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Child Development

Overview, development experiences, supporting health development, approaches for tough times, practice approach.

Two sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Source: Emerging Minds. (2024). Understanding child development

Understanding Child Development

Key things to remember

  • A child’s developmental journey, like their mental health and wellbeing, is shaped by their unique genes, relationships, experiences and environments.

  • Understanding what a child might be feeling and thinking about the world around them, and what they are (and aren’t) likely to be able to do at their current age helps you respond in ways that support healthy development.

  • Every child grows and develops at their own pace, and so their developmental journey is unique. While most children follow a similar process of development from birth to adulthood, some master certain skills earlier than others and some take longer or need a bit more help and direction.

  • Neurodivergent children and children with a physical or intellectual disability may think, move, communicate and/or process senses differently, which can influence their developmental pathway.

  • Identifying a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference for a child and their family.

  • There are things parents and carers can do throughout the developmental process to support children’s healthy development and mental health.

  • The best way to support your child’s development and wellbeing is to provide a safe and secure environment and respond warmly, consistently and appropriately to their needs.

Developmental milestones

Developmental milestones are abilities or skills that children typically reach as they grow, learn and engage with people and the world around them.  There are different types of developmental milestones including:

  • physical milestones – body movements like rolling over, going up and down stairs and being able to hold a spoon. Physical abilities and milestones are often described as ‘gross motor skills’ (big body movements like jumping or throwing a ball) and ‘fine motor skills’ (small movements like gripping an object with hands or drawing with a crayon),

  • social milestones – the ways a child reacts to other people and interacts with them; learning how to read social cues, and social skills like sharing and taking turns,

  • communication and language milestones – for example, hearing, making sounds, putting words together into sentences,

  • emotional milestones – experiencing a full range of emotions and learning how to express them in healthy ways; and

  • cognitive milestones – developing ways of thinking, exploring the world and learning.

Being aware of the usual age and order in which children reach milestones can help you be curious about your child’s abilities and areas of need. But it’s important to remember that every child’s developmental journey is unique, and these stages and milestones are based on neurotypical developmental processes.

Why it’s important to understand child development

When we understand children’s developmental journeys we can nurture and respond to children in ways that match their age and capabilities.  Knowing how children typically develop as they grow up can give you clues about:

  • what a child might be feeling and thinking about the world around them,

  • what a child is likely to be able to do, and what they probably can’t do yet; and

  • why a child might be behaving in a certain way.

This can help you respond to your child and support their development and learning in ways that are right for their age and individual needs.

Every child develops at their own pace

Every child grows and develops at their own speed.  Most babies and children reach milestones in a similar order, but, for example, exactly when your child will roll over, crawl, pull themselves up to standing, and learn to depends on many different factors, such as:

  • their individual characteristics – like their temperament, genetics, neurodivergence, interests and ways of learning,

  • their physical health and factors like sleep and nutrition,

  • their relationships with their parents and other family members,

  • the places they live, learn and play; and

  • events or challenges that impact on their family, such as a bush fire or flood, parent’s illness or their parents separating.

Remember, what’s most important is providing a safe environment and responding to your child’s needs. This will allow them to develop at their own pace.  There is a big range of ‘normal’, and a small delay is generally nothing to worry about.

Change can influence your child’s development (e.g. changes in family life, a family health issue, family stress).  When events or changes occur, children may need a little extra time, care and support with areas of their development.  You can find out more at

Sometimes there is a physical reason for a delay. For example, delays in your child’s communication could be a sign of poor hearing, or perhaps issues with the muscles in their tongue or jaw. In those cases, identifying the issue and getting help early can make a big difference.

Children who are neurodivergent, have a genetic condition like Down syndrome, or who have experienced trauma might achieve milestones much later.

If concerned about your child not achieving milestones, talk to your child health nurse or doctor/GP. Identifying a cause or a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference for your child and family.  The child that gets support will learn positive ways to reach their own personal potential.

