This has been top of mind for the last several months since the end of 2021 was overwhelmingly monopolized by helping my clients collaborate with their children’s teachers and daycare providers. This was a recurring theme across institutions, across different kinds of programs, across provinces and states, and countries.
This very odd concept that children are always the same.
They never have bad days. They shouldn’t be affected by lack of sleep, hunger, tensions at home, grief, exciting things that happened at home, siblings, deployments, illness…all the things that we go through in life. Somehow there’s this belief that children should not be affected by any of it, and that young children be reasonably expected to maintain their composure and adherence to expectations despite all the stressors they have going on in their lives.
One example that sticks out in my mind was a principal in Australia very condescendingly explaining to me that it really doesn’t matter that this 4-year-old child has a severe chronic medical issue, that they’re expected to show up and follow the rules just like everyone else.
Another example is a teacher in the southern United States rolling their eyes at me and saying very snarkily that the child in question “is able to sit still just fine” in the morning, so they should also be able to sit for 20-40 minutes at 5:30 in the evening.
I had an administrator semi-local to me rolling her eyes and saying “I know she has ADHD and her father is deployed right now, but that’s no excuse” for the child being much more reactive and emotional lately.
Our children are not robots.
They’re humans who have a range of emotions, a range of stressors, a range of medical needs, a range of exciting things going on in their lives and they’re young.
It is not fair to compare a 2,3,4,5,6, even 7,8,9 year old to an adult and be like “Well I’m dealing with a lot of emotions and I still show up to school and adhere to social norms.” GOOD FOR YOU! You’re an adult with a fully developed brain and years of practice and quite frankly, we shouldn’t be expecting adults to be acting like everything is fine when it isn’t either- that’s how we create mental health issues!
Our kids do not always have the same capacity day to day, or even hour to hour. This is why looking at behavior through the lens of stressors is SO helpful and can have such a BIG impact on children’s behavior really quickly because when we start looking at the stress a child is experiencing and take steps to mitigate it or help them cope with it.
Their capacity improves!
This is why I like the gas tank analogy so much. In case you’re new around here and have never heard my gas tank analogy I’ll just quickly review. In Uncommon Sense Parenting, we talk a lot about everybody having a gas tank. Just like your car. Just like your car sometimes it’s fuller than others. Depending on how you’re feeling physically, any emotions you’re experiencing, the demands on you, anxiety, if you’re worried about anything, how you slept, and the last time you got a chance to refill your tank. You may be waking up with a full tank, or you may not be and everything you do sucks some energy out of your tank…it’s just a matter of how much. Things that are routine like brushing your teeth may suck a very small amount. Things like giving a presentation probably suck a lot.
It doesn’t matter how routine something is if you don’t have enough gas in your tank to do it, you can’t do it because everything needs some amount of gas. Generally how what most people see as misbehavior happens: a child is running on fumes, and then a demand gets put on them that they don’t have the gas in the tank to do….and they explode, or stall out.
This is why the expectation that a child who can sit for a 40 minute circle time in the morning (which-, by the way, is a completely developmentally inappropriate expectation. Circle times should never be longer than 10 minutes that’s another episode though.)…the expectation that they should also be able to do that at 5:30 in the evening is ridiculous. especially when you haven’t given them any refills in the form of breaks, sensory input, co-regulation, or rest. It’s like expecting your car to be able to do a two-hour drive just because it was able to successfully make the drive in the morning…only you didn’t stop for gas in between those two trips.
The expectation that a 4-year-old with a chronic medical condition should be able to meet the same expectations with the same number of breaks as their typical, completely healthy peers. That’s like comparing the mileage of a car going up a steep hill to a car driving on a completely flat road. Even if they’re the exact same car with the exact same size of gas tank which, nobody is, and nobody does.
The car going up the steep hill is not going to get the same distance as the car driving on a flat easy road. They’re dealing with something extra that takes extra energy. Same as the kiddo with ADHD with a deployed parent! Their road isn’t necessarily completely flat most of the time, but the bumps are gentle enough that yes, they can cope generally. But throw in a deployment- and now they’re going up a steep hill! So while they had plenty of gas available to manage their neurodivergence typically, now they don’t.
This is also the reason why we see such big changes so quickly in ParentAbility.
I was extremely proud of one of my newer clients, when she joined she told me that her son was a breath away from being kicked out of school. He was throwing tables and chairs which is not unusual for new ParentAbility families. He was having massive explosions of anger at school. Assaulting staff. Using language he knew wasn’t appropriate. Threatening people. The list goes on.
She joined and dove right into implementing making tweaks as she went and learned more. In a couple of weeks, we had a call, and she told me that he hadn’t had a single violent episode at school the entire previous week. She only started implementing 7 days before! The week before he’d been having 2+ episodes A DAY! A massive change just by implementing some preliminary steps.
A week after that she told me that for the first time she was able to avoid a massive meltdown as he entered the school that typically would have resulted in assaulting her and anyone who tried to help her. Instead, they worked through it calmly and he went on to have an amazing day.
This is the difference that recognizing that our children’s capacity is not consistent and adjusting accordingly can make that fast 2 weeks from tossing tables to calm kid.
Now I know this isn’t easy, this mom worked her butt off for those two weeks but it wasn’t difficult because it was complicate.
It’s mind-numbingly simple.
It’s difficult because it requires us to let go of all these old beliefs about our kids and what motivates their behavior.
It’s hard because we have to constantly be reframing the behavior we see and practice-changing our responses to that behavio. Many of which are deeply ingrained in us. There’s a lot of unlearning to go along with the new learning and that’s a lot of energy output! It’s nowhere near the energy she was putting out constantly putting out fires that her son was creating though.
Dr. Shanker has a mantra he’s always saying we need to ask Why and Why Now? Why are they behaving this way?
Why are they behaving this way right now?
Spoiler alert: the answer to that is almost always that there’s a stressor we aren’t taking into account.
This is your challenge: start 2022 off by committing to asking yourself why and why now every time you see your child behaving in a way you don’t want and then try to solve that problem instead of changing the behavior.
You’ll notice that it’s a lot more productive.
f you’re having a difficult time figuring it out come debreif in the Parenting Posse. We’d love to help you unpack it.