Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Aliens and Car Keys

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Feb 16, 2013 10:04 AM

"She was an alien, really - a sort of eating, pooping, tantrum machine - and  he didn't understand anything about her species." (Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job)

Every once in a while, I feel like an imposter. Despite nearly thirty years' experience as a school counselor, some days, the fifteen I've spent as a parent leave me feeling as though I know nothing. And if this is the case, who am I to be writing a blog about parenting?

But the fact is, it's my experience as a parent that colors this blog. The counseling background is the charcoal sketch, and life as mommy is what adds color, nuance and realism to that sketch - one that is, by nature, a little blurry to begin with. And if I weren't in the parenting trenches, but rather able to look upon all of it with rose-colored glasses, I'd be writing a very different blog.

And so I submit to you that parenting a teenager is hard. I am finding fifteen particularly challenging. Though we're past the pooping, toddler tantrum stage, I would (with all due respect to parents of two-year-olds) choose a toddler tantrum over the teenage version any day. Toddlers are distractible. Teenagers are single-mindedly stubborn.

A friend who has raised three boys to adulthood, swears that fifteen is the worst age. Next year, there will be car keys to confiscate, but for now, this person I am parenting is at once child and adult, mature in so many ways, but not nearly as ready to tackle life on her own as she thinks she is - prepared to rule the world as long as she has a maid, a chauffeur and a personal chef.

Come to think of it, that does sound a lot like parenting a two-year-old - only without the car keys.

And in case you're wondering, yes, this is the same child I was so delighted to finally be able to be stay-at-home mom to. In fact, I joke that every time I write a blog extolling the wonder of parenting, my daughter sets out to prove me wrong.

But such is the nature of teenagers - and kids at every age, to a certain extent. Louise Bates Ames, who has co-written a series of books for the Gesell Institute of Child Development talks about Piaget's periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium in all of her volumes on young children. She accompanies this discussion with a graphic that looks much like a stretched out Slinky, with equilibrium spiraling into disequilibrium and back again.

"Essentially, whenever the child's experience/interaction with the environment yielded results that confirmed her mental model [schema], she could easily assimilate the experience. But when the experience resulted in something new and unexpected, the result was disequilibrium. The child may experience this as confusion or frustration. Eventually the child changes her cognitive structures to accommodate, account for, the new experience, and moves back into equilibrium....And oftentimes "disequilibrium" can show up in very obvious and concrete ways: a child acting out of sorts, throwing tantrums, even requiring extra sleep. As a major skill is accomplished and/or integrated, the child moves back into equilibrium and interacts more smoothly with those around her." (Source: NNDB's entry on Jean Piaget)

Piaget came to these conclusions through his studies with young children, and when it's not my child having a meltdown in the grocery store, it's easy to step back and see disequilibrium in action in the form of a pre-verbal, tired toddler. Similarly, when I'm not the parent in the trenches with a teen who has dug in her heels, it's not much of a stretch to see that the same concept is at work, particularly if the teenager is tired, has hurt feelings or is coping with unfamiliar territory (and that's all without being under the influence of hormones).

If disequilibrium arises from a clash between a child's world view and her experience, teens are certainly as vulnerable as toddlers - perhaps even more so. They're exposed to much more information, a great deal of which conflicts with their experience and what they have come to understand. And, because their level of (desired) independence is even higher than that of a two-year-old, teens often have more difficulty initiating the discussions necessary to clarify all of that information so they can assimilate it.

But knowing that in the abstract and remembering it in the heat of the moment are two very different things. Fortunately, Ames concludes her discussion of equilibrium and disequilibrium with this bit of optimism:  

"But take heart. As day follows night, so equilibrium will again return."

I certainly hope so. And if it returns before it's time to hand over the car keys, so much the better.



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