Spirals of Development

When my now adult children were young, I found the research from the Gesell Institute explained so much about why they behaved in the ways that they did.  Often, it would seem the behaviors were unexplainable, especially the difficult ones. I remember when my sweet and loving two-year-old suddenly became belligerent and defiant, actually spitting at me when we were in the checkout line at a food store. I was shocked and horrified and, quite honestly, heartbroken, because we had what I thought was such a close and loving relationship.

What is disequilibrium?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and GrandmotherDevelopment

I remember managing to get home, sending her to her room (something I had never done before) and trying to find answers to why she had become so tyrannical and out of control. I called my long-time mentor, my Nursing Mothers’ counselor, for advice. She laughed and said, “Welcome to the world of disequilibrium!”

This was my first exposure to the concept of children moving in and out of stages of equilibrium and disequilibrium in a kind of a spiral. The spiral was the brainchild of Dr. Arnold Gesell, whose research spanned the 1940s to 1980s and has been replicated by other researchers as recently as 2010.

Dr. Gesell (and later his colleagues Ilg and Ames) observed the behaviors of literally hundreds of children over the course of their childhoods, from birth through their adolescence, to determine some of the patterns of child development.

In and out of the natural equilibrium and disequilibrium spiral of child development

What they discovered (then published) provided me with the much-needed explanation for my daughter’s transformation from gentle and cooperative to volatile and irrational. It turned out it wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t my fault, and actually it wasn’t anyone’s fault.

Rather, it was the natural course of childhood development in which children become dysregulated, anxious, moody, and often impossible to reason with. It turns out that this happens when they are in a place of major internal and sometimes external growth that causes them to become so challenging to parent.

Dr. Gesell used the term “disequilibrium” to describe these stages of development where children are so out of sorts because they are dealing with some new task or new set of emotions they must deal with.

When children are in throes of disequilibrium, they can be a mess in almost all aspects of their lives. They may have eating, sleeping, and/or toileting issues and, as can happen when the disequilibrium at around 3-1/2 years’ old “blossoms,” they can have trouble speaking without stuttering.

Children may seem to regress instead of move forward

They often seem to regress, which can be upsetting to parents who feel like their children are actually losing ground instead of moving forward in their maturing. It turns out the real explanation is that part of growth involves experiencing high levels of disequilibrium; a sort of “two steps forward and one step back” process.

While my daughter continued to actively demonstrate she was in major disequilibrium, I at least had an explanation that allowed to me to appreciate that she was not doing this on purpose. I realized that I had not done something wrong as a parent, and that over time, she would return to a state of equilibrium. This would last for a few months until the next new stage of disequilibrium appeared.

I was discovering, as most parents do, that parenting is not for sissies, and few of us knew when we came into this job just what it entailed. We, as well as our children, need and deserve parents who have the explanations for some of the more challenging behaviors of childhood. These explanations can alleviate some of our angst, guilt and frustration. Discovering the concept of spirals of growth provided relief over and over again through my children’s childhoods.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Have you noticed shifts in your children’s behaviors that seem to come from nowhere? Has a sweet-natured, cooperative child become rebellious, belligerent and out of control for no apparent reason? Is it possible that these behaviors are indicative of disequilibrium based on the information from the Gesell Institute?
  2. How does it make you feel if this is new information to you? Does it decrease any resentment and blame on your child or yourself and place it more on the fact that this appears to be the way children develop?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network