I Think I’ve Ruined My Child

Dear Janet,

I can barely type I’m so upset. I think I’ve ruined my child by being too gentle!

He is such a gentle, sweet and loving boy but struggles so much with socializing and in situations where there is an unknown. He lacks confidence, patience and independence, and I’m terrified of how I’ve set him up to struggle in later life.

He is three years old and has just started preschool.

Since he was born I’ve tried hard to learn and read as much as I can and have thought I was doing the right thing by spending all my time with him, playing with him and allowing him to make his own choices and never allowing him to get upset.

Having recently come across your blog and similar philosophies, as well as seeing him develop and react so badly to certain situations, I realize I was so wrong and I’ve done a terrible thing by parenting so softly! I thought I was being responsive!

He hates to do anything that involves more than close family, constantly wants the attention of one of his parents, won’t try new things and cannot play by himself or stick up for himself in a confrontation with another child.

Just writing all this down I realize how bad it has gotten and how much damage I have caused. I know the first three years are crucial in his development and it’s too late to change much of what I’ve done.

I completely see myself in him. I was a painfully shy child who also didn’t want to do anything outside my comfort zone. I hated social situations and never took any risks. The contrast was that I had a strict father who always told me to be careful and not take risks (my son’s father is not like this). I was also terrified of authority and doing something wrong and being punished. I have huge issues with guilt as an adult.

Wow, I sound like a mess!

I really want to undo the damage and help my son to be a confident boy and also not to inflict the same issues on my baby daughter. I just don’t know how or where to start!

Your articles have been a real wake-up call and inspiration, and I am endeavoring to use them in moving forward with my children.

Huge appreciation,


Hi Sue,

First of all, don’t worry! You have not ruined your son. Gentleness, love and devotion could not ruin a child. It sounds like you got a little misled by your compassionate desire to make your boy as happy and comfortable as possible (certainly understandable). You may have created unproductive habits and given him some dis-empowering messages. This is common and easy to do, so I think it’s wonderful that you’ve realized it. It’s well within your power to turn the situation around.

Here are some steps that I hope will help. As you’ll see, they’re interconnected:

1. Stop Fearing Struggles

Your statement, “I’m terrified of how I’ve set him up to struggle in later life,” is a key point. Even though you are beginning to understand that sheltering your boy from struggles and discomfort has created problems, you hold on to a negative view of “struggle”.

One of the most profound things I ever heard Magda Gerber say was: “If you can learn to struggle, you can learn to live.”  Struggles are inherent in life and essential to learning.

I would venture to say that the happiest people are those with a positive attitude toward “struggle”.

Children develop this confident, resilient attitude when we believe them basically capable, and when we are open to allowing them age-appropriate struggles from the very beginning of life. We provide emotional support rather than fixing every problem.  This requires a lot of restraint, sensitive observation, and, hardest of all, tolerance for our child’s discomfort and difficult feelings.

2. Gain a Healthier Perspective About Feelings

Young children are easily overwhelmed by emotions and often express them in extreme ways. Their tears, screams, and tantrums can be alarming, maddening, and guilt-inducing for parents if we make the common mistake of seeing them from an adult perspective. Yes, when an adult screams, yells or cries it is a serious cause for alarm, but children don’t have our emotional self-control or advanced language skills, so they are easily overcome with feelings. We must respond, but the way we respond matters.

When we interpret our infant’s every whimper as intense pain or perceive our toddler’s tantrum as devastation, heartbreak, agony, desolation, etc., it will lead us to misjudge situations, overreact and respond in an unhelpful manner. Perhaps we don’t provide a limit or boundary because we sense our child is unhappy about it. Or, we help too much or too soon with tasks that the child might struggle with but eventually work out himself with our support.

Our adult projections give extra “weight” to the situation and make struggles and negative feelings harder for our children to endure than they would be otherwise.

Avoidance of our child’s negative reactions breeds more and more discomfort with the feelings for both us and our child, which leads us to more avoidance, fixing…and so much pressure for parents!

