Sometimes It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

“Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better…”

I learned this phrase from a wise teacher when I began working with children and families long ago. She explained to me that there is a fundamental resistance to change in all human beings, but especially young people. One of the things that I usually share with parents during my introductory session is that their child’s behavior might get worse before it gets better. I don’t want to discourage them or frighten them, but instead I want to steady them through the murky, undoubtedly discouraging times of feeling as though they are failures and that their child is really broken. I have written before about how the human brain is built to be efficient – once something is identified as needed for survival, the brain directs thinking and behavior so that a routine is formed which in turn provides a sense of comfort and safety. A pattern is formed so that the behaviors necessary in this survival loop become automatic so that the need or want is more easily accessible the next time around. A good way of thinking about this is to imagine the route you drive every day. Sometimes you’ll notice that when you arrived at home or work, you can’t remember the exact details of your trek – in a way, you were operating on autopilot. Part of your brain took care of the mechanics of driving while another part was thinking of something else. Now imagine how you feel when your typical route is disrupted and you have to take a detour. Suddenly, you feel different as you have to readjust to the new stimuli and you have to pay attention. Now, if you take the detour route long enough, it becomes the new “normal” and pretty soon you don’t even think about it.

For young people, this process is streamlined even more because they are still developing and in learning stages. In primitive times, these formative years were the most dangerous because the child could wander off or become injured due to a lack of survival skills. Staying close to a caretaker and not having to think about complex skills kept them safe. Today, children and adolescents look for the easiest way of doing things not because they are lazy, but because anything new or different is frightening. Thus, there is resistance. So, when you are attempting to change your child’s behavior, expect resistance and sometimes, the behavior will get worse before it gets better. Our brains are constantly mapping our environment and behaviors in order to keep us from doing things that prevent us from getting our needs met. This is both reassuring and scary: Eating right and exercising can be habitually formed and so can a $300.00 a day cocaine habit.

Part of good parenting is changing the behavior that we don’t want to see in our kids and instilling new ways of thinking and behaving so that our children will have the skills necessary to be independent and successful. You don’t like the way your ten year old talks back, so you set up new rules along with consequences in order to change it. You are worried that your teen is spending too much time on their phone so you decide to limit phone time along with consequences/rewards in order to help them have enough time for other things. And what usually happens? There is an emotional reaction, then resistance, then a “testing” period that the young person puts you through to see if you’re really serious (this again, is their brain desperately trying to keep the previously “normal” pattern of doing things) and after a while, if you’ve done what Dr. Kevin has taught you and stayed the course and didn’t panic and become reactive, the new behavior is formed slowly but steadily. This again sheds light on how important it is to leave your emotional reaction out of the equation. The young developing brain will look for anything to focus on other than the actual behavior change and if you are emotionally reactive, that brain would much rather argue and play on the emotional jungle gym than deal with the actual issue at hand. So, to review, when you are interested in changing behavior, here are some rules to follow:

1)      Introduce your new expectations when you are calm, and your young person is calm. The Family Meeting is a great time to do this, just as the management of a business would share new expectations in a meeting format.

2)      Expect resistance and don’t take it personally. Now that you know about brain development, realize that this is normal. Try moving the salt and pepper shakers to a new spot in your kitchen and watch what happens.

3)      Stay calm. Be emotionally non-reactive. Be firm, but not out of control. No matter what.

4)      Clearly state expectations and always follow it up with the consequences and rewards. “Those who want to have the privilege of having a phone that I’m willing to provide will follow the rules of when it can be used.” Also, remind your young person that if they make good choices, there is no need for consequences.

5)      Schedule periods of checking in and thank your young person for even the smallest effort. This helps them feel noticed and valued.

6)      Remember: Even though the outer behavior of your child may appear angry or sullen after new expectations/rules are introduced, deep down there is a gratitude that they know you are willing to put up boundaries to keep them safe.

I hope that this is helpful to you in your parenting journey. And, next time you have to take a detour and rearrange your plans, you’ll know why it’s such a jolt to the system.