Have you ever found yourself using or thinking the words why don’t you act your age with a child? The answer to that question, more often than not, is that the child cannot on a consistent basis, meet developmental expectations.
It becomes even trickier when a child is intellectually and cognitively very bright and academically successful. Our expectations are that his or her social-emotional development should match or exceed his or her chronological age. When I see a bright child struggling with behavioral challenges and lowered self-esteem, I see the gap where adult expectations are higher than what that child can deliver. I also listen to parents talk about how there are often smooth periods of time when their child does meet expectations, followed by days or weeks where he or she does not. So we also become confused when the child is able to perform or behave developmentally on target sometimes, and other times we are using the demand of act your age.
I see a great deal of this type of chronological versus developmental gap in many kids. Because I have raised two sons with ADHD, I understand it the most with kids who carry that diagnosis, but I also see the same gap in kids in my daily work that are struggling with anxiety, or have a social communication challenge. Is your child attracted to playing with younger or older children most of the time? This is a sign of that gap, as your child may be developmentally in the place of younger children who are more his or her peers than his or her classmates, or look towards older kids to guide the play.
I encourage parents who find themselves thinking thoughts about acting your age to change their expectations of their child to a child that is 1/3 chronologically younger. In using the 1/3 rule, we can begin to understand:
- The 4 year old that still tantrums as a toddler might.
- The 5 year old that engages in parallel play or has difficulty sharing.
- The 8 or 9 year old that occasionally resorts to whining or a babyish sounding voice.
- The tween who still enjoys shows or toys that much younger children enjoy.
- The teen that avoids typical teen activities or learning to drive a car.
- The high school senior that isn’t at all ready to leave home for college.
- The late-twenties adult who doesn’t understand why all his friends want to get married and buy houses and why he doesn’t have any interest.
How does the 1/3 rule play in to helping kids make and keep friends?
A social group can help your child learn the skills necessary to close the gap. In a group of peers, a facilitator can work with helping children learn the skills to move from parallel play to collaborative play, point out how certain actions are not what kids his or her age typically do to solve problems, and offer a greater age range of peers to play with. If your child gets along great with slightly younger or older children, those friendships should be encouraged. I often explain to kids (and parents) that if all my friends were required to be exactly my age, Nadine would be my only friend.
For some kids with ADHD, a medical intervention, when carefully considered and appropriate, has helped kids perform better not only academically, but socially with their peers. I can remember a child that Nadine and I had in our summer program who was struggling mightily in getting along with others, managing his personal space and a host of other socially damaging actions that were symptomatic of his ADHD. His mom mentioned to us that he used medication during the school year and we suggested that he try it the next day for camp. The change is his social interactions and his likeability by peers was visible and remarkable. I am by no means pushing the use of medication and it is an important decision for each family, but only noting that we have observed the a significant decrease in the social developmental gap in some children using this form of treatment.
I think the most important thing we can do for kids who are developmentally lagging a little in their social-emotional development, is to recognize when the 1/3 rule is in effect and adjust our expectations accordingly. In any situations where a child is struggling or you find the words act your age crossing your mind, take a minute to assess if your child is responding in the way of a younger child and intervene the way you would for that younger child, while consistently working on the skills your child needs to bridge that gap.