Ages and Stages - Action for Healthy Kids
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Ages and Stages

Social-emotional growth at every age

This guide provides a snapshot of the social-emotional milestones throughout development and what you can do to help your child practice the social-emotional skills that are most relevant to their developmental age. 

Most children and teens

  • Prioritizing time together without screens
  • Spending time outside  
  • Good sleep, nutritious and mindful eating, and regular play and exercise 
  • Open, non-judgmental communication
  • Regular, consistent communication with teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults 

The ages listed should be understood as a loose guide! Neurological differences between children, their temperament or personality, birth order and family composition, their experiences of trauma, and many other factors can influence the way that children develop socioemotionally.

Because children’s brains are also developing in spectacular and dynamic ways, all the milestones can also be understood to be happening on a continuum: a 4-year-old who is about to turn 5, for example, may be showing really different characteristics than they were just 3 months before. A child who is 8 may enjoy play that’s more typical of a 7-year-old. A 9-year-old who is nonverbal may have the gross motor skills more typical of an 11-year-old. You are the expert on your child’s unique strengths and challenges. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s development, trust yourself and talk with their teacher or doctor about what you’re noticing. 

Many of the developmental milestones in this section were adapted from Yardsticks by Chip Wood (2017). 


  • Can appear clumsy or physically awkward  
  • Can play with other children, but also do a lot of parallel play (when children play next to each other but not together) 
  • Enjoy responsibilities or “chores”  
  • Learning to be able to self-regulate and control their impulses 
  • Older fours are sometimes fearful or worried and may have nightmares  
  • Love bathroom language or “potty talk” 
  • Are often very talkative  
  • Love to be read to   
  • Learn through play, exploration, rhythm, and repetition   
  • Are egocentric: they don’t yet understand that other people have different perspectives or experiences than they do. Thinking they are hiding by putting a pillow over their faces is a good example of this!  

You can help them grow by:  

Giving them language to understand what they might be thinking or feeling:  

  • “You are throwing blocks, which tells me you are feeling mad or frustrated.” 
  • “We are not going to take that toy out of his hands. If you want a turn, you can say: ‘Can I have a turn with that when you’re done?’”  
  • “You’re noticing that he’s feeling sad right now. You can check in with him and see if he wants a hug.” 

Helping them practice self-regulation and impulse control. This might sound like:  

  • “It seems like you’re getting frustrated by that puzzle. Let’s take 3 deep breaths before we try again.” 
  • “I hear that you want my attention right now, but I’m not finished talking to Uncle Mark. In 2 minutes I’ll be able to give you my full attention.” 

Helping them practice healthy social behaviors. Give specific and concrete examples such as:  

  • “I like the way you gave Jojo a turn with the ball.”  
  • “It is not OK to kick when you’re mad with someone. You can tell Diego you didn’t like that with your words, but not with your body.”  
  • “You’re sad because I took away the tablet. You can be sad, but you cannot hit me. Do you think running outside would help you get out your feelings?” 

Imaginative play is how they engage with the world. You can encourage it by being playful in your everyday life:  

  • “Do you think Puppy wants to snuggle too?” 
  • “Let’s walk to the potty like we’re flamingos!” 
  • “Are you buckled in your car seat and ready for space launch? Can you help me count down? Helmets on!” 


  • Like to be helpful.
  • Enjoy rules and routines. 
  • May engage in more active fantasy play, and less verbal play.  
  • Think out loud. 
  • Can be fairly literal and have difficulty seeing other viewpoints or perspectives.   
  • Do not yet have logical thinking, so they are not yet able to consistently think through a problem successfully. 
  • Learn through play and experimentation.   
  • Older fives tend to test authority and limits. May have tantrums or frequently complain or whine.   
  • Have friendships of convenience. “Are you playing what I want to play?” or “If you don’t play like this, I won’t be your friend.” 

You can help them grow by:  

Being consistent. If that’s not possible, give them advanced warning when possible. 

  • “Today is going to be a little different because Grandma is picking you up and giving you dinner. I’ll be home before bathtime.” 

