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O is for Occam's Razor

Updated: 6 days ago


occams-razor; conditioning; connection;

I tell people ALL THE TIME, “If you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras”


What I mean by that is it’s more LIKELY to be a horse than a zebra making the sound…


You may have heard, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck… It’s a duck!”


I’m sure there are others too, but these are the two I use / hear most. They’re both colloquial examples of Occam’s Razor.


Occam’s Razor, also known as the principle or law of parsimony, advocates that, “when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.” (Wikipedia)


In very simple terms, Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest explanation is often the right one.


When we’re talking about parenting and building relationships, Occam’s Razor can be really important. As practitioners, it keeps us grounded and reminds us to start at the beginning and end at the end.


We’re all guilty of not doing that now and then! Personally, I call this phenomenon Bank Manager Syndrome (but that shows my age!), it could just as easily be Headteacher Syndrome (apologies to any Headteachers or Bank Managers reading this – I’m sure you’re all lovely really!)


Picture this....


Phone rings.

- You see it’s the Bank Manager / school calling

- You panic – OMG what’s happened? What’s wrong…?

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- In the space of time it takes the phone to ring four times, you’ve covered EVERY single worst-case-scenario in your own head – someone’s hacked your account; the mortgage / rent hasn’t been paid; your overdraft is being withdrawn; you owe the bank some fees; you’ve forgotten to pay a bill… OR the child is ill / damaged / maimed / broken / lost / dead; the child is in trouble for swearing / fighting / bullying…


- You answer the phone.

- You sound terrified, “Hhhheeello?”

- The voice on the other end says, “Would you mind coming in to see me please?”

- You die a bit inside – your stomach flips and you hear yourself say, “Of course, when would be convenient for you?”

- You’re given an appointment and every waking moment between the phone call and the appointment is taken up with wondering / worrying what’s going on – you’ll reason with yourself that if it can wait, it can’t be that bad, can it? You’ll tell yourself that the child clearly isn’t dead or lost so what could possibly be wrong?


- The day of the appointment arrives. You go to the appropriate building and sit, waiting… waiting… waiting…

- While you’re waiting, you’re back to those worst-case scenarios…

- The door opens and you’re invited into the Office Of Doom – it’s time for the walk of shame…. Ironic, given that you don’t yet know why you’ve been summoned, but it always still feels like a walk of shame, doesn’t it?! Our conditioning tells us that we only get summoned to offices when bad stuff’s happened – nobody notices when we’re doing the right things, do they?!

- You stand, swallow, realise your mouth is dry and your tongue thick; you begin the walk of shame on leaden legs and the sound of the door closing behind you may as well be the sound of a cell door slamming shut on a prisoner.

- The Bank Manager / Headteacher smiles, and invites you to sit – the world is going in slow motion; for God’s sake, get on with it now!

- Then there’s a real power-balance moment – the other person knows what’s going on and you still don’t – you’re on the back foot.

- “Hello, thanks for coming – I know how busy you are so I’m grateful for your time today…” says the Important Person.

- You smile weakly and you’re painfully aware it probably looked more like you had wind than that you were calm, composed and in control!


“We’ve been reviewing our services and we’d like to give you a reduced rate on your mortgage interest payments”


OR


“Little Sammy has been doing ever so well and we wanted to show you their progress.”


- What?! What did they just say?! You thought they said something good….

- You check – you look at their facial expression, you consider their tone of voice and their body language…

- No, that definitely seems legit – they really are saying something good!

- Phew! All that worry for nothing…


Sound familiar?!


Of course it does! You’re human…


Our brains work in such a way as to protect us from danger – forewarned is forearmed…


With a lack of solid intel to work from, the brain will assume the worst-case scenario and start preparing for it – if you’ve already thought of it, it can’t be a shock, can it? Our brain prepares us for the bad news by preparing our body to fight, flee, or freeze.


