Patterns of Development Within the Child and Impacts on Adjustment: 

When attempting to understand the adaptation of children to various difficulties in life, it is necessary to first understand the primary limitations and developmental challenges facing children regardless of their living situation. There are several factors that affect a child's adaptation to any setting, and these include but are not limited to the following:

Children show very concrete thought processes and understanding of external and internal events that become gradually more flexible and abstract.

Children have highly variable emotional responses and controls that become gradually more adaptive and effective as they mature.

Children have limited objective control over activities and behavioral responses, causing them to become easily frustrated and hopeless when faced with disappointment or difficulty.

Children have limited capacity for prediction of outcomes of behavior that gradually improves as they mature.

Children have limited capacity for empathy or understanding of the emotional experiences of others that gradually improves as they mature.

It is essential that people dealing with children and adolescents recognize that all human beings progress through developmental stages in life. We can assign approximate age-levels to various sets of behaviors and skills based upon extensive research into child development, and it is often helpful to have an understanding of how close to the average a particular child is in a variety of areas. Generally speaking, one can expect any child to demonstrate both more advanced and less advanced behaviors at various times. Even though a child may have demonstrated several times behavior that appears to be more mature than before, he or she will often fall back into less-mature responses at times. This is particularly true when the child faces additional stressors or an intensification of a previously existing drain on her resources. It is therefore important for those who work with children in foster care or who have experienced significant stressors in their short lives to recognize that even the most comfortable and caring foster placement is inherently stressful for the child. Even when the child's previous home presented him or her with problems dangerous enough to warrant removal, the child will find changes in placement psychologically straining. Thus, you can expect that the child will tend to function at a developmental level lower than would be typical for the child's age. Over time and with consistent responses from the foster family, most children in foster care stabilize and are able to continue in their development. However, it is often a process best thought of as "Two steps forward, one step back." Try not to get too discouraged when the child in your care seems to function better for a while, then returns for some time to a pattern of difficult behavior for a time. This is a natural occurrence and does not mean that your interventions are not working. Instead, you have to realize that the child will only gradually be able to demonstrate new and more adaptive behaviors in a consistent manner. How does each of these factors affect a child's adaptation to your home? Children have concrete thought processes and understanding of external and internal events.

Let's start with the first factor, concrete thought processes and understanding of events.

What this means in simplest terms is that in comparison to adults children are much less able to relate current experience to that in the past. This results in an exquisite focus on the immediately observable elements and concerns in a situation. Unfortunately, it also tends to prevent the child (or adolescent) from recognizing similarities between the present moment and others similar to but not exactly like it. Similarly, the child often processes information based on the faulty belief that any problems or difficulties in the moment are vastly more important than anything that could happen in the future. A simplistic focus on what the child believes to be "fair" can take over and the child will steadfastly seek to convince someone else of their rightness by repeating the same contentions over and over rather than attempting to take in new information or to try to understand the other person's point of view. This concrete thinking also takes the form of being unable or unwilling to acknowledge and understand the probable outcomes of various actions or choices beyond a very limited point. The child essentially attempts to reason without being able to integrate as much information and to process it as completely as is necessary to form an accurate picture of many challenges. Again, it is vital that the adults dealing with the child recognize that this is a natural stage of cognitive development in a child and will not be magically replaced with a more mature style of thinking in the immediate future. It is useful to anticipate any confusion that the child may experience due to this limited understanding, or a failure to correctly interpret ambiguous language. Instead, it is necessary for the caregivers to do their part to teach the child how to begin using more complex and complete reasoning skills, using the many opportunities provided by daily life.

Children show highly variable emotional responses and controls.

Emotional experience and expression are very complex entities, but we can make some useful generalizations about them. It is a simple fact that when we are young we are more likely to express our feelings immediately and directly than when we have grown older and more experienced. First, what we would call "emotional control" or the generally age-appropriate expression of feelings through behavior changes over a person's lifetime. It is normal and expected that a three-year-old child yells and pouts when he is told he cannot have a cookie that he wants. When the same child is five, we would expect him to make some negative statements about his disappointment, and perhaps to use his language and social skills to attempt to convince his caregiver to let him have the cookie anyway. At twelve, we would generally expect the boy to accept the disappointment of not getting a cookie with relatively calm acceptance. As we grow older, we gain greater skills in handling our feelings, soothing ourselves in response to anger, sadness and fear. Of course, our capacity to do so varies from day to day and moment to moment. In the example above, even a twelve year old might explode or otherwise overreact to being denied a cookie if he had had a really bad day, or if he was feeling sick, or was dealing with the stress of the loss of a family member. When considering the relative maturity of a child's emotional functioning it is necessary to look at general functioning over time so that such situational variations are not given too much emphasis.