Helping them imagine and prepare for different possibilities. 

  • “If we get to the playground and the slide is wet, can you think of other things you’d be excited to play?” 
  • “Last time we went to the ice cream shop, they were out of mint chip. What else might you want to try?” 

Encouraging them to try new things. 

  • “What if you tried…” 
  • “How do you think it would be different if…” 


  • Love to know and create rules. Because of this, tattling is common.
  • Love to do things quickly and competitively, which leads to sloppiness. 
  • Noisy!  
  • Thrive on encouragement and can have a tough time handling failure 
  • Love surprises and treats   
  • Can be bossy or critical of others   
  • Are more likely to push back and question the rules  
  • Are beginning to find school increasingly influential  
  • Often complain  
  • Learn best through discovery   

You can help them grow by:  

  • Let mild conflict unfold. Allow them to work through issues of fairness, turn-taking, etc. as long as the situation remains physically and emotionally safe 
  • Help them differentiate between tattling and telling. Telling helps keep everyone safe, involves intentional behavior, or requires adult help. Tattling is done to get someone else in trouble, involves something that happened by accident, or can be handled between children.  
  • Modeling how to handle winning and losing with grace and respect.  


  • Often feel deeply, and express psychosomatic complaints. This means that their feelings can show up physically. For example, they may complain of stomachaches when they are nervous, or headaches when they feel overwhelmed.  
  • Can be moody or sulky.
  • Like security and structure.
  • Are sensitive to criticism and less likely to risk making mistakes.
  • Can be conscientious and serious.
  • Benefit from praise and reinforcement.
  • Are showing an increasing ability to be reflective.
  • Like to understand how things work by taking things apart   

You can help them grow by: 

  • Celebrate their process rather than outcome to build their confidence in risk-taking,
  • Help them notice what they’ve learned from successes and failures.  
  • Reassure them often.  
  • Help them identify and practice coping strategies. This will help them with psychosomatic hurts.


  • Are often energetic and talkative    
  • Are full of ideas  
  • Have a limited attention span   
  • Can bounce back more quickly from mistakes and disappointment  
  • Have trouble with limits and boundaries   
  • Tend to have bigger friend groups 
  • Exaggerate and experiment with sarcasm  
  • Are very aware of fairness/justice  
  • Start engaging in clique behavior: peer approval becomes more important  

You can help them grow by:  

  • Modeling the consideration of others’ perspectives as often as possible  
  • Keeping boundaries and rules consistent, and explaining your reasoning  
  • Asking for their input and thoughts in decision-making  


  • Have lots of psychosomatic complaints, or feel their feelings in physical ways. For example, feeling extremely tired or nauseated when they have to do something they don’t want to do 
  • Can be impatient, worried, anxious, and critical of themselves and others  
  • Can be sullen and moody  
  • Are very aware of fairness and justice  
  • Often reengages in “baby talk”   
  • Can exaggerate and use hyperbole and negatives such as “I hate it,” “You never let me do anything by myself,” or “He always gets to go first.” 
  • Are intellectually curious   
  • Begin to recognize the bigness of the world   
  • Have difficulty with abstractions: they are more literal and less imaginative   

You can help them grow by:  

  • Engaging them in big conversations using age-appropriate language 
  • Helping them identify and practice their coping skills to help lessen the time they are experiencing psychosomatic discomfort 
  • Supporting the development of healthy self-esteem


  • Can be quick to anger and quick to forgive   
  • Are developing their moral compass and are usually truthful  
  • Recognize social issues and are very attuned to fairness and justice   
  • Are expressive, talkative 
  • Enjoy sharing and explaining  
  • Are often happy and content   
  • Are good problem solvers and are open to thinking about different ways to address an issue  
  • Puberty usually begins around this age for girls  
  • Find a lot of importance in group identity, but group membership can be short-lived. For example, they may form clubs that last about a week.  

You can help them grow by:  

  • Letting them in on decision-making. Verbalize your thought process and ask for their ideas.   
  • Engage in conversations about what’s happening in your community and in the world.  
  • Helping them reflect on what qualities they look for in a friend.  
  • Talking about (or continuing to talk about) puberty and what to expect.


