It’s Just A Phase — And It’s Vital To Your Child’s Development

Childhood is a complex journey — there are many situations to adapt to, new experiences to share, and emotional and physical developments to adapt to.  The many stages of childhood can be difficult to navigate for parents — unless you work to fully understand where your child may be coming from.

One moment your child may be loving and wants to be close to you, and the next, they are pushing you away in anger.  Parents often hear the expression, “It’s just a phase,” but there is a real reason for these brief and frequent changes from one behavior to another.

When kids are learning how to relate to others and also developing their own personalities, it is important for parents to understand what is driving certain behaviors, and that each phase is helping your child to learn and adapt as they grow.

U.S. News Health reported:

Starting at about 9 months, children go through alternating phases of cooperation followed by competition. This is most obvious beginning at age 2, also known as the “terrible twos.” This competitive phase lasts for about six months, then the cooperative phase is back for six months, followed by another competitive phase and so forth until around age 8 or 9.

Then the phases last for a longer period of time, or about eight or nine months. If you’ve ever wondered what was happening, because suddenly everything between you and your child seems to be an argument, you’re experiencing your child during his competitive phase.

These “competitive and cooperative” phases are your child’s way of learning self-awareness and developing self-esteem in social situations.

Parents and siblings are a child’s first social group, and therefore, these phases will be more noticeable to those closest to them.

When children are very young, they do not have awareness of why they feel or behave as they do.  Infants and toddlers are busy developing their social bonds and demanding what they need to thrive.

Later, when a child is two or three, they become more aware of a sense of self; self-awareness, self-preservation, and self-gratification.  These phases may be more difficult because the behaviors associated with them are unpredictable and can go from one extreme to the other.

Both the competitive and cooperative phases of childhood have an important purpose in your child’s development, and understanding them can make transitions easier for both parent and child.

U.S. News Health continued:

During your child’s cooperative stage, he is more strongly driven to meet his needs for love and fun. As a result, he is more willing to work with you to make plans and solve problems.

The best time to work with your child and make decisions together is during a cooperative phase. For example, when your child is being more cooperative, you might ask her what chores she prefers doing, settle on a bedtime, without fireworks, and even decide on a consequence, in advance, if your child does not come home when she says she will.

Parents may not even notice that there are times when you and your child seem to be in a special kind of sync or harmony when he is in his cooperative phase. Parents want and expect their children to listen, cooperate and help out. When your child behaves this way, you may simply accept this and not notice. Paying closer attention will not only enable you to take advantage of cooperative developmental phases, it will put you in a better position to enjoy those moments of greater joy and harmony.

Cooperative phases are times when a child feels most secure and eager to please those they feel most safe with — social skills are developing quickly at this age, and there is a sense of wanting to be included and follow the rules. When in an environment of security, most often in the home, children know what is accepted and know they are unconditionally accepted, and therefore behave in a more cooperative phase.

Penn State Cooperative Extension reported:

Younger children, who have not yet formed a self-concept, look to others for this measurement. In the early stages of growth, children’s feelings of self-esteem come from the people around them. Young children’s thinking is still very much in the concrete stage. If they cannot see, touch, smell, or feel something, they have trouble understanding it.

But when a young child feels insecure, scared, or threatened, the competitive phase will rear its head.  Going to the doctor’s office, a new playgroup with unfamiliar children, or being left with a babysitter may bring about the competitive behaviors of self-preservation.

This may present as not wanting to share, throwing a tantrum, refusing to follow directions, or other negative behaviors to demonstrate that the child is uncomfortable with what is going on.

As they begin preschool, they are becoming more independent and testing the limits of what they can get away with.  Pushing back is their way of asserting their new-found freedom and developing their sense of self — the competitive phase.

U.S. News Health reported:

When your child is in the competitive phase, you will see a notable difference. During this phase, your child is more strongly driven to meet her needs for power and freedom.

When your child is in his competitive phase, your best strategy is to cooperate with his need to compete and demand for more freedom and power. Allow your 2-year-old three choices when deciding what clothes to wear for the day. With only two options, your child is more likely to perceive a tug-of-war – your way versus his way. Let your 8-year-old win and negotiate a bedtime that is 30 minutes later than your original choice. When your 12-year-old insists your rules are restrictive and unfair, allow him to present more choices to you, and see if you can settle on a solution together.

As children get older, the behaviors associated with these phases may be the opposite of when they were toddlers.

Now, when presented with an unfamiliar and frightening situation, such as the first day of school, your child may cling to you for reassurance and not want to leave your side.

U.S. News Health continued:

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When your child feels unsafe, she will rely on cooperative behaviors, even when she is in a competitive phase. A moment ago, she was angry and arguing with you. Now she clings to you and won’t let you out of her sight. She doesn’t feel safe and relies on you to help protect her and to feel secure.

School-aged children often cooperate more in unfamiliar situations, holding themselves together because they have learned the social behaviors necessary to get by in the world.  For example, they may listen well at school, but engage in more competitive behaviors when they get home.

The competitive phase now becomes one in which the child sets themselves apart from the group and further cements their independence as an individual.

Penn State Cooperative Extension noted:

Parents and teachers seek to help children acquire knowledge, develop life skills, and form attitudes that enable them to become self-directing, productive, and contributing members of society. Positive self-esteem plays a major role in the accomplishment of this goal. Children in the five- to eight-year-old age range are at a critical stage in developing a self-concept. How are competition and self-esteem related? They are both forms of measurement. Self-esteem is a measurement of ourselves—our mirror—our concept of what we are and what we can become.

Older children in the middle and high school years understand their parents or siblings are bonded with them and will not disconnect, despite negative behaviors.  They now feel safe enough with you to practice their need for power and dominance to gain more freedom as they further discover themselves.

Psychology Today reported on how these phases appear in older children and teens:

When children become adolescents, it gets a bit more complicated. Teens rely on competitive behaviors to deal with feeling insecure or unsafe. They may brazenly talk back to authority figures, including parents, teachers, coaches, police or bossy relatives. When your teen asks for your permission to increase his freedom, do not automatically deny this request. In doing so, you almost guarantee your child will argue with you so he can win, even if he doesn’t care about the additional freedom. At this age, he is driven to win.

It is helpful for parents to remember that each of these phases are necessary in each stage of development, from infancy to adolescence.  Both cooperative and competitive behaviors are a child’s way of adapting to the world around them.  When a parent has a deeper understanding of why their child is behaving in one way or another, it becomes easier to relate to your child and help navigate them through the journey.

What are your experiences with these crucial childhood phases?  Leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.