Traits that Cause Children to React to Developmental Milestones Differently

I do work documenting the age-related stages that children go through. These are times that children fall apart for some time. But, per the theory of many, their brain is going “under construction.” While things get upgraded up above, children get a bit wonky. They get clumsy, whiny, more easily scared, perhaps even aggressive. But after this period of disarray, they have an astonishing new mental ability.

The most common comment I get about the work is that the timeline I offer lines up really well for children. I might say that at X years, Y month a child hits an irritable period, and it seems to be true for many, many children. However, the comment I also often get is that children vary much more widely in what skills are seen after this milestone is hit. Or some children are much more demanding and others are much more mild. What causes the variance among children? After doing this work for over 5 years now, I have some insights.

First, I have done some reading from child psychologists about what they think differentiates children. I disagree with most of what they say. First of all, most people, even “experts,” still fundamentally believe in authoritarianism. They still see themselves as “disciplining” a child and making them “behave” properly. Seeing as how I think this “misbehavior” is growth on the way (my book series about this is Misbehavior is Growth), I disagree in every possible way. I hope my work serves to shake up such authoritarian models. And when you have this approach, you see this “misbehavior” as “bad.” On a fundamental level, this affects how you classify children. You are less likely to see a difficult child as just being that way and more likely to blame it on something.

Second, many of the psychologists divide up children based on how easy it is for the adults. Children get divided up based on how easily they fall into a routine, how easily they sleep, how whiny or not whiny they are. The adult categorizes them through an adult’s lens, serving the adult’s interest. They aren’t truly looking at the child. I have virtually no expectation that my children will ever go to bed at a certain time, put their shoes on in a timely manner, always be up for school work, etc. I see it all as natural behavior, and behaviors that come and go. This work, which deals with their “misbehavior” head on serves to eliminate these old prejudices about children. I can look at the child with a much more objective lens.

So here are my thoughts on the different temperaments of children and what, based on their core traits, causes them to hit the milestones differently.

Thrill Seeking versus Sensitive

This is, in my opinion, the most dramatic and defining trait of a child. My two sons are on opposite ends and are very illustrative of this.

A sensitive child has a big reaction to external stimuli. This is a core personality trait, as defined in Dr. Elaine Aron’s book about being a Highly Sensitive Person. My firstborn is a sensitive child (and I am a sensitive person). We can’t let him be in the sun too long or stay at a party too long. He has a big reaction to seeing new movies. We provide a hat that he can put over his eyes when watching a new movie, in case it gets too overwhelming for him. Yes, lights coming in under their door and hearing the air conditioner at night greatly bothers them.

A thrill seeking child seeks out stimulation. My third is a thrill seeker. From the time he was born, he was put on my chest and absolutely loved it. He loves to rough house–and wears me out. I have to actively monitor to him, as he won’t leave a fun thing. I have found him before sitting, playing with water, freezing, but he won’t move, because he doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

My daughter is in the middle of sensitive and thrill seeker. She seeks out people, not rough housing, as external stimuli that she enjoys. She sometimes withdraws and just plays with Legoes or colors. She goes towards things, but she also withdraws if she wants to do something different. When at a mud puddle once, my thrill seeker went stomping on in. My daughter cautiously put a foot in. My first figure out a way to get across it without having to touch the water. This illustrates the spectrum pretty well.

Children who are physically highly thrill seeking are typically seen as easier to deal with in many instances during the milestones. When my thrill seeker falls over he insists, “I’m fine!” They are more “rough and tumble,” and many parents appreciate this. Many parents, not understanding it, don’t like dealing with their sensitive children, as sensitive children can be more demanding. My first absolutely hated light coming under his door and some adults said to him, “Just a little bit of light!? Oh that shouldn’t matter.” Except it does. I can assure you, as a former 5 year old sensitive child, it matters. However, if you put minimum effort into handling it for the sensitive child, it really does go exceptionally well.

Internalizes versus Externalizes

When a child feels guilty or in distress, they either internalize or externalize. A child who runs into their room, screaming, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” internalizes. A child who becomes aggressive externalizes. In general, girls are more likely to internalize and boys to externalize, but I am positive many boys are higher in empathy than others and therefore internalize.

Both can be difficult to deal with during the stages. A child who becomes aggressive is obviously hard to deal with. But a child who internalizes can be difficult too. If they have a higher propensity towards internal shame (internalizing), they are much more concerned about others. If they feel a child might get hurt, they might get very vocal about it–annoyingly. They might not let their brother run off to far, etc.

Brain Architecture

My theory on the milestones is that every child is born with two things 1) A core brain architecture and 2) The timetable in which some kind of hormone washes over them at predictable age-related times to spur their mental development.

My theory is every child has a different brain architecture but roughly about the same timetable, at least up to a certain age, in which some kind of hormone washes over them at predictable times. I think girls and boys start to have a different timetable starting around 5. But that each child has a different brain architecture explains why they are affected so differently.

My first son’s brain architecture is highly mechanical in nature; my daughter’s is highly language oriented; and my third son’s is entirely its own thing. He is highly mechanical too, but he has remarkable athletic timing. He is highly “present” in any situation and seems to dissect the world in a millisecond by millimeter way, whereas my other two are less present but more pattern seeking.

When my first born went through some of the milestones, he would describe to me plainly that his brain had “many pistons pumping in it.” Whatever was growing was highly mechanical in nature. My daughter was exceptional at all things language. I don’t think it’s even fair to compare her growth to her brothers. She could read words at a young age, and I just plain don’t think her brothers had the brain architecture to allow them to do it as easily as she did at such young ages. My third goes through the milestones pretty effortlessly, except that he always wants to be right next to me. Being the highly extroverted, cuddly, thrill seeker, it’s how it works for him.

This is why I strongly encourage you to not compare your child to the abilities on the list. I try to identify the pattern of skills developing. I think the pattern is linked. When my son became interested in history, he wanted to hear about military battles and my daughter wanted to know how she could be a beautiful female warrior, but they both went through something similar. But, truly, your child has some unique skill set that may or may not fit in with what is conventionally considered to be “smart.” My third has incredible athletic and comedic timing and while he is much less interested in traditional school work than his older siblings, I see great value in his natural talents

Boys versus Girls

Well it cannot be denied that sex plays a role in child development. In general, girls tend to be a bit clumsier and whinier than boys. This makes them especially difficult in through 2 and 3 years old when their whole body seems to lose functioning. I have had some teachers insist that boys can get whiny too. So this doesn’t totally fall on gender lines. Boys when they hit huge testosterone surges seem to get aggressive, explaining why 4-5 years old and then again at 6-1/2 until nearly 8, boys can be quite difficult.

What else do you notice? Hit me up:

These thoughts will appear in my next Misbehavior is Growth book, about 3 year olds, to help you be put in better touch with your unique child!

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