When I was pregnant with my boys my mother bought me a book that would change everything for me as a parent. That was saying something. I hate self-help books. I hate how-to books. I HATE PARENTING BOOKS AND BLOGS. At first I poo-poo’d the book. The Wonder Weeks was its name and it was big and full of stuff I didn’t really want to hear. I expected it would be a pretty doorstop, but not much else. But then something happened. My cuddly sleeping, pooping, eating, napping 1 week old babies became screaming, unpredictable, inconsolable 4 week old monsters that I wanted to throw out the window. When I reached out for help from other new moms, they kept saying, “Have you read the Wonder Weeks? It explains a lot.”
Fine. FINE! I’ll read the darned book already! For those of you who haven’t heard about it, the authors Hetty Van De Rijt and Franz Plooij, compiled years of study on infants 0-1.5 and found patterns in this “fussy” behavior. They found that children had these incredible shifts in behavior and mood at pretty predictable times in their development and that these shifts were followed by enormous leaps in ability. For example, after one of these leaps my boys started to smile, after another they started to walk and the most recent one gifted us with a huge increase in vocabulary.
Unfortunately the Wonder Weeks book stopped telling us when the next leaps come. Now they catch me by surprise (unless I pay close attention to when other moms start complaining about behavior and reaching out—then I put it on my calendar). But the leaps don’t end and there is still a lot of information that I believe all parents should understand about developmental leaps. We need to understand what they are, notice when our kids are in one and have guidance on how to handle them. I believe that if we know these things and understand their life long impact on each of us, we can handle them with a bit more sanity and grace and make things easier instead of harder for us. Since all of my Google searches about this came up empty, I’ll try to contribute what I can to the discussion.
What Is A Developmental Leap?
A developmental leap is basically a huge brain growth spurt that is directly linked to age. While little ones can’t really explain it to us, you might be interested to hear that teens do a great job of explaining it. Teens in my practice often tell me that “something changed” and “my brain feels different” and “I’m aware of things I never was aware of a year ago” and even “I think something is wrong with me because all of a sudden my thoughts and emotions are doing really strange things.” This is not surprising knowing what we know about teen brain development.
When we (yes, we—these happen throughout the lifespan) are going through a developmental leap, our brain is experiencing shifts and changes that actually change the way we think and feel and process information. For children 0-3 and adolescents, this change is so dramatic and fast that it’s overwhelming and scary. It’s like being drugged and not knowing you were drugged.
How Do I Know If It’s A Leap?
For infants and young children the signs become very obvious once you’ve started noticing leaps. The interesting thing is that these symptoms seem to follow kids into their teens as they experience leaps so they can continue to be easy to spot if we’re looking. It may be a leap if:
· Your child is sleeping abnormally after sleeping just fine for months or years.
· Your child is eating poorly after eating very well for months or years.
· Your child becomes clingy after seeming to gain independence recently.
· Your child is easily irritated and has significant mood swings that feel out of character.
· None of your behavioral techniques that used to work are working now.
· Nothing you do seems to soothe them.
· You are starting to regret being a parent (or maybe that’s just what happens for me).
What Do I Need To Know About A Leap?
For folks who are not aware that their kids are going through a leap, they will often “misdiagnose”. It’s common for parents of infants and young toddlers to assume their child is teething or has a medical problem that requires a Dr. visit. Once they turn 2, we assume it is the “Terrible Two’s”. When they are adolescents we say, “It’s hormones”. Because we misunderstand what’s going on, we often deal with it in a way that creates anxiety and frustration for parents and kids.
It’s important to know that if your child is in a developmental leap, their teachability is highly impaired. The brain is too busy reconstructing itself to learn what you want it to learn. For infants that means any sleep training efforts, efforts to wean or attempts at teaching independent play should take a back seat because it’s just not going to work. For toddlers, that means any teaching you are doing around following instructions, being gentle or putting things away is probably an act of futility. For adolescents, that means rational conversation is unlikely to get you anywhere.