Rather than our child learning that loved ones are there to support him calmly through all of his age-appropriate disappointments, frustration, anger, or sadness, he reads the parents’ discomfort as, “I must not be able to handle feeling bad. I need my mom to protect me, keep my ducks in a row, and make everything okay for me.”

Along with this helplessness and dependency is an uncomfortable kind of power, “Mom gets worried when I’m upset and wants it to stop. If she can’t handle this, I sure can’t.  Who’s in charge?”

These children are not inclined to engage well with peers (who don’t afford him the power his parents do), take healthy risks, feel capable, or otherwise leave their kingdoms and comfort zones.

Yes, children’s emotions can be scary to witness because they trigger our own. It’s challenging but vital to teach children that all their feelings are okay with us and safe for them to experience. Allow children to feel, and you’ll often notice them turning on a dime: calm, refreshed, free to either rest peacefully or resume playing as soon as the feelings have passed.

With a healthy perspective about our children’s feelings, we can…

3. Set Boundaries with Confidence

Our children feel no basic sense of security without the nest that our boundaries provide. It’s next to impossible to see this while the child cries or screams when we say “I can’t let you…”, but when given with empathy, confidence and acknowledgment of our child’s point of view, limits bring him a sense of freedom and relief. For a three-year-old, the knowledge that there’s someone in charge that isn’t him is a wonderful thing.

Don’t forget to value your personal boundaries, too. If you’re too tired to play, don’t play. Watch. Or do whatever it is you need to do. Never let fear of displeasing your boy prevent you from taking care of yourself. This is as important for him as it is for you. It will strengthen him to learn respect for others.

4. Learn To Let Play Be His

It really isn’t your job to entertain your boy or necessarily play with him, but playtime is a great way to give him positive attention. Let play belong to your son when you are together and he will learn to love solo play, too. Since this will be a change from what you’ve been doing, it will take patience, finesse, and boundary setting. (Here are some posts with specifics that might help:  Becoming Unglued – Giving Your Child The ‘Alone Time’ Both Of You Need and Solo Engagement – Fostering Your Toddler’s Independent Play )

This switch from entertainer to observer will probably also cause some unhappy feelings and struggles. But I’m hoping you’ll start to perceive all these emotions and struggles as positive, confidence-building learning experiences for your son (and you)…and give yourself a huge pat on the back whenever you endure them. In time, your boy can become a happy-go-lucky kid who feels free to take risks, mess up and bear all kinds of tough emotions. In other words… live.

Warm regards,


P.S.  For specifics about supporting your son to “stick up for himself” in social situations, please read: What To Do About A Toddler Toy Taker 

 I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting




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

  1. Kathleen Mills says:

    Just dont stop talking to him. Reassure him that you will always support him and he will be fine.

  2. Great post! I love all the points Janet made– somehow this time the message about allowing children to experience their feelings and, in particular, not projecting adult feelings onto them, finally sunk in for me and, I think, will make bedtime a lot easier for us!

    Something that struck me about the original letter: the letter writer places all this blame for her son’s behavior on herself, yet then she goes on to say that she was exactly the same way despite having a very different upbringing. To me, this suggests that her son’s nature is largely ingrained and genetic! Modifying her parenting style to embrace struggle will help her son be COMFORTABLE with who he is and not feel fearful or guilty all the time, but I don’t think the LW needs to blame herself so much for his basic personality. Some kids are naturally a bit more cautious and inclined to observe, and appreciating that about her son rather than feeling guilty about it will probably help build his confidence a lot!

    1. Thanks, Maya! I totally agree with you about the probable genetic component here… This boy sounds like he has a more observant, introverted personality like his mother and I agree that her acceptance of that is very important. Sometimes that’s harder to do when we’re reminded of something we might not like about ourselves. There are certainly positives to “look before you leap”, or the peaceful child who is not interested in toys enough to squabble about them. I would like to hear more about what Sue considers “not standing up for himself.” Maybe she’ll share with us…

    2. Very true! I was going to post the same thing! Our children are who they are from birth and we can work with their uniqueness and quirks, but it is very unwise to try to change them from the ground up OR to assign negative attributes to traits we
      1) don’t understand
      2) despise in ourselves.

