Critical Periods and Quantitative and Qualitative Change

Another key rule of development is that there are critical periods when the person is more vulnerable to harm or available for growth. Adolescence is a critical period just as the fetus is more vulnerable to harm and also develops exponentially during the critical period of the first trimester. Exposure to certain diseases or toxins can resonate throughout life with healthy growth or enduring harm. Teachers consistently experience amazing English language acquisition and proficiency within a school year among their non-English speaking students. In contrast, for many people second-language acquisition can be an arduous process when they are adults despite being at their most advanced intellectual capacity. While a second-language can be acquired and relative proficiency achieved, it often takes much more effort and time because adulthood is not the critical period for easy second-language acquisition. This seems true for all save for some linguistically gifted individuals. Similarly, adolescence is both a critical period with its key challenges and opportunities, but also better prepared for or significantly made more difficult by experiences in earlier critical stages.

The athletic challenge of learning to ride a two-wheel bicycle seems easiest in early elementary school age (a critical period for physical daring) as opposed to the non-critical period of adolescence or adulthood. A teenager may not had the opportunity to learn to ride earlier in childhood. Or otherwise missing opportunities during this critical period to develop athletic dexterity through active physical play). They can still learn but be initially more awkward and perhaps, never be as fluid a bicyclist as are the young 7-13 year-old daredevils charging about the city. The adept teen bicyclists had started and became proficient riding much earlier, including probably engaging in other active play.

Critical Experiences for Attachment and Intimacy

Of significant concern is the critical period for forming attachment with primary intimate individuals from birth throughout childhood, specifically with parental caregivers. As with all critical periods for development, healthy or successful resolution portends more adaptive and functional results in future life experiences. Conversely, insufficient or problematic attachment development can have significant adverse effects on later functioning. An individual’s later relationships are predicted by early childhood critical periods around attachment and social development. Any challenge may become urgent particularly in adolescence. Negative or inadequate development during some critical periods may disable or corrupt healthy functional adolescent relationship development.

The teenager may already manifested problematic dynamics due to developmental issues no one may be fully conscious of. He or she may have reacted poorly in the critical periods of relationship throughout childhood- hence, various forms of acting out or problematic behavior. Various instinctive and potentially problematic behaviors may be attempts to compensate for inadequacies meeting earlier attachment or relationship’s critical periods. Interactions with almost anyone can be considered developmental processes as well. Initial interactions with new people constitute critical periods to develop rapport and credibility. Developing rapport can be a major dilemma if the teenager already has an insecure attachment styles that can result in difficulties attaching to a new person. If the new person does not develop rapport/attachment between self and the teenager in the critical period of the first meeting, it may be very challenging to recover from the failure. New social experiences may become a frustrating replication of poor attachment: childhood insecure attachment with caregivers (teachers and coaches), insecure relationship peer attachment, and insecure romantic attachment.

Quantitative Changes Lead to Qualitative Change

The individual’s experiences in any critical stage are not from a single incident or interaction. Attachment- both secure and insecure occur from a multitude of situations of need and resultant patterns of nurturing response (or problematic response or absent response). Likewise, there is not a single magical intervention or solution to quickly switch anyone, especially a teenager to desirable behavior, character, and habits. Growth and development as well as repair and productive change occur the same way. Small accrued increases in quantity lead to significant quality differences or movement into another stage. For a toddler, a bit more co-ordination, a bit more strength, a bit more balance, and other gains (all quantitative changes) coalesce eventually into a qualitative change… walking! For a teenager, a bit more doing homework, a bit more focus, a bit more follow through, and other gains (also all quantitative changes) coalesce into a qualitative change… a consistent productive teenager!

Quantitative change can be measured in five ways: frequency, intensity, duration, resonance, and damage/benefit. These are measures of another important developmental rule- quantitative change leads to qualitative change. Generally speaking, adults or parents concerned about their teenagers are looking for qualitative change whether or not they speak in terms of quantitative or qualitative change. For example, parents may push their teenagers’ academics so he or she can become a slightly better student (D+ average to C- average). But they really want them to excel or achieve sufficiently to get to graduate and/or get into a good college. They may be concerned with the exact frequency of smoking pot in a day, but really fear that the pot use will compromise productive growth. Parents don’t just want to slightly reduce the frequency of tantrums and screaming fights with family, but to have an emotionally stable and socially appropriate teenager.

While quantitative changes are relevant, the goals are actually of qualitative change: a poor student to a good student, a hopeless un-invested student to a purposeful student, a self-medicating pothead to a self-regulating emotionally and spiritually competent individual, an embittered contentious jerk to a empowered positive family member, a hedonistic hopeless teenager to one with a sense of responsibility and direction, and so forth. Teenagers themselves also may be seeking change that improves their quality of life, not just their quantity of life: more money, status, freedom, or less depression, anxiety, pain, etc. Acknowledging a quantitative change process however, acknowledges and reminds everyone that the teenager’s current problematic stage did not suddenly out of nowhere. The fact or probability of negative quantitative changes occurring without sufficient active identification and/or attention, that is without intervention or problem solving makes sense of the current challenges and also guides facilitating positive change. How and why had the many people involved in the teenager’s life been complicit in allowing the accumulation of negative experiences? Presenting issues are identified as a culmination of negative quantitative changes that reached a tipping point leading to dysfunctional behavior and character.