Not only is it futile to expect to teach or guide or mold behavior during this time—it will likely backfire on you. How many of you were told when your kid started acting up around 2 years old that “This is the time to get strict or she’ll run all over you the rest of your life”? I know I was. Luckily I knew better and ignored those folks. Instead of cracking down on the behavior by adding time-outs, raising my voice, and increasing power struggles, I decided to sit my rear end down on the bean bag and hold space for my struggling, very angry little guy. I increased connection and empathy while doing everything in my power not to scream and slam the door and throw him out the window (I was not always successful, but he’s not yet been thrown out a window so I count that as a success). I dropped all teaching goals (to get him to hold my hand when out and about, for example) and just focused on getting through the storm.
And to the great surprise of those who thought I should crack down, my little guy popped out of this leap holding my hand without being asked, sleeping better again, eating VEGETABLES (at least some), playing independently and ready to learn. Once the storm passed, I was able to start teaching. That’s when I was able to start saying, “No, mommy is eating right now so we aren’t going to the park”. He still threw a fit, but he was able to self-soothe and recover quickly.
What Happens When We Misdiagnose?
A few things happen when we misdiagnose a leap:
1. We begin to think there is something physically or emotionally wrong with our child. This increases our anxiety and the likelihood that our child will begin to internalize this message.
2. We begin to think there is something wrong with our parenting and become inconsistent and unpredictable as we try to change what we are doing to get some sense of control. This typically leads to troubling behaviors that last past the leap.
3. We begin to think our child is choosing to be this way since they have shown us that they “can be better”. This typically leads to punitive behavior that erodes our bond. The more our bond is eroded, the more likely it is that we’ll see out of the ordinary behavior problems (including defiance and violence) outside of these leaps.
What Do I Do If It’s a Leap?
1. Make sure you and your partner understand what it is. Misdiagnosis is very problematic.
2. Make plans for lots of self-care. Take turns with your partner a lot, ask for help from grandparents or other supports, get a massage, take some Kava Kava, exercise. Whatever fills your cup, do lots of it because you’re going to need patience until this storm passes.
3. Give in to the parenting shortcuts. I let my boys watch more TV when they are in leaps because I can’t possibly be calm and patient for 6 weeks of hell unless I get a break and TV works to shut them up for a minute. If they do better when they go to Grandma’s house, hang out there a lot more. If they do better out and about, be proactive and plan gazillion activities out and about. Let them have the pacifier. Let them eat granola bars and cereal all day if that’s the only thing they’ll eat without complaint. You can get back on track when they’re out of it.
4. Try to imagine if someone drugged your drink and you started hallucinating and had no idea why. Remember that they are overwhelmed and have very little ability to self-soothe during this time.
5. Be a Launchpad. Sit your butt down on their level for regular and predictable periods of time and let them come to you and venture away as they need. Connection is key for them to pop out of it on the other end stronger and more independent.
6. Stop teaching. Whatever goals you have to teach your child, put them on hold. Pick it back up when you’re on the other side.
7. Name it. Name it for your kid too. “I bet it feels like you’re brain is exploding right now.” “I know you’re overwhelmed, kiddo, we’ll get through it together.”
8. Don’t question or change your parenting approach unless it’s moving more towards the connection side of things. They need a predictable safe landing pad and the better you are at being consistent the safer they will feel.
9. Don’t believe anyone who says it’s just behavioral. I’ve found that, for my toddlers, the leaps last about 5-6 weeks. If the behavior goes on longer than that, you get to crack down again. For adolescents and teens, these leaps can feel like they go on for years. Keep your current limits in place, but make sure you give large doses of empathy.
If you have questions, get support. Parenting is hard and we can all use a good counselor to get through it. If you choose a therapist, be sure that they are well versed in child development and developmental leaps so that you’re not spending your time educating them on the fact that this is not, in fact, behavioral.