Your Child Out of Step with Peers: How to Help

Children who are late (or early) bloomers are out of step with their peers—and often bewildered by their friends.

And while parents understand that kids develop at different rates academically, emotionally, physically and socially, making sense of it can be confusing to a child—especially when that child is way behind or ahead of friends.

What does a mother say to her 4th grader when he asks if it’s okay to like SpongeBob and Play-Doh, when many of his classmates prefer violent video games and sneaking kisses from their girlfriends at recess?

“Reassure him. ‘Absolutely, play with Play-Doh,’” says Dr. Shari Young Kuchenbecker, author of “Raising Winners.” “It’s affirming that he’s not feeling obliged to become like everyone else.”

Ask him what he likes about Play-Doh and SpongeBob, says Winnetka psychologist Dr. Jeanne Beckman. If it’s the art aspect, visit an art studio where he can sculpt. Or discover what he likes about SpongeBob and ask a librarian to recommend books with similar themes.

“Late bloomer” is a term Highland Park social worker Cheryl Schultz doesn’t apply to elementary school children, because it compares them to other kids in the community.

“Consider your child’s uniqueness,” Schultz says. “Let him emerge as his own person within the values of your family.”

As kids, Dr. Alissa Levy Chung and her friends secretly admitted to playing with dolls.

“Children will have creative urges all the time,” says Dr. Chung, an Evanston child psychologist and instructor at Northwestern University. “Someone will tell them, ‘It’s babyish,’ and that’s the end of that.”
She says children are not engaged in creative free play and the cause has roots in our culture.

She blames it on:

  • Access to technology
  • Fads
  • Media messages
  • Merchandising
  • Parents

Dr. Paul Donahue, author of “Parenting without Fear,” agrees.

“There is pressure on children to move along and lead more adult lives,” says Dr. Donahue. He likens a play-date to an adult’s appointment, because it is structured and scheduled.

The effects of passing by childhood can be damaging.

Children who skip important developmental milestones, such as dating before they’ve learned how to develop strong friendships, are at risk of partaking in “everything you don’t want your teenager to do,” Dr. Chung says.

  • Drinking
  • Drug use
  • Sex
  • Shoplifting

There is a solution.

Dr. Donahue suggests showing your children that it’s fun to be a kid by playing board games with them and participating in other satisfying childhood activities. Also, remind them that plenty of children sleep with teddy bears. They just don’t talk about it at school.