Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Storm Before the Calm

As the season's change in New England we are subjected to a roller coaster ride of ever-changing weather. The past couple of weeks alone, as we transitioned from winter to spring, brought us rain (lots and lots of rain!), sleet, snow, unseasonably warm and sunny weather, and wind...always a lot of wind. As I walked in whichever weather was served up each day, I reflected on how there is often a period of unrest before settling into a contented calm.

I wasn't thinking of just the weather either. First my mind wandered to things like the turbulence experienced while changing altitudes in an airplane. Then I started to think of all the examples in human nature, troubled periods while transitioning to a new stage of life or before mastering a new skill, and the "arsenic hour" just before dinner and bedtime. I thought about the "mid-life crisis" and the teenage years.

Inevitably I thought of parenting and children's development. So many parents worry that something is wrong when difficult periods arise. I first noticed this while supporting families practicing Elimination Communication (EC) as a DiaperFreeBaby Mentor. Many parents get concerned that EC "didn't work" as their children go through the transition from "being pottied" to being toilet independent.

The story is told in similar ways- my baby has been "ECed" since X number of months and it was going great until she started crawling/walking and now she is refusing to use the potty or pees on the floor right after I offer her the potty or seems to refuse out of spite or only goes in the potty once a day or something similar.

The situation almost always seems to be made worse as the parents try to gain control over the situation. To me it seems the child is just trying to maintain her own awareness of her body and be in control of it herself. To me it is proof that EC does "work", after all the point isn't to have an early graduate, the point is to keep the child's body awareness and respect her ability to know what her body needs.

My first point when this situation comes up is that EC is EC not because of a final outcome of graduating to toilet independence. EC is EC when you are using it as an alternative to full-time diapering, even if you are using diapers as a back-up for misses. EC is the belief that children instinctively know when they need to eliminate in the same way they know when they are hungry or tired. EC gives children control and say over their own bodies.

My second point is that it is not unusual for there to be a "two steps forward, one step back" situation during any transition period. There seem to be some survival mechanisms in place to handle transitioning to greater independence. We see this prior to major motor skills, for example. Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety seem to coincide with crawling, and later with walking. These both seem to be in place to keep children from wandering too far away from their mother or other trusted caregivers once they actually can.

In more traditional, hunter-gatherer cultures the children keep track of where the parents or other caregivers are, instead of the other way around. Many modern parents are mystified by periods of clingyness around the time of motor skill milestones or other independence based milestones. This is because many modern cultures chase their children around (which really ends up to be chasing them away) with the belief that this is necessary to keep them safe. For many the idea that children are hardwired to survive and thrive is unknown to them because the overwhelming cultural belief is that children must be chased after for their own good. So when the normal behavior is exhibited around these times parents misinterpret it as something gone wrong.

If the belief is that a child needs to be chased after and continually stopped from "getting into trouble" there is no reason to imagine that a child would need a mechanism in place to keep her close to her caregivers. Once parents understand why children become clingy before crawling, need to be held more before walking, or nurse more at night before weaning as a toddler, they are able to honor the need.

Ironically many parents instead respond to the behaviors with two very different approaches at the same time. Commonly they will see this new clingyness, increased number of misses, increased need to nurse, increased need to sleep next to parents, etc as something being wrong. The behavior is looked at as something the child needs to be broken of, and something the parent has created. Many believe they have created some sort of dependence by "giving in".

Some common thoughts that come up are:

"I should have weaned sooner because now he's addicted to nursing"

"I never should have started co-sleeping because now he'll never be able to sleep in his own bed"

"I carried her too much because now she never wants to be put down and won't go to anyone else"

"I never should have done EC because she seems to resent it and won't pee in the potty anymore out of spite"

Often parents react by trying to force independence by attempting to stop whatever the need is at the time. They try harder to get the child to use the potty without letting him take over the process for himself. They force the child into her own bed or attempt some sort of sleep training. They make a point of leaving their baby with babysitters or refuse to hold him in order to cure him of his separation and stranger anxieties. They wean from nursing cold turkey to try to avoid the perceived nursing addiction.

