Child Development

For the most part, children develop in similar ways. Children develop physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively, linguistically and academically. Some common events occur during a child’s first year of life.

During the first month, an infant can generally turn his or her head from side to side, cry when distressed and gaze intently at primary caregivers. During the third month, an infant will coo in response to a caregiver, begin to hold objects and follow them with their eyes. During the sixth month, an infant can hold a bottle, turn their body in search of an object and may begin to sit with help. By the ninth month, an infant can respond to simple verbal commands, grasps objects with thumb and index finger and may pull themselves upright. At a year, the infant will crawl, may be walking, can say three words other than “mama,” “dada” and “no,” and is becoming increasingly social. While some children will meet a milestone earlier and others later, these milestones are used to determine typical development. Development continues throughout the lifespan along predictable paths.

Psychologists have discovered other patterns of typical development. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s research documented typical phases of psychosocial, emotional and social development throughout a lifespan. The following chart provides a brief explanation of Erikson’s stages of childhood (Erikson, 1950).

Stage Typical Age Range Primary Activity Significant Relationships Outcome
Trust vs. Mistrust 0 to 1 Consistent stable care from parents Primary caregivers Develop sense of trust when interactions provide reliability, care, affection. Lack of these leads to mistrust.
Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt 2 to 3 Consistent stable care from parents Primary caregivers Develop sense of personal control over physical skills and sense of independence. Success leads to feelings of autonomy. Failure results in feelings of shame and doubt.
Initiative vs. Guilt 4 to 5 Environmental exploration Basic family Begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success leads to sense of purpose. Those who exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt.
Industry vs. Inferiority 6 to puberty Knowledge acquisition Family, neighbors, school Cope with new social and learning demands. Success leads to sense of competence, while failure results in feelings of inferiority.
Identity vs. Role Confusion Adolescence Coherent vocation and personality Peers Develop sense of self and personal identity. Success leads to ability to stay true to oneself, while failure leads to role confusion and weak sense of self.

Jean Piaget is another psychologist who studied how children develop across the spectrum of developmental domains. He looked at play, language, logic, time, space and number knowledge development. His ideas are briefly described in the chart below (Singer & Revenson, 1978).

Stage Typical Age Range Description Developmental Phenomena
Sensorimotor Birth to 2 Infant progresses from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought. The infant constructs an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences with physical actions. Object Permanence
Stranger anxiety
Preoperational 2 to 7 Child begins to represent the world with words and images. Both reflect increased symbolic thinking and go beyond the connection of sensory information and physical action. Pretend play
Language development
Concrete operational 7 to 11 Child can now reason logically about concrete events and classify objects into different states. Conservation
Mathematical transformation
Formal operational 11 to 15 Adolescents reason more abstractly and logically. Thought is more idealistic. Abstract logic
Potential for mature moral reasoning

Traumatic experiences can negatively impact every aspect of child development. Children with a trauma history need to be met at more than just their chronological age; they must be met at their developmental ages. Children who have experienced traumatic events are impacted in a couple of significant areas. First, when the trauma is occurring, a child’s brain is focused on survival. So, whatever developmental task the brain would typically be focused on is neglected. Secondly, the brain becomes wired to function in survival mode, further impacting development (Siegel, 1999).

As the traumatized child matures and develops, the impact of the earlier trauma becomes clear. As illustrated by Heather Forbes’ chart, all aspects of his life show some level of delay.  The graph illustrates the developmental levels of a neuro-typical child and a trauma survivor. The major domains of development are represented as: Academic (A), Cognitive (C), Emotional (E), Language (L), Physical (P), and Social Skills (S).


The chart illustrates the difference between a child without a trauma history (Andy) and a child with a trauma history (Billy). Andy and Billy are seven-year-old boys. Andy’s development is constant across the developmental domains. He is a little stronger in his language skills (eight-year-old) and his social skills (eight-year-old), but he is a neuro-typical second grader. His stable, consistent upbringing has allowed his chronological age to match his other developmental areas. Billy’s unstable, inconsistent and trauma-filled past has caused great inconsistencies between his chronological age and the “ages” in the other developmental domains.

Academically, Billy is at the level of a neuro-typical four-year-old. He is in second grade, but his skill level is less than that of a typical kindergartener. Cognitively, Billy is more like a neuro-typical nine-year-old. Billy might be described as “too smart for his own good.” These are the skills Billy developed in order to survive. Those skills served him very well in his previous environment, as they enabled him to survive and thrive and endure. But while those skills were very adaptive in his previous situation, they are maladaptive in his current environment. He needs a great deal of assistance to learn what is now considered adaptive. Billy is an emotional threeyearold.

When Billy is stressed, he will respond in a manner consistent with a neuro-typical
three-year-old. As a result, he needs to be treated and responded to as if he were actually three years old. With a language skill age of five, Billy needs to have things explained to him as if he were a neuro-typical kindergartener.

Billy has excellent physical skills, consistent with a child at the chronological age of nine. Again, his physical ability was an integral part of survival in his previous environment; they were both adaptive and necessary. Billy’s social skill age is consistent with his emotional age. Any number of reasons may have contributed to the delay in Billy’s social skills. Regardless, he will need help learning to navigate the world around him, starting with the skills one would teach a neuro-typical

When looking at Billy, it is easy to assume that a typical seven-year-old should be able to do the things Billy isn’t able to do and become frustrated with his behavior. Billy needs to be understood, not just globally, but understood at each developmental domain. By looking at the multifaceted Billy, his actions begin to make more sense. The parents of a trauma survivor can understand their child’s behavior better once they understand the affect of trauma on child development.