Work Only On Quantitative Change

Despite adults and parents’ expressed desire for qualitative change, the only thing that can be focused on and worked on is quantitative change. This bears repeating… the only work can be on quantitative change. Expecting qualitative change without working on quantitative change is tantamount to expecting “magic” as opposed to growth. A love potion… a behavior change potion… a magic crystal or icon… “fast…” “effortless…” “revolutionary…” “innovative…” a “new therapy!” essentially offers qualitative change disconnected from quantitative change. A baby’s babbling changes quantitatively with more babbling, gradually increased meaning and intent, and with more and more specificity of sounds connecting to meaning and intent. Eventually, the quantitative changes come to a critical mass that precipitates a qualitative change- the magical moment when baby says “mama” or “dada!” This is normal quantitative development coming to fruition in qualitative development.

Adults and parents should be aware of how this rule of developmental theories applies to growth also with teenagers. The individual gradually gains greater awareness and insight to his or her life story. Self-esteem increases bit by bit with successive challenges and positive outcomes. Emotional outbursts become less frequent, less intense, and do not last as long through slowly gained ability to be more mindful. The teenage cuts his or her pot use from three times a day every day, to twice a day, then just once at night. Dealing with his or her anxiety, depression, or stress with greater efficiency and ever improving skilled turns pot use into a weekend recreational habit. While still using recreationally, the teenager is no longer using for self-medication. A parent hopes for qualitative change in his or her aimless teenager, that is, to for him or her to have a sense of purpose in life. Over time, if the teenager finds more things fulfilling and begins to dream of more possibilities for the future- quantitative changes leading to qualitative change. Specifically, the growth/change process must be in the quantitative categories of:

Frequency looks at how often events or things occur. Positive frequency is to be increased (for example, increasing interactions from little or no time teenagers and parents communicating daily events or feelings to connecting a couple of nights a week, to daily, to a couple of times daily- such as morning and night). Negative frequency is to be decreased (for example, from fighting every day to every other day to twice a week to once a week, to every other week, to monthly, to every third month…)

Intensity looks at the degree of feelings. Positive intensity is to be increased (for example, from interactions with little or no acknowledgement- a slight nod change to a smile, eye contact, and verbalization, such as “thank you!” or behavior, such as a hug). Negative intensity to be decreased (for example, interactions that cause one to be so mad to need to scream and throw things, that become incrementally different, such as “only” screaming w/ veins popping, to yelling, to angry tones, to firm serious tones…)

Duration looks at how long something persists. Positive duration is to be increased (for example, interactions that facilitate benign or positive feelings for oneself, for each other ,or couple or family’s time together that last from little or none to a half day, to a full day, days, a week- oh my!). Negative duration is to be decreased (for example, from a two-week fight, to ten days, to one week, to 3 days, to one day, to 4 hours, to 2 hours, to a half hour, to a 15 minutes fight).

Resonance looks at how much or how strongly experiences and interactions affect the rest of one’s life. Positive resonance is to be increased (for example, interactions that create good feelings, a sense of satisfaction, attachment, and security from interactions increasingly positively resonates and affects ones entire life and functioning: affecting family functioning, school performance, diet, and sleep, mood, subsequent interactions, AND the core health of relationships. Negative resonance is to be decreased (for example, interactions or processes that successfully compartmentalizing negative interactions so as not to affect other life functioning, AND avoiding or curtailing doubts about the core health or viability of oneself or important relationships).

Benefit/Damage looks at how ones core sense of a positive self and/or the foundation of the relationship is affected. Positive effects- that is benefit to be increased (for example, interactions that give greater hope, security, and confidence in oneself, each other, and the relationship). Negative effects, that is damage to be decreased (for example, interactions that cause despair about ones future or the future of the couple, family, all individuals, and self gradually shift to “only” causing momentary distress, or “only” despair about the future of the couple and family while staying secure about individuals and the self; to doubting the future but having overall confidence about the couple and family, etc.

Bit By Bit

According to this basic rule of development and by accepting the relationship as a developmental process, adults and parents therefore seek to enable the teenager to accumulate sufficient quantitative behavior changes- bit by bit, such that a critical emotional mass develops that allows for qualitative change. The teenager develops self-esteem, becomes hopeful, is no longer waylaid by anxiety, and so forth. The teenager is motivated to strive for an adult future.   Quantitative change leads to qualitative change. By the same token, while approaches of growth target changes in attitude, values, thinking, awareness, motivations, and so forth, such changes eventually must address or lead to quantifiable behavior change. Actual or professed internal changes (values, cognitions, etc.) in teenagers (or anyone) are insufficient unless they manifest in quantifiably increased positive behavior and quantifiably decreased negative behavior necessary for qualitative change in life functioning.

Adults or parents may consider quantitative change interventions to be simplistic or not “real” growth. While it may not be as sexy as offering quick change, it is more realistic for adolescent change. When a teenager has a breakthrough and makes fundamental qualitative change, more often than not, it is the consequence of quantitative changes accumulating to reach a personality tipping point. Adults or parents may think an intervention or perspective had suddenly triggered substantive change, and fail to note that the same intervention or offering had not worked many other times previously. Upon further examination, they would find substantial quantitative changes accrued over time that precipitated the “sudden” magical change… this time…finally! An adult or parent may need to articulate or functionally “sell” the validity of the quantitative to qualitative process to collaborators invested in teenagers’ growth, or risk grandiose expectations that can sabotage adolescent growth. Grandiose expectations for change in quality without attention to quantity of formative experiences may be the cause of the teenager’s dysfunction in the first place. In addition to adult misunderstanding of quantitative changes leading to qualitative change, impatience at teenagers’ pace of developmental growth can significantly harm or retard progress as will be discussed in the next blog.



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