Chronological Vs. Developmental Age

It is common for children who have been through traumatic experiences or stressors to display a developmental age different from their chronological age.

A child’s chronological age is their age based on their date of birth.

Their developmental age is the age at which they function emotionally, physically, cognitively, and socially.

A child may be five years old, but developmentally they may display behaviors that make them seem much younger. Understanding that there is often a difference between a child’s chronological and developmental age will help caregivers to have more realistic expectations for the child.

 Dr. Bruce Perry and his studies show how significantly smaller the size of the traumatized child’s brain is versus the child who wasn’t traumatized. The size of their brain doesn’t mean the child can’t grow, learn, and excel. It doesn’t mean your child can’t hear you, understand how you feel, or that they aren’t aware of the world around them.

Children who have experienced trauma display behavioral issues because their brains have not developed fully to the point of other children their age. What is often perceived as a conscious choice to act out may be the result of an under-development in the brain that causes an inability to cope with frustration or change.

Because of trauma, or other factors, your child’s age will not determine their abilities in any area. If a child is six years old, you can’t expect their emotional state to be equal to their age. You may have behaviors that range from infantile to age appropriate.

Even though there are gaps between your child’s emotional, mental, physical, and chronological age, you can still meet them where they are in each area. Your child may be smart and able to do high level algebra at age ten, so meet him where he is academically. His emotional state may not be that of a ten-year-old, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give him educational opportunities.

Your ten-year-old may exhibit behaviors of a three-year-old, so emotionally you would meet him where he needs it. You can hold him and rock him to help meet his need at that three-year-old level.

While this may sound and feel very discouraging, hope is not lost for these children. These missing skills can be learned when children have the opportunity to practice them repeatedly in a safe environment.

As your child heals and bonds, their chronological and developmental age will become more equal. You’ll see the gap between the two begin to close. This is done by helping them to regulate their feelings and emotions.

As your child heals, they will have times of regression. Triggers will send them back to what they experienced in the past. Triggers are moments, experiences, memories, or events that remind them of a part of their prior experiences. Your child will also exhibit negative behaviors and emotional regression when they feel out of control, which reminds them of their past.

Emotional age is a child’s understanding of emotion and their ability to regulate or handle that emotion.  So as a therapist I check my clients understanding of emotion to gauge their development in this area. This increases and develops and gets more complex just like our cognitive ability.

Even children with more secure attachments can struggle with emotional regulation. The child may be called immature for their age as a result. The child can be taught skills to better understand their emotions and/or how to handle them better.

But children with attachment issues generally have a larger gap between emotional age and how old they are. This is often due to lack of emotional care and support when they were infants and/or toddlers.

I often hear from my clients’ parents “When they are upset, they act like a toddler.” That’s because emotionally they are.

At the beginning of each session, the therapist is putting effort into assessing what emotional age the child/adolescent is at. 

You might have a 17-year-old sitting in your office based on chronological age; however, you may be working with a 6-year-old emotionally.

Emotional age can very between overall emotional age, or shift depending on trauma/task.

To better understand, The Synergetic Play Therapy Institute defines the following Developmental Tasks Model:

  • Do I exist? (Conception to birth)
    These children are often silent and rarely give you eye contact. They mostly stay in one spot and play with only 2-3 toys. The therapist or caregiver is ignored. There is a strong sense of hypo-arousal, or low energy.
  • Is the world okay? (Birth to 18 months)
    For these children, play focus on the unpredictable and scariness of the environment. The play is highly energized or filled with anxiety. Therapists and parents may be witnesses to the scary events or invited to actively participate in the play itself.
  • Am I okay? (18 months – 36 months)
    At this stage of development, children frequently feel inadequate. They do not believe they can trust their feelings. Play is focused on insecurities and what the child may have done wrong.
  • How much can I do? (3-6 Years)
    Kids in this stage are cranking out as much as they can. They are focused on quantity instead of quality. How many drawings can I do for mom? Can I make more LEGO figures than dad?
  • How well can I do it? (7-11 Years)
    This is when mastery of skills begins to be formed. Children are concerned with how well they can skateboard, play piano, or soccer.
  • Who Am I? (Ages 11+)
    This final stage is where kids begin to develop their identity. They start to develop personal goals and dreams for their lives.

It can be easy to think of kids who don’t meet typical milestones as being younger than they are. It might even be confusing when a child physically and cognitively appears to be 10, but emotionally acts like he’s four.

Each child is unique, and some behaviors may be ahead of and some behind those known to be typical of an age. Accepting that this is par for the course and allowing the child to develop in a secure and nurturing environment while obtaining the right therapies to meet their needs, will hopefully enhance their developmental progress and a parent’s ability to both understand and meet their child with realistic expectations.

Besides in the therapy room, there are many ways to help that can happen at home.

  • Teach the basic emotions. Utilize emotional flashcards, or books to support this development.
  • Teach when a person would experience each emotion
  • Give them examples of when you have experienced each emotion
  • Ask them when they have felt the emotion
  • Practice recognizing emotions
    • pause a show or movie to ask what emotions you think the characters are having
    • while reading ask your child what emotion the character is having
    • people watch – you see a lot of expressed emotion in the mall
  • Practice showing emotion through facial expressions, drawing, or emotion dolls like Meebie.

If your child needs some extra support when coping with big feelings, contact us to discuss ways we can help.

Amazon Affiliate links:

**Emotional Awareness and Identification:
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek
The Color Monster by Anna Llenas
Double Dip Feelings by Barbara Cain

**Emotion Management and Regulation:
Sometimes I’m Bombaloo by Rachel Vail
Little Big Feelings by Deb Mills
• Bubble Riding by Lori Lite
Jared’s Cool Out Space by Jane Nelsen

**Empathy and Social Skills:
ABC’S of Emotions by Camille Childs and Bryan Jones
The Way I Act by Steve Metzger
Fill A Bucket by Carol McCloud and Katherine Martin
That Fruit is Mine by Anuska Allepuz

**Toys for Social-Emotional Awareness:
Mini Meebie
Breathe Like a Bear 30 Mindfulness Activities for Children by Kira Willey
Real People Feeling Face Cards
Emotion Emoji Foam Dice
**Emotions Chart

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