Is My Kid Normal?

By: Steve Palmer

When it comes to watching our children grow-up, there are frequent questions parents will ask: Is the way my kid is acting right now okay? Are other kids dealing with the same concerns, feeling the same emotions, behaving in the same ways? How would I know if my child was “outside the norm” in their development? When should I seek outside help?

In my work as a therapist, I am often asked if my clients’ experience is “normal.” I sometimes joke with people that I keep a drawer full of “official certificates of sanity” to hand out, just to reassure folks that even though they are feeling really concerned about a particular situation, they are still well within the range of typical human challenges. In fact, I sometimes think one of the biggest advantages that can come from speaking to a mental health professional is finding out that your personal challenge is something that many other folks are dealing with too. And while it’s normal for a parent to feel concerned about his child’s development, keep in mind that developmental challenges are also normal. Generally speaking, they only become a cause for concern when they begin having a significant impact on our functioning — whether in school, at work, or in our family and social lives.

And when you find yourself concerned, talking with good friends, a religious leader, school personnel, or a medical or mental health professional is often the best way to try to get your bearings. And remember, seeking help doesn’t just need to happen when things have really gotten out of control. Research has shown that consistent relationships with other caring adults helps kids grow up well too.

Is My Kid Normal? Guiding Tips for Parents…

  • ...with children ages birth to 5: During this time, kids are gaining their basic physical and cognitive functioning. Lots of variety in developmental progress is to be expected. If your child isn’t measuring up to the charts in books or on websites, you don’t necessarily need to be concerned. Regular consultation with your pediatrician is the best way to see if he or she is on track. Unusually slow physical, intellectual or social development should be noted, however. This is an age when some developmental disorders, such as autism, can first be detected. Kids who appear to be unattached to their parents or caregivers, who appear overly shy or uncomfortable with people, or who are not engaging in social interaction with others may benefit from extra support.

Learn more about “what’s normal” during the ages of 0-2 >
Learn more about “what’s normal” during the ages of 3-5 >

  • ...with children ages 6 to 9: These are the playing ages. Kids are learning about their world through physical exploration, imaginative games, pretending, and increasing social activity. Children who exhibit significant difficulty in managing their emotions (feeling overwhelmed by sad experiences or anger that is regularly out of control) may be in need of help in learning emotional intelligence skills. Early intervention for kids with a tendency to anxiety or depressed feelings is known to help them long-term. Now may also be a time to pay attention if a child is dealing with difficulties in their learning environment. Sometimes this may indicate the presence of a learning disorder or attention-deficit difficulty.

Learn more about “what’s normal” in this age group >

  • ...with children ages 10 to 14: During this stage, kids are quickly increasing their intellectual skills and really moving toward their peer group for social interaction. Puberty begins at some point during this stage, and the accompanying issues around sexual development. Watching for social skills development is especially important during this time. Kids with high levels of anxiety (worry), low self-esteem or difficulty negotiating friendships can be at risk of becoming depressed or developing social anxiety issues. Body image concerns or eating disorders can also develop during this time. Watch for sudden changes in behavior, big changes in friends or withdrawal from social or usually-enjoyable activities – these can be signs that something is really disturbing your child and should be gently and kindly explored with them.

Learn more about “what’s normal” in this age group >
Learn more about high-risk behaviors >

  • ...with children ages 15 to 18:This period of life is all about kids becoming their individual selves. Adolescence is famous for bringing contrasts – increasing independence along with ongoing need for support, moods that quickly shift from pleasantness to anger to distress and back again, and the “trying on” of multiple identities as kids move through stages of experimentation and exploration. Dating relationships often begin in this time, as well. Depression is unfortunately not uncommon among teenagers, and does not always show itself as sadness. Boys in particular may show depression more through increasing anger and withdrawing from activities. Disagreement and arguing with parents and authority figures is typical during this time, of course, but relationships that become marked primarily by conflict might benefit from some help becoming unstuck. Keeping an eye out for signs of substance use is also important to assist kids in making good choices. Again, big changes in friends or withdrawal from activities and social life are often cues that something difficult may be happening.

Learn more about “what’s normal” in this age group >
What to do when your child’s mood wears you out >
Learn more about high-risk behaviors >
Article: Dealing with Teen Angst >

More Resources for Parents:

  • The “Ages and Stages” section is a good place to go for in-depth information about each of the main areas of development in a child’s life: intellectual, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual.
  • “Facts for Families” from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry covers a wide range of common challenges kids and families face with good information about what to watch for and what steps to take about them.
  • American Psychological Association has excellent resource pages about mental health and behavioral concerns for both children and teens.
  • The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy has a series called “Consumer Updates” with information and suggestions about common family challenges and how to deal with them.