versus despair: As life comes to an end, some look back on meaningful lives; others look back with regret.

Erikson believed that people evolve over time. Stages were not discreet but overlapping.

What are some of the ways that children learn?

The major ways that kids learn are:

  • Modeling and observational learning: the process of acquiring information from what children see in the world around them. Children observe parents, peers, and even fictional characters on computers and television. They also explore and observe how things happen and work. They learn specific social skills, and they see what actions result in good or bad outcomes.

  • Classical conditioning: learning that occurs by associating the emotional response to one event with another event that occurs at about the same time. The human brain is designed to make associations between events. An infant readily associates the sight of a baby bottle with alleviation of hunger, for example, so just looking at a baby bottle may quell distress for a while. Also, many fears are acquired through classical conditioning. Interestingly, some fears appear to be prewired, requiring no learning at all. Thus, infants appear to be innately fearful of heights, snakes, and loud noises.

  • Operant conditioning: consequences influence later actions and behaviors. Behaviors that are rewarded usually start increasing in frequency, and those that are ignored or punished, or that result in a loss of reward, usually decrease in frequency.

How does a child develop in the first year after birth?

  • Reflexes keep them alive: breathing, sneezing, hiccupping, moving legs and arms when the baby is covered with something that could block air, sucking, rooting (turning the mouth toward an object that ha sbrushed the baby’s cheeks), swallowing, spitting up, crying, and shivering.

  • Can recognize and be soothed and comforted by a familiar person.

  • Understands the caretaker will return by 8 months.

  • Aware that he or she isn’t the same entity as the caregiver

  • Experiences stranger anxiety around 9 months

  • Develop gross motor skills (big muscles or muscle groups) and fine motor skills (lips, tongues, toes, and fingers); holds up head, rolls over, reaches for objects, sits up without help, grasps objects, manipulates objects, crawls, stands with help or holding on, and walks with help.

  • Develops primitive understand of cause and effect.

  • Learns that objects exists even when they can’t be seen or heard, beginning with the primary caregiver.

What are some of the important developmental benchmarks for toddlers (ages 1-4)?  

Age 1:

  • Starts naming familiar objects, repeating sounds or phrases, combining words to make sentences, understanding “no,” following simple directions that include prepositions

  • Makes gestures to communicate, plays peekaboo, says a few words such as “Mama” and “Dada” and understands simple commands like “Bring me your bottle.”

  • Points and makes noises to indicate interest

  • First independent step

  • Learns by playing with objects or toys

  • Limited self-control

Age 2:

  • Starts developing self-awareness, self-evaluation, and self-esteem; recognizes self in the mirror

  • Has a vocabulary of more than 100 words including words like me, I, and mine; points to body parts like eyes and ears

  • May talk in a loud voice or strained pitch

  • Wanders away from mom; independence

  • Begins learning to play together, share, take turns, and have structure in their activities

  • Begin rough-and-tumble play

  • Learn to walk, run, jump. Play, talk, listen, and independently use the toilet.

  • Behaves if an adult has told them that bad behavior has consequences, not because they have much of a conscience.

  • Learn skills such as curbing their impulses, thinking before they act, behaving reasonably at mealtimes, understanding limits, and deciding which emotions to express and when to show them.

  • Develop a sense of autonomy: push caregivers’ buttons and have temper tantrums--whining, begging, crying, or asking the same question over and over; Learn to say “no” to parents, do the opposite of what people ask them to do, intentionally drop food, hit other kids, defiant, mischievous, disruptive

  • Manifest a little pickiness and moderate drops in appetite

  • Start learning to regulate their emotions; also learn when it’s best to express their feelings and when it’s best to inhibit them; need help identifying emotions from caregivers

  • Can start learning how to tolerate frustration

  • Are ready to potty-train when they start noticing their diaper is soiled, can follow simple commands, show interest, have predictable bowel movements.

Age 3:

  • Put words together into sentences that contain nouns and verbs

  • Can use past tense and plurals

  • Has vocabulary of close to 1,000 words

  • Ask questions, especially “Why?”

  • Can make others understand most of what she says

  • Begins to tell stories to others

  • Knows name, age, and gender

  • Can be involved in household chores and other everyday activities like cooking, doing laundry, playing with sand and water, feeding and caring for animals.

