Today’s topic is the concept of “they’ll grow out of it.” Often, when I’m discussing a child’s behaviour with their parents, we’ll go through and I’ll detail all the ways that we can support their child and find solutions to the problems that are plaguing their family. Almost every time, a parent will ask, “And what if we just do nothing – will they grow out of it eventually?” Let’s talk about what “growing out of it” actually means, what it looks like, and how you can determine if your child is likely to grow out of a challenging behaviour or not.
What does “growing out of it” mean?
When we talk about a child growing out of a behaviour, we refer to the fact that as children get older and mature, they go through several sensitive periods of development that alter how they learn and understand the world. Between the ages of 2 and 6 there are literally hundreds of these developmental leaps. Because these developmental leaps alter how our kids understand the world, often this means boundary pushing and new challenging behaviours. Or even old challenging behaviours with a new spin on them, due to your child now being aware of more possibilities. They had exhausted all their avenues from their 3 year old perspective, but now at 4 they can think of different angles to work and explore to see if they can reach their goal – whatever that might be.
When we talk about a child “growing out of it” what we’re hoping is that when they go through one of these developmental leaps they’ll become more aware of the people around them, how their behaviour impacts those people, what our cultural social norms are, and ideally just stop having the problem that they were trying to solve; in short: we think they will stop having the needs they were expressing and they’ll figure it out all on their own so we can don’t have to worry about it. What parents are really asking me is, “will this problem solve itself if I just wait it out?”
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Here’s what really happens when we wait for a child to grow out of their problems:
They become internalized, they don’t disappear. The child begins to believe that this problem that they have, this need they have, that they don’t know how to solve – is a part of them. It’s something inherent to their personality and being, and the reason that nobody is helping them solve it is because it’s unsolvable and exclusive to them and that means they’re weird. It means they’re unlovable and stuck with this unfulfilled need and nobody is ever going to understand it. That makes them feel lonely, depressed, angry – just a short list of the many number of emotions.
When children form their identity, they are looking for things that make them unique. If the one thing everybody notices that makes them different from everyone else is that they have more unsolvable problems than everyone else, “okay cool. I’ll be the problem child, the boundary pusher. I’ll be the violent kid, the cryer. Or the biter. I’ll be the one who swears!” We have entire Hollywood movies where the entire premise of the plot is the “problem kid” discovering that their problems are solvable and that what makes them unique is not their temper or their lack of social skills or their high emotions or their lack of give-a-damn but actually some talent they haven’t been paying attention to, as the only thing anyone has ever given them attention for is their problems.
Behaviour is communication. It’s a language.
Waiting for our kids to grow out of behaviour that is disrupting their ability to engage as an active participant in their life is like gagging them. It’s if you were in a foreign country and got severely injured, but when you get to the hospital they can’t understand you, so instead of examining you to find out what the problem is, they send you to a room on the other side of the building to slowly die. Only when it comes to behaviour, it’s a lack of information and skill. Both of those things are entirely fixable. We just have to prioritize getting that exam so we can figure out what the problem is and start coming up with a treatment plan.
Do I think it’s possible to “grow out of” behaviour?
No, I don’t. I believe early intervention is crucial because as we get older our brain starts to solidify. It slowly becomes less and less adaptable. What started as the poor choice of an unskilled 3 year old can very easily grow and mutate to become the only perceivable option for a teenager. Habits only get harder to break as they get older. Which is why when I hear a parent saying they’re going to “wait it out” what I hear is “we’re going to wait until this comes to a boiling point before we address it.” The longer you wait, the harder it becomes to solve, and the longer the solution will take to work once you do find a solution. Does that mean it’s impossible to do? No, there is always the ability to remediate, but as Frederick Douglass has said, “It’ easier to raise strong children than repair broken men.”
What do you do if you’ve been waiting it out and realize the problem isn’t going to resolve on its own?
The first thing to do is apologise to your kid. Yes, they are the one acting out, but they’ve been telling you something is wrong this whole time, and you’ve ignored it until presumably now. I recommend going to them at a neutral moment, tell them you’re sorry and that you know now that they’re having a hard time and don’t know how to fix it. You didn’t recognise it sooner, but you do now, and you’re going to start helping them figure it out. That’s it. Just tell them you’re going to start helping them figure it out because you love them. This may or may not get you a positive response, as some kids are going to have a tough time trusting you. As much as that hurts, they do not owe you trust.
Step 2: take action. You’re going to join the Parenting Posse, if you aren’t already a member. When you join, pop your email address in and that’s going to get you a welcome packet that will allow you access to my Scripts to Manage Crazy-Making Behaviour. Log in, check them out. Start using them. When you’re ready, scroll down to the bottom of that page with the scripts and you’re going to click the big orange button that says Your Next Step: Free Class for Parents, and you’re going to register there. Whether you decide to continue on this journey with me or not, those 3 things will get you started off in the right direction.
If you are having a realization, chances are you will experience a healthy side of guilt. Stop yourself! To quote yet another very very smart black person, Maya Angelou, “We do the best we can until we know better, and then we do better.” What’s done is done, focus now on moving forward and solving problems.