Adapting Your Parenting Style For Your Child’s Developmental Stage

Have you ever heard (or said) something like, “Grrrrr, my parents treat me like I’m still 5 years old!”?

As you might imagine (or know from personal experience), it can be very frustrating for anyone to be treated as though they are younger than they actually are.

And, on the flip-side, it can be confusing and alienating to be treated as if you are older than you actually are. (Think: “I can’t believe they expect me to do this? I have no idea how to do this! They’ve left me alone and I’ve got no one to help me…”)

It may seem obvious, but as children and teenagers progress through the different stages of their lives, so must parents and the adults around them adjust their language, their expectations and their disciplinary style.

The six stages of parenting

Galinsky (1981) proposed six parental stages to coincide with the child’s different developmental stages. As a rough guide, these stages are:

  1. Image-making (pregnancy). Parents prepare for the arrival of the baby and, at the same time, begin to form images about how their lives will change, and how they will cope with the responsibilities and challenges of a baby.
  2. Nurturing (birth to 18-24 months). Parents form the bonds of attachment and learn to balance the needs of the baby with work, partner, social life, other family and household needs.
  3. Authoritative (2 – 5 years). Parents try to establish boundaries and rules for their children. Rules are often quite black-and-white during this stage to ensure the child’s safety. However, parents should attempt to explain the reasons for different rules and begin to guide their child towards autonomy and the ability to make appropriate choices on their own.
  4. Interpretive (5 years – adolescence). Parents should be starting to teach children to take the perspective of others, to interpret the behaviours of other people and react accordingly. Children are often learning to cope with changing peer dynamics such as bullying, peer-pressure, peer-comparisons and establishing a role within a group of friends. Parents can help their children navigate these difficult social situations.
  5. Interdependent (during adolescence). This can be a difficult time for both parents and adolescents as the family tries to find a balance between increased freedom and independence for the child and retaining the “final say” of the parent. Disagreements can lead to disputes and there is the added pressure of outside influences. Effective and respectful communication is very important during this stage, not only between the teenager and their mother or father but also for the parents to communicate with each other
  6. Departure (late adolescence to adulthood). The departure stage is when the child reaches full or almost complete independence (notwithstanding needing help with paying a bill or two!). It does not necessarily coincide with the young adult physically leaving home. Parents and children can form new roles and begin to communicate on a more equal footing. This can be a sad time for parents as they redefine their identities but can also lead them to rediscover their own individual pursuits.

How does this relate to you?

Do these stages sound familiar? Can you identify which stage of parenting you are in?

As mentioned, difficulties most often arise when parents are using a style that is inappropriate for the age of the child, either below age-appropriate level or above age-appropriate level.

It can also be difficult when you have multiple children and must tailor your parenting style to each child independently (isn’t it easier to just treat them all the same?).

So how do you know if your parenting style is appropriate for your child? Well, their age is just a guide.

Some children mature more quickly and, in these cases, it’s warranted to allow them additional freedom earlier than normal. But other children may lack self-control or have trouble with their decision-making and require more guidance and discipline.

Another clue is that children will often tell you (either with words or with actions) their opinion of your parenting style. Have you heard your child say, “Muuuum, you never let me do anything!”, or “Daaad, I need your help, I can’t do this by myself.”

Below are some things to consider which may help you find the right balance for your child and their developmental stage when it comes to discipline, responsibility, nurturing and independence.


  • Do you do things for your child that they could do by themselves? If so, why? Is it because they approach you for help or perhaps because it’s easier/quicker/safer for you to do it for them? What would pros and cons be of teaching them to do it themselves?
  • Do you solve social problems for your child, do you solve problems together or does your child work through things on their own? Why? What does this mean for you and your child?
  • Is your parenting style more about preventing your child from making mistakes or finding ways to bring out the best in them? How can you encourage them to grow while still caring for their safety?
  • What type of personality does your child have? How do they react to your attempts at discipline, rules, nurturing or allowing them freedom? Are they secretive? Defiant? Compliant? Do they negotiate? Do they ignore the rules? Think about what their behaviour is telling you.

Lastly, ask your child what they think. Ask them if they think you are strict, easygoing, smothering, or easy-to-talk-to. Ask them if they know the reasons for rules.

Ask them what they would like from you – sure, many kids will simply say “lollies!” or “holidays!” – but you might be surprised with some of their answers. (Make sure they know that it is not a situation where they just get what they ask for.)

And remember to tailor your parenting style to your child’s personality and their developmental stage.

Get on the same page as your partner and make sure both of you are consistent with the messages you are sending your children.

If you are having difficult communicating with your child effectively or are having problems such as defiance, avoidance or passive-aggressive behaviours, it may be worthwhile speaking to a child psychologist for advice.


  • Sailor, D.H. (2004) Supporting Children in Their Home, School, and Community
  • Galinsky, E. (1987)The Six Stages of Parenthood. Reading, MA: Perseus Books
  • Newman, R. (2008). Building Relationships with Parents and Families in School-Age Programs. New Albany, OH.


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