How you can support your child’s development

Understanding how a child’s reactions, behaviours and sense of control are influenced by their age and development can help you imagine what life must be like for your child – and respond in ways that support their mental health and wellbeing. It might remind you not to expect your child to be patient, or share, or calm themselves down when they’re not developmentally ready to do that yet.

Whatever your child’s age, there are a few key things you can do that will support their healthy development:

  • Be warm and responsive. Respond when your child needs comfort or attention and show them how happy you are to see them.

  • Connect with your child. Listen, talk, sing, have a dance party, hug, or read books together.

  • Provide a safe environment so your child feels confident to explore.

  • Play – it’s how young children learn and develop physical, social and communication skills. When you make time to play with your child – even just for five minutes a day – it lets them know they’re important and allows you to tune in to what they’re thinking and feeling.

  • Encourage learning and trying new things. Go to the park or playgroup so your child can try out their developing physical abilities or visit a toy library where you can borrow new toys and games that are suitable for their current abilities.

  • Help your child to get enough sleep ( and nutritious food ( This is essential for children at every age, from newborns to teenagers.

  • Find ways to be outside playing and exploring different places.

Note: the tables that follow are very brief summaries of the Emerging Minds article this material is based on.  If elaboration is required, consult the actual article at   The pages can be sent by email (.docx format) if requested via the website.

Infants and Toddlers (0 - 3 years old)

Common developmental experiences between birth and around three years

How you can support your child’s healthy development

Forming attachment with parent or parents.

Respond when the baby cries; comfort them.

Gradually develop language from words to simple sentences.

Talk and sing to the child; no screen time for infants, no more than one hour a day for toddlers.

Children learn someone will respond when they express needs.

Respond to signals as it builds trust and forms a foundation of positive mental health later in life.

Infants identify with their parents’ emotional state.  Toddlers gradually have feelings different to their parents.

Talk about what a character in a book was thinking or feeling.

Toddlers feel big emotions like frustration and can react with ‘big’ behaviours.

Try to be curious about the feelings underneath the behaviour.

Young children learn and develop through play.

Play simple games; provide boxes to build things.

Playing with other children commences around two years.

Organise opportunities for toddlers to play together.

Very young children thrive on routine.

Develop daily and weekly routines around sleep, eating, playing and movement.

Toddlers rapidly develop physical capabilities.

Encourage new physical experiences; involve them in planning what to take to places.

When to seek advice

As a parent you know your child best. If you have any concerns about the way your baby or toddler moves, speaks, learns or interacts with other people, talk to your doctor/GP or child health nurse.

Please make an appointment to see your GP, child health nurse or another health professional if your infant:

  • doesn’t smile or interact with people,

  • isn’t moving both arms or both legs,

  • is still clenching their fingers in a tight fist at six months,

  • isn’t reaching for objects by six months,

  • doesn’t seem to hear or see properly (they don’t follow you with their eyes or respond to sounds),

  • isn’t starting to babble (e.g. ‘bubba’, ‘dada’) by around 10 months, or isn’t saying any clear words by around 18 months,

  • isn’t trying to stand up by around 12 months; or

  • doesn’t seem interested in interacting with others (e.g. playing games like peekaboo, rolling a ball) or the world around them.

Or if your toddler (2–3 years):

  • isn’t interested in playing with toys or other people,

  • isn’t walking without support, or is falling a lot,

  • finds it hard to feed themselves using a spoon or fork or has trouble picking up small items,

  • doesn’t understand simple instructions; or

  • isn’t using many words, or is not starting to use simple sentences like ‘red car fast’ or ‘let’s go Mum’.

Preschoolers (3 - 5 years old)

Common developmental experiences between birth and around three years

How you can support your child’s healthy development

Most children have big imaginations.

Accept and enjoy their imagination.

Young children think the world revolves around them.

They need help to understand what someone else might be feeling and why.

Children develop new skills in self-care, but these can be hard to do if tired.

Sometimes they will want to be independent; at other times they will want parents to care for them.

They are learning about big emotions.

Help the child name emotions and understand how they feel in their body.

They have lots of questions.

For big questions, give simple, truthful answers they can understand.

They are learning to interact socially, and to use language.

