Repairing Relationships With Our Children

Hi Janet,

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?

Best,
Julie

Hi Julie,

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.

4. Acknowledge

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.”

6. Apologize

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…

Warmly,

Janet


For more, I recommend:

My books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

 

And these articles:

A Call for Sunshine  and Enlightened by Nadine Hilmar, A Pikler Experience

7 Ways to Help Your Child Adjust to a New Baby by Susan Stiffelman, Huffington Post

Sibling Conflicts by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

Helping Kids Adjust To Life With the New Baby,  Good Grief and A Child’s Cry for Attention and Positive Parenting In the Tantrum Zone on this site

 

24 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet, this is such a powerful statement you wrote: “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…”

    For Julie feeling like her son was reverting and becoming distanced, those words must be music to her ears. I see her son’s behaviors the same way. Baby-like behaviors are a clear request for more connection and comfort like the child probably felt as a baby. I hope Julie will consider that her son might have felt her love coming through loud and clear despite the difficulties of the early years. And the best part is that by following your suggestions she can be there for him fully now!

    Children are indeed resilient and always waiting right there for us to reach out and complete the connection. Janet, thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  2. Hi Janet,
    Thank you for yet another simple and beautiful post. I can totally relate with Julie as I am too in a similar situation with my boys 3.5 yrs and 14 months . My older one’s whining and being clingy increased and also considering the fact that he is a late speaker (attending speech therapy) guess made it even harder for him .. Since the last few months since I have started trying out RIE at home .. I can see him being more free and open but still the both of us have a long way to go.

    1. Niki, this is learning process for all of us. Keep up the wonderful work you are doing!

  3. I had a lack of physical contact from my mom and it was painful for me, but you (julie) are blessed in knowing that you can give him all of the physical contact he craves, starting now. What a wonderful gift, for you, for him, and for your relationship!

  4. avatar karen lawson says:

    Please read the attached article! I have practised AP from day dot. My son is now 3. He has NEVER been left to cry, he’s still being breastfeed, he still co-sleeps with me. I have never left him in a situation that could be stressful, Ie: daycare. The only thing he had was a bit of a rough time when I was birthing him, he got stuck. The midwife was amazing, we were at home so it was all very calm, skin on skin straight away etc…. He’s had my full and undivided attention and he’s going through similar things to your child!!! This is an amazing article, please read. It’s all about Sensory Processing Issues, and what behaviour they can create. Keep being an amazing mum, great you have Janet now and are the path… x

    http://ionosteo.com/behaviour-learning-difficulties-in-children/

  5. Janet, the feeling in which you write is beautiful and meaningful.

    It seems that your blogs always come just at the right time, when I am looking for insight .
    Leaves me in awe.

    You are truly doing what you are meant to be doing and helping a lot of families in the process.

    Thank You!!!

    1. Awww. thank you for your lovely, supportive words. I’m glad my passion for this work is evident. You’re so welcome!

  6. WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL! Just (one of) the thing(s) I needed to hear from you, a trusted source of guidance on how to reach out to our first born, who also shows more moments of intensity, neediness, etc since our daughter was born. I am so thankful for this wonderful, wonderful guidelines. Some I am slowing doing as I have read this site some before, but these clearcut guidelines for older children is great! I’ve pinned it so I can remind myself of these frequently! Excellent letter Julie! Thank you Janet!

    1. Sherra, I’m so glad to be of help! Thank you so much for your kindness end enthusiasm!

  7. My favorite thing to say when my son is crying for no obvious reason is “do you need a snuggle?” He’s not all that verbal, and many times he can’t communicate what he needs, but a snuggle usually makes it a little better. If I can’t just stop everything and snuggle until he’s ready to play on his own, I can usually still take a minute and give him a big long hug before telling him, “I have to finish in the kitchen now, I’ll be in in a few minutes.” He may continue to cry, but I think the extra hug still helps.

    1. Yes, I’m sure the extra hug makes both of you feel better about your mini-separation. Thanks for sharing, Meagan.

  8. I loved the “lead with trust” and “there’s always a reason” part. For some reason (I suspect my childhood), I have to fight the thought that my child is being manipulative or spoiled or “bad”, even though I can plainly see his goodness. I think “lead with trust” and “there’s always a reason” just became my new mantra! Thanks, Janet!

    1. Excellent insight, Lilly. Yes, our reactions will always be based on our perceptions of our children and their behavior.

  9. Hi Janet,

    You are spot on here. I love your concrete examples. Thank you for “quoting”/referring folks to my latest post, Regard. What a treat. I appreciate and resonate with your approach to parenting and parent coaching. I call it “compassionate parenting”. I bring to parenting and my work what I have learned and studied through mindfulness (and my clinical training, but really, my mindfulness and meditation practices and studies have taught me more about parenting and offer deeper solutions/healing to parents than “talk therapy!”). Many blessings to you and all the work you do, Lisa

