What Are The Formative Years
The formative years are the time period between 0-8 years when the brain and neurobiological development are the fastest after birth. What happens to a child in these years can affect their physical development, mental development, and success in life.
A child’s formative years are a potent time when it comes to defining who a child is, and who they will become in future life. They have a lasting impact on their brains and healthy development1.
Brain development during the formative years
Human brains begin to develop as early as three weeks after conception. The brain’s development process is rapid in the formative years. The neural blueprint is laid down at this time2.
By kindergarten, the foundations of the most important sensory and perception systems are in place. Over the next several years, various cognitive functions, including decisionmaking, information retention, and emotion management, will also develop3.
During these crucial years in child development, experiences from different aspects of life can have lasting effects.
Children who have healthy childhood experiences and receive love and nurturing at home will reap the most benefits throughout their lives.
Young children with bad experiences, such as emotional neglect, physical abuse, negative home life, socioeconomic stress, and food insecurity, can still thrive, but these early adversities will also have enduring negative effects on kids4.
What Children Learn During Their Formative Years
Your child’s early years aren’t just about learning the ABCs, shapes, and basic math concepts. It’s also a time of vital social and emotional development5.
Your child is learning what love and care are. They are learning how to socialize with others, and what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is. They are learning the basics about how to manage their own “big” feelings, though these skills certainly will need lots of refining along the way.
In terms of “school” or academic skills, there are many important skills your child will be mastering in the first few years of life, including early literacy and math skills, and cognitive skills such as learning about cause and effect and same vs. different. In addition to these learning concepts, your child will be learning how to be a good listener, how to persist through learning challenges, and how to self-regulate emotionally.
Some of these skills will be learned in structured education programs like preschool and pre-kindergarten, but many are learned at home in the formative years. When it comes to both socio-emotional and academic skills, you are your child’s first teacher!
What Are The Effects Of The Formative Years?
The formative years are a highly impressionable time for a child’s development, and because of that, both positive and negative experiences can have lasting impacts. Surrounding your child with love, security, opportunities for explorative and educational play all can set your child up for a healthy and successful life.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. Children who experience adversity and trauma in their formative years can suffer the effects even years down the road. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—which include experiences like growing up in a household with a mentally ill parent or a parent who abuses drugs or alcohol, experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, or losing a parent—all have deep impacts.
For example, experiencing traumas in childhood can:
- Affect physical and mental health6
- Increase your risk of alcoholism and drug abuse7
- Increase your risk of developing depression and suicide
- Put you at a higher risk of heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and liver disease8
- Make you more likely to take up smoking and experience obesity
How To Maximize Your Child’s Formative Years
Your child’s formative years are a special time for you both. Children are little sponges during this time, and they still value the company of their parents. You have an important role to play as you help mold your child into the person you hope they will become when they grow up.
For the most part, you can let your child guide you through this process. Children are natural learners, and they are also natural at expressing their emotions and telling you what they need.
Here are some ideas to maximize the formative years with your child:
- Be a warm and responsive parent to help them form a secure attachment with you
- Help your child develop emotional regulation skills by providing a positive family environment
- Teach your child emotional regulation by helping your child name their feelings, and teaching them skills like breathing through difficult feelings and even learning basic meditation
- Let your child explore the environment in a safe space
- Encourage imaginative or pretend play
- Read to your child frequently: go to the library and stock up on books; set up a reading nook in your home; make reading a nightly ritual
Final thoughts on the formative years
If you want to be the best parent you can be for your child during their formative years, you have to take care of your own health and mental health too. Your child needs at least one stable adult in their life to thrive, and the more you are able to be there for your child, the stronger and more resilient your child will be, whatever challenges they may face.
Keep in mind that all children are different and develop at different paces during the formative years. Please speak to your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s development or want advice about how to maximize the formative years.
- 1.Rank MR, Hirschl TA. The Economic Risk of Childhood in America: Estimating the Probability of Poverty across the Formative Years. Journal of Marriage and the Family. Published online November 1999:1058. doi:10.2307/354024
- 2.Stiles J, Jernigan TL. The Basics of Brain Development. Neuropsychol Rev. Published online November 3, 2010:327-348. doi:10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4
- 3.Tierney A, Nelson C. Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years. Zero Three. 2009;30(2):9-13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23894221
- 4.Bellis MA, Lowey H, Leckenby N, Hughes K, Harrison D. Adverse childhood experiences: retrospective study to determine their impact on adult health behaviours and health outcomes in a UK population. Journal of Public Health. Published online April 14, 2013:81-91. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdt038
- 5.Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8. National Academies Press; 2015. doi:10.17226/19401
- 6.Shonkoff JP, Boyce WT, McEwen BS. Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, and the Childhood Roots of Health Disparities. JAMA. Published online June 3, 2009:2252. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.754
- 7.Felitti VJ MD, FACP, Anda RF MD, MS, Nordenberg D MD, et al. Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published online May 1998:245-258. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8
- 8.Felitti VJ MD, FACP, Anda RF MD, MS, Nordenberg D MD, et al. Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published online May 1998:245-258. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8