When raising children, every step forward they take means more work for mother -- fathers, too. When children start to feed themselves, food usually goes everywhere -- except into their mouths. They often dump the food as they try out their new skills. There is almost always a mess to clean up.
In the same way, when they start to dress themselves it can take forever -- especially in the morning. Starting to walk and explore means having to child-proof the house, putting valued things away and harmful things out of reach. Toilet training, means accidents, clean-up, and diaper changes.
Because developmental steps create more work for parents, we can find ourselves resisting enabling some of these steps as children move forward. It becomes easier to do many things for a child than to let or encourage him to do them himself. We do the feeding and dressing, continue with diapers or pull-ups, and perform other chores because it seems easier and takes less time.
What seems simpler can be misleading. All of the steps that children take as they develop entail taking responsibility for themselves. Developing self-help skills means one kind of responsibility, which in itself is a step toward taking responsibility for one's behavior. Parents become distressed when it seems to them that a child is not taking responsibility without recognizing that this is part of many other steps that may come first.
The mastery of developmental steps takes time, which can seem endless to a parent. Yet once children do learn to do many things, it seems they have always done them. Despite the way it seems, such steps are not firmly entrenched and numerous life events can cause setbacks.
Illness, vacations, travel, a parent away, the move to a new home, can all cause children to regress to earlier patterns of behavior. Actually, this is just as true for adults as it is for children. Think about your own feelings faced with going back to work after a vacation or even a weekend. When feeling sick do you just wish someone would take care of you?
The difference is that as adults we are further removed from those earlier years of dependence and have developed the ability to take responsibility for ourselves and our behavior even while recognizing the wish not to do so. But our children's independent skills are so newly acquired that they are more vulnerable to events that may seem of lesser consequence to an adult. For example, holidays are a time of great excitement and fun, with vacations and presents. Then, suddenly it is over. Children often have a hard time accepting this reality and may express their feelings in a variety of ways.
This is when I hear concern from parents that their children are refusing to go to school, are having trouble going to bed or getting up in the morning. These setbacks in behavior can be difficult for parents. It is easy to feel resentful about being expected to provide a kind of care that we did willingly when children were unable to do for themselves. So at times we may be impatient with such setbacks.
It can help to know that such setbacks are temporary, and if we provide that extra help and support when needed without in the process giving up our expectations of our children, they themselves will want to assert their more independent behavior. It is pride in their mastery of independent skills they makes up for the loss of dependence.
As with us, their parents, a moment of support when needed can make all the difference.
-- Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.