Children’s Growth – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

May 22, 2020

Posted by Lake Erie Nature and Science Center

Do you ever feel as if parenting your children is like riding a roller coaster?  At one point you are enjoying your child and the next you are wondering what ever happened to your sweet little girl or your charming little boy. Research by the Gesell Institute of Human Development has shown that children’s growth is not always an even ride from less to more maturity. Instead, smooth, calm behavior alternates with unsettled, uneven behavior. Some experts in the field refer to this as going through periods of “equilibrium” when children are more a joy to be with versus “disequilibrium” when their behavior can be more challenging. It is almost as if children need to take two steps back developmentally before taking a huge leap forward. They often gain new skills during these difficult phases.

Equilibrium vs. Disequilibrium

So, if your child’s behavior seems to take a turn for the worse or if he seems to be more difficult to manage, it may be that a stage of equilibrium has given way to a stage of disequilibrium. You are experiencing the roller coaster of development first-hand. These phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium begin at birth and extend far into the teen years. Infants often cycle between these periods of calm and disorder weekly. As children reach the age of 18 months, the stages of development cycle less frequently and change about every six months. Typically, these six month segments occur until the child reaches the age of 6, when the cycles then begin to take place yearly.

smooth, calm behaviorunsettled, uneven behavior
practicing skills already masteredlearning new skills and abilities
plateau in developmentquick time of growth and new development
at peace with self and the worlduneasy with self and the world
more confidentmore anxious, more stressed, less confident
a period of stability and consolidated behaviora period of struggle and breaking down of behavior
easier to live withmore difficult to manage

Both phases are necessary

Knowing about these developmental ages and stages helps you to understand and cope with those times when your children may seem more short-tempered and out-of-sorts. While it’s easier parent children during periods of equilibrium, both phases are necessary for their growth and development. Some of their challenging behaviors are a normal part of their growth process. They are not “acting that way on purpose” and are not “out to get you.” Certain children are more low-key and their periods of disequilibrium are rather mild. Others are more intense and equilibrium stages may be a struggle.

Timing is everything

In general, do not introduce major changes during a period of disequilibrium. If possible, wait until your child shifts more toward equilibrium before making new demands of him or her, such as learning to use the potty.

How These Cycles Work at Different Ages

Age 1 – Many times parents will comment that their 18-month-old is going through the “terrible 2’s” early. What is really happening is that they have entered a stage of disequilibrium where their behavior is more broken up and out of sorts, and yes, characterized by tantrums.

Age 2 – As children reach 2 years of age, their behavior typically becomes smoother and calmer, only to take a turn again at age 2-and-a-half when those tantrums return and children’s behavior is more rigid and demanding. This phase is the commonly-talked-about “terrible 2’s.”

Age 3 – Children’s development continues to cycle about every 6 months. Once again, they enter a phase of equilibrium around 3 years of age, when they tend to be more easygoing and cooperative as a result of acquiring a little more maturity than they had at age 2. When they reach 3-and-a-half years, disequilibrium returns and their behavior tends to be more difficult. This stage can be quite challenging for parents as it seems they are backsliding and experiencing their children’s temper tantrums all over again.

Age 4 – These cycles continue as children enter equilibrium at the age of 4 and disequilibrium at the age of 4-and-a-half when they become more physically, emotionally and verbally out-of-bounds.

Age 5 – Five-year-olds can be a joy to live with because they have once again entered a phase of equilibrium. They tend to be much more positive, optimistic and cheerful. Unfortunately, disequilibrium starts up again around age 5-and-a-half.

Age 6 to 8 – Children up to about age 6-and-a-half tend to be more tense, more negative and more likely to disobey. Parents once again may wonder what happened to their “sweet child.” Children’s behavior begins to smooth out as they approach the age of 6-and-a-half. Disequilibrium sets in again around age 7. From here the cycles begin to last almost a full year. Seven-year-olds tend to be very moody, melancholy, fearful, and critical. They worry that others do not like them and they may cry easily. They tend to be self-critical of and dissatisfied with life in general. The good news is that as children reach the age of 8 their behavior once again evens out. They tend to be very energetic and outgoing, making them a joy to be around.

Source: is committed to educating and supporting parents in their efforts to foster confidence, responsibility, and compassion in their children.

Topic: Preschool