My Child is Growing Up!


Child development is the process of changing physically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively from birth through adolescence. As a child develops, so does their emotional ability, neurobiological makeup, and physical capabilities. Although genes influence how a child develops, your child’s relationship with you as a parent is one of the most important factors that influences their development .1 Through this important relationship, your child develops

  • intrapersonal skills like
    • being able to manage emotions,
    • self-regulate,
    • make good decisions, and
  • interpersonal skills like
    • being able to get along with others and
    • communicate effectively.

Healthy social and emotional development occurs within the context of a nurturing relationship from infancy into adulthood.

As a parent, you play a critical role in your child’s development. Therefore, understanding how children develop can help you successfully guide, shape, and support their growth.2 Your role in shaping your child’s development will evolve as your child matures. The ways in which you support a young child are different than the ways you support a teenager. Adjusting your responses to meet your child’s needs at each stage of development is important. Research suggests that children who have parents who are responsive have less chance of experiencing problems later in life, such as being unable to manage stress and substance abuse.1,2 Taking an active role in your child’s development supports their growth of social and emotional skills, which are related to successful factors in adulthood.3 These factors include

  • emotional and physical well-being,
  • financial independence, and
  • improved job satisfaction.4

Research suggests that early experiences in life influence one’s future. Taking an active role and intervening early in your child’s life can change their path toward a more positive direction.5 As a parent, you are the strongest intervention to guard against the risk factors that your child will encounter as they develop.

Child Development at Specific Ages

As your child ages, it is not just their physical needs that change, but their cognitive, social, and emotional needs develop and change as well. This means that as a parent, you are continually adapting your skills to meet the changing needs of your child. Knowing what to look for at specific ages and knowing how to best support their growth during these times is important. For example, there are certain transition times in every child’s life where they are more vulnerable to risk factors. Examples of such transitions include

  • going into a new school,
  • divorce,
  • puberty, and
  • birth of a new sibling.

Helping your child adapt to these changes can decrease their risk of future problems. Added risk factors in the child’s environment can influence child development. These risk factors include

  • a lack of structure,
  • stress,
  • secondhand smoke, and
  • parental neglect.5

When preventing future substance use is a goal, there are important steps you can take to support healthy childhood development. These steps differ based on your child’s age group.

Ages 5-10

Children between the ages of 5-10 are active, excited to learn new skills and try new activities, and like to spend more time with their friends. Between the ages of 5-10, a child’s social development is an important focus. Much of a child’s learning through this phase is based on interactions with others in their environment. As a parent, promoting your child’s social growth and supporting their independence is essential. This teaches key social and emotional skills like self-awareness and self-regulation. Intellectually, your child is learning the idea of “self” and how to express empathy and relate to others. Your child develops a sense of empathy for others by experiencing it from you. If a child does not experience a nurturing relationship, stress hormones rise and negatively impact brain development.6 The developing brain needs a non-threatening and predictable environment. Without a nurturing environment, a child develops a hyperactive stress response that leads to lowered immunity and increased likelihood of disease later in life.7The ability to understand the difference between what is right and what is wrong is developed at this age and forms the backbone for healthy decision making in the future.

Addressing Substance Use With Children Ages 5-10

Having adults who model positive behavior is critical for children ages 5-10. Consider sports or different activities during these ages to help them build self-confidence, a healthy competitive edge, and to engage in positive environmental influences that help support individual growth, autonomy, and their sense of independence.

Parenting Tips to Address Substance Use With Ages 5-10

  • You are your child’s biggest role model, so model positive behavior.
  • Your child will look for answers to their questions anywhere, so work hard to be the person they turn to for information.
  • If your child asks, answer questions about drug or alcohol use.
  • Stay alert to any teachable moment (i.e., at the grocery store, while watching TV, or talking about school).
  • Don’t exaggerate the truth; stick with the facts.
  • Starting at age 8 talk often and consistently about your clear rules and expectations about no alcohol use until after 21 is critical. It’s not a one time “big talk” it’s frequent conversations.

Ages 11-14

Pre-adolescent development is a critical stage consisting of rapid physical and mental growth. The hormonal imbalances during the tween years (ages 11-14) may cause some emotional distress for pre-teens. Intellectually, tweens tend to think in black and white abstracts, not fully being able to synthesize the complexity of their surrounding environments. The front part of their brain is not completely developed at this age, which means their emotional system (also called the limbic system) is running the show. Therefore, tweens can be highly self-conscious, self-centered, dramatic, and may tend to be involved in higher risk behaviors, such as consuming alcohol. Socially and emotionally, tweens may experience more drastic mood swings and be motivated to assert their independence which may cause conflict with parents. The development of social and emotional skills is critical at this age to help reduce the risk to take part in substance use.

