What Is Typical Behavior? An Age By Age Guide

kids of different ages

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From the time your baby is born until they graduate from college, they are developing and growing not only physically, but also verbally, cognitively, socially, and emotionally. For many kids, these skills develop in predictable ways and are often described by healthcare professionals as reaching developmental milestones.

Some kids will reach these milestones early and some will hit them a little later and for the most part, that is all OK. Each child is unique and develops and grows at their own pace. Still, monitoring your child's development and behavior patterns is useful because it can help you determine when something is amiss—or atypical.

Below you will learn to recognize the differences between typical and atypical behavior in kids at each age. With this information, you can identify potential issues and discuss them with your pediatrician or the appropriate school personnel so that your child can receive early intervention, therapy, or even medications if needed.

Typical vs. Atypical Behavior

Kids develop cognitive, motor, social, emotional, and speech and language skills from the time they are born through their late adolescent years. When this process is typical, that means they are progressing at a rate that is expected for their age range.

Generally, experts will track development in five categories: social, emotional, physical, cognative, and langauge, explains Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker. "[Experts] summarize behaviors into three categories [which include] the early years (0-8), the school-age years (8-12), and the teen years (13-18)," she continues.

Atypical progression, on the other hand, occurs when the child develops behind their peers or displays behaviors that are not considered typical for their age. Even kids that progress rapidly—or are "gifted" in some way—are considered atypical. Atypical simply means that the child's development or behavior is outside of what is common for their particular age or developmental stage, says Suarez-Angelino.

Typical Baby Behavior

In general, we expect that babies will cry to communicate their needs (like being held or fed) and sleep a lot (though not necessarily through the night), says Jessica Madden, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and medical director at Aeroflow Breastpumps. They also will be social and interact with others by cooing, laughing, smiling, babbling, and making good eye contact.

"Babies like to put their fingers and other objects into their mouth, and show interest in their outside environment (such as playing with toys and having books read to them)," she says. "They will also have some degree of 'stranger anxiety' that develops around 8 or 9 months of age."

When it comes to atypical behavior in babies, look for excessive crying and irritability as well as not wanting to eat or drink, Dr. Madden says. It is also worth noting if your baby does not develop a social smile or does not start to verbalize. Missing these milestones could signal a delay in development.

"Parents should discuss any concerns about development or behavior with their child's pediatrician in a timely manner so that appropriate referrals can be made for evaluations with therapists and early intervention," Dr. Madden suggests.

Typical Toddler Behavior

Toddlers learn through exploration, says Kristen Souza, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor, which may mean everything from eating dirt and climbing dangerous things to making a mess. You also will notice power struggles and big feelings at this age—especially during times of transition like leaving the park or getting ready for bed.

"Toddlers are learning that their little voices matter and are certainly not afraid to showcase their knowledge about it," says Souza. "Toddlers are not capable of regularly displaying impulse control or regulating emotions on their own; therefore, it is developmentally appropriate for toddlers to have tantrums. It’s also important to note that biting, hitting, and pushing are age-appropriate behaviors."

Although typical toddler behavior varies from one child to the next, Souza indicates that atypical toddler behavior might include not playing with toys, being consistently quiet (not from shyness),  and having the inability to play alongside other children. Kids displaying atypical behavior also might have limited motor skills.

"If you notice your toddler isn’t doing a specific behavior that you think [they] should be doing, ask your child's pediatrician for guidance and go from there," suggests Souza. "Some children might need a little more assistance such as occupational or speech therapy and some might need more of a challenging learning environment."

Typical Preschooler Behavior

By the time a child reaches preschool age, they are likely becoming more independent and in doing so, may develop an affinity for saying "no." They also may occasionally have a tantrum, but they should be developing better control over their emotions and impulses.

"It is also typical for preschoolers to feel more comfortable venturing out further from parents and caregivers," says Sandra Calzadilla, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor. "They are widening their social circles and learning to play with other children. Children at this age also are learning social norms such as sharing and taking turns."

You may see children cry at drop-off or feel anxious about staying in school for a prolonged period of time at this age, Calzadilla adds. But, as they settle into school, make friends, and get to know their teachers the anxiety or resistance to school should subside.

"Atypical behavior for a preschooler would be if the child is struggling with settling into their new environment; the child cannot be coaxed into engaging one-on-one with a caregiver or teacher in an activity; or if they are not engaging other children in play," she says.

If your child does not make eye contact with other kids and makes no attempts to communicate, talk to your child's healthcare provider, especially if they are ignoring other children who try to engage with them, says Calzadilla

"The most important thing children learn in preschool is how to socialize," Calzadilla explains. "If that is not happening it needs to be addressed immediately."

Typical School-Age Behavior

Grade school kids are learning to take on more responsibility, so it is only natural that they want more freedom than they can handle. And while it is important to encourage their independence, they will likely still need your guidance when it comes to doing chores and completing their homework. They also need a little help in dealing with uncomfortable emotions.

"School-aged children also are now forming friendships and social circles," says Calzadilla. "Typical behavior includes exploring other interests that may seem to arise out of nowhere. Children at this age are also starting to get a sense of their own identity but can often engage in 'following' behaviors and may do or say things that their friends are doing or saying."

School-aged kids are also learning the more intricate rules of social norms like becoming aware of cultural and family differences and the struggles of friendships. They may even experiment with lying, Calzadilla adds.

Atypical behaviors in school-age children may include playing best with younger children (rather than their peers), not drawing pictures, being easily distracted, displaying frequent aggressiveness with no provocation, or being unable to follow single-step instructions, says Helen Egger, MD, the co-founder and chief medical and scientific officer for Little Otter. It also would be considered atypical if a child has withdrawn from peers.