      Preferring to be with your family is not bad. Being sensitive is not bad.
      Being shy is not bad.

      Hugs mama! You got this!

  3. I just want to reassure the letter writer by saying that some of her child’s issues may just be a matter of temperament and/or other stressors. (Don’t they say that being introverted and hesitant in new situations is largely inborn temperament? I think I remember reading that.) That’s not to say that becoming better at setting limits and tolerating his bad feeling won’t help a lot, of course.

    My daughter Maria (20 months) shows some, though not all of the same issues. She’s in general a happy girl, but lately she tends to (as her dad puts it) “jump at shadows” — like if another child, however small and non-threatening, comes at all close to her on the playground equipment, she immediately runs and reaches to me to take her elsewhere (even though she had really wanted to go down the slide, or whatever it is). She also doesn’t stand up for herself when her little friend (who’s much smaller and lighter than she is) pushes her off her little chair. (I don’t know whether to worry about this, or whether she just doesn’t care much about being on the chair!)

    She also has a hard time playing alone — and there I think we do have to take the blame as we have not pushed her on it. (I need to review some of Janet’s posts on this!)

    My theory is that the “jumping at shadows” is related to her separation anxiety. That has been in high gear lately — she stays at home with her wonderful and loving dad while I work, and much of the time (he reports) she’s going “mommy . . . work.” Janet, I’d be interested to know whether this reflects your experience, i.e. that separation anxiety re. parent(s) can affect toddlers’ anxiety in other social situations.

    Anyway, I don’t have anything profound to offer or suggest, but just thought I’d weigh in since I see some (though not all) of what the letter writer describes recently in my own child. I’m hoping some of it is developmental and will resolve over time, but I’d certainly appreciate any suggestions for handling it in the meantime!

    1. Rebecca, I agree about inborn temperament. But I’m not so sure that your daughter’s “jumping at shadows” is connected to separation anxiety. I would suggest something a little different when she “reaches to you to take her elsewhere”. When you go along with this, you are encouraging her to avoid the situation and sort of agreeing that she can’t handle it. Instead, I would let her know beforehand that you will stay in one spot while she plays, but come close when she seems to need you to keep her safe with other children. Then, if she wants to flee the situation, she can choose to come sit with you. Right now she is “pulling your strings” a bit, and also might be getting the subtle message that you don’t think she can handle even a few yards of separation. This is what I meant by a boundary during playtime (in my response to Sue).

      1. Thank you Janet, that is good advice. It may be that because I already feel bad about the separation when I’m at work (not guilty exactly, but just sorry that she’s having a hard time), I indulge her too much in wanting me right with her every moment when I am at home, or we’re at the playground etc.

        My bet is that if I tell her I’m going to sit on the bench while she plays, she may just sit there with me! But maybe she’d do that for a day or so and then venture out . . .?

        1. Yes, I would consider her choice to sit with you lovely quality time together. The less of an agenda you have about what she does, the freer she will feel to separate from you. It’s important to give her this trust. She also needs the opportunity to be the one to separate from you (for a change) and return when ready. (In Attachment Theory this is called having a “secure base”.) We ask parents to practice this in RIE Parent/Toddler Guidance Classes.

          And remember, if you feel “bad” about something, she has to feel uncomfortable with it, too.

          1. Janet, your response has helped turn my head around on this, and we already noticed a real difference in her this afternoon at the playground — mostly because of a difference in us (letting go of any agenda). The more I think through what you’ve said, the more ideas I’m getting for how to approach both her separation anxiety and her issues with other kids differently, and I have high hopes that both she and I will be feeling much better soon. Thanks so much for your wise words!

