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Panicking About New Kid Behaviors? Give It Two Weeks.

The two-week rule can help you through kid transitions.

Key points

  • Waiting two weeks before panicking about a child's new behavior can help alleviate parental anxiety.
  • Many issues regarding kid transitions will resolve themselves with minimal parental intervention.
  • The "two-week rule" applies equally well to older and younger children.
 RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Years ago, I came up with a rule to help my mom patients cope with kid transitions: Give it two weeks.

This means waiting two weeks* before panicking that, for example,

  • Your kid will never sleep again.
  • Your kid will never take a bottle/eat solid foods/ingest anything other than dinosaur-shaped chicken fingers.
  • Your kid will never adjust to school and will always will cry and cling to you.

I started using the two-week rule to help moms cope with their anxiety around developmental milestones and transitions. The typical story I hear from mom patients goes something like this: kid starts acting funny; mom immediately starts catastrophizing, assuming that the worst possible outcome is going to ensue. Moms contemplate this terrible outcome (their kid never sleeping again, their kid never wanting to go to school) and become consumed with anxiety and dread.

This catastrophizing is frequently accompanied by a frantic effort to problem solve. Moms think that if they can just crack the code on why their kid is screaming at night/refusing to drink from the bottle/clinging to them for dear life, they can make the behavior stop. This involves a lot of guesswork, since little ones can’t verbalize what’s going on in their heads. There’s often frantic internet searching for “expert” advice on how to fix the problem and frustration when supposed solutions don’t work.

As I initially conceptualized it, the two-week rule was meant to help moms of very little (read: nonverbal) kids make sense of developmental changes without falling down an anxiety rabbit hole every time their kid started doing (or not doing) something new. But it turns out that it applies equally well to kids of all ages, at all developmental stages, regardless of how verbal the kid is. I know this from personal and very recent experience.

I spent much of September falling down my own anxiety rabbit hole, as one of my sons struggled to adjust back to school. Every morning, my son appeared visibly tortured and repeatedly exclaimed that he did not want to go. It broke my heart to see him like this, especially because I felt powerless to help. By the time I got him and his brother to school, I felt completely depleted and done for the day. Except that I had a full day's worth of work ahead of me. At night, my son complained about having to go to school the next day. I’d eventually collapse into bed, only to repeat the whole miserable cycle the next day.

It’s now the end of October. And school, it seems, is no longer the fiery hellscape my son once thought it was. I can’t say he’s jumping out the door every morning, but there’s no more sadness, no more tears. He’s loving his time with his friends and taking advantage of school activities that were not offered last year because of COVID-19.

In reflecting back on that awful time with my son, it occurred to me that, as painful as it was, it was really only two bad weeks. And even within those weeks, there were definitely moments of fun and levity. It wasn’t 100 percent misery all the time.

Then it hit me: two bad weeks. The two-week rule! So what if he isn’t an infant or toddler? My son was transitioning through something, he struggled, and then he recalibrated. It’s the two-week rule, tween edition.

If I’d just remembered to give myself that two weeks, I think I could have weathered the storm a whole lot more successfully. Instead, I spent time obsessing — about what exactly at school was so bad, or how I could make the weekends as fun as possible to make up for the weekdays, or whether I’d need to send my son to private school. Of course, none of this obsessing served me in any way. It just further distracted me from my work.

My experience with my son helped me realize that even though older kids can verbalize their experiences, they might not be able to articulate what precisely is bothering them. I think about times of transition in my adult life — when I started a new job, say, or moved to a new home. I’m not sure I could have fully expressed why I felt anxious at those times — it was more a sense of instability, of having no idea what was coming next. It’s hard to envision a path forward when you aren’t familiar with the terrain.

If my experience is any indication, waiting at least two weeks after a transition before panicking/trying to problem solve/rending your garments is really important, regardless of the age of your kid. Of course, there will always be issues that can’t be settled in two weeks and require our attention and intervention. But there will also be many issues that, given some time, resolve themselves.

Kids transition constantly — to new environments, to new activities, to new friendships. We need to give them, and ourselves, the time and space for these transitions to happen. Once we all know the terrain, we’ll be in a much better position to successfully forge ahead.

*The two-week rule does not apply to serious or emergency situations; if you are concerned about something that points to a clear threat or danger to your child, seek help right away.

More from Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco Ph.D.
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