I have been somewhat troubled this week whilst reading several Facebook articles and the responses around the should and musts of our daily lives. For example, “shouldn’t she be walking by now? Her father walked at the age of 13 months!”.
In coaching sessions, I am on the alert for language that uses should and musts as it is often a clue to limiting beliefs. The other alert is overgeneralising, for example “I can’t do maths”, “she is always so angry”. We have to reflect on whether these statements really are 100% true all of the time. When we notice our language, we begin to understand how language shapes us and our responses, especially with our children.
I have two articles in mind, one was about how to help babies and toddlers understand their emotions and eventually self- regulate them; the other was a mock letter from a teenager to adults asking for acknowledgement that the teenage brain is really quite different from the adult brain, so what is the joining theme? Both articles are around the research that shows all of us develop at different rates.
There is a general direction and it can be summarised into so called norms for developmental milestones, but along the way, there are many factors that contribute to how fast or slow we move towards the next key marker. This for me is the thrill of my work, as no one person sitting with me can be labelled the ‘typical teenager’ for example, they are simply who they are in that moment, having had experiences to date and various biological changes too.
I say simply almost ironically, because it is the marvellous complexity of brain, body and environment that makes us all unique. The two articles, in my opinion were attempting to celebrate this by pointing out that children cannot simply ‘grow up’ before their time just because we adults think they should.
There is a biological underpinning that even with the ideal environmental conditions some things just cannot be accelerated. For example, we as adults become frustrated with our two year old refusing to get ready quickly for the days outing, it then becomes unreasonable for us to project our frustration onto our child and then expect them to manage their own emotions.
They do not have a biological capacity to self-regulate and yet, according to the comments on the article many readers still said that the best way to teach them was via time out. In the toddlers mind all that they are capable of feeling at that moment is rejection. It seems as though they have displeased mummy or daddy and on top of that are removed from their loving care and told to ‘go it alone’. This prevents them from learning the most important thing – that whatever happens we love them.
Similarly at the other end of the age range, the teenage brain is not yet fully developed in the pre-frontal cortex. This is fully developed by about 23. This part of the brain provides us with the ability to think logically, rationalise a situation, match with prior experiences and make helpful decisions. This means that until it is fully developed teenagers will typically make mistakes, take risks despite warnings from us adults etc. Once again, biology trumps our reasoning that our teenagers should behave in a certain way.
The comments on this article varied from complete understanding to a stubborn stance of suggesting punishment like take their phone away; ground them for a week etc if they are not behaving as we want them to. In both articles there seems to be a familiar denial of what is.
The two year old cannot learn about emotions on their own on the naughty step, the teenager will rationalise the taking way of the phone so that it doesn’t feel like punishment and we adults in the meantime have really only temporarily reduced our annoyance because the biological facts imply it is going to happen again and again if we insist on following our shoulds, the shoulds of our own parents and teachers.
The simple answer is just noticing. A simple phrase but not an easy activity if we have old habits that jump in. We can cultivate an air of curiosity and use the pause button on our own emotions to just notice if we can remind ourselves of the biological restraints facing our children. What we wish for and what our children are actually capable of may be at odds and just noticing that changes our own response, to one of compassion and moving towards rather than disappointment and moving apart.
One practical example where almost all of us notice the importance of biological development and we therefore go along with it, is that babies are born with legs but none of us expect them to walk out of the womb, or indeed walk for another good few months. We instinctively know that it is absolutely OK for them not to walk. We would laugh at anyone saying, “that 6 week old has got two legs they should be walking”. But we do not instinctively do that with the unseen brain development.
We assume that because every other 4 year old, 10 year old, 18 year old behaves in a certain approved way then our children should too. This is encouraged in a school system that uses age and not stage to classify our children.
My plea today is to keep an eye on developmental milestones just in case some kind of intervention is required, but on the whole, notice how our child is responding, and tailor our behaviour to their specific needs in that moment, reflect on our own story of why this is unacceptable behaviour and just notice if maybe our expectations for learning are beyond their biological control. We adults have a fully developed brain that helps us to make the right decisions for our own unique children in a loving way. Just notice…