Children who have experienced unusual stressors, including foster placement or other disruptions in the family environment, can be generally expected to have some difficulties dealing with emotional experience simply from the additional stress of being placed outside their customary home. Even when these children are taken from terrible, abusive homes, they will experience additional tension due to the uncertainty of what will happen next in their lives. Strange as it may seem from the outside, they will often prefer the known hazards and disappointments of their former homes to the unknown risks they face in the new setting. This anxiety, like other strong feelings, will often pose a significant problem to children in foster care. When their already shaky emotional controls are further challenged they are likely to respond with poorly organized behaviors that often increase their difficulties rather than reducing them. Children have limited objective control over activities and behavioral responses. It hardly seems necessary to mention, but at times we do actually forget the fact that the children and adolescents in our care do not have nearly as many choices for behavior as do adults. If you can, think back to your own early adolescence. Before you could drive, before you could work outside the home, what choices could you make? As an adult you can choose the city, state and country in which you live. You decide what, when and how much to eat. You may not always be happy with the limited choices you have in your life, nor the responsibilities that go along with the choices. However, you do have a vast amount of freedom and opportunity for experience that you did not have as a child. This significant limitation in objective reality makes it very hard for children to feel hopeful about their day to day activities. This does give you as the caregiver a powerful tool in dealing with your child or teen. Always work toward helping the child gain more control and choice in his or her life. This can be done by giving the child opportunities to earn additional privileges in return for demonstrating responsibility. For example, you might give the child the option of extending their bedtime by one half hour in return for getting completely ready for school each morning with little or no prompting. You could let the child choose one of two chores to perform daily if she or he does the chore without being reminded. These are only simple examples; the most important thing is to steadily increase the child's autonomy as he or she shows better decision-making skills. As with all other aspects of children's functioning you can expect that the child will make mistakes from time to time and will misuse their increased freedom. When this happens, and it surely will, you simply scale back the freedoms given until the child demonstrates better judgment and control.

Children demonstrate limited capacity for predicting the likely outcomes of behaviors.

Children and teens have relatively little ability to accurately predict what will happen when they choose to act in a specific way. Current scientific knowledge indicates that the ability to predict the outcome of behaviors and to imagine accurately what will occur in the future is closely related to neurological development as well as life experience. During early adolescence the frontal lobe of the brain begins to become increasingly myelinated. This means that the nerves within the brain become more able to transmit electrical information rapidly and effectively. The frontal lobe is specifically responsible for helping people to imagine the future and to relate current events to their likely outcomes in the real world. Simply put, most ten-year-olds are not able to predict all or even most of the things that will happen if they do something. The same child at thirteen, however, is beginning to be able to make some realistic predictions and to imagine clearly what might happen if she or he does one thing or another. This development continues into early adulthood, with the nervous system of males developing slightly more slowly than that of females. As with all of the other constraints described in this text, different children show varying levels of development. However, it is always useful to do your best to help children and teens think through the possible outcomes of their actions. One very effective way of talking them through a set of choices is to ask the three following questions:

1. What is the best thing that could happen if you did _______________?
2. What is the worst thing that could happen if you did ______________?
3. What is the most likely thing to happen if you did _________________?


Using these questions you can gain greater understanding of the level of reasoning the child uses. You also are teaching the child a very effective cognitive strategy for problem solving. If you use this method consistently you will be able to help the child apply it for him or herself when needed. Children show limited capacity for understanding and empathizing with others. The ability and skills involved in understanding and empathizing with other people are developmental in nature, like all other aspects of the personality. Children start out with very little in the way of the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the feelings of others. Over time, they become more capable in this area through experiential learning and through neuro-cognitive development. As with the ability to accurately imagine and predict the outcomes of specific behaviors, the ability to put oneself in the place of others and experience similar feelings increases significantly throughout adolescence. Prior to that time, children have difficulty clearly aligning their feelings with other people. As a result, they tend to behave in ways that at times frustrate, upset and sadden those around them. As we grow older, we (ideally) become much more sensitive to the needs, wishes and expectations of those around us and begin to act with an appropriate degree of concern for them. However, children and teens can be expected to do this inconsistently and a large part of caring for them as they grow involves teaching them how to anticipate and respond to other people in a way that takes their feelings into account. In caring for and teaching the child in your care, it will be helpful to focus at times on teaching the child to recognize both obvious and more subtle behaviors and signals that indicate the person's feelings and mood. Help the child pay attention to facial expressions, voice tone and body language so they can identify general moods and feelings, particularly those that signal positive and negative responses and feelings.

Copyright 2004-2010 by Edward L. Coyle, Ph.D. All rights reserved. May be reproduced only for personal use and may not be distributed without written permission under penalty of law.

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