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What’s Normal?

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by Jamie Roach

Toddlers throw tantrums. Teenagers rebel. But as parents, how do we know what’s “normal”?

As we make our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health has become a growing issue. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or a form of depression during the pandemic, compared to one in 10 before its start. Obviously, our kids have been impacted as well.

As parents, we worry about our children – I’m sure that is written in the job description somewhere! I often hear from parents who are trying to discern whether their child’s behavior is normal or if they are giving off warning signs that something deeper is wrong. These parents are trying not to overreact, but they also don’t want to overlook a need for professional help. My encouragement is to really pay attention to your child. Be curious but not critical. Seek to think and feel your way into their experience. And then compare what you’re seeing and hearing from them with normal behavior for their age.

Because every family and situation is different, it is impossible to give five simple rules that work for everyone. I will use Erik Erickson’s stages of development to provide a thumbnail sketch of what is “normal.”

What’s normal for a preschooler? (Initiative vs. Guilt)
Preschoolers want to initiate plans and carry out tasks as they seek to take initiative in their environment. When their attempts are met with support and affirmation the child develops confidence. When their attempts are met with criticism or disapproval they can feel like they did bad, which they tend to internalize as “I am bad.” Because they are seeking independence, it is normal for them to argue and exercise their right to say “no.” You should be able to notice your preschooler exercising greater control of their impulses and emotions compared to when they were two or three. At the same time, you should expect them to “throw a fit” from time to time, but doing so less frequently and with less intensity. Children of ages four and five may exhibit some minor aggression, but they should be learning how to use their words instead of violence.¹

What’s normal for kids in elementary school? (Industry vs. Inferiority)
Children learn the joy of performing tasks or they feel inferior. They need to cope with new social demands and academic expectations. It is common for kids at this stage to want to take on more responsibility than they can handle, but when they do, they often come away feeling like a failure. Therefore parents need to provide guidance when it comes to things like chores, school work, making decisions and personal hygiene.

What’s normal behavior for teenagers? (Identity or Role Confusion)
The task in front of teenagers is to develop a healthy sense of self and personal identity. Teens who are successful at this become comfortable in their own skin while those who struggle can lose themselves among their peers. It is also very common for teens to frequently switch social groups as they are seeking to discover who they are and where they belong. Also, don’t be surprised if their hair styles, choice of clothes and interests also change frequently. The adolescent years are a time of exploration and trying on. Parents of teens also have to learn to deal with the stress that comes from their young adult pushing back against them as they seek independence and take control of their own lives. Faithful parents will demonstrate empathy while also working with their teens to establish agreed upon expectations and consequences when those expectations are not met.

5 warning signs:

1.  Difficulty managing emotions. Feeling them is great, becoming overwhelmed by them is not.
2.  Lack of appropriate impulse control. Control should be increasing with age.
3.  A failure to respond to consistent discipline.
4.  A blatant disregard for the feelings of others. Getting into physical fights and failing to maintain healthy friendships are problems that should not be ignored.
5.  Self-harm. Anytime your child is hurting themselves, you need to pay attention.

It is very scary and can feel overwhelming when your child is struggling or dealing with mental health concerns. Here are a couple things you can do. First, remember that God loves you and your child. God has promised to never leave you (Hebrews 13:5) but to draw especially close when your heart is breaking and your spirit is crushed (Ps. 34:18). Second, get help. There are lots of great therapists and counselors who can provide the support and guidance you and your family needs.


¹American Academy of Pediatrics. Developmental milestones: 4 to 5 year olds. Updated November 2, 2009.

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