Children can begin to recognize and acknowledge certain words when they’re as young as a few months old. The age at which a child will understand more nuanced sentences and concepts, however, depends from person to person, as each child’s mind develops at different paces, according to Krystal Revai, a medical director in Medical Policies and Operations at Aetna.
Learning right from wrong, for example, is a gradual process for a child, rather than an event. A child may understand they shouldn’t do something because their parents tell them not to, but they won’t comprehend the actual reason behind why the action is undesirable until they’re older, Revai said.
Between the ages of 8- to 10-months, a child can generally identify when a parent is saying “yes” and “no,” Revai said. The concept of rules comes into play when the child is closer to 2- or 3-years-old. And understanding why something is right or wrong — the abstract thought — may not happen until they’re adolescents, Revai said.
Children go through a gradual change and develop at different rates and in different ways. Although children may not understand something right away, Revai emphasized the importance of continual, simple communication.
Understanding yes and no and why you shouldn’t hit someone
“You want to be consistent with what is right and wrong,” she said. “You want to be consistent in your message and minimizing lectures. Just keep things straight forward.”
The early years for children
A child that is about 3- to 4-years-old will know not to hit someone else because their parents told them it’s not a good thing to do. They’ll know that lying is a bad thing to do because of what their parent told them. But children this age aren’t comprehending the reason behind why hitting someone or lying is bad, Revai said.
Children in this age group are still developing speech and social skills and can understand certain concepts in some areas, according to the Child Development Institute.
“The more abstract it is, the more difficult it can be to comprehend,” Revai said.
A younger child’s thought process will also be different from an adolescent during emergency situations. Depending on what is going on, an adolescent will recognize a potential danger and go to safety, whereas the younger child may hear a loud noise and try to find their parents, Revai said.
The more abstract a thought, the more difficult it can be to comprehend
Mid-childhood to adolescents
When a child is between the ages of 8- and 12-years-old, Revai said, parents can begin explaining the reason behind why certain actions are not a good thing. For example, telling your child lying is bad because you can’t trust what they’re saying.
“You can give very straight-forward explanations as to why something is wrong,” Revai said.
At this age, the child’s thinking becomes more abstract and they can understand hypothetical situations and outcomes.
But for some adolescents — which can include those who are in the preteen age —certain abstract concepts can be difficult to understand. Because of that, Revai said to always keep in mind where a child’s thinking is.
“Take it slow; too much information is just overload,” Revai said. “Have conversations with them and continue having a dialogue with them.”