Thank you! Every article you write speaks to my personal needs as a parent right now. I have a 3.5 year old and an 11 month old, and I wish I had found your parenting philosophy before we had our first son. I feel I have much “fixing” to do, and I can see ways in which I have possibly created problems with our son because of how I handled things when he was younger.
He is a sweet, sweet boy, quite bright, and yet can be a bit standoffish and aloof emotionally. Since he turned 3 in February, he has been crying a lot at everything. Even simple things like asking him to stop playing to come eat lunch becomes a full breakdown.
My mistakes (I think) were not giving him as much physical touch and reassurance as a baby as he might have needed. It turns out he was a bit colicky and had tongue tie – which led to breastfeeding issues for the first 12 weeks. My family/peers are all “cry it out” people and gave me what I now believe was poor advice. I was made to feel guilty, like I was spoiling him if I picked him up for any cry. Honestly, looking back I berate myself at how I could not see that that was ridiculous advice.
I feel like this rocky first year led to him being distanced at times. Since his brother was born last year (much easier to sleep, nurse, and in other ways), I see my toddler reverting to baby talk (which he never really did and was verbal very early), and acting very silly and emotional. He wants to be held all the time, especially right when I start nursing or changing the baby. I feel partly it could be natural sibling issues, but also I just think I somehow missed out on giving him that initial comfort as a baby.
How do I reverse this? I sense that there is something he is yearning for from my husband and me that wasn’t available to him in his early years, but I’m not sure how to address it now that he is older. How do I make him see that he is loved and always, always will be?
First and most importantly, I urge you to stop dwelling on the feeling that you failed your boy in his first year. Whether you did or didn’t (and I sincerely doubt you did), this is water under the bridge. Nothing positive can come from berating yourself for your perceived failings in the past.
There’s good news: young children are resilient and adaptable, and there’s nothing they are more eager for than a close, trusting relationship with their parents. There is much we can do with children of any age to repair whatever might need repairing. Mostly this will entail committing yourself to accepting and acknowledging all your boy’s feelings, overreactions and “silliness” without the slightest judgment. Unwavering acceptance is the path to every child’s heart.
So, let’s focus on what’s happening now. The primary issue I see here is your boy’s adjustment to the baby. A new baby will rock even the most secure child’s world, and the key to a healthy adjustment is not to judge (or be concerned about) the older sibling’s baby talk, emotional fragility, neediness, wishes to be held and babied, etc. These are all par for the course, to be expected, even welcomed. Here’s why…
Your son’s requests to be held and other attention-getting behaviors are his way of communicating his discomfort and intense need for your reassurance. These are your precious windows into what’s going on with him.
The arrival of a new baby often causes children to fear they might be losing our love and their place in the family. When we are annoyed by their harmless “babyish” behaviors, our children sense it. This feeds their fears, creates less security and more distance.
So, while it may seem like your boy is crying over nothing, he is actually (unconsciously) using these situations as outlets to express his very real pain, grief, and loss. This is why it is imperative to trust, trust, trust your boy to express his all-over-the-place wishes and feelings. And not just during this transition — always. Even though you won’t always be able to fulfill his wishes, don’t ever question them.
Instead, answer his requests for more safety and closeness with you by responding honestly and non-judgmentally. Here’s how that will look:
1. Calmly accept and try to understand your boy’s baby talk, neediness, fragility and whatever else he might throw at you now and in the years to come. Lead with trust. Rather than getting ruffled and letting your buttons get pushed, remind yourself that there’s always a reason. So, give boundaries when actions are harmful, but otherwise allow these behaviors to rolllll off your back.
2. Give respectful, honest responses and boundaries
It makes perfect sense that your boy asks for your attention when you need to give it to the baby. Expect this and, again, understand and acknowledge it, while also defining your limits honestly: “Oh, I hear how much you want me to hold you right now. I look forward to sitting with you right after I change the baby’s diaper.“
Then, it’s vital that you proceed with confidence in your son’s ability to handle this boundary, rather than transmitting a guilty, ambivalent or uneasy message. In other words…
3. Don’t fear the feelings
Again, this is all about trust. Trust all your children’s feelings, especially the harshest, most unreasonable-seeming ones, because they are always exactly what needs to be expressed at that particular moment. These feelings don’t need to be fixed or changed the slightest bit. They’re perfect, so let them roll.
No matter how bizarre or unreasonable requests or reactions seem, accept and acknowledge them: “You are so upset about me calling you in for lunch. Gosh, that’s so annoying for you when you are playing and I suddenly say it’s lunch time. Not fun.”
(Just an aside: sometimes children react this way when they are a bit too hungry and their blood sugar is low.)
5. Provide daily “Wants Nothing” quality time when you are at your child’s disposal, even if you can only commit to twenty minutes. “Wants Nothing” time is infant specialist Magda Gerber’s term and she explains (in Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect):
“Most of us are used to, and conditioned to, doing something. “Wants nothing” time is different, more a time for taking in and waiting. We fully accept the child’s beingness just by our own receptive beingness. Our presence is telling the child that we are really there and aware. If you really feel that you should do something during this time, or if your mind is on what to cook, whom to call, etc., then it is not the right time.”
Quality time together might also be the perfect time to offer extra support and empathy by making general acknowledgements: “It must be so tough for you to have to wait for my attention sometimes now that your brother’s here. I totally understand how upsetting this can be.”
Changing our ways and making amends are the most powerful tools for repairing our relationships with children, just like with other adults. Sincere and humble apologies are also invaluable behavior modeling.
While I would not make a habit of apologizing for expressing clear and respectful boundaries (because this can imply that we are tentative or ambivalent about the boundary), I would always make amends when I’ve lost my temper, been impatient or unclear, changed my mind, made a mistake, hurt my child (intentionally or inadvertently), or in your case, Julie, come to a realization about recent past mistakes. When you are having a moment together, you might offer:
“I got impatient and grumpy with you yesterday when you asked me to hold you while I was busy with the baby. I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me.”
7. Believe in your child
Looking back over your note, Julie, it’s interesting that immediately after expressing your concern about the distance between you and your son, you illustrate his fervent efforts to make his way back to you:
“I feel like this rocky first year led to him being distanced at times. Since his brother was born last year (much easier to sleep, nurse, and in other ways), I see my toddler reverting to baby talk (which he never really did and was verbal very early) and acting very silly and emotional. He wants to be held all the time…”
If he were an adult with the same needs, your son’s behavior would be considered melodramatic and silly. But he’s just a child, your sweet, sweet boy, sending you a message the way any child would. Our children have superb healing instincts, so trust his process…
For more, I recommend:
Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
And these articles:
7 Ways to Help Your Child Adjust to a New Baby by Susan Stiffelman, Huffington Post
Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby