Developing Your Child from Infancy to Adulthood
With the Child Psychologist
By Francesca Sullivan
As mothers, the relationship we have with our children is unique, and arguably the most important in our lives. As they grow, that relationship develops and moves through different stages, each with its own rewards and challenges. Being a parent isn’t always easy, and sometimes we don’t have all the answers when communication difficulties arise.
Ahead of this year’s Mothers’ Day Cairo East Magazine talked to child psychologist and counsellor Monda Joseph at the Maadi Psychology Centre about ways to encourage healthy communication with your child, and help them to form the best foundation for the life ahead of them.
CEM: What are the basic stages of a child’s development, and what are the best ways of encouraging and communicating with them at each stage?
MJ: Psychologists divide children’s development into three distinct phases. From zero to six years is the period known as the ‘Individual Creation of the Person.’ The home environment is the starting point, in which a baby tries to make sense of his surroundings. At two years old, he begins to develop autonomy and independence, with learning taking place through play. Throughout this period children need order, predictability and routine. Talk to them continually in order to help develop their language skills, and give them lots of physical activities for their motor skills. Encourage them to express themselves through playing and drawing. They can re-enact an event, for example, or try to draw it
From age six to twelve children develop their sense of self and cognitive logical facilities. They have an increasing understanding of others’ viewpoints and are learning problem solving – though not yet applying this to abstract ideas. They begin to strive for and demand intellectual independence, and to reason using imagination and logic. So you can use open-ended questions, but they can also communicate with you by describing events and their feelings through art.
From thirteen to eighteen is the ‘Construction of the Social Self,’ the transition to adulthood, involving increasing importance of their peer group, wider environment and community. Children start to think in abstract terms and they are able not only to reason logically and draw conclusions from available information, but to apply these processes to hypothetical situations. Adolescents often go through a phase of feeling invincible to danger. Although they are developing moral and social values, they also have a high level of self-concern. They usually prefer verbal communication. Try using metaphorical language and hypothetical situations when discussing issues.
Is your approach the same whether it’s a boy or a girl?
Basically, I take the same approach, but depending on other factors, such as the child’s age, intellectual cognitive abilities, cultural background and also their own preference when it comes to communication methods. For example through art, discussion and so on.
How can I get my child to open up when something is bothering them?
Children are not secretive by nature, so providing a trusted relationship is key to making them feel safe enough to open up to you. The bottom line is for them to know at a deep level that you have their best interests at heart. With a young child, use art and play methods, and with older children use open-ended questions and give them space to expand on their feelings. For example, “Tell me more about what happened when…,” or, “What goes through your mind when this happens?” and so on.
Is body language important when communicating with your child?
Extremely important; it constitutes more than half of our communication with others, and children pick up on emotional cues faster than verbal speech. Don’t say something that is inconsistent with what you are showing. Parents need to be aware of their tone of voice, facial expression and physical stance while communicating. If you give an instruction while you are shouting it is counter- productive, since their fear of your voice will not allow them to listen properly to what you are trying to tell them. Adjust your height to their level and speak calmly.
What are the best words of encouragement or praise that will help a child thrive?
When you praise a child be specific and make sure that they know what the praise is for. For example, “Well done for showing good listening skills today; for being thoughtful, helpful,” etc. The opposite is also true; if you criticize make sure it is for the actual behaviour. Not, “You were a bad girl,” but “When you did such and such that was a wrong thing to do.”
What’s the best way to approach sensitive subjects where your values are at odds with those of your child’s peer group?
As a therapist, I keep my beliefs outside the therapeutic relationship; my focus is on the child and his or her concern. My aim is to try to understand the school and family environment, and guide the child to form their own opinion, putting together the pieces of the situation.
As a parent, it’s much easier to turn younger children towards your own personal viewpoint, but with adolescents it’s more difficult. You need to provide them with as much information as possible to allow them to make up their own minds, but you cannot force them to think a certain way.
Do you recommend therapy to help children through difficult life events such as bereavement, divorce or school bullying?
Most children are pretty resilient and can cope when it comes to life-changing events. Some will show behavioural reactions immediately after a traumatic event, but most will return to their normal behaviour. Only if the child is still exhibiting abnormal behaviour after several months do you need to seek therapy, for example self-isolation, irrational fears or persistent nightmares.
Are there signs that a parent should watch out for to indicate a deeper problem, or that a child may need psychiatric help?
The signs you should look out for are those that display abnormal behaviour for the child’s age-group. For example, tantrums at two years old are more normal than at eight. During adolescence, frequent changes in mood are to be expected due to biological changes. However, if each behaviour lasts more than two weeks, or the mood changes become very intense and are accompanied by atypical behaviours, you might seek professional help. Equally, regression to early childhood behaviours such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking can indicate emotional distress.
How should discipline be handled as a child becomes more mature?
Consistency, predictability and firmness are the keys to discipline. Helping the child learn self-control and follow the rules, not out of fear but self-control. Be immediate in your use of both punishments and rewards. By the time children get older the rules should already have been established, and for adolescents these tend to be around issues such as homework, socializing, how much time is spent with family, and so on. They are now old enough to use their own rationale in order to follow instructions.
As a therapist have you found cultural differences in attitudes towards children in Egypt as opposed to the West?
Yes, definitely. Here, the parents’ perspective on independence is different from that of western parents. In the West teenagers are geared towards financial and general autonomy much earlier. Of course some families are more liberal minded and permissive than others, but there’s not much room in Egypt for teenagers to develop their own emotional, cognitive and personal independence.