  • Can be restless, fidgety, and constantly in motion 
  • Often are experiencing a growth spurt, especially girls 
  • Need more sleep  
  • Often have an increased appetite and need for physical activity  
  • Can be moody and sensitive
  • Enjoy testing limits
  • Can be impulsive and unaware
  • Commonly have cliques, and cruelty can be part of them
  • Seek to belong 
  • Can be argumentative 
  • Can increasingly see the world from different perspectives   

You can help them grow by:  

  • Be aware and mindful of the content they absorb about body image. As their bodies change, they can be more vulnerable to internalizing negative messages about their bodies.  
  • Help them understand how their behavior can impact other people.  
  • Maintain boundaries, and help them understand your reasoning.  


  • Tend to have lots of energy and enthusiasm  
  • Have growth spurts  
  • Often have changes to their sleep patterns 
  • Are better able to plan and think through complex issues: more abstract thought 
  • Care more about their friends’ opinions than those of adults’  
  • Enjoy conversations with adults  
  • Show more empathy  

You can help them grow by:  

  • Model and reinforce healthy sleep habits
  • Encourage the development of their empathy in small and big ways 
  • Talk to them about what’s happening in the world; ask them what they think and wonder about  


  • Have lots of energy 
  • Puberty in full swing: most boys will be beginning, most girls will have reached almost full physical development and are menstruating  
  • Skin problems are common and hygiene becomes more important  
  • Talk about sex, health, and puberty can lead to silliness, rudeness, or embarrassment 
  • Can be moody, insecure, and unwilling to take risks sl 
  • Often highly critical of adults  
  • Can have difficulty working in groups 
  • Peer pressure is commonly felt and used  
  • Social media begins to be an area of focus [link to healthy social media use] 

You can help them grow by:  

  • Normalizing the physical changes that come with puberty and teaching regular hygiene habits  
  • Being patient! Their increasing independence is thrilling and daunting. 
  • Using humor and lightheartedness when appropriate  


  • Have lots of energy 
  • Are growing! Need lots of snacks, exercise, and sleep 
  • Begin to be aware of and interested in sex 
  • Strongly feel shame, embarrassment, and insecurity 
  • Age of the “know it all” 
  • Are turned off by adult lectures  
  • Try to distance themselves from adults, but still depend on them for empathy and boundaries  
  • Enjoy learning through breaking things down  

You can help them grow by:  

  • Keeping lines of communication open by showing an interest in what they’re interested in, asking open-ended questions, being non-judgmental.  
  • Maintaining boundaries and sharing your reasoning with them.
  • Respecting their need for privacy and space.
  • Regularly talking about sex, dating, drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, vaping, and other topics.

15-18 year olds…

  • Are developing their sense of identity, and may experiment with different styles, opinions, friend groups, and interests  
  • Are able to think in increasingly abstract and less concrete ways 
  • Seek belonging with their peers, and usually spend more time with friends than with family  
  • Have sexual feelings  
  • Seek out and value their privacy and independence  
  • Often experience sadness and depression  
  • Have a fully developed limbic system (which means they feel pleasure, sadness, excitement, and other feelings very intensely). At the same time, their prefrontal cortex (which helps with decision-making, planning, and organization) is still developing  

You can help them grow by:  

  • Keeping the lines of communication open, especially about their experience of their own mental health. Risky behaviors like drug and alcohol use, unprotected sex, and texting while driving can be common during adolescence, especially in response to strong feelings. Maintaining safe spaces of nonjudgment means that your child is more likely to go to you for advice and help.  
  • Helping them slow down and reflect on their choices and decision-making strategies. The limbic system of their brain is working like a gas pedal towards new experiences, and their prefrontal cortex – which should be the brake – is still growing! 
  • Asking open-ended questions to probe and learn about their thinking.  


This project on Improving Mental, Behavioral and Academic Supports to Students and Families, Part 2 is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $434,555 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.