“I can’t do it! It’s too hard! I want to go back to when the rule was you did it!”
This is my preschool aged son talking about putting on his own shirt. When we first broke the news to him, around the age of 4, that he had reached an age of increased independence in self-care tasks, he was quite devastated. His face read all different shades of “What do you mean I have to do this myself” and at times showed traces of the more indignant, “isn’t this what you’re here for — to meet my every need?”
Every morning, either my spouse or I will act as a cheering section for him to complete the necessary developmental act of dressing himself. For the first few weeks of this endeavor, I watched as my son cycled through the emotions of shock, fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, more frustration, more disappointment, annoyance -and eventually a shift into motivation to complete the task, and elation at his success. Then he had to put on his socks, and the whole process started all over again.
As someone immersed in the world of emotions professionally, this process was quite fascinating to me. While I know that my child is fully capable of completing the physical tasks required in the process of putting on a shirt, something in him was signaling fatigue, distress, and sometimes even triggering a clear fight or flight response. Thinking back through the time from the day we initiated this process to now, there were moments where he flat out refused and either shut down completely or had a rather stormy emotional response.
As adults, we don’t always think about the intricate steps required to complete every-day tasks. Putting on a shirt can be broken down into as many as 10 steps (or more, perhaps). Some steps include: picking the shirt, making sure the shirt is not inside out, making sure the shirt is facing the right direction, putting your head in the shirt, getting your head out through the appropriate opening, putting an arm through, putting another arm through, and pulling down the shirt. Let’s not even get into shirts with buttons or ziippers. As time went on, and we continued to practice this daily, he built up resilience to the discomfort of the “new” task and the process took less and less time.
Still — some days, it’s too hard and he thinks he can’t do it.
On those days, I see the emotional cycle come back —the amygdala, aka the danger zone scanner of our brain is turned on — and the limbic system is on full throttle. We are either escaping, fighting, or shutting down. Once the kiddo is in this mode, I turn on the breathing and regulating tools —noticing and recognizing his emotion, normalizing how he’s feeling, and offering support and encouragement:
“I know this is hard. It was hard for me to put on a shirt too, when I was a kid. I believe in you, and I know you can do hard things.”
After a little bit, we go back to task and yes — he does complete it.
This has gotten me thinking about how our resilience to doing hard things evolves as we grow up.
Our brains are designed for survival. At birth, our most basic brain functions are intact: feed me, shelter me, clean me, love me. These do not change as we grow up — we need all of this, always. As children move through developmental stages, other parts of their brains develop, strengthen, and provide nuance to those basic needs. When the pre-frontal cortex turns on between the age of 3 and 4, children suddenly have more agency around how to express and meet their needs. However, the basic instincts remain — and the brain will do everything to make sure they are met.
Think about it. You, as a grownup reading this, likely have other things to do. As you read these sentences, with me telling you about all the other things you have to do, you might feel your heart rate rising, your palms starting to sweat a bit, and a general agitation settling in. This is your brain’s survival mechanism kicking in — “we have things to do to ensure our survival.” It works this way in almost every part of your life.
As an avid runner, I notice this frequently when running long distances — or especially, racing. Somewhere around 2/3 of the way through, my brain will tell me — “STOP. The body can’t do this anymore!” When I first started running, I believed this, so — I stopped. As the years have gone on, however, I have learned that growth exists just on the other side of that edge. So I began to push a bit — to tell my brain “actually, the system is fine. We can handle this.” What has happened is — growth. I can run longer, race harder, and be in discomfort a little longer. As long as I keep going (safely), I will keep growing.
The same applies for my son learning to put on his shirt, you reading this article, and anyone trying to do something that goes slightly beyond their comfort zone. We will meet resistance when we hit that edge — and that’s great. It means our brains are kicking in to high gear and functioning well. They are working as our protectors.
How do we grow?
Name the edge, recognize it, validate it, and tell yourself you can move through.
“Brain, thank you for alerting me to this potential demise — I totally see it and get it. I know this is hard for us, but the system is online and we can handle this. It’s okay to feel sad/frustrated/annoyed/angry about this. We can do this though, because we can do hard things.”
Keep going, and keep growing.