Spend time with family and friends; organise play dates; keep reading every night; limit screen to one hour a day.

They become more imaginative and creative.

Encourage play—solo, with parents, with other children; find time to connect with the child; remind about social skills like sharing and taking turns.

When to seek advice

As a parent, you know your child best. If you have any concerns about the way your child moves, speaks, learns or interacts with other people, talk to your doctor/GP.

Please make an appointment to see your GP, child health nurse or another health professional if your child:

  • shows no interest in pretend play or playing with other children

  • can’t have a conversation with familiar adults, or answer simple questions like, ‘What did you do at the park?’

  • is not able to be understood by others when they talk

  • isn’t trying to feed and dress themselves (at around four years), or is not able to go to the toilet and dress without help (usually by age five)

  • is not able to walk, run, climb, jump and confidently go up and down stairs; or

  • can’t draw lines and circles (by age four), or simple pictures like stick people (by five years).

Identifying a cause or a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference to your child’s development and long-term wellbeing.

Early School-Aged Children (5-8 years old)

Common developmental experiences between birth and around three years

How you can support your child’s healthy development

Less egocentric and developing control over emotions.

Talk about other people might feel; provide time to play and unwind after school to help deal with emotions.

Develop more interest in others and their world.

Make time to converse with the child about what they want to talk about.

Become more social and concerned about their friendship group and being like other children.

Support new friendships; provide time for structured and unstructured play with other children.

Develop a sense of what is right and wrong.

Remind them about correct behaviour; maintain family routines; limit screen time to less than two hours a day.

Self-identity starts to develop, comparing themselves to others.

Encourage the child to try different things to find out what they’re good at; celebrate successes and effort.

Imaginary (make believe) play is still common.

Allow the child to decide what and how they want to play.

When to seek advice

This is an age when you might notice your child is having trouble with learning or regulating their emotions, as they’re dealing with more challenges at school. To be able to learn and play with their peers, children need to have developed both fine motor skills, like being able to hold a crayon or pencil, and gross motor skills (big movements) like jumpingand throwing a ball. Children can feel frustrated or embarrassed if they see that most children their age can do something that they can’t do yet, or they’re unable to join in an activity that others enjoy.

It is important to identify and address any early learning or social and emotional difficulties your child may be experiencing, so that they can feel engaged in and enjoy school. It can be helpful to talk with your child’s teacher or another staff member at their school to find out if they have noticed any signs of developmental delays.

As a parent, you know your child best. If you have any concerns about the way your child moves, speaks, learns or interacts with other people, talk to your doctor/GP or another health professional. Identifying a cause or a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference to your child’s development and long-term wellbeing.

Pre-Teens (9-12 years old)

Common developmental experiences between birth and around three years

How you can support your child’s healthy development

Cognitive (thinking) ability is growing.

Listen to thoughts and views.  Talk about issues that they find important.

Pre-teens are increasingly interested in their identity.

Provide opportunities to hear stories about extended family and past generations.

Develop clear views about moral and social issues.

Actively listen when they argue; support them if they to learn more; will be more interested in peer views.

Can see things from another’s perspective.

Notice and acknowledge empathy or does what is right.

Become more logical and practical.

Bring them into adult conversations when appropriate.

Have the thinking and language skills to solve problems and resolve differences.

Help the child identify what they’re good at and talk to the parents about any trouble at school.

Individual strengths become clearer.

Look for interests and support development of knowledge and skills.

Is common to have an intense and exclusive best friend.

Encourage socialisation in clubs and with peers who share interests.

Physical development occurs.

Be aware that the child may feel different to others; encourage physical activity to safeguard mental health.

When to seek advice

The pre-teen years are a time in which difficulties managing strong feelings can show up as changes in a child’s mood, social relationships or learning. In children around nine to 12 years old, signs of difficulties coping include:

  • changes of mood, lasting one or more weeks and impacting on friendships and learning

  • feeling overwhelming emotions like fear or experiencing panic symptoms

  • difficulty concentrating or in keeping track of conversations or instructions

  • changes in sleep (e.g. trouble getting to sleep) or eating habits (e.g. eating more or less than usual)

  • unexplained headaches, stomach aches or complaints of ‘feeling sick’ a lot

  • becoming withdrawn (e.g. staying in their room alone for long periods), school refusal or no longer wanting to do activities they used to enjoy.

