Periods of Disequilibrium

Does it seem to you that there are periods of time when parenting is easy? That you’ve mastered it and you’re cruising along with a well-behaved child whose needs you understand? And are there other periods when it’s all really hard? When you feel like you’re incompetent, like your child is out of control, and you have no idea what they need and the things that used to work no longer work?

Did you know that’s totally normal?

And that all families experience this?

Children go through very predictable cycles, or developmental spurts. Sometimes they settle into a quiet period of equilibrium where they take time to incorporate all that they have learned and practice learned skills to the point of mastery. Whenever they’re on the verge of a new and exciting development, they go into a period of disequilibrium… there’s some new skill they can see and it’s just out of reach, and they are striving toward it with every part of their being and frustrated at everything else along the way.

One of the first developmental spurts is a 6 week old baby… they cry and cry and cry… and then…. they smile at your for the first time and really connect with another person. Lots of 6 month olds struggle with sleep – they’d much rather be figuring out how to crawl. Although we hear about the “terrible twos”, it’s really the one-and-a-halfs and the two-and-a-halfs. The 18 month old knows that other people talk and that helps them get what they want. And yet when she tries to speak, nobody understands! Meltdowns are common at this age. (Learn about toddler language development here.) At 2.5, they have discovered that you set rules and make them do things they don’t want to do. And they rebel against that. You’ll hear the word “No” a lot at this stage! And they get very angry or upset when you don’t do things like they want you to. (Something like cutting their sandwich into triangles when they wanted squares can lead to a huge tantrum.) The more you can follow routines and set clear limits the more manageable this period can be.

These cycles continue throughout our lives. But they get longer… we have longer periods of equilibrium and longer periods of disequilibrium… where that 6 week old baby was out of balance for a week or two, a midlife crisis could last a couple years. One of the most challenging situations is when multiple members of the household are in a disequilibrium stage at the same time!

Expect more hard times at 3.5, 4.5, 5.5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc.

One hard time for kids is 4.5 years old. When my second child hit this stage, it was really hard. She had been on an easy cruise for a long time. And at 4.5, sometimes she was an absolute delight to be with – so many thoughts going on in her head, a great imagination, lots of budding passions and capabilities. And other times she was so exhausting to be around that I wanted someone to come and take her away!!

She was a rules negotiator and protester. She knew the rules – things like “only two sweets a day” (where a sweet equals a candy or a cookie or juice) and “you need to stay in your room at bedtime.” But, she would say “but today, I can have three sweets” or “tomorrow I’ll stay in my room.” And if I said no, she’d yell, hit, and more.

I thought “I need a book. A book about how to manage this.” I hadn’t felt like I needed to buy a parenting book in years, because I’d been feeling pretty competent. But now, I felt in over my head. So, I went looking for a book called something like “Your Five Year Old” that would tell me how to manage this.

And then, in the bookstore…  I realized I already owned that book.

I’d bought it when my first child was 4.5.

I’m not sure I really read it, because I think she may have moved out of that developmental stage into a period of equilibrium at about the same time as I bought that book. And we went into the smooth ease of parenting a five year old. Just remembering that I had bought the book and that she had moved on from that phase before I read it helped me realize I didn’t need to read a book to manage my second child… I just needed to be patient. It was, in fact, “just a phase”, and she soon moved through it.

And now, it’s child #3’s turn to be 4.5. He was sick about two weeks ago, and after that he became difficult to manage: some clinging, lots of wild behavior, lots of rule negotiating, lots of defying me when I enforce the rules (yesterday he head butted me when I said he couldn’t have a second bag of fruit snacks.) At first, we thought “well, it’s just because he’s been sick. It will get better soon.” But now, I’m coming to terms with the fact that no… it’s his period of disequilibrium. I’m trying to focus on all the joys of where he’s at developmentally (the language skills, the imagination, all the cool conclusions he’s coming to) and remember that “it’s just a phase… and this too shall pass….”

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8 thoughts on “Periods of Disequilibrium

  1. Marie Forst

    Reblogged this on Playful Directions and commented:
    But they were so easy to get along with a month ago…

    Why do our children seem to swing through periods of stubbornness and out right cantankerousness? Here is a wonderful explanation of where our sweet child went.

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