Hi, Janet, a friend turned me on to your blog.
I am the mother of 3 children — a son, Trevor, who will be 4 in March, and twin nearly-10-month old daughters Kiley and Morgan. Trevor has had quite a year. From Jan-April 2010, I was on hospital bed rest after Kiley’s water broke at 22 weeks. I came home in late April, and Kiley and Morgan came home in mid-May. Then, in August, we started Trevor at a new preschool. He has not adjusted well, and he’s a bit out of control. Some days are great, and he’s the caring, sweet, loving, sensitive boy I know. Other days are awful from the moment he wakes up until the moment he finally goes to bed. He won’t listen, he’ll ignore you completely, he’ll act out some more– he seems to be going for the negative attention. I can’t blame him — his sisters are a LOT of work, and since I work part-time and my husband works full-time, the times he’s home are hectic. I can’t give him all he needs, so he acts this way. He’s also acting out at preschool, which I have a sinking feeling about — I don’t think it’s the right place for him (too structured, too academic), but I don’t know if we have many alternatives at this point. But at school, he refuses to color, or cut, or do whatever, and he cries, screams, and is generally disruptive. He seems to have a lot of anger; also, I’m sure, stemming from being the big brother of twin girls and harried parents.
I’m heartbroken — I feel like we’re losing him, like he’s going to grow up feeling unloved, angry, and unwanted.
Do you have any strategies for how we might break through, to get our boy back? We’re just at our wit’s end and have scheduled time with a psychotherapist to help too.
Thanks in advance, Alison
I understand your deep concern, and I hope I can ease your mind by assuring you that your boy is not lost or changed forever! It sounds like he’s hurting and confused, but I believe that you and your husband can definitely help ease this situation, especially since you seem to understand him so well. I had an experience along these lines with one of my children and certainly remember the heartbreak (and wrote about it in The Easily Forgotten Gift.)
I have some thoughts to share based on the few details you’ve given me (please excuse me if I suggest things you are already doing!).
My sense is that Trevor in having difficulties for two main reasons…
1) He is still struggling to process his feelings surrounding the stressful events of the last year. The three you mention are biggies: the separation from you in the hospital; the birth of his sisters and the way that has shifted his relationship with you and your husband; and beginning preschool.
2) He isn’t getting enough of the one-on-one attention he needs. This isn’t about quantity as much as it’s about regularity, setting aside a few minutes together each day, preferably at a similar time, with you or your husband (or both), time alone with you that he can always count on and look forward to. It can be while the babies are napping, asleep in the evening, or when there is another person there to care for them.
Confusing, conflicting, unexpressed feelings
Whenever you can, encourage Trevor to share any feelings about recent events he might be repressing, unsure or confused about. If you’ve done this already, do it some more. It’s hard even as adults to sort through feelings, recognize and come to terms with them. Imagine how difficult it must be for toddlers to understand their emotions when they have no past experience, no reference for them?
Ask Trevor how he felt when you were in the hospital, totally unavailable to him. Acknowledge how difficult that must have been, how much he must have missed you. With a totally nonjudgmental attitude, welcome him to express any anger or rage, sadness, fear, anything. Be calm and empathetic like a therapist. Don’t pity him, and try not to project any of your own feelings (guilt, regret, etc.). It will probably be hard to get him to connect with his feelings and even harder to talk about them. That’s okay. The fact that you are encouraging him, assuring him that it is more than okay for him to feel any of his “bad” feelings, and that they aren’t bad at all, will bring him comfort.
Likewise, help Trevor unload any grief, anger and resentment about the big change in his life when the twins came and he suddenly had to share his mom and dad with not just one, but two adorable, needy babies. On top of everything else, children in this situation commonly feel guilty for having negative thoughts and feelings when the general attitude of everyone around them is “aren’t you excited to be a big brother, and don’t you just love your precious baby sisters?” Toddlers often experience the birth of a sibling as a loss. It alters their position in the family and, they fear, in their parent’s hearts, too.
Help Trevor to explore his feelings about preschool also. Like having a new sibling, this is a situation that is “supposed” to be positive, but has downsides that Trevor needs acknowledged. He’s away from the comfort of home and family, dealing with lots of stimulation, new rules and expectations.
It’s counterintuitive for most of us to acknowledge negatives with our children. We are afraid that bringing them out into the open will make everything worse. Surprisingly, it usually has the opposite effect. Opening the door for our child to vent the “dark” feelings about a situation helps to ease them and allow them to pass, making it easier to see the bright side. Children feel relieved, understood, deeply loved.
“I hear you. You don’t want to go to school today. You don’t like the teacher, and you hate coloring and cutting. I understand. That’s a bummer, and it’s perfectly okay to feel that way, but today you must go. I’ll be back soon to pick you up.”
Setting aside 20 to 30 minutes a day to give Trevor your undivided attention will mitigate his urge to seek negative attention.
When you or your husband are giving Trevor his time alone with you, allow it to be whatever it is, whatever he wants or needs it be. Follow his lead. It might be a time for him to release negative feelings, complain and cry, play with toys while you watch him, or a jolly, cozy time together. He might need to act out or test you and be assured that you will calmly set the usual limits. Try not to have expectations.
It would be wonderful if you could arrange to have a regular outing with Trevor one afternoon or morning a week to a place of his choice (within reason). A special weekly outing together was hugely beneficial for my relationship with each of my daughters after a new sibling was born. I still make a point to set aside alone time with each of my 3 children, even if it’s just reading a book before bed, though not as regularly now that they’re older. I have some very precious memories of those times together.
Self-directed play either alone or with peers is highly therapeutic — helps children to process their feelings and release stress. I would love to see Trevor have loads of opportunities for free play every day. From your description, it doesn’t sound like his school is providing enough of this for him. (I’m not a fan of academic instruction in preschool, and explain why in 4 Reasons To Ditch Academic Preschools.)
If there is any possibility of switching to a more play-based school, or even keeping him home during this “crisis” period, I would consider it. Either way, give him plenty of time for unstructured, independent play when he’s home. And know that even the best schools are a little stressful. Children often come home from a wonderful day at school exhausted and grumpy and take it out on us, the people they feel safest with.
Trevor is blessed to have such sensitive compassionate parents. I hope some of this helps! And I hope you’ll stay in touch.
(Photo by haley8 on Flickr)