As a parent, you know your child best. If you have any concerns about the way your child is developing or coping with physical, emotional, social or other changes in their life, talk to your doctor/GP or another health professional. Identifying a cause or a developmental delay and getting help early can make a big difference to your child’s development and long-term wellbeing.


Common developmental experiences between birth and around three years

How you can support your child’s healthy development

  • Brain changes can lead to risk-taking behaviour.

  • Most adolescents are not highly motivated students.

  • Teenagers grapple with their identity.  Who am I?

  • Emotional independence from parents develops leading to unstable and readily aroused emotions.

  • Abstract thinking develops and can produce distortions of reasoning.  Eventually logical powers emerge.

  • Peers become increasingly important.  Conforming to group norms is important.  Heterosexual crowds develop.

  • Ensure a sense of belonging and connectedness to family as a safeguard against risk taking.

  • Be willing to give the child chances to show they can be trusted, akin to an adult-adult relationship.  Let the child take responsibility for their choices.

  • Avoid criticism wherever possible.  Be unhappy about the action, not the child.

  • Be firm about boundaries.  Do not tolerate disrespect.

  • Continue to monitor and supervise.

  • Engage in comprehensive sex education.

  • Continue to provide guidance, encouragement, and appropriate discipline while allowing the teenager to earn more independence.

  • Seize every available moment to make a connection.

Supporting your child’s development during tough times

When a family is facing difficulties – such as financial or housing stress, health issues or relationship breakdown – it impacts everyone in the family, even very young children. It’s normal for a child’s developmental process to be interrupted and different to what’s described as ‘normal’.

Infants and toddlers

Even very young children can sense when their parent is upset and this, in turn, can cause them to become upset. They might become irritable and difficult to comfort, have trouble sleeping, or start displaying difficult behaviour such as screaming or crying, especially when routines are disrupted, or they feel they’re not getting enough attention.  

To support development at these times:

  • Try to maintain some routine.

  • Make time to connect with your toddler or baby.

  • Ask a family member or friend to look after the baby or toddler for a while.

  • Look after yourself—do things that help manage your emotions and nurture you.


Preschoolers might be angry or frustrated if you’re not noticing or meeting their needs.  They might blame themselves.  It might show as separation anxiety, sleep troubles, bed wetting or acting younger than they are. 

To support development at these times:

  • Try to tune into what your child might be thinking and feeling.

  • Always explain what is happening and answer your child’s questions honestly and in simple ways they can understand.

  • Reassure your child often that you love them and will be there for them.

  • Try to maintain a predictable routine.

  • n the case of parental separation or death of a loved one provide something familiar or special that reminds them of the person they have ‘lost’.

  • Ask for support—family member, friend or health professional.

Early school-aged children

Children can become upset or withdrawn when they feel a parent is disappointing, embarrassing or acting in ways that are different to other children’s parents. Likewise, changes to family routines or structure are likely to impact.  They may ask a lot of questions about an adverse event, might refuse to acknowledge events or losses that are distressing for them, might have unexplained headaches or tummy aches, sleep troubles, or express violence in drawings or play. 

To support development at these times:

  • Be open and honest.

  • Have a conversation about what’s going on with them: ‘Sometimes I feel a bit sick in the tummy when I’m worried about things. Can you think of anything that’s been worrying you lately?’.

  • Support the child to maintain the relationship with both parents.

  • Maintain daily and weekly routines.

  • Ask for support.

  • Ask the child about people closest in your family they can talk to.

During tough times, pre-teens can fall back into ‘magical’ thinking and blame themselves for ‘bad things’ that happen to their parent/s or family.  They can experience feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness.  They may adopt a parenting role if the parent is not coping.  They may internalise any difficult emotions that arise when parents are disappointing, embarrassing, or act in ways that are different from other children’s parents.  Pre-teens may feel embarrassed by financial changes that highlight differences between themselves and friends. 