            1. Great news, Rebecca! You’re most welcome and I thank you for sharing.

  4. I love your blog, and I love your parenting style. You are helping my husband understand why I parent the way I parent.

    I heard something once on NPR while I was pregnant that stuck with me. I think it every single day:

    “If you don’t teach your child how to be alone, he’ll always be lonely.”

    That resonated with me and my son has alone play time at least twice a day, for at least 20 minutes each time. My husband hates it (thinks I’m neglecting him) but is also seeing the outcome in a toddler who can sit down and play by himself for 30 minutes at a time, freeing up time for us to be a couple. He is quickly learning that alone time is important for everyone – not just adults.

    I think it’s so important to observe!

    1. Such kind words, Courtney, thank you! I agree with your view about alone time and I’m glad you’ve enabled your little guy to value it, too. From what I’ve seen, children are natural self-entertainers, but parents either don’t know how to encourage this or unwittingly get in the way. Especially with first children, we commonly believe it our job to entertain (as I once did).

  5. I could have written the same letter to you when my child was 12 months. It has been difficult to change the smothering mommy I feel the need to be but I have also seen the reward of backing off. At 20 months (maybe sooner) my son started playing very well by himself. As time goes on I am more impressed with the things he can do when I am not doing them for him or getting in his way.

    One thing I seem to be confused about is when you said our adult projections give extra weight. Where is the fine line between projecting and acknowledging their feelings? I feel like there should be a whole post differentiating the two. : )

    1. Clara, I think I can clarify in less than a whole post. 🙂 (Although I would certainly like to know how to write shorter posts!) “Acknowledging” is verbally reflecting what we observe, “You seem very angry/upset/frustrated/surprised/sad”, etc. “Projecting” is seeing through our personal or adult lens, for example, thinking our child feels “abandoned” or “rejected” because he strongly objects (with real tears) when we temporarily leave the room, or when daddy is holding him and he wants mommy. Granted, it can be challenging at times to differentiate between our projections and our child’s reality. This is why Magda Gerber taught parents and professionals to practicing taking a step back and observing…and thereby gaining a more accurate understanding of the child and the situation.

  6. I think even the intensity of this letter reflects the intensity of the little boy she’s describing. The voice here reminds me of my very sensitive aunt who I adore, and who feels everything so much more than anyone else I know. As you’re working to let him struggle and find independence, don’t feel that you have to fix HIM. As other commenters have already said, it sounds like part of what you’re talking about here is pure temperament… And the best thing you can do is embrace it, in both your child and yourself.

  7. It’s so hard to “ruin” a child unless parents purposely try. That’s why it is possible to have so many different parenthing theories! Nearly everyone survives and ends up decent. Positive people look at the positives and say, “Hah, won’t you look at that, that’s my parenting.” Negative people look at the negatives and say “Oh no! That’s my parenting.” I think the commenters and Janet are right on that the child is far from ruined. The author can relax.

    So many parents are worried if their children are talking, reading, walking. All children eventually talk, read, walk. It’ll happen. Your child will develop into a functioning adult.

    I also love that Janet advocates stuggle. Struggle is the MOST IMPORTANT learning mode, I would say.

  8. Janet, thank you so much for responding to my letter in such a thorough way, and thank you to all the people who commented too. I’m still trying to digest everything you’ve said but I am feeling much reassured and relieved that this situation I’ve created can be turned around.

    The part about struggle I now understand. I think I’ve always been afraid of struggles and doing some self-reflection I realise that my parents never let me struggle either. And still don’t! At the first sign of difficulty with anything they were there to help.

    Your second point about feelings I’m finding harder to move forward with. I understand fully what you mean but think I need lots of practice to get this right. I’m very guilty of adding weight to his negative feelings, possibly because they bring up so many feelings in me that I’ve never properly dealt with.

    I’m getting a lot better with boundary setting. It is very hard and he’s really pushing me all the way but I am really determined here to get this sorted.

    The final part about play is also a work in progress. I’ve read the articles you link to and need to actively put in the practice on this one every day.