  10. avatar Cheryl Bianchi says:

    any suggestions if one’s kids are 22+ 20? Ha…

  11. Thank you so much off this post. I have a 4 year old and 2.5 year old. I had a slightly different situation that haunts me still. My first child and I were very close, and my second was born when she was 20 months. The second child my son was a very difficult baby (explosive outbursts, digestive problems from my oversupply, restless and sleepless). I tried to hire a mothers helper but my daughter wanted nothing to do with anyone other than me. I tried desperately to balance their needs but my daughter got the short end of the stick. I expected her to watch tv alone while I tried to get the hysterical baby down for a nap and on several occasions yelled at her when she tried to enter the baby’s room when he was falling asleep, certainly making her feel alone, abandoned, and scared. I was wishy washy about making her nap and other behaviors like bedtime routine, because of my guilt I suppose, but then sometimes exploded at her in impatience when she did not willingly lay down to sleep. Potty training was a nightmare. I just overall was very unfair to her for many months until I was finally able to get a grip on caring for both children. Now that my son the age she was then, I see how intensely wrong my expectations of her were. I worry every day about how I may have harmed her future self worth and our relationship during that awful time. Thank you for providing some reassurance and tips to go on. If only I could gave read thus advice back then!

    1. Carin,

      I felt great empathy for you as I read your reply. I had a similar situation. There was also a good dose of PPD/A in there for me. I came out of the fog over a year after she was born, and I remember when she turned 18 months old just kneeling and asking God to help me with my relationship with her (for me, the shortness was with my infant). I became intentional about building our relationship, bonding, and my good feelings for her. I, too, felt that I may have “ruined” her and that I was afraid of how that may have affected her. I am so happy to say that she just turned 3 and I am in a totally different place. Through listening, accepting, and setting clear limits (she is my “spirited” child!) we have come so far. She regularly comes up to me to tell me she loves me. Music to my ears! Anyway, I wanted to give you consolation that you are not alone and hope that things can and will turn around!

  12. Hi Janet,
    I appreciate your advice here, and would be interested learning how to handle the situation POST acknowledging feelings. For instance, in #4, you state to acknowledge the childs feelings that “It is annoying when you are playing and get called for lunch” – but, how do you suggest getting them to actually come and eat once you have acknowledged their feelings, and even sat and talked with them at length about their feelings? I do this with my son, and we have tried giving warnings, saying that once it is time to go eat we will “save” what he is doing so he can come back to it when we are done, we have talked about it every which way etc. I do think sometimes his blood sugar IS low, and eating helps his mood tremendously, but HOW to get him to the table after going through the process of acknowledging, talking, warning that in 5 min etc we are going to eat…
    I often resort to having to physically carry him there (and say, “it is time, would you like to walk or be carried to the table?” and even a fight ensues with that….) Any help appreciated. Thanks!

    1. I’d love to hear the answer to this. Setting clear boundaries is hard for me. I set them, but have trouble following through and stopping testing. Like if I’m asking her to put her shoes on and she won’t do it or not to step on baby sister. Sometimes I can’t physically make it happen because I’m feeding the 2 month old. We’ve resorted to “calling Panda Bear” (which I also do to report good behavior). I hate hate hate it, but it’s the only sure fire way we’ve found to get her to listen if she’s testing.

  13. Thank you so much for this post. My son is almost 16 years old and I also feel like I failed him in his early years…in fact not just his early years but up until about a year ago. As a single young mom I, like the original poster, feel I received (and took) some iffy to bad advice, and I often had trouble sticking to any one approach because I didn’t feel they were right for us or working. Throughout the next years, we became a blended family, explored about 1000 approaches to parenting and support for children with challenging behaviours (at 14 was diagnosed with ASD), and have gone through hours and hours of therapy as a family, and individually. And until I found RIE, we were floundering. For the past year or so I have been actively working on changing my interactions with all 4 of my kids, but especially with my boy, to try to repair the damage I feel was done to our relationship and to him by my (our) inconsistent, unconfident, and often authoritarian-for-lack-of-knowing-what-else-to-do parenting. I see a difference. For us, for him, a big, remarkable, noticeable difference. He is calmer, more regulated, his sleeping and eating is even better. He is more confident in problem solving, and he is making decisions for himself that he would previously balk at completely. He is happier, more engaged, and more open in our family. Our 3 daughters,2 teens and a 9 year old, are also loving this new attitude, and one of the best parts is watching my husband follow my lead and choose to learn and implement this wonderful approach to raising children. We still have our bumps, as it was too many years to fix in a short time, but I finally feel like I am doing “right” by my boy, and every time I read a post like this, I find more help and insight. Thank you!!

  14. Hi Janet,
    Just wanted to say that it is so wonderful to read your posts. I wish there were more ‘professionals’ out there giving your advice to new parents.
    I’m often saddened when thinking of the horrid advice people are given by so called experts and pressured by other family members to the point of doubting their own intuition. Poor darling innocent babies suffer as a result and the parents too. It’s always seemed so odd to me that babies are almost thought of as some’thing’ to train to fit in to our life rather than some’one’ to share a life with and for us to adapt to their needs. Because it feels so inately that way for me it is hard to comprehend it would be any other way. It just feels natural to be there for them in every way and to meet all of their needs with kindness and understanding.
    Thank you for shining a light on compassionate, intelligent, insightful, intuitive and gentle parenting.
    Kindly, Renae.

    1. That’s so lovely of you to say! Thank you, Renae

  15. Thank you Janet. Another perfectly timed, much needed strategy and boost of confidence. My relationship with my 3 year old has been tumultuous from the beginning and recently I’ve been hostage to the feelings of guilt and disappointment in myself. This goes a long, long way to helping me figure it all out.

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