At some point in our pre-meeting rumination, we’ll have asked ourselves the question, “What if I just don’t go?!” (Fleeing). We’ll have told ourselves, “I don’t care what they say, I’ll tell them to go jump!” (Fighting). The reality is though, in the moment, when the Important Person opens their office door to invite you in, what you’ll actually do is freeze. Remember the furry tongue and leaden legs? The flipping stomach and the increased heart rate?


Survival first, logic and reason later.


When we leave the Important Person’s office, we’re walking on air! It wasn’t that bad after all! We got ourselves all worked up over nothing…. Silly billy! We may even have a little laugh at ourselves for coming up with such extreme outcomes when the reality was so different.


What if we re-imagine that scenario using Occam’s Razor?...


Phone rings.

- You see it’s the Bank Manager / school calling

- You panic – OMG what’s happened? What’s wrong?

- You pause for a moment

- You take a deep breath

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- You tell yourself it’s probably nothing major because you’ve applied Occam’s Razor – it’s most likely to be something simple.


- You answer the phone

- You sound confident, “Hello?”


- The voice on the other end says, “Would you mind coming in to see me please?”

- You hear yourself saying, “Of course, please could you tell me what it’s regarding?”


Can you see how the rest of that whole interaction will play out differently? There’s no ruminating, no catastrophising, no wondering, no panic, no being on the back foot…

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There’s no stress response. Your brain doesn’t go immediately for safeguarding, it goes immediately to reasoning and understanding.


Logic and reason first, survival later.


Now, please don’t misunderstand me, if the Important Person says, “We need to discuss your significant overdraft” or “Little Sammy has been drawing engorged penises on the school cat” then your safeguarding responses are really very appropriate!

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Some other times when Occam’s Razor could be helpfully applied?


When you feel poorly…. Dr Google has an awful lot to answer for!


You wake up with a headache. It’s the worst headache known to mankind, you’re convinced that at any moment, your eyeballs will fall out and your melting brain will ooze out through the apertures created by your lost eyeballs…

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So, you Google it:


Melting brain, exploding eyeballs (because that’s a reasonable assessment and an accurate description, right?!)


I did it for a giggle and I kid you not, these are the top three Google results:

1) Exploding Eye Lecture – YouTube

2) 7 Ways To Spot A Brain Aneurysm Before It’s Too Late – Women’s Health

3) This is your brain on LSD, literally – CNN


So, how would Occam’s Razor have helped?


You wake up with a headache. It’s the worst headache known to mankind, you’re convinced that at any moment, your eyeballs will fall out and your melting brain will ooze out through the apertures created by your lost eyeballs…


You think about Googling it but decide instead to take a couple of paracetamol first and see if that helps…. It does. The headache eases and you’re very pleased that you’ve not spent an entire day convinced that you have an aneurysm!

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How can we apply Occam’s Razor to parenting?

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Easy!


By remembering that those hoofbeats are probably horses, not zebras…


By remembering that kids usually seek connection NOT attention


By asking yourself, “what’s LIKELY to be going on here…”


When our kids are babies, we’re really good at this because they don’t have words yet – everything is a process of elimination:


Are you hungry? Cold? In pain? Frightened? Lonely? In need of a cuddle?


We work through the Occam’s Razor list BEFORE we default to Dr Google…


Once children start to talk though, we immediately assume they have the vocabulary to explain to us their complex feelings and emotions. They don’t. The average four-year-old has about 25% of the vocabulary an average adult has, so when they’re upset and we ask them why and they can’t tell us, we tend to look elsewhere for a reason or explanation for the-upset-for-which-there’s-no-explanation. We turn immediately to Dr Google because if we can verbalise, so should they be able to, right?


Even if your kids have the right words, it’s unlikely they know what they mean or what they’re feeling; kids mainly come with four in-built emotional states, mad, bad, sad, and glad. Mad means angry here, bad means wilfully naughty, sad is self-explanatory, as is glad. All the others have to be learnt – we have to grow our emotional intelligence as well as our intellectual intelligence.


Words replace instinctive communication.


They replace connection.


