Colman Noctor: Our obsession with standing out means we undervalue the safe middle

Balance, moderation and equilibrium should be our focus if we are to maintain children’s mental health
Colman Noctor: Our obsession with standing out means we undervalue the safe middle

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In a recent podcast interview, I was asked: “What is your top tip for parents?'

My answer was: ‘That would be the 4-7 Principle’. It's an approach I developed six years ago and I have been using it in my personal and professional life ever since. This simple principle involves rating everything we do, such as our exercise levels, alcohol intake and workload, out of 10. The aim is to avoid staying in the extreme ends of range - 1-3 or 8 -10 - and instead aim for middle ground 4-7.

Young people are generally referred to me because their behaviour has become problematic. While there are certain behavioural problems that are utterly normal and represent no pathology whatsoever, there are others whose behaviour is concerning and rightly require some level of intervention. These challenges can vary in frequency and severity, but they typically tend to originate in three main areas: feeling, thinking and doing.  Usually,  one, two or all three of these areas become problematic and prove challenging for parents to manage, and this is why the child or teenager is brought to my attention.

Extreme responses to life 

When it comes to emotional issues, we see examples of extreme feelings, these can include a child who is deemed to be emotionally hyper-sensitive or emotionally blunted. In these cases, the parent will describe the child’s emotional reactions as either overly intense or overly disconnected. Often these children tend to be highly anxious and have disproportionate emotional reactions to things like parental absence, a perceived injustice, or difficult life and family circumstances. Or on the flip side, you may hear of a child who is not engaging with life events, such as friendships, socialisation and hobbies, and have become isolated. These are children who seem to be over or under-reacting or clinically described as emotionally dysregulated.

The second area concerns cognition or thinking. Typically, this involves the child experiencing a disproportionate level of rumination around issues like friendships, separation or school, which causes them to internalise their worries. Whereas, at the other end of the cognitive spectrum, some children have issues that involve a lack of thinking or reflection. Typically, these children are impulsive. Sometimes described as fearless, they often get in trouble with parents and teachers.

The third, and most common, area of difficulty concerns children’s behaviour or what the child is doing. Examples of extreme behaviours include tantrums, meltdowns excessive anger and so on. This behaviour, again, is deemed to be disproportionate to the trigger event and can impact the child’s ability to function effectively. In the other extreme, some children’s behaviour can lead to social isolation and they are described as being under-engaged in the world, appearing disinterested in activities that others enjoy.

Balance, moderation and equilibrium

Most children’s mental health problems occur when emotion, cognition and behaviours are outside the trajectory that would be considered developmentally normal. This has led me to believe that balance, moderation and equilibrium should be our focus if we are to maintain children’s mental health. 

Although many parents may agree with this concept in principle, how we parent our children may express different values. The concept of the tiger parent, where parents desire their children to be the ‘best’ at things or ‘better than average’ is commonly observed. In their defence, no parent would want their child not to excel in something. However, how much of what we do as parents contradicts aiming for the middle? 

When I once presented the 4-7 principle at a leafy suburb school, a parent challenged me by stating that I ‘wanted parents to raise mediocre children’. I defended this by saying: ‘If you want your child to be exceptional, there is nothing wrong with that, however,  if you need your child to be exceptional, then you might run into problems’.

Hiding in plain sight

We live in a time where the moderate, or the middle, is not socioculturally appealing. There is an overarching need to ‘stand out’, or to ‘make our mark’ which I believe is heavily influenced by the social media narrative of ‘living your best life’ or ‘being the best that you can be’.

These aspirations are impossible and largely undesirable and potentially harmful when it comes to maintaining our mental health. The sociocultural narrative that celebrates and normalises excess by the use of contemporary terms like ‘all you can eat data’, ‘limitless’ and ‘binge watch’ means that we are hiding the harm of excess in plain sight.

This obsession with standing out from the crowd means that we undervalue the middle, thereby from a mental health perspective, ignoring where we are safest.

The 4-7 Principle is a way in which we can try to keep on track of our own and our sense of balance and wellbeing in a time where extremes are celebrated. If we consider that most mental health problems or emotional, cognitive or behavioural problems occur in the extremes of a 1-10 rating scale, then the problem areas would be 1-3 and 8-10. To combat these issues we need to aim for 4-7. 

This also applies to our approach to parenting, to work, to anxiety, to covid doom scrolling, to sport and academics. If we rate how we are approaching any of these things and find that we are in the 1-3 or the 8-10, then we need to do something about it to get back into the 4-7 before a problem arises.

It is unrealistic to believe that we would never end up in the 1-3 or 8-10 zones. Life by its turbulent nature pushes us into those zones regularly and inevitably. The issue arises when we don’t identify this problem or don’t try to address it and therefore don’t find our way back to 4-7 promptly. All too often mental health problems develop as a result of their enduring nature as opposed to their acuity.

Much of the parenting advice I give involves doing less of something and/ or more of something else. This is almost always in response to a child or family system focussing too much on one element of the child’s life and not enough attention on another.

Sometimes we need to encourage the middle. In a culture that values sensationalism, we need to value balance. In a world that wants everyone to be exceptional, we need to take solace in the ordinary. It is, after all, the safest place to be. 

  • Dr Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist

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