When my son was about two and half I no longer knew how to parent him. He went from toddling baby I knew and adored to a stomping, glaring preschooler I didn’t understand. My tried and true techniques quit working and more than once I carried his screaming self out of the store, the library and away from the park completely baffled by his behavior. I felt guilty for his behavior, I felt guilty because I didn’t know how to quit triggering his anger and I really felt guilty because I sure wasn’t liking him much.
It seemed like neither of us could do anything right.
“I’m a terrible parent,” I cried to my husband. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m ruining him.”
It was my first lesson in how developmental stages could hit both of us. I knew he was going to grow and change but I didn’t understand that I would have to grow and change with him. It was only when I was commiserating (i.e., crying on the phone) with a friend whose daughter was exactly one month older that I realized that I’d become stagnant. I was still trying to parent a toddler and he was trying to grow into a kid.
Parenting is anything but stationary.
Our kids are growing all of the time and sometimes it takes a crisis in the relationship for us to realize that it’s time to change things up. We can’t parent a preschooler like a toddler; we can’t parent a teen like a tween. Those parenting plateaus — where kids and parents are perfectly in sync — are temporary. They grow, we grow and then we all have to readjust to each other.
I have found in my own life and in the lives of the families I work with that the greatest push-pull comes when kids are edging to greater independence and parents haven’t caught up with this new scenario. There are predictable developmental windows when it’s easy to lose track of each other — when toddlers learn that they’re separate from their parents; when teens start looking to peers instead of mom or dad. But it can happen in less volatile times, too. Maybe a child wants the training wheels off or wants to choose their own clothes or wants to be left alone with a project. What was welcomed as attentive parenting one day is all of a sudden perceived as overbearing and we don’t even know when we crossed the line.
I tell this story a lot so you may have heard it but right around this same time when my son and I were first knocking heads he got furious with me because I didn’t remember his dream. He was trying to tell me about it at breakfast and he was so angry that I couldn’t remember it for him. For me, that sums up those trying toddler-preschooler times; he wanted me to psychically keep track of his inner thoughts and feelings but he sure didn’t want to hold my hand when we were crossing the street. No wonder I was confused, right? This stuff is confusing.
It’s painful to grow up (and not just for kids). It’s hard to make sense of these mixed messages — the 13-year old who mouths off and rolls their eyes then tries to climb onto your lap, the teen who won’t let you into their room but who wants to tell you the entire plot of Homestuck and exactly what they think of it. How are we supposed to know?
The answer is that we can’t know until we run into that brick wall and realize that our parenting needs updating. Conflict is a sign that things need to change. Sometimes what needs to change is our parental expectation and behavior. Sometimes it’s our kids who are dragging us to the next stage while we’re still trying to hammer away at the way things used to be.
It’s hard. It’s frustrating. And it is often painful.
That first time was the worst. I really thought I’d broken him and that chaos and conflict were going to be a permanent reality. But we did work it out. I changed up my expectations, I built in more opportunities for him to feel independent and suddenly my sunshine son was back, both of us happy to be with each other again.
And after that I could recognize when the landscape was starting to change and knew to rewrite my map. Acclimating to the new terrain got a lot easier once I knew what to look for.
We have a whole course on what to expect from your child developmentally as part of the Parenting for Resilience workshop series. If you have any question about the membership, please let me know!