Is That Behavior a Phase or a Warning Sign?6 min read

“Mom, I think I’m in a phase where I just want to dress comfortable instead of cute. For the last couple of weeks, I don’t even think about dressing nice,” said Londyn, my 15-year-old daughter who has an eye for style, and who always looks good.

“Do you think it’s really a phase?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s just a temporary change I’ve been having since girl’s camp. In fact, I even dressed nicer at girl’s camp than I’ve dressed this week. All I want to wear are big T-shirts and comfy pants and shorts. But, I know it won’t last. Soon, I’ll want to dress up again. As long as the summer days are lazy and we aren’t seeing a lot of people I’ll probably be comfy. But, when we get back into a routine, I’ll get into my old routine again. It’s just a phase.”

Londyn is definitely the type of child who analyzes every detail and likes to come to conclusions. This was her conclusion the other day. The part that impressed me the most was that she seemed to really want to understand phases. She had thought about what a phase actually was.

Is a change in pattern the same as a phase? Parents tell me all the time that they think their child is in a phase.

I’m not sure many people understand phases. Sure, we all know the moon has phases. At certain times of the month the moon looks different, but it’s still the same moon. It goes through a predictable process of light and shadow in a predictable orbital pattern around the earth. The moon truly does have phases.

Sadly, many people think that disrespectful behaviors, attention seeking, back talking, obsession over computer games or social media, disconnection from family, and self-loathing are all phases too. They are not. These things and many more are warning signs that parents need to be tuned into and help their child correct.

What Is a Phase?

A phase is “a predictable point, period, stage, or step in a process or development. It is a section of a journey or race.”

A phase is a natural part of development that person, animal, or object must go through. Butterflies go through definite phases. Fruit, while growing on a tree, also has certain phases in its development. Likewise, people also have phases of development. At first these phases are easy to recognize, such as when babies must learn to roll over or learn to feed themselves by picking up foods with their thumb and index finger.

Children learn and grow at rapid rates. By the time they can walk, they’re also learning how to speak little by little. The exact words they learn are not phases, but the process of learning language during this developmental time is a phase. Over time they learn to climb and do more fine motor movements, once their hands are able to learn new skills — like putting on their shoes and brushing their teeth. Putting on shoes or clothes, or brushing teeth are not phases, but rather it’s mastering the phase of fine motor movement.

So, was Londyn’s change in clothes preference during a week of lazy summer days a phase? Was it a natural part of development? Or, was it perhaps her reaction to an environmental change? Yes. She was reacting to her environment in a new and unpredictable way that caused her to notice a shift in her normal pattern. But, it was not a phase.

Understanding Warning Signs

A sign is different than a phase. It is an “indication, object, action, etc., that conveys a meaning.”

Londyn noticed a sign that her days had recently changed. The sign was that she was not feeling a need to dress up.

Signs are environmentally induced. They are not natural and are not essential for proper development.

Is it essential for a child to disrespect their parents, or to desire constant digital stimulation? Have people across all generations developed properly by going through a distinct phase of disconnecting from their families, back talking, or attention seeking? Of course not! Some families are very close. The children, even though they confidently launch into adulthood, don’t ever disconnect from and disrespect each other. Yet, other children grow to adulthood and end up inventing things like the Internet and Apple computers — and these children never had a smart phone, Snapchat account, or spent their days in a gaming guild.

Parents who assume these types of behaviors are essential for the proper development of their children are mistaken. In fact, by accepting or encouraging these types of behaviors, parents could unknowingly be creating more severe behavior problems and emotional trauma for child and family.

What to Do About Warning Signs

Nothing can be done about phases. They are normal parts of development and must occur. In fact, I’ve never witnessed a parent being concerned about an actual phase. Usually phases are exciting and celebrated. That said, I’ve seen parents negatively impact a phase such as introduce inappropriate words during the vocabulary development stage. Parents must be ever watchful.

However, warnings signs are unhealthy and need to be corrected. Parents need to watch for warning signs and help their children right their courses. Proactive parents go a step further than catching and correcting the warning signs as they catch them. They teach their children how to behave before an undesirable behavior problem is even noticed.

These parents analyze with their child what path will lead to happiness and freedom. This is a process of training the heart of their child to want to be respectful and connected to the family, and to problem solve situations before the situations occur.

Phases are good things. They help us know a person’s growing is on track. Warning signs are good things too. They help us know when we need to adjust our child-rearing strategies or help our children adjust. Londyn recognized a warning sign. Her repeated choice of comfy clothes indicated that her attitude about attire had changed. This realization encouraged her to examine her activities and recognize there had been a change in her environment. Londyn can easily self-correct her attire problem, just like we can self-correct our laziness problems and the problems we see in our children. What have you been rationalizing as a phase that might be a warning sign?

On August 5, 2017 I’ll be hosting the Teaching Self-Government conference. It’s a day dedicated to identifying warning signs and what to do to fix them. Youth and parents are welcome to attend.