By reacting in these ways parents are really just imposing their own wills unnecessarily on their children by telling them that they know what is better for them than what their own bodies are telling them. When they do this they are actually perpetuating a lack of independence because they are telling their children that they can't be trusted to know their own bodies. Parents inadvertently push children beyond their comfort zone, beyond what is in place to navigate this new period of independence. Children respond, not by becoming more independent, but by becoming less.

Parents often increase dependence in the opposite way too by taking away independence. Instead of allowing children to discover and learn for themselves they jump in to help more than is needed or wanted. Take the EC example again; it is common for parents to forget to listen to their child about pottying and continue to take the lead or take over completely. Common reactions to "potty pauses" are:

- Continuing to offer the same potty locations and positions instead of considering that your child just wants something new. Sometimes it can be as simple as a boy wanting to pee standing up.

- Continually asking the child if she has to go potty rather than waiting for her to tell them.

- Putting a previously diaper-free child back in diapers full-time out of fear of misses rather than giving him a chance to notice on his own, even if it means a temporary increase in misses.

It seems that many parents have difficulty transitioning from the early months of EC where they are more in the lead. In the early months of EC they can look for signs their baby gives that he needs to eliminate but often these signs are more instinctive than conscious on the part of the baby. Whether a sign is instinctive or conscious, in the early months it is the responsibility of the caregiver to help the baby to potty. Where parents seem to get stuck later is in looking for signs that the child wants to take over the process and helping to facilitate that. They often continue pottying a 1 year old the same way as a 4 month old. They misinterpret the signs that the child wants to take over as signs the child doesn't want to use the potty at all.

I've noticed with my kids that when they are looking to become more toilet independent they don't even want to be asked if they have to go. When I relax about it, trust that they will know what their bodies need, and wait to ask me for help when and if they need it, the whole process goes a lot more smoothly.

You could say that the transition from being ECed to being toilet independent is similar to the dynamic that happens when going from the early months and years of Attachment Parenting or Continuum Concept parenting to the older, more independent, years. And many parents get stuck during that dynamic too, including me.

Though I can recognize difficulties in the dynamic, solutions aren't as straight-forward. I've already said that I noticed two opposite responses happening simultaneously- forcing too much independence too soon, and not recognizing signs of needing more independence and allowing it. Already it's confusing!

Based on my experiences, I've come up with some thoughts on how to navigate these transitions:

- Listen to what your child is saying. Trust her if she is communicating that she needs to be held often or nursed more. Believe him if he says he can't handle something such as his homework load.

- Let her do as much for herself as possible, even if it means more of "a mess" for you.

- Help out only when asked for help, and only if it is truly needed. In the case of intervening in sibling interactions/arguments especially, you may need to "wean" your children off of you jumping in to solve arguments. You may have to do a lot of encouraging them to work it out themselves.

- Switch over from offering opportunities or simply meeting needs to more and more modeling expectations and more of a "don't offer, but don't refuse" approach.

- Take these transitions for what they are- the storm before the calm; the rocky period while transitioning to something new.

- Realize that these periods are like a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs. Just ride it out and enjoy the ride while you're in it.

- What "works" one day might not work the next. During these times you'll constantly be straddling the line between your child wanting a lot of independence and wanting to be nearly completely dependent. It is okay to look for hidden causes of difficulties, such as food allergies, but realize that sometimes this will just keep you occupied while the transition runs its course. You may or may not find a medical problem and solution.

The rain is back again in my area, record rainfall. Walking through the driving rain today I struggled with my umbrella. The more I tried to hold onto it the more the wind tried to take it away. I tried holding it in different directions and at different heights. Finally I just closed my umbrella and embraced the rain and wind.

Now when I notice one of these stages I don't get concerned or annoyed. I get excited to witness growing independence. I think of the calm to come.


  1. "children are hardwired to survive and thrive..."

    Love it! Great post!

  2. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I've been finding that it applies to a lot of different parenting situations.

  3. Much wisdom in these words.
    Growth comes in spurts. Trees have a growing season and a dormant season.
    Babies cling then they push away.
    Toddlers become compliant, then defiant. Young children become agreeable, then argumentative. Teenagers love you and hate you, they need your help and they don't want your help. Parenting is a labor of love.
    And it any labor starts with that first contraction, followed by a rest, squeezing and releasing, squeezing and releasing.

  4. Thank you, stubber. Beautifully said.