"Get a healthcare professional involved if a child has an intense dislike for school or if they seem disinterested in material and cannot concentrate in school," Calzadilla says. "Also, if they are not making academic or social gains in terms of making even one friend it is best to address the issue before it becomes pervasive."

Typical Preteen and Teen Behavior

When your child reaches the tween and teen years, their growing independence and desire for freedom often come out in an attitude—particularly with you as their parent or caregiver. In fact, it is typical for adolescents to be argumentative as they begin to separate from you.

"Preteens and teens also [tend] to push limits and boundaries," says Suarez-Angelino. "They may experience changes in their friendship circles, desire more privacy or freedom, as well as make some poor decisions that have natural consequences."

That said, if your preteen or teen is having trouble keeping friends or seems to be getting in trouble at school a lot, you may want to investigate. According to Eileen Anderson, EdD, associate professor of bioethics and director of education, bioethics and medical humanities, School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve, it is not uncommon for executive function problems or attentional problems like ADHD to manifest in middle school and high school.

"You don’t see these issues until middle school because the workload was not heavy enough until then," Dr. Anderson says.

Other atypical behaviors you may notice in your teen include needing help with self-care activities, reaching a plateau in skill development, being unable to speak in long sentences, and doing work that is significantly below grade-level expectations, says Dr. Egger. You also may notice that they are experiencing problems with memory and comprehension.

"They may struggle with how to sort out what is most important or how to organize their tasks in the day including the tasks of self-care," says Dr. Anderson. "An example might be a teen who cannot remember their lunch or is consistently late to class because they are digging for something in their locker."

Most mental health issues also emerge during adolescence, she adds. So if your child is displaying signs of hopelessness, changes in their eating or sleeping habits, unexplained cuts or bruises, or talks frequently about death and dying, you should have them evaluated by a mental health professional.

How to Handle Atypical Behavior

It can be challenging to know what to do about atypical behavior in your child. But, the first step is acknowledging that an issue might exist and then reaching out for help.

"One of the biggest challenges parents face is the question: 'When should I worry about my child’s emotions, behaviors, and development?'" says Dr. Egger. "It can be difficult to know what your child’s behaviors or emotions are typical or atypical."

In general, Dr. Egger recommends that you look for an emotion or behavior change that persists, is intense, is pervasive across settings and most of the day, and is not markedly improved through your interventions. Here are some other things to consider when determining if your child's behavior is atypical.

Look at the Impact

When you are trying to determine whether to be concerned, Dr. Egger suggests looking at the impact your child's behaviors have on their life and their ability to do age-appropriate activities like going to school, doing homework, and maintaining friendships.

"We are not surprised that preschoolers have tantrums when they are frustrated and tired," she says. "They are beginners in learning these skills. But, when an older child has fits of rage, we are more concerned because their behavior does not reflect our developmental expectations at that age."

If your child's behaviors are impacting their day-to-day life or the lives of others, it is important to acknowledge this and ask for help. For Instance, getting in trouble at school or fighting at recess may indicate an underlying behavior disorder or even a learning disability, Dr. Anderson says.

Consider the Context

According to Dr. Egger, the context of the situation matters, too. Think about the short-term events that might explain your child’s changes in emotions and/or behavior as well as the larger context in which it occurred.

"Perhaps, your child has been sick, there is a new baby in the house, you have recently moved, or are returning from a family vacation," she says. "It is expected that children will experience short disruptions when there is a new expectation or a change in routine. What is important is to see if your child is adapting to the change and returning to their typical behavior and emotions."

Andrea Werner, OTD-R, an occupational therapist suggests writing down the behavior and the context in which it occurs. The most well-known and easy-to-use framework for documenting the behavior are the "ABCs of Behavior," she says.

According to Werner, A stands for antecedent—note what was happening before the behavior. B stands for behavior—list in detail the behavior which concerns you. C stands for consequence—document what happens after the behavior occurs. This way, you have a record to share with mental health professionals or healthcare providers.

Remember Their Age

Some behaviors are typical at certain ages and atypical at others. When trying to determine if your child's troubling behavior is an issue or not, make sure you also consider their age.

"[For instance,] defiance is a behavior that is normal under some circumstances and at certain ages but atypical and problematic in others," says Faye Walkenfeld, PhD, the chair for the department of behavioral science and associate professor of psychology at Touro University's School of Health Sciences. "A 3- or 4-year-old who is trying to establish independence and does not yet fully understand other’s perspectives might throw a tantrum when told [they] cannot play with a game until [they] put away [their] toys. However, the same reaction by a 10-year-old would be considered problematic."

Ask for Help Early

Most experts recommend expressing your concerns to your child's pediatrician, teacher, or counselor if you are concerned about your child's behavior. They can offer testing, referrals, and advice.

"I recommend that parents have the courage to acknowledge that they have a concern," says Dr. Anderson. "Pay attention to and honor that gut feeling that something is not right. Too many parents gloss over and then problems get worse."

Monitor Behaviors

Keep in mind that some kids may occasionally display atypical behavior, but then it seems to pass. For this reason, Dr. Walkenfeld recommends that parents recognize that behavior runs on a spectrum and not all atypical behaviors are cause for concern. Additionally, she says that diagnoses should not be made based on one or two behaviors, but rather on a pattern of behaviors.

"A parent who notices atypical behaviors should monitor the behaviors and try to work on improving them," she says. "If [they] are concerned, they should speak with a mental health professional. Generally, most atypical behaviors resolve themselves either with maturity or consistent responsiveness, warmth, and discipline."

That said, if there are extreme issues in preschool or grade school or issues that appear out of nowhere in middle school or high school, you may want to have the child evaluated by a mental health professional.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.