How many parents of babies and young children become frustrated when their children repeat the same behaviors over and over again? Like when a baby in a high chair repeatedly throws food or a toy on the floor, seeming to delight in watching it fall and seeing parents scurrying to pick it up again.
What are the dynamics of repeating behavior?
When parents don’t understand the dynamics of this behavior, it’s understandable that they get frustrated. They can feel manipulated too!
An explanation can be found in the excellent book Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents (Blaustein and Kinniburgh) as the authors describe some of the developmental tasks of childhood:
“In a safe-enough system, the young child will begin to explore his or her world. Exploration moves from sensory to physical, as the child sees, touches, tastes, smells and begins to act on the environment. It is through this exploration that the child begins to develop a sense of agency, or a belief in his or her capacity to have some impact on the world.
When the toddler knocks over a tower of blocks— and it falls!–she learns that her actions create a reaction in the world. When she does it again—and it falls again—she learns that her power is sustainable, and that there is consistency and predictability in external response.” [page 12]
Repetitions provide the child’s developing mind with a clarity about the ways the world works. Dropping things over and over from a high chair teaches a child about the laws of gravity and how predictable it is—it never changes! The bonus of seeing parents then pick up dropped objects adds to their learning: parents respond to certain behaviors in certain predictable ways!
The authors go on to say the following: “There is an increasing focus on agency and independence as young children approach the preschool years and explore the limits of what they are capable of, as well as the limits of the boundaries placed around them.
Preschoolers are particularly tuned into structure, repetition and security. This is the age when children watch the same movie over and over, prefer the same bedtime story each night, and focus strongly on ‘rules’ as inviolable. The repetition is soothing, but it also provides important information as children are building their understanding of the ways in which the world works.”
Children can get confused by parent’s responses
If parents get progressively angry as children repeat behaviors, children can learn something that may not be what parents want them to learn: that when nature drives them to learn about the world through repeating behaviors, the people who are most important to them will disapprove, become impatient and even angry.
How confusing! The child is still driven to repeat things but now may be feeling confused and then ashamed for doing what Mother Nature is pushing him or her to do.
When parents smile, allow and even encourage the repetitious activities, show that they don’t mind reading the same book over and over, or picking up the same toy over and over, their children are freer to work on their developmental tasks around repetition. And when parents understand that children are not trying to be annoying but rather are being driven to learn about the world through their repetitions, children are much freer to become confident in learning not only what the repetition provides but also that they can trust their parents to support them each step of the way.
Invitation to reflect:
- Have you observed your children repeating actions over and over, sometimes seeming to be unwilling to stop? How has that made you feel?
- How does the information shared in this blog change your understanding of and perhaps tolerance for repetitious behavior on the part of your children?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network