Family Matters

All of Life's a Stage


My 3-year-old has really gotten difficult during the past few months. My friend says it's only a stage, and it'll pass. Will it?


May be it will. Maybe it won't. I'm sorry; I never used to talk like that. It all started when I became a psychologist.

Childhood is full of all kinds of behavioral comings and goings. Much misconduct starts up mysteriously, out of nowhere. It lingers a while, makes your life tough and then passes. Parents will often lament: “He's never looked me in the face and flat-out lied before,” or, “She just seems to all of a sudden be snotty with her sister.” To which I sometimes reply: “Has he ever been 5 years old before?” or “Is this the first time she's been 9?”

Age brings with it new conduct. Some good, some bad. All throughout parenthood, you are forced to face — and face down — all kinds of behavior that never before was part of your child's way, demeanor or arsenal. In a certain sense, maturity brings new forms of immaturity.

Time does indeed seem to cure some share of misbehavior. The problem is, you can't know for sure what will go away on its own and what won't. Time can be a parent's ally or foe, depending.

What if the “stage” isn't a phase at all but proves to be an enduring character trait? While much misconduct can crop up initially as a stage, if left untreated it can fester into other stuff far more intense than the original phase. Let's say your little one's defiance is accompanied by fits. If you don't discipline the fits now, they might become a habit, growing nastier as Will becomes older, bigger, stronger, smarter and slicker. The Terrible Twos become the Thundering Threes, which turn into the Fiery Fours, which turn into…

Any form of misbehavior is much more likely to pass eventually if you deal with it and discipline it. On the one hand, your friend might be right when she says, “It's a stage.” On the other, she could be quite wrong in predicting it will pass. The main predictor of whether a behavior passes or not is you. If you stand by passively, hoping your child will outgrow his defiance, your patience might be rewarded. But that's not likely. Over time bad behavior tends to fuel itself unless it is corrected. Many are the behaviors that came to stay because the parent waited for them to subside with the passing of the stage.

Then, too, behavior may go through phases in form but not substance. For example, the child who threw temper tantrums at 2 years old still blows his top at 14. Only now he doesn't writhe, flail and leak from facial orifices. He finds other ways to express his frustration. You may find yourself wishing he were 2 again.

So tell your friend you are committed to proving her right. Your parental will and firmness will ensure that your child is just going through a stage and, indeed, it will soon pass.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is the father of 10, a psychologist and an author.

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