Tears, Tantrums, and Terrible Transitions? Here are 4 Things You Can Do to Weather Your Kids’ Disequilibirum

July 24, 2019

He’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

She’s in a terrible phase.

I just don’t know what happened to my gentle, considerate kid.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

We’ve all had these thoughts about our children! Sure, we know rationally that kids are constantly changing: her pants were too big at the beginning of the summer but have turned to shorts by September, and the oatmeal that was beloved last week lands on the floor this one. But we find ourselves understandably dismayed when a toddler starts biting out of nowhere or a nine-year-old all of a sudden “hates” school. Why do children go through these periods of greater and lesser resiliency, easygoing one day and impossible to deal with the next? And what can we do about it?

Tien Teng, our wonderful Head of Caregiving at The Garden, knows all about these ups and downs. Tien, who was a parent and then a substitute teacher at Little Wonders, a San Mateo play-based co-op and parent education program founded in 1992, shared with us this terrific article from The Center for Parenting Education that’s absolutely worth a read for anyone struggling to understand their child’s changing behavior. “The Ups and Downs of Growth” describes the concept of equilibrium vs. disequilibrium: sometimes, your kid seems settled, in a state of balance; at other times, she appears unbalanced, perhaps unregulated. As the article succinctly puts it: “smooth, calm behavior alternates with unsettled, uneven behavior.”

Children regularly cycle through these phases, from birth until the teen years. Infants toggle between equilibrium and disequilibrium almost weekly, but by age seven, the changes occur only about once a year. For toddlers, a switch happens roughly every six months: the eighteen-month-old can be particularly tricky, but when she turns two, she becomes more pliant and agreeable. Six months later, that will probably change again — but when she hits three, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief that your baby seems to be on level ground again…for six months or so, anyway. Sound exhausting? Yes. It is.

But it’s also exciting. As Tien tells us, the beautiful thing about the periods of disequilibrium is that they signify growth — kids finding language, or independence, or empathy. If equilibrium indicates a plateau in growth, then disequilibrium indicates a time of furious change. Change can be unsettling, but as the old adage goes, it’s also good. As kids learn new skills and journey toward becoming the wonderful adults they’ll eventually be, they’ll experience bumpy roads. They may appear anxious; aggressive; mouthy; they might tantrum or cry a lot more. These behaviors are children’s way of getting to the next plateau, the next period of equilibrium, when, we hope, they’ll be joyful again, fun to be around, and more content. And while it can feel much easier to care for kids during times of equilibrium, it’s some comfort to know that during the stickier times, they’re just doing what’s developmentally appropriate: growing up.

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Here are four things parents and caregivers can do to get through the disequilibrium gracefully.

  1. Stay steady. It’s tempting to check out when kids behave in ways we perceive as “bad,” but that’s precisely when children need calm, self-regulated adults to help them navigate the rough waters.
  2. Don’t introduce unnecessary change. It might not be smart to potty train when your child is in a period of disequilibrium, for example. If there are changes you can’t avoid — the new school year starts when it starts, after all — all the more reason to be sure you’re maintaining a calm and steady presence with your kid.
  3. Get your childcare provider on board! We’re lucky that Tien and our other childcare providers know how to support children as they cycle through equilibrium and disequilibrium. It helps when parents and caregivers are on the same page with positive discipline strategies and extra loving patience.
  4. Remember that this too shall pass. If there’s one thing every experienced caregiver knows, it’s that kids are always changing. Six months with a willful toddler can feel interminable, we know.

But it really won’t last forever.

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You can read “Developmental Stages: The Ups and Downs of Growth” from The Center for Parenting Education here. And check out San Mateo–based parent-participation co-op Little Wonders to preview a class. There’s also wealth of information on the site for parents, from suggested parenting books to workshop notes and more.


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