Developmental Surges: Another Excuse for Misbehavior

Mar 19, 2012

Days after getting frustrated with my 2-year-old’s obstinate behavior I learned he had the flu. Then he was diagnosed with a double ear infection. I told myself: “No wondered he was being challenging. It wasn’t my bad parenting. He just felt bad! Whew!”

Now that I had an excuse for his behavior I could give him (and myself) more grace. I’ve done the same thing with: teething, lack of sleep, hunger, etc. “He hit your son. I’m sorry. He’s tired.”

But what if your child has gotten all their teeth, is healthy, well-rested, & full but still acting wacky, here is a new excuse to use: a developmental surge.

Years ago when I read about “developmental surges” in the book: “Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, I was ecstatic. It finally explained what I had observed in my sons.

Here is what she wrote:

“Kids go through developmental surges. You can mark it on your calendar.  Somewhere around their birthday and their half birthday, you can expect trouble.  They get cranky and uncooperative.  They might be incapable of doing what they were able to do just a few weeks before.  Nothing seems right.

They’re easily frustrated.

Every time you turn around, they’re crying about something else.  They won’t cooperate.  They want to be held and then push you away when you hold them.  They’re angry–angry at you, at the world, and at themselves.  They are more easily upset by anything.”

(celebrating his 4 1/2 birthday a couple weeks ago…helps explain his challenges)

Yep. I’ve witnessed it. I’m “fortunate” enough to have 3 out of 4 boys with birthdays within 6 weeks of each other. So two times a year they all go through their developmental surges at the same time. Now my 4th child was born exactly on their half birthdays…meaning all 4 boys will be “developmentally surging” around the same time!

But what exactly happens to cause these meltdowns?

“The developmental theorists tell us that this is a time of disintegration, a time when children are moving from one stage of development to another.  Their inner systems are restructuring, creating a new, more complex way of understanding the world.”

In more simple terms:

“Think of five building blocks.  Stack them once on top of the other until you have a tower of five blocks.  This is your five-year old–his inner structure that controls how he sees the world and responds to it.

It works well for him, but as he nears his sixth birthday, changes begin to occur.  A new block will be added to the structure, but it won’t just be added to the top of the stack.

Instead, the tower will come crashing down;

it will disintegrate and a new structure with six blocks will be formed. This time it may be in the shape of a pyramid, with three blocks on the bottom, two in the middle, and the sixth resting on top.

It will be a totally different structure.  During this construction time, which can take four to six weeks, everything that was working well for your child doesn’t seem to be operating anymore.  He becomes overwhelmed easily and is more vulnerable to spill-over tantrums.”

Well, Happy Birthday! 4-6 weeks of disintegration.

I know that I should be parenting with grace every day. No matter how they feel or what is going on developmentally. But I’m human. It’s hard to remember they are sinful just like me. Sometimes it’s nice to have these tangible reminders that some of their behavior is out of their control. Of course, I still set standards of expectations, but give them a break when they are struggling to meet those standards.

Have you heard of “developmental surges”? Do you find it to be true with your child(ren)? Any good birthday meltdown stories you’d like to share?

Linking up with:


  1. Ashley B.

    I’ve never heard of developmental surges and just put Parenting Your Spirited Child on hold at our local library – thnx for posting!! My 3rd child is surely our ‘spirited’ little man with lots of emotions which he wears on his sleeves. He may play, argue, fuss passionately. . . . but I’ve also seen him love with a vigor like no other. Some days I question God’s motives thinking I can handle this but I’m also learning to rely on Him more and instill more grace in our day – for my little guy and myself as a momma. Trying to figure out when to expect these ‘surges’ may help us all prepare. 🙂

    • Heather MacFadyen

      LOVE the book spirited child…especially since I have at least 2 spirited children. Hope it helps you see your child with more understanding & compassion. Each time I read it I give my sons more grace.

  2. Kara @ Just1Step

    I’ve never heard of developmental surges, but my son sure has been acting up lately! And he just turned 2 two weeks ago. 🙂

    • Heather MacFadyen

      I’ve seen it enough times to know that there is something to it! It’s definitely more extreme in the “spirited child” because he/she is more sensitive to the neurological change. Hope your life gets back to normal soon!

  3. Jacki R

    Heather…you shared this with me a couple years ago when Laney was “more difficult” than usual. It helped me then, and has rung true in our home since then! I too enjoy a reason to help me feel like all of this hard work we are pouring into our kids is not in vain!

    • Heather MacFadyen

      thanks jacki! It’s definitely been something I’ve clung to when I’m feeling beat down as a mom & like nothing is working.

  4. createdforjoy

    How about the fact that my son’s third birthday pictures, supposedly showing him blowing out the candles, actually feature an empty chair and lonesome cake because he ducked under the table and refused to come out? 🙂 I’m right there with you when it comes to heaps of developmental surges at the same time: both my children, my husband, and I all have our birthdays the same week in April! (And, yes, I am going to claim a surge this year when turning closer to forty than thirty makes me cranky.)

    • Heather MacFadyen

      That’s awesome. Can totally picture that birthday scene. My first son cried at his 1 yr bday when everyone started singing. He is by far my most sensitive & all the “noise” scared him. =) Congrats on your bday coming up. I turned 35 yesterday and definitely felt a little more cranky about the “number” than i ever have before. =(

  5. Laura

    Catching up on posts this morning. 🙂 I love that book, and it has been very helpful to me with my own spirited children. And your post was great! The only thing I would say is that you might consider using the word “explanation” instead of “excuse” when talking to people about such things. For some reason the latter makes me think of making excuses for things rather than dealing with a problem or taking responsibility, whereas the former conveys more of an idea of finding the root cause. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not!

    One other thing along these lines that I want to mention to moms of young boys. I read years ago that around 4 years of age boys get a surge of testosterone that is similar to the one they get at puberty. I have certainly seen evidence of this in my three boys as they passed that marker; in fact, we jokingly called my youngest son “Conan the Barbarian” for his fourth year. Anyway, increased aggression, wild and crazy behavior, etc. are totally par for the course that year.

    • Heather MacFadyen

      Thanks Laura. I think I used “excuse” because it felt stronger. And I don’t think there is anything we can do when our children’s behavior differs due to teething or developmental surges. It just happens. I think it’s okay to “excuse” that behavior when it is outside of our control. Helps me out a lot…being the “control freak” that I am!
      Thanks for the info on the testosterone surge…i don’t know if you commented about that on another post I wrote or if it was a different mom. I had never heard of it before. It’s very interesting. I tried to find a research study that supported it and couldn’t find one (in my brief google search). Do you know of one? Would love to read it! thanks again!!

  6. seasonedjoy

    Thanks for this post. I think my son may be in the final coming-out-of-it 2 1/2 year old surge. At least I’m hoping he’s coming out of it; he’s almost to 2 3/4.

    My daughter was born less than 2 weeks before my son turned 2, so I guess I’ll get to look forward to both of them going through their developmental surges together. 🙂

  7. Emily Wierenga

    this is awesome girl! so informative… thank you for sharing! XO

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