Especially now, in the post-Covid world, our anxiety levels are at an all-time high; adults unable to leave the house having been locked down for so long, clinically vulnerable people too terrified to go out because they don’t feel safe from the virus, parents worrying about rising infection levels in schools, people who have never suffered from worrying thoughts and feelings suddenly having to cope with them…. It’s a really difficult time – and that’s just the adults!


We’ve spent so much time over the last couple of years hearing about the ‘new normal’ that Covid will create that we can’t not have been affected by it – we’ve been conditioned…


Now, conditioning is nothing new, we’re all being conditioned, all the time – it’s how we function in ways that are socially and legally acceptable. Usually though, we’re conditioned on a small scale – our parents will condition us socially when we’re children, teaching us not to lick knives or have our elbows on the dinner table, for example. We’ll be conditioned not to tell Granny that she’s got fat, even if she has(!), and not to point and stare at people with green hair or one leg. These are perfectly usual types of conditioning and as parents, that’s the majority of our job – to produce adults who will be responsible, sensible and law-abiding.

occams-razor; conditioning; connection;

Some other examples of acceptable conditioning might be:


Going to school – learning the rules, expectations and routines of a place other than home.


Going to work – learning the job, meeting the people, understanding the unspoken expectations.


Socialising – we learn how to behave with particular groups of people or individuals – we all have that one friend, right…?!


If you’re a fitness buff, you’ll recognise the term conditioning from your work-out sessions – at the gym, conditioning literally means conditioning – we’re improving the condition of our body and our fitness levels; we’re TRAINING them…


Effectively, this is what conditioning is – social training.


So, what impact has Covid had on our conditioning?


Well, just think back to the start of the pandemic. I’ll bet you were glued to the news, watching for the next death toll or set of horrifying pictures from an ICU ward, or feeling weirdly sad and hollow when pictures of empty streets and closed businesses were shown.


We mourned; not just as a country, but as a planet. This kind of universal conditioning is incredibly rare; even after wars there are places where day-to-day life isn’t massively affected.


You’ll remember from earlier blogs that there are five stages in the grieving process, and each must be experienced. We can reflect on the global grief that we were part of now, because hindsight is a wonderful thing:

  • Lockdowns – made people angry / frightened.

  • Death tolls & overwhelmed NHS staff – made people sad / depressed

  • Covidiots – Denied the virus…

  • Lockdown restrictions – made people bargain, “I can go out but if I see people without masks, I’ll go home again.”

  • ‘New Normal’ – The phrase designed to provoke acceptance…

That’s just the group-grieving; add to that the tens of thousands of families who’ve had to grieve the actual loss of someone they care about, whether to Covid or as a consequence of Covid preventing something else happening.


Now, we’ve got this ‘new normal’…. Has anyone seen the instructions?! I haven’t.


As adults, we can make informed choices about our own levels of risk and, to an extent, those of our children, but we’re still being governed by advice from medical professionals and conflicting government policies – how can we fulfil our duty to keep our children safe from harm in the face of legislation that says we’ll be branded criminals if we choose to keep them out of school where infection rates are rising daily?


If these things haven’t made you anxious as a parent, you probably shouldn’t be a parent!

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It’s an inescapable fact that our children are a window into our own soul. If there’s something in our own history that’s unhealed or unresolved, our children WILL inherit it. There’s no two ways about it – if we’re not emotionally capable of holding on to our own big emotions, how can we help our children to manage their big emotions?


What’s your emotional conditioning? How’s your emotional intelligence?


Did you grow up in a home where your feelings were given time, space, understanding, empathy and value?


Or were you told, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry for!”


Were you conditioned to understand that your feelings and thoughts were important and valid, or that your feelings and thoughts were irritating and inconvenient?


As always, the ‘ideal world’ scenario sits somewhere between the two – there are things that require empathy, attention, and guidance, and there are things that just don’t! Balance is the key…


So how does that impact our post-Covid parenting?


Without doubt, navigating the last two years has been the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced. For us adults, who have life-experience and the benefit of choice, it’s been tough – we’ve had our choices and liberties removed from us without consultation, and we’ve been told what we may and may not do – unheard of!


