Behaviors, emotions and cognitions form a triangle that is essential in the world of Psychology. Each corner of this triangle exerts a powerful influence on the other two, so for example, the way that we feel influences the way that we think about things and how we ultimately take decisions. This same triangle is present in child psychology, only it’s a bit more mysterious. So, what actually is child psychology? Child Psychology is a branch of Psychology that studies the changes in the previously mentioned triangle in the first eighteen years of the life of the individual. Considering that Child Psychology studies the progress of a person throughout some very specific life stages, it is naturally heavily associated with development psychology. Development psychology studies how the triangle evolves during the course of the individual’s whole life, nonetheless, it is traditionally and essentially associated to the life stages that antecede adulthood. Many of the topics in clinical psychology for adults also apply for children. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders for both of these life stages and their symptoms are exhibited in a similar way (although depression in children tends to be associated with irritation). Therefore, I will focus this article in a developmental perspective of child psychology.
Science behind child psychology
Several development Psychologists made invaluable contributions to the understanding of child psychology, being Jean Piaget one of the most important (yeah, that one from Psychology class). An interesting fact is that Piaget developed his theory of cognitive development by essentially studying and experimenting on his children and nephews throughout the years (in a friendly non-threatening way). Piaget found that children go through four different cognitive stages from birth to preadolescence (around 12 years old).
Stages of child development
Stage 1 - Sensorimotor stage
At first there is the sensorimotor stage that lasts from birth to around two years old. In this stage the baby learns how to world works through his senses, by feeling, seeing, hearing. They also gain the knowledge that an object still exists even if it cannot be seen.
Stage 2 - Preoperational stage
From two to seven years old the child reaches the preoperational stage. This is a very interesting period of a child’s life and it is particularly curious for us, adults, to observe children interpret the world around them. Children at that age are able to connect pictures and words to objects in the real world and they also develop their language. This allows them to verbally communicate, while in the previous stage most of the communication was done non-verbally. The preoperational stage is also “infamous” for the selfishness that kids display at those ages.
Stage 3 - Concrete operational stage
The concrete operational stage is achieved from seven to eleven years old. The child evolves his logical thinking and is able to resolve problems that were previously too complicated for him. He begins being less egotistic and starts understanding that other persons have their own feelings and thoughts. Although the complexity of the child’s way of thinking has increased greatly, they are still closely tied to reality and struggle to think in an abstract way about things.
Stage 4 - Formal operational stage
The last stage is the formal operational stage and children usually reach it around twelve years old. The main characteristic of this stage is the newly acquired capacity of children to think in an abstract way about the would and themselves. The child is now capable of using deductive reasoning and tackle complex issues such as politics, philosophy and ethics.
Piaget defends that children don’t just add information from on stage to the next one, but rather they change how they see the world. In other words, changes between stages are qualitative, not quantitative.
Ways to understand your child psychology
At this point you might be thinking: how can I make use of this information? There are several different ways you can do it. A solid advice that’s related to the last paragraph is: know your kid’s current cognitive developmental stage and don’t expect him to know things that he isn’t supposed to know yet.
Does kid have a problem, or you are misinformed?
Some parents (and unfortunately some teachers as well) have a worrisome and potentially harmful tendency to ignore this. Imagine that you just learned how to play your first chord in the guitar. That is such a rewarding and motivating achievement because it opens a whole new world that wasn’t available to you when you just played random loose single notes. Now imagine that, while you were overjoyed and booming with self-confidence, two people you respect and love the most in this world don’t seem to be in the same hype train as you do. They look down at you with a concerned face and mutter to each other: why can’t he play a full song? He can’t play a full song because he just learned how to play a chord! The analogy should be pretty obvious by now. There are few feelings that are more devastating than the sadness felt by a child when she thinks that she disappointed her parents. If a child is unable to do something that is apparently a no-brainer, you should always check good sources (online or books) to see if she is actually supposed to know how to do that by that age or not. Most of the times you will find out that you are asking things from your kid that his brain isn’t yet prepared to handle. If you find that he is struggling with something that he should be able to handle by that age, look for help with a professional. Schools have an educational psychologist that can help with learning difficulties and if you suspect your child is suffering from a psychological disorder, look for a clinical psychologist.
Kids call them as they like they see it
Kids that are younger than 7 years old aren’t expected to understand the concept of conservation for example. If you ask a 5-year-old kid to compare a thin tall cup of water and a small wide cup of water, both containing the same amount of liquid, he will say that the thin tall one has a larger quantity. The liquid in the thin cup is higher, therefore it must contain more water. This kind of interpretational error is very characteristic of children in the preoperational stage, where they struggle with any sort of abstraction and with more complex logical problems. At that age, they call it as they see it. In a sense, kids in this stage “suffer” from over relying in their five senses. Although they have been told repeatedly that the Boogeyman is not real and that he is certainly not under the bed, any unexplained noises may still elicit the thought: yup, Boogeyman is here.
To sum it up
In sum, parents should be aware that kids think in a different way than adults do. This gap makes our understanding of their puzzling and random actions a lot more complicating, but not impossible. Put yourself in their shoes. If you knew what they know and your brain functioned the way their brain functions at the cognitive stage they currently are in, wouldn’t you also be afraid of the Boogeyman?