What is Your Child’s Developmental Age: Impact on Meltdowns

Research now tell us that when a child experiences early and prolonged trauma, other parts of development are affected. Makes sense? If you are constantly on high alert for real danger in your home, you will have trouble paying attention. What about if you frequently go to bed hungry? Or what if you don’t even have a stable place to live? Learning new things becomes a challenge. Social skills are not prioritized in your brain as you are just trying to stay safe, fed, or housed. If you are 13-years-old, people come to expect age-appropriate things from you: your parents, your teachers, and even your friends. If inside that 13-year-old body, certain areas about you are really only at an 8-year-old level, there will be a mismatch. You will get frustrated due to expectations that are too high. And because you are already stressed, a meltdown soon follows.

Developmental Age Examined

You’ve heard this term before but what does it really mean?

Developmental age is a reference to how closely a person’s physical and mental development parallels with normal developmental milestones.

For example, babies usually sit up around 6 months of age, they walk around 1 year, talking gets into full swing by 2 years old, and so on and so forth. There are milestones that children typically meet as they grow. Check out normal developmental milestones from birth to 5 years of age here. Another way to look at it is that your child’s developmental age is the age at which they function emotionally, physically, cognitively and socially. With kids from hard places, this is often much younger than we expect and or want to accept.

Developmental Delay

Developmental delays can include both mental and physical delays that could be caused by physiological problems or by environmental difficulties such as premature birth, inadequate nutrition, lack of physical or intellectual stimulation, or lack of appropriate medical care.

As this definition implies, children lag behind in typical development if their environment suffers. This includes everything from prenatal stress and drug/alcohol exposure, caregiver limitations, neglect, and abuse. Basically, children with trauma backgrounds cannot keep up with typical chronological developmental milestones resulting in meltdowns, as these children never learned to cope with frustration and change. Most of the parents reading this Newsletter have adopted children who come from hard places. Assume that your child has been negatively impacted from their pasts. They are more than likely not to be the true age that their birth number implies.  Another way to think about these terms is to think brain age vs. birth age. Trauma harms the brain and temporarily halts certain areas from growing: thus the term brain age.


Let’s consider a 13-year-old boy who was adopted at age 5. His past was one of constant neglect and homelessness. His adoptive family is loving and provides him with enriching activities, consistent rules and expectations, yet he still has frequent meltdowns. He is going into 8th grade and struggles both at home and at school. Both parents and teachers are confused as this young man plays basketball like a pro, has a close friend group, and can be one of the sweetest people ever. He has an ADHD diagnoses and takes medication for this. Yet he still loses everything, cannot manage to get his school work done, and seems to not care about any of his home chores. When his mother reminds him to make his bed in the mornings, he can all of a sudden fly off the handle and go into full tantrum mode. At school this boy has real trouble completing his many assignments and again, out of the blue, has frequent meltdowns, when the teachers request assignments.

What is really going on here?

It is truly a lack of skills. A mismatch between the expectations his parents and his teachers have and what he actually is capable of accomplishing. Let’s just say that regarding organization, initiation, and follow through, this 13-year-old is really only 8. That’s a 5 year and significant gap between his developmental and chronological ages. This looks like he doesn’t care about his chores and school work and that he lacks motivation. Unfortunately what’s really going on is that this boy gets easily overwhelmed by demands that require complex planning and independence skills. The meltdowns look like they come out of the blue but truly he is constantly feeling anxious, pressure, incompetent, and confused, which contributes to his tantrums. He needs verbal and physical prompts, reminders, and even instructions with certain activities. He truly has trouble remembering, especially when the expectations are too high for his abilities. Instead of assuming he should be able to automatically and independently make his bed, his parents instead can teach him the steps to bed making. More than once. This seemingly simple task needs to be broken down into parts. He may need a visual chart that reminds him to make his bed with built in rewards that can be faded over time. In school, expectations that involve logical, ordered, and complex tasks need to be lowered to his 8-year-old developmental age. Once this occurs, this boy will learn competence through support. His frustration will wane and so will his meltdowns. It takes a lot of work from parents and teachers, and even more patience, but it works!

Executive Function, Trauma, and Self Regulation

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

That’s a mouthful. The above example illustrates the importance of executive function and how trauma causes a deficit in such skill.  And you know what I’m going to say next.  Meltdowns are a second cousin to a lag in executive functioning.This is pretty complicated stuff. But please take a step back from your child who has meltdowns and ask yourself if they can’t or won’t? Take an honest look at what you expect of them. You more than likely know the areas they struggle with already.  Lower your expectations in these areas. Teach them. Break things down. Be patient. Create and post visual reminders.  Use checklists. Be patient. Remember what their developmental age truly is. I promise you will see amazing results. Not only will your child have less meltdowns, they will be happier and more self-confident. And so will you and your whole family!

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