    Your comment in response to Maya above reads “Sometimes that’s harder to do when we’re reminded of something we might not like about ourselves” and this totally rings true. I dwell a lot I suppose on the things I don’t like about myself and how I think those have held me back in my life. I don’t want my son to feel held back by the same things.

    When I say he doesn’t stick up for himself, I mean that if another child takes something he is playing with he doesn’t put up any resistance. He’ll run to me and cry or just stand there and look sad but he never says ‘no’ to them or holds on tightly. I wonder if he feels powerless in these situations (as I did as a child) and doesn’t know how to handle it. Or maybe I’m projecting too much?! I do understand what you mean there and am probably rather guilty of doing that.

    I think the comments are right in that I don’t really like a lot of my own characteristics (perhaps because others were always pointing them out negatively when I was younger) and I don’t want my son to feel this same dislike about himself. These comments have really helped me reflect and see that perhaps these characteristics are not ‘wrong’ or something to dislike but can just be accepted. Something else to work on!

    One thing I find hard to fathom – I’ve read a lot of anecdotes that really ring true for me like ‘Kids spell love T.I.M.E.’ and ‘your kids won’t remember whether you had a clean house, they’ll remember the time you spent playing with them’. Then balancing that against your teachings as both seem to make a lot of sense!

    Sorry for going on for so long again in this comment. You’ve been so helpful and given me so much to reflect on and learn from, I’m really grateful. Thank you.

    1. Sue, I appreciate your thoughtful response and thank you again for allowing me to share your story!

      I want to clarify straight away that what I teach is not about giving children less of our time. This is about paying full attention to your child, but doing a little less so that your boy can do more. For most of us, time together is far more enjoyable when our child is the one who is creating, inventing, exploring, etc., while we appreciate, comment and play along. Children who aren’t dependent on us for entertainment are very fun to be around. AND our children are always fully aware that they have our attention. They don’t need us to DO to know that we’re there, but they can definitely get conditioned to our active participation. We are powerful in our children’s eyes and our play tends to overtake theirs. That is what the two posts I shared with you are about…letting your boy self-direct play a bit more. There is also a wonderful post about this by Loving Earth Mama: http://lovingearthmama.com/2012/10/03/fostering-self-directed-play-ten-tips-to-help-pre-schoolers-entertain-themselves/

      Regarding social situations, if your boy stands there looking sad when something is taken away, stay calm, but mention to him, “You can say NO or hold on next time you want to keep something.” No child innately knows how to handle these situations. Children learn when we support them with options, but don’t invest too much in the situation ourselves… Try to see this as positive learning rather than a crisis, and then your boy can keep a healthy perspective, too.

    2. Sue, there is a wonderful book that I’ve found extremely useful in self reflection and working on the feelings that parenting bring up. It is called “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Daniel J Siegel, MD and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.

      It is certainly a difficult book to read and work-through, but it is also incredible in the self reflection and tools it has provided me.

  9. I had a painfully shy boy. He never liked any class or social situation and wanted to stay home always. I had to ask his violin teacher at age 4 to not do that aggressive thing where she had eye contact with him. He would just lay down on the floor! He is now a wonderful, popular, athletic, straight A 11-year-old.

  10. I don’t know who to thank for this post. Janet, Sue, the child…anyway this question and answer hits home in so many places it’s incredible.

    I too suffered from shielding my child or running to his rescue at the drop of a hat. I protected him from feeling bad ever bc feeling bad is bad, right?