To support development at these times:

  • Talk openly and honestly about what is going on.

  • Help your child to understand the things they can control and what they can’t.

  • Encourage your child to express what they are feeling.

  • Try to find even small pockets of time to talk, play or just hang out together, and give your child your full attention.

  • Keep routines and continue children’s activities as much as possible.

  • Draw on the support of people like family members and trusted friends.  Ask them which other adults in their life they can trust and talk to.

  • By this age many children know what works to help them.  Notice and support whatever works for your child.

  • Help your child to connect with other children around the same age who have had similar experiences to them.  This can help normalise their feelings.  Look for peer support groups or networks (online or in person), via your GP or school counsellor.

Tips for separating parents in the context of family violence

Living in a family where there is family violence can impact children’s development and mental health.  The Australian Psychological Society has advice for parents in this situation at  The article expands on the following:

  • Provide safety.  Remove yourself and your children from the ongoing exposure to family violence.

  • Repair and rebuild safe and secure emotional bonds with your child.

  • Develop routines, stability and predictability.

  • Help children find positive ways of coping with strong feelings.

  • Seek your own support.

  • Make time for difficult conversations with your children.

  • Manage contact and access issues with your children.

Practice Approach

Source: The suggestions that follow are drawn from the “Parenting” post elsewhere on this site.  Access “Parenting” from the “Contents” post on the home page.

1. Before Beginning

Don’t normalise parenting challenges (e.g. refrain from statements such as 'all parents struggle at times', 'being a parent is the hardest job in the world').  This approach suggests challenges are inevitable and cannot be addressed or solved.  It does not prime parents to be more receptive about parenting but may encourage them to double-down on their misconceptions about parenting.  It should be abandoned.

Talk about parenting in the context of what is good for children’s healthy development, i.e. focus on children and their needs—'child development’—rather than ‘effective parenting’.  In practice this can be done as follows:

  • Articulate the 'big idea' - child development and how parents can support it (step 4 below).

  • Explain how children develop (step 5 below).

  • Explain parenting approaches that support healthy child development (step 5 below).

2. Biopsychosocial Assessment

As you undertake a BPSS assessment, keep in mind the challenges parents face (Nair, 2012).  As you proceed through the BPSS assessment, note the ones that are relevant to the situation parents are facing.  Challenges parents face include:

  • Fast pace of society

  • Increasing demands on parents

  • Feeling ill-equipped to face challenges

  • The need for information on how to improve relationships with children

  • Perceiving help-seeking behaviour as a sign of incompetence

  • The financial burden due to technology, internet use and direct marketing of products to children

  • Work-life balance impacting on time that can be spent with children

3. Acknowledge parents’ circumstances

Stress that parenting can be impacted by the situation in which parents find themselves: personal factors, but also external factors (e.g. the ones outlined in the BPSS).  Point out that parenting is a journey that requires skill and support, where one may encounter smooth or rough seas.  Knowledge about what healthy child development looks like, and how parents can support this development, can protect parents from these challenges. 

4. Use the left column of relevant table above

Discuss with parents the physical skills, emotional, cognitive, and social skills, and personality development that suggest a child is developing in a healthy manner.  Add to the parent’s suggestions as necessary.  After identifying the stage characteristics, explain that the waters parents must navigate will become smoother if this information is kept in mind.

5. Use the right column of the relevant table above

Explain some of the parenting approaches appropriate for the relevant stage of child development, both in general terms and in terms specific for that stage of development. Topics to touch upon could include:

  • Create a safe, interesting environment

  • Boost your child’s self-esteem

  • Catch kids being good and comment on it

  • Create a flexible but consistent daily routine

  • Set limits and be consistent with your discipline

  • Make time for your kids

  • Model the traits you wish to see in your kids

  • Make communication a priority

  • Keep children safe online

  • Be flexible and be willing to adjust your parenting style

  • Take care of yourself as a parent

  • Family budgeting

6. Direct parents to relevant resources 

These are located at the end of the “Parenting” topic, located elsewhere on this site.



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