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The bothersome wait for development to occur

Child having a tantrumHow many times have you sat in a restaurant and watched a child under the age of six receive a scolding for not sitting still during a meal? Or heard a three- or four-year-old admonished for not sharing?

Or observed an eight-year-old punished for having a meltdown when asked to take out the garbage? Or witnessed a 14-year-old get grounded for freaking out when told they couldn’t hang with friends on a Friday evening?

The parental response of punishment and consequence for such actions is not an uncommon occurrence in our world.

Yet each one of those examples represents a child with an underdeveloped brain responding exactly as they should according to their stage of development.

Many of us fall into the trap of expecting a child to absorb and adopt adult behaviour even though the human brain doesn’t fully mature until sometime in the mid to late twenties.

That six-year-old fidgeting at the dinner table is incapable of sustained focus and attention; the three-year-old simply cannot share; the eight-year-old hasn’t developed the self-control needed to stay calm in the face of a roadblock like chores when what he really wants to do is shoot hoops; and the 14-year-old is bound to lose control of his feelings in the face of big emotions.

So settle down, big people. Your kiddos are being and doing just what they are meant to be and do along their entirely normal developmental journey.

The trouble is that waiting for development to occur can be bothersome for us big people raising children in a fast-paced world.

We try to hurry development along rather than championing it at every point along the way. But children are not small adults, and we cannot force them into adulthood.

Self-regulation will look different in a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. Babies bite because they know no other way to settle their bodies down. Toddlers have tantrums because they are trying to figure out how to become their own person, even as they lack the ability to settle themselves in the face of heightened emotion.

Preschoolers shove, push, hit, and don’t wait their turn because those behavioural niceties are still a foreign language when they are taken over by a big desire or need.

We must respect that children are growing a brain at the rate of billions of neural connections a day.

That level of growth will need to continue for years before they have any natural ability to manage their impulses and make “good choices” with some semblance of consistency.

Once, after I presented a workshop, a father told me how his nine-year-old son had been struggling to manage his big emotions in response to disappointing news or requests by his parents to complete chores.

Every time the child lost it, his parents would reprimand him for his “bad behaviour” and use behaviourist-inspired strategies such as consequences, timeouts, and removal of privileges.

One day, after yet another of these incidents, the father asked his son in exasperation, “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you do as you are told and stop reacting like this? I’ve told you a million times!”

In his gorgeous, infinite wisdom, the son replied to his father, “Dad, what is wrong with you? You’ve told me a million times and I still can’t do it. Why do you keep telling me the same thing over and over when I can’t do it?” Nailed it.

You cannot make growth and maturity happen faster by demanding its progression.

As David Loyst, a child development specialist who works with children with autism, says, “I’ve never seen a plant grow faster by pulling on the top of it.”

Instead of demanding development, a parent’s job is to inspire it and champion it.


This is an edited excerpt from Canadian psychologist Dr Vanessa Lapointe’s new book, ‘Parenting Right from the Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler Years’. Dr Lapointe is touring Australia in March 2020 visiting Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to present seminars based on her book. To buy tickets visit: www.maggiedent.com/dr-vanessa-lapointe-australian-tour.

About Dr Vanessa Lapointe

Dr Vanessa Lapointe is a registered psychologist, parenting educator, best-selling author, international speaker, and a mum. As the founder and director of The Wishing Star Lapointe Developmental Clinic, she has been ...

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6 Comments so far -
  • Izy says:

    As a parent of a beautifully kind boy with asd, I remember actually feeling elated when my son threw his first temper tantrum. He was about 6 and it was legitimately the first tantrum I’d ever seen in a sea of meltdowns or near meltdowns. Of course I didn’t show the joy on my face at the time, because I still believe that part of the development is acknowledging tantrum (choice) vs meltdown (completely overwhelmed and parts of the brain shut down). However, I went to his psychologist appt the next week, and in my one on one with her I cried happy tears about such an amazing developmental milestone, that is taken for granted.

  • KC1729 says:

    So what do you do when they melt down every time you say they can’t have something? Genuine question.
    I understand they are reacting like this for a reason.. but how do we as parents react?

    • KC1729 says:

      I also understand that they don’t want to share but shouldn’t we still tell them to share so they learn that it’s the right thing to do?

      • Hi again!

        Great question! I think we should definitely be teaching our children to share from a young age and use every opportunity to do so, when the situation arises. But, if we understand that until a certain age they’re not developmentally ready to do so, we will be able to show them the correct behaviour in a gentle way from a place of love and understanding, rather than from a place of disappointment and punishment. Does that make sense?


    • Hi! Thanks for reading and thanks for your question!

      We have a number of articles on tantrums on our site if you’re interested in having a read. Here’s the link: https://www.bubhub.com.au/tag/tantrums/

      Basically a lot of them give similar advice when it comes to dealing with tantrums.

      When tantrums strike, it’s easy to get triggered and lose your calm. Our children’s cries are designed to set off our inner emotional alarms, to protect them from danger. However, most tantrums are a developmentally normal step which reflects your child’s attempt at asserting themselves and developing greater agency in the world.

      To move yourself from stressed and panicking to calm and grounded, first consciously recognise what’s happening and silently label “tantrum” to help you not get lost in the emotional storm. By actively labelling “tantrum” you’ll be activating the higher regions of your brain which allow you to think more clearly, problem solve and stay calm rather than fall into panic.

      During a tantrum; you may notice your breath has become restricted or fast as your emotions are triggered. Turn to your breath as a way of anchoring yourself to calm.

      While you respond to your child with calming words and full presence; try to slow your breath down and extend out the exhalation which will calm down your nervous system.

      Resist the temptation to give into your child’s tantrum by giving them what they want. This will only reinforce that tantrums work.

      Wait to talk until the meltdown is over
      When a child is upset do not engage in conversation. Too much talk is overwhelming for a child’s brain so when a child is in a heightened state of emotion, they are not going to hear you or reason, they are more likely to get angrier.

      I hope this helps. If you have further questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

      All the best!

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