    My son entered preschool last year and was in a very nurtured environment. the teacher was warm and loving and since it is a co-op i was always there to rush to his rescue. after months and months of crying in the corner he finally liked school. he also made his very first “best friend” who was just as introverted and shy as him. that he did entirely on his own.

    this summer we enrolled him in summer school and his best friend did not. oh, boy! he went to school with the same confidence thinking his pal would be there and he wasn’t. he tried to make friends with some other kids but just freaked them out by following them. i watched the struggle and his pain. he followed and mimicked other kids and it was heart break after heart break. one child who was not quite out of parallel play and kind of a loner yelled and pushed my son one day yelling “go away! i don’t like you!!”. i watched my child crumple up on the ground crying.

    i tried to fix this for him like a chicken with her head cut off. tried to set up play dates with kids in the class ( didn’t get any takers) decided i needed to be there at his class more often to make sure his feelings were ok. then one day the teacher looked at me and said, “you need to leave him alone. he will figure this out. if you don’t allow him to get rejected or listen to his classmates request to back off, he won’t learn. you can’t do this for him. and this is his thing. trust him that he’ll learn”

    So I did. I backed off and it was painful for me and him. i wasn’t raised this way. My mother was the prototype to the modern day helicopter parent. he cried a lot. spent time alone. tried to run with the crowd at preschool. faced rejection. finally the last week he came out victorious. i went to go pick him up and saw him running with a group of boys playing fire rescue. i saw a new guy emerge in him. he looked proud. some sort of sea change occurred. he’s still very introverted and a cautious observer but a very confident one.

    this year he’s still at the same school with best bud back but now he plays with other people too. we even added an extra day of school with all new classmates and he does very well. i know this journey isn’t finished and it’s just the beginning. i’m still working on letting go and walking the fine line of being there as a supportive parent versus clipping his wings. i wanted to share this bc hopefully it can be a story of hope!

    1. Michi, this is a beautiful and educational story and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it. Interestingly, I remember your boy as a very strong, agile, confident guy. You are so very insightful to have figured this out: “I too suffered from shielding my child or running to his rescue at the drop of a hat. I protected him from feeling bad ever bc feeling bad is bad, right?”

      1. Thank you Janet. i love how you remember him! it’s a work in progress and I imagine it will be for a very long time. I took RIE bc i didn’t want to parent my child the way i was raised. I was overprotected and as an adult lack a lot of skills that I think would be sharper if i wasn’t so sheltered at the wrong times. you and Magda have been so inspiring! Thank you!

  11. Yet another wonderful wonderful post. Sometimes it feels like you’re talking directly to me!
    PLEASE write a book. My Goodness how I would love to be able to flick through all of your words of wisdom at the drop of a hat…

    1. Oh, such great encouragement! Thank you, Amanda, I’m working on it! <3

  12. It’s encouraging for me to read all of this, not because I’m dealing with the same exact situation, but because I also struggle with how to interpret the advice I’ve read about parenting. A lot of it concentrates on what parents are doing wrong and it’s easy to come away with the impression that children completely malleable (all nurture, no nature)… that any “mistake” will require a huge amount of work to undo. It reminds me of the joke about how the best way to fix your money problems is to have married rich.

    I think they key is to be responsive and flexible. Adapt any advice you hear to your own situation. Your worthiness as a mother is not measured in how closely you follow someone else’s advice.

    For what it’s worth, my oldest son exhibited some of the behaviors you are describing. As a first time mom, I didn’t have the perspective to know when to step back. But the good news is that he eventually did learn to be more independent and to solve his own problems. He was not scarred for life, and I have no regrets about my choices back when he was a toddler.

  13. Janet, I shared this with a family I work for who is concerned about their almost-three-year old daughter and her cautious, shy nature in large groups…she just started nursery school in September but has always been shy…even with people she sees on a fairly regular basis. It seems the only ones who see her feisty side are those closest to her. Anyway, the mom loved this post and I am including her response here to share her appreciation with you. Thanks so much for this post!

    This was great. I had 2 big takeaways
    1. Don’t project how she is acting as adult behavior. For example if she is crying a lot- it means something completely different than an adult who cries a lot and doesn’t mean she isn’t happy. 
    2. Encouraging alone time is a good thing.. Builds confidence. Sometimes I miss her so much while working FT that I don’t let her do her own thing enough when we are together

    In general- I think she is fine but its good to read up on other similar parent concerns. 