We’ve also had numerous experts and professionals telling us about the epic mental health crisis Covid has caused, whether in relation to adults or children and young people.


It’s when we’re in crisis that our fundamental conditioning comes to the fore – we all bolt back to the safety of ‘normal’ when we’re under stress. In other words, we can be emotionally conscientious parents as an active choice most of the time (we made the decision that we’d never tell our children we’d give them something to cry about, even if that was what we were told) BUT, when we’re under stress – and there’s no doubt Covid has been stressful – we’ll bolt back to our base conditioning; our childhood ‘normal’ and we’ll hear ourselves saying to our children, “Stop crying, there’s nothing to cry about, is there?”


What we mean is, “I can’t do anything to stop you feeling bad this time. This situation is beyond even MY control and we’re all equally unsure about what’s happening now, or what’s going to happen next.”

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Our children look to us and rely on us to fix stuff for them – the magic kiss that makes the booboo better; the magical appearance of food when we’re hungry or the clean, warm clothes that keep us snuggly when it’s cold…. These are the things that condition our children to trust our judgement and follow our lead.


If we don’t know what’s going to happen next, how can we reassure them…?


We can’t.


What we can do though, is use Occam’s Razor to help us manage all the big feelings – whether they’re ours or theirs.


Children are what we call ‘magical thinkers’, they think about stuff in the context of their own understanding of the world. This is why we talk about our children being ‘obsessed with’ Paw Patrol or Spider-Man or whatever the thing is that they’re in to.

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They’re not ‘obsessed’, they’re learning through magical thinking – What would Spider-Man do in this situation? They’re learning about seeing things from the outside as well as from the inside – children are naturally ego-centric – everything they do is about them FIRST. They don’t draw on the walls with your favourite lipstick to make you cross, they do it to see what colour the lipstick is…. It’s about their need, not yours.


Their ‘obsessions’ with characters and things are all working to develop a child’s sense of empathy and consideration of others – your child might not care a jot if their little sister breaks her arm, but if the arm comes off their Spider-Man toy, the world ends! When we ask them – somewhat baffled – why they’re SO upset about it; after all it’s just a broken toy (note the use of ‘just’, loyal blog readers), they’ll tell you through the streams of tears and bogeys that Spider-Man is hurt and that’s not ok.


Believe it or not, this is an imperative emotional intelligence conditioning opportunity. Most of us will tell the child, somewhat irritated, that we can / will buy a new one – it’s fine! We might tell them that it’s not worth being this upset about a broken toy and that they’re over-reacting. We might also panic that we’re dealing with a child whose emotional responses are inappropriate and start seeking advice…. Where will we go first?


Dr Google…

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Dr Google will tell you that your child has an alphabet soup of diagnosable conditions – everything from ASD / ADHD to ODD / IED / SPD and back again!


If you picked up your phone instead of picking up your child’s emotional overwhelm, you’ve missed the moment….


Why? Because Occam’s Razor says so!


Occam’s Razor tells us that it’s far more likely that the child is experiencing their first episode of true grief – their relationship with that Spider-Man toy was so pivotal to them (you’ve all read Pinocchio, right? You remember Jiminy Cricket?) that they’re grieving as if the family dog had died! It’s OUR job as parents to help our children understand the notion of relevance and proportionate responses – it IS ok to be that sad if the dog dies, it’s probably unnecessary to be that upset that a toy got broken.


If we don’t do that work, in that moment, we end up conditioning our children to learn that there’s no sliding scale of proportion, there’s the stuff we (adults) feel equipped to deal with, or there’s blame (it’s not the thing, it’s the unknown diagnosis).


There’s a middle ground there though, isn’t there? That’s where Occam and his Razor hang out…


For those of us who understand relationship dynamics and emotional development, these missed moments give us insight to the ADULT’S level of emotional intelligence, not the child’s.


The adult always has the choice, the child doesn’t. In that moment, when they’re inconsolable about a cheap toy that broke, the adult has choices. They can:

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Tell the child they’re overreacting – “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about” – this tells the child that their response is wrong and that if they respond wrongly, they’ll be punished. They aren’t told in this scenario, what an appropriate response would be.