Age 4:

  • Uses language in make-believe play

  • Begins to know colors

  • Can repeat up to four numbers said slowly

  • Talks about her own activities

  • Understands concepts like bigger, smaller, slower, and longer

  • Can follow directions about objects not in his direct line of vision

  • Can make most people understand what she says

  • Should be able to: throw, kick, and sometimes catch big balls; balance on one foot for a few seconds; dress themselves in clothes that have no buttons or ties; eat without spilling too much, and use spoons and forks; hold a cup and drink from it without spilling; build towers of about eight blocks; pedal a tricycle; hold a crayon or marker between the first two fingers and thumb; make lines and circles with markers or crayons; turn pages in a book; use scissors under supervision; walk up and down stairs without help; play with modeling clay; wash and dry hands; brush teeth with supervision; use the potty

How do children develop between ages 5-12?

  • Body proportions similar to adults by age 5

  • Grow about 2-3 inches in height every year and gain 5-7 pounds

  • Growing pains, usually in the legs

  • Before starting school, a child should acquire these skills: opening non childproof containers and boxes, basic counting (to 10), knowing and recognizing at least some letters, knowing phone number and address, sticking with a task or activity for 10-15 minutes, feeding themselves, getting along with other kids, following directions that have several parts, having basic motor skills.

  • Master running, skipping, bike riding

  • Improve in strength and stamina

  • Can draw crude circles/squares

  • Legible handwriting

  • Learn to tie shoes, use scissors, and handle small tools skillfully

  • Start to care about playmates’ opinions and comparing themselves to others. Start judging one another. Cooperative, reliable, and kind children are the most successful.

  • Sense of self-worth sometimes gets unstable, but self-views become more focused on what they value

  • Have at least rudimentary self-control: wait their turn during games, persist with schoolwork, eat their vegetables before demanding desert.

  • Make major leaps in their understanding of morality; learn to make flexible judgments about what’s right and wrong; adopt standards and rules about how to behave as their consciences develop; display altruistic behavior and empathy for others; can begin to see when moral standards conflict and can make active choices about what to do; begin to understand what actions are virtuous and righteous, and take actions that conform to these standards rather than do what will profit themselves most in the short run; feel guilty when they fail to do what’s right.

  • Start sorting their world into logical categories; learn there are multiple ways to sort.

  • By fifth grade, children should be able to: analyze the plot of a story; compare and contrast characters and events; recognize whether a story is being told in first or third person. Understand author’s intention (entertain, inform, or persuade), and can use other resources to decode written work; write legibly and use writing to communicate; use and understand nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives; write sentences that have subject/verb agreement; recognize errors, capitalize correctly, and use punctuation properly; read and write numbers from negative to positive, including fractions and decimals; divide whole numbers by one-or two-digit whole numbers; add and subtract fractions and decimals; compare numbers as being less than, greater than, and equal to; use mathematics to solve real-world problems.

  • Puberty: girls grow breast buds around 10 years old, grow sparse pubic hair around 11-13 years old, start periods around age 12 and are fully mature by age 15; Boys get pubic hair around age 12 and reach full sexual maturity at about 15.

Describe the developmental and psychological changes teenagers experience between ages 13-18.

  • Critical skills of relating with others develop; begin to form close attachments to others their age; in the early teen years, these attachments tend to be of the same sex; later, teens hang out in mixed groups; and finally, they focus on dyadic sexual relationships.

  • Most spend more time with peers than they do with their parents or other adults

  • Question the values and morals of their families (religion, careers, values, work ethics, and sexuality)

  • Puberty: increasing hormones, body-hair growth under the arms and in the pubic area, sexual interest

  • Experience changes in their biological clocks that regulate sleep and wake cycles; have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m. and getting up early

  • Take on more responsibility so they need self-control skills (drive a vehicle, vote, serve on a jury, get married, engage in sexual activity, join the military, be criminally charged as an adult, gamble, enter college)

  • Still not a fully developed brain; tend to be more impulsive, take more risks, react to stress more strongly, fall prey to peer pressure; often act aggressively; focus on short-term rewards while ignoring long-term negative consequences; feel invincible

  • Start functioning independently from their parents so they engage in a few obnoxious, rebellious behaviors;

  • Explore their identity: “Who am I?” “What will I become?” “What is the purpose of my life?” Explore sexuality, gender roles, and gender identity; spend a lot of time thinking about and looking at themselves

  • Time of extreme self-consciousness; believe people are always looking at them; fear of being judged; self-esteem drops;

  • Often overly concerned with body image due to dramatic changes in appearance in a short time.