  14. Dear Janet,

    (This is new to me so hopefully this goes through correctly.) I’ve been inspired by your blog and hope you might chime in re: our concerns. My husband and I are saddened and confused by a recent sudden shift in our 3.5 year-old son. He’s always been quite intense, sensitive and perhaps introverted/easily overwhelmed and had feeding/sleeping issues as an infant. He has increased frustration re: his 10-month-old brother now getting into his toys more. We have really tried to be sensitive to his individual needs while maintaining appropriate limits for him. However, I have, on occasion (not the norm), let slip with a swear word when I get very, very stressed or angry (a habit I learned from my parent very young). Within the past week, he has finally started repeating what he’s heard from me, movies, etc. ALL at once, and frequently, in an angry pressured voice. At times it is when overwhelmed, and also at times testing for our reaction. We tried “I won’t let you…” but we can’t actually stop what comes out of his mouth and so it seemed disingenuous. We’ve tried redirecting, ignoring, time outs(short-lived because it escalated the behavior) and are now treating it like we do whining or bad manners. We say without emotion “I don’t understand that. Can you find another way to say it?” Or walk away and say, “Let me know when you’re ready to work together.” This works in the moment, but isn’t reducing the frequency of his horrific embarrassing outbursts. We’re considering use of a treasure box with small items he can earn by getting enough stickers for “working together using good manners” at transition times (this was the only thing that got him to finally self-motivate to poop in the potty), but we are unsure if it’s wise to place any additional focus on the cursing. I am filled with regret but can only move forward now with better resolve and self control. Do you have any input re: this specific issue of profanity and generally mean-talk by a 3 year-old? I feel like we’ve taken his innocence and fostered a behavior in him which renders him unpalatable to other people. We are focused now on using the “I don’t understand that” response described above, increasing positive loving interactions with him and reducing opportunities to use the behavior. Suggestions please?

    Thank you,

  15. Hi Sue,

    Thank you for posting this…

    I am in EXACTLY the same situation, and I too am struggling with the guilt of what I have done..

    My son is 2 years old. I desperately wanted to encourage his creativity and imagination (a priority for me) and so I played with him constantly, intervened as soon as I saw him ‘struggling’ with a toy, and babied him far more than he probably needed.

    The result is a child who brings his toys to me so that he can watch me play with them. He seems completely unable to keep himself entertained and constantly needs my company. Not particularly creative or imaginative! Like your child, my son seems to lack confidence. He refuses to leave my side for even a minute at playgroup and at home.Unlike other children who seem to have a blast exploring and playing. My son is fearful around other adults and children. I do wonder if this could also be due to the fact that we currently live in Germany and none of us (my husband, son or I) speak the language.

    Since I started taking him to playgroups and started to notice the behaviour of other children I have come to realise just what a terrible mistake I have made. And I detest myself for it.

    I can only pray that the damage can be reversed. It’s Jan 1st today and my new years resolution is to follow the tips on this site – in terms of allowing him to lead the play etc. Wish me luck.

    If you would like to contact me so that we can help and encourage each other along – please do not hesitate as that would be awesome.

  16. Thanks so much for this. I’m not that deperate but I’m a bit in the same boat with my own 3.5 year old. Lots of common traits.

    Been trying to switch lately and seeing results. I have a 21 months old as well and one on the way and we’ll do the Gerber approach more this time around.

  17. Hi

    Very interesting post. I’m just a bit confused….i will read up on your the other posts you rec on solitary play…i just wanted to know something. I have a 27mnth old boy….and im a SAHM..so im with my son all day….we have moments of spontaneous play eg when im making the bed we’ll have a good session of rough and tumble sometimes…then we’ll be chasing each other round the house, play with his cars for a few minutes or ball games and i give loads of attention…but most of the day i leave him to find his own play….however, i ama writer so i hope to at least spend 2 hrs a day writing on my PC which he doesn’t like me doing…i usually play with him for 20 min before i sit down to write and set out activities for him in the meantime but he is always back at my table sometimes banging on my PC….when he plays alone it is never for long then he’s back seeking my attention….is this normal?