Reach for the phone and diagnose the child based on our own discomfort or inability to resolve the issue – “It’s not ‘normal’ to be this upset about a toy breaking – you stay there crying while I find a label for your discomfort.” – this tells the child that the adult is not equipped to deal with their emotions and reinforces their view that they’re bad / broken / abnormal, all of which are blooming scary! The only outcome of more fear can be more emotional overflow, can’t it? There’s still no alternative given to the child, is there? The child remains choiceless in this scenario, a cycle of dysregulation has begun – the child cries, the adult becomes uncomfortable and defensive, the child cries more, the adult removes themselves because their discomfort (and maybe anger) grows, the child’s left alone with their upset and unmanageable feelings.


Apply Occam’s Razor


Stop what you’re doing, hold space for the child’s feelings, validate, empathise and resolve the issue together – “I can see that your favourite toy getting broken has really upset you! Let’s see how we can make it better.” In this scenario, we’re opening a conversation, not closing one down. We’re not judging the child or querying their ‘normality’, we’re acknowledging that they’re struggling with something, we’re going to make it ok for them to find things tough and we’re going to resolve the issue together. We might get a needle and thread out and sit together sewing Spider-Man’s arm back on, or we might agree with the child that the toy is beyond repair, but that we can see if we can find a new one to replace it. We’ll talk to the child about problem-solving and we’ll model a calm (regulated) and productive response, instead of an angry (dysregulated), unproductive response. In other words, we’re going to share our calm, not invest in their chaos.


We’ve shown the child that there’s a ‘way out’ that helps them feel better emotionally – they can stop crying safe in the knowledge that whatever the plan is, it will improve the situation. We’ve also modelled for them that when we work together, we can overcome most things. We HAVEN’T left them alone with their overwhelming thoughts to become more and more overwhelmed and unsupported. We’ve given them a coping strategy and built a bit of resilience.

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Occam’s Razor says that if you struggle to manage or cope with your child’s overwhelming emotions, it’s most likely that that’s a deficit in your own inner-child. We all have an inner-child, and if our real childhood was conditioned to understand that us being upset provoked anger, fear or other unreasonable or unhelpful responses from our adults, our inner-child will hold on to those feelings of rejection and abandonment.


You’ll remember that we all bolt back to the safety of our own ‘normal’ when we’re stressed? Our inner-child is the one who is really triggered in these instances – we’re taken back to those feelings of powerlessness and choicelessness when our own children behave in particular ways. If our own adults didn’t model compassion and understanding towards us when we were upset as children, we have no idea how to do that for our own children. It’s not rocket science, is it?! We don’t know what we don’t know until we realise we don’t know it!


So, the next time you find yourself feeling irritated by something your child has done or their ‘over-reaction’ to something, take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I responding to my actual child, or am I reacting to my own inner-child?”


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TOP TIPS


  1. A sixty-second pause is the difference between a reaction and a response.

  2. We react to behaviour; we respond to emotions

  3. Behind every behaviour is a feeling – our children need us to validate the FEELING, not punish the BEHAVIOUR

  4. Your inner-child has needs too – If you’re feeling triggered by your actual child, spend a moment acknowledging your inner-child’s needs – often the two needs will be effectively met with the same interaction – both your actual child and your inner-child are seeking CONNECTION in that moment…. Why wouldn’t you connect the two? Let your inner-child empathise with your actual child and use your experience as an adult to mange the interaction.

  5. Adopt Occam’s Razor as part of your parenting style – resist the urge to go straight to the worst-case scenario (you’ll break an ankle jumping to conclusions like that!) or to squash the behaviour from your child that you’re finding challenging (you’ll stunt the growth of the child’s emotional intelligence like that!) and instead, ask yourself, “What feeling is behind that behaviour and how can I help my actual child AND my inner-child manage it productively?”

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For more tips and advice on adopting Occam's Razor as part of your parenting style send us a message - JLTS offers free family therapy and therapeutic services and can help in a number of ways, find out more here:

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