Addressing Substance Use With Ages 11-14

Early use of drugs or alcohol at any age is a risk factor for problematic use of drugs or alcohol during adulthood.8 Ensuring your child has a healthy environment to normalize any physical changes that may be discomforting is essential. Furthermore, understanding that your child at this age is not skilled at managing their emotions can help you understand what tools and skills are important to build your child’s ability to control their actions. Understanding that during pre-teen and teenage years children may mask emotional and physical insecurities is important to be prepared to find more support resources such as counseling. You can enhance the relationship you have with your child by setting the right guidelines for behavior and using contingency management (reward/consequences) approaches by giving your child more authority over their own decision making as they show responsibility and good choices.

Parenting Tips to Address Substance Use With Ages 11-14

  • Engage in conversations with your child about substances. Seek their opinion and be open to their views.
  • Model good listening skills. Good listening will increase the likelihood that your child will talk to you about things that are of concern.
  • Even short conversations are helpful. Don’t worry about trying to cover everything in one interaction. The conversation will come around again, and you can seize the next opportunity.
  • Ask your child about their friends and get to know their friends.

Ages 15-19

For teens between the ages of 15-19, the emotional/survival centers of the brain (also called the limbic or lizard brain) are well developed, but the thinking brain (also called the prefrontal cortex or the wizard brain) is still going through reorganization. During this stage of development, there can be physical and emotional discrepancies. While bodies mature quickly, emotional maturity and the ability to handle difficult situations may be lacking. It is during this stage that youth exercise their independence, separate from the parents, and spend most of their time in outside activities and with peers.

Addressing Substance Use With Ages 15-19

The influence of peers is strong, and therefore teenagers need to learn how to recognize and manage peer pressure. Your teen needs your parental guidance because the standards you set will contribute to what they may normalize or in what they choose to take part. Taking an active role in your teen’s life at this stage of development is important so that you can be involved in discussions about important life decisions like drinking alcohol and other high-risk behaviors.9 If possible, seek to involve older siblings and other positive role models in your teen’s life to influence positive decision making and build skills. Substance use has significant impacts on the teenage brain and body, and teenagers are at higher risk of substance use because their peers are highly influential at this age. Substance use as a teenager contributes to higher mortality rates and more progressive use of alcohol as they get older.10

Parenting Tips to Address Substance Use With Ages 15-19

  • Have open conversations with your teen about drugs and alcohol and about the reality of peer pressure.
  • Encourage and affirm any positive behavior or positive decision making you see in your teen.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of thinking, “It’s what teens do; all teens use pot (or alcohol).” It is not what all teens do and has incredibly negative impacts on their brain and body.
  • Manage your own emotions as you talk with your teen, so you can have a calm and confident conversation with them.
  • Your role is changing from manager to consultant. So be available and consistent as the consultant.
  • Be involved in your teen’s schedule and know where your teen is.
  • Get to know your teen’s friends and their parents.
  • Help your teen develop skills to manage peer pressure.
  • Have clear conversations about risky and harmful behavior such as drinking and driving. Your teen should have no question about where you stand or what the consequences of their actions will be if they engage in risky behaviors.
  • Discuss rules and expectations regularly; affirm when your teen meets the expectations and follow through with consequences as needed when your teen does not.
  • Notice changes in your teen’s mood, sleeping pattern, school performance, and friends. These changes can serve as red flags that your teen might be engaged in substance use.
  • Offer alternative behaviors that teens can engage in so that if they say no to drugs and alcohol, they have alternatives to say yes.
  • Have a code word that your teen can use in text or phone call that lets you know they need you to help them leave an unhealthy situation. Let them know at the time their safety is the most important, no questions will be asked, and you will help them any way you can. Ask them to include other family members or friends in on this safety protocol.

For All Ages

We can also help our children develop healthy attitudes about alcohol by modeling how we act such as

  • not over-consuming alcohol in front of them,
  • not asking them to serve us or bartend at family events,
  • telling them how you watch yourself to drink responsibility and what to do if someone else hasn’t,
  • not lying about your own use,
  • being aware of the facts about how alcohol affects children differently than adults,
  • not hosting drinking parties or buying alcohol for your child and their friends, and
  • not regularly taking your child to an establishment that solely serves adult beverages. Consider hiring a qualified babysitter while you enjoy your adult time.


The influence of early substance use in children and the resulting adverse effect is indisputable. Early use of substances can lead to more intense, frequent, and problematic use of substances.11 Drinking alcohol at younger ages puts children at greater physical and social-emotional risk as they grow up.10 Some studies indicate that continued and intensive drinking among teens may cause irreversible brain damage and concerning side effects, such as memory deficits.10,12 Encouraging involvement in pro-social activities for your child as well as increasing protective factors, such as pro-social leisure activities, family support, and pro-social peer involvement may help reduce high-risk impulsive behaviors. As a parent, you play a critical role in your child’s development. Therefore, understanding how children develop as well as how different ages require different strategies can help you successfully guide, shape, and support their growth.12


Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). My Child is Growing Up. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.