  • Gradually, the self-conscious, self-absorbed adolescent mind expands to include the world at large; greater ability to think logically and morally and to make plans

  • Capable of solving problems through sophisticated processes; can imagine and strategize solutions to complex problems; use selective, focused attention; have adequate short-term memory; have working memory; have long-term memory; use advanced reasoning (hypothetical thought, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning); use metacognition

  • More advanced ideas of morality; understand more about norms, expectations, and values of society as a whole; see the value of helping others and may understand that laws and rules are not capricious, but benefit society as a whole; come to understand human rights and principles of fairness; demonstrate advanced moral principles through concrete, altruistic actions that have no obvious benefit to themselves but that enhance the lives of others

  • Being to understand that what they do today may affect their future (but may not act according to their thoughts); practice setting future goals and doing things necessary to achieve those goals

A child’s intelligence consists of what abilities?

  • Ability to process information rapidly

  • Ability to set goals

  • Abstract reasoning

  • Athletic ability

  • Creativity

  • Common sense

  • Empathy

  • Foresight

  • Flexibility in responding to varying demands

  • Frustration tolerance

  • Impulse control

  • Learning facts and information

  • Logic

  • Mathematical ability

  • Mechanical ability (visual and spatial)

  • Musical ability

  • Skill in communication

  • Skill in relating to other people

Although genetics appear to strongly influence intelligence, the environment and experiences can also affect abilities.

What defines healthy self-esteem for a child?

When self-esteem gets out of balance, whether it’s too low or too high, kids focus excessively on themselves. They worry about having to maintain their inflated self-views in the face of criticism, or they dwell on every single mistake. In both cases, they ruminate about themselves. When kids focus on helping others, they become less self-absorbed.

Adults can help children maintain healthy self-esteem by praising efforts, not results. Healthy children learn that they are important, but so are other things. This understanding may be aided by exposing children to spirituality, morality, environmental concerns, or social causes. Helping children see that they’re part of a bigger universe adds meaning to their lives and keeps their self-esteem at a healthy level.

Low self-esteem is bad for kids. Children who view themselves poorly tend to achieve somewhat less in school. They’re more prone to depression and anxiety. They’re rejected by their peers more often than their classmates with healthy self-esteem. They feel inadequate, and that sense of inadequacy is too often reinforced by others who give them negative feedback. They’re unable to respond to the varying demands of the world in a flexible manner. They focus on and magnify their weaknesses and negative traits while being unable to accept that they also have strengths. You can help kids avoid low self-esteem by paying appropriate attention to them. In addition, it’s good to give them tasks that are challenging yet within their reach. When they fail, it’s important not to criticize harshly, but to praise their efforts as well as provide corrective feedback. Finally, it helps if their caregivers also have healthy self-esteem.

My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:

  1. Many factors can influence the development of a child; it is important to represent a variety of experiences in writing.

  2. Children learn using modeling and observational learning, and part of this process is learning from fictional characters. This area is a writer’s responsibility.

  3. Write stories that help build a child’s trust, independence, ability to form healthy relationships, and confidence.

  4. Use the developmental benchmarks to connect with what children are interested in.

  5. Intelligence consists of many abilities (not just school smarts), and all of them should be represented in books.

How do you think these concepts of psychology and child development can help you as a writer? Share your ideas in the comments below.

To free the writer today, imagine your reader. Imagine what they are interested in, what goals they have, what concepts they want to learn, what experiences they have. Try to think of an idea for a new story that represents an individual’s unique experience. Get as narrow as you can. I’m sure you’ll find something amazing.


A writer like you: Ed Ahern

A writer like you: Ed Ahern

A writer like you: Rosie Talbot

A writer like you: Rosie Talbot