“It’s just a phase” is a classic bit of parenting wisdom. It doesn’t always feel like that: “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a phase…” can be really annoying if someone uses it in a well-meaning attempt to reassure you, when what you really want is recognition of the hell you are going through and acknowledgment of the unique awfulness of your child’s behaviour and your corresponding bravery in the face of the struggle. Or when you’re really, really worried about your child and it just feels like a dismissive platitude.
It’s also really irritating if you hear it said about you as a child.
It’s got an old-fashioned ring about it, it’s something I remember my mother saying a lot. I think that back in the day it was the go-to piece of advice, the fallback solution to everything; it was what you said when you really didn’t have a clue but were hoping for the best. “It’s probably just a phase!” was said briskly with a kind of “that’s sorted that out then!” satisfaction. And despite the annoying, dismissive or sometimes frankly lazy usage of the phrase – can’t think of what to say? Don’t have any answers? “It’s just a phase!” should do it! – I’m glad it’s still around, I’m glad it’s stayed the course. I think we need it now more than ever.
In the olden days parents really didn’t know the answers, there wasn’t so much knowledge about the norms of child development around for them to compare their children with. Parents were not expected to know that much about child development, so the only thing they could do was think “he’ll grow out of it!” and hope for the best. Now we have lots of diagnoses of childhood behaviours, and because so much normal behaviour is pathologised, it’s not so easy to have that positive attitude. We are encouraged to view our children’s behaviour in a diagnostic way; to name it and classify it and then solve it.
What that means is that we focus more on the behaviour that worries us and we give it a lot of our energy and time, so we end up very emotionally engaged with the present worry. We become alert to signs of evidence for it and feed it back to the child until it becomes fixed in place in the child’s head. A child only knows how big a problem is by the size of our reaction to it.
“It’s just a phase” helps us to take a step back, it helps us to replace one projection (“If I don’t help her and fix this now, it will always be a problem for her”) with a more positive one (“She’ll grow out of it, she’ll be OK”) and that’s got to be better, given that children pick up our assumptions and believe them. The problem is that you never know it’s a phase when you’re in it, it just seems like that’s how things are and always will be; you don’t realise it was just a phase until it’s well gone and then one day you suddenly remember and think “she doesn’t do that anymore!”
We have to remember that we’re dealing with children here; “it’s just a phase” is generally going to be the most accurate diagnosis we can make because, by its very nature, childhood is growth and change: a time when every stage of development is just a phase.