  18. Janet,
    I have a 3.5-year-old daughter who is also very introverted and like the sweet mom in your post I have been very careful to make sure she feels emotionally supported her entire life. We have set very firm boundaries, and she is 100% positive that Mommy and Daddy are in charge. She knows we can handle things. She is very advanced in her language skills and has really never had emotional issues because we’ve worked hard to support her and create a safe place for her to express herself.
    However, she gets SO very overwhelmed in social situations. For example, she has been attending ballet class once a week for six months. This and weekly story time at the library are her only consistent peer-interaction situations. She is okay with story time because the moms stay with their children. But in dance, she struggles to stay in the studio with the teacher and the other little girls when I’m not in the room. It’s against the studio’s policy to have parents in the room, and quite frankly, I want to be out of the room so she can focus and learn to dance- she has BEAUTIFUL technique and quite a bit of natural talent.
    Recently she began saying she didn’t want to go to dance, and I am trying hard to figure out if this is a situation in which I should encourage her to struggle a bit-she LOVES dance and would be absolutely devastated if I told her we are not going anymore- or be respectful of her stated desires and let her decide to quit. I have strong feelings about these things because I quit everything I ever attempted when I was a child and I don’t want her to give up as easily as I did. I never learned to struggle. Being mindful of this, I also don’t want to be one of those parents who pushes her to do something she really doesn’t feel comfortable doing.
    Is a weekly dance class an age-appropriate place to learn to struggle? Or should I assume that she’s able to comprehend enough to allow her the option of quitting?
    Full disclosure: my heart broke in ways I didn’t know it could when she told me she wanted to quit. I want to examine my own motives deeply before I make a decision about all this.
    Any input would be very welcome and very appreciated.

  19. Great description of boundary setting and acknowledging feelings yet being aware of freedom structure provides for our toddlers are so verbal yet cognitively not as advanced !

  20. I agree with others who commented on the nature of the child. My son is 3yrs 4 months. He is likewise very observant of other children and easily scared off. He wouldn’t even go near immobile babies as he was scared of them. He wouldn’t play on the playground without us following him around, and if there was another child on a piece of equipment, he wouldn’t go near it. At 3 years 2 months, he had a complete night and day turn around in the time of a week. He still observes and is very careful, but he will now go play without us and will play on equipment with other kids. He hasn’t chosen to play with them, but he will walk past them as necessary, and stand his ground if he doesn’t want to move.

    My child wouldn’t leave my side from the time he learned to crawl / pull up, to about 2.5 years. I practiced RIE for the most part from 9 months onward, but if he was truly upset about being away from me, I didn’t force it. He now plays beautifully by himself and gives me downtime and privacy as requested / needed.

    Every child is so incredibly different and the process of growing up is different. It takes time. So forgive yourself, Sue, there is only so much you can control.

    One other comment about the “be careful” bit at the end of the original note. We have *never* (that we recall) told our son to be careful. We have always been there to catch him and let him make mistakes. He learned stairs on his own by going down head first several times etc. However, he is a naturally cautious child. He tells us, “I’m going to be careful walking here because I could fall.” He collected this information from other sources and it fit him, so he used it.

  21. I have an 11 year old boy who I fear is the product of my parenting and struggles now. Is it too late for him? I’m deeply worried! Help!

  22. Thank you Janet. Your words have made me relate them to myself. The idea of struggle and how this is a normal part of life. Thank you so much for your wisdom. This has been a real revelation. Kim

    1. You are so welcome! This was a revelation to me, too.

  23. I am so glad i’ve found this article. Sue it felt like i was reading about myself.

    I have a 17 month old son and i want to protect him all the time. I hate when he cries to the point were i cry and think i must be a terrible mum to him.

    I am trying to find ways were i can raise him to be confident and independant. I dont want him to grow up too scared to take risks and feel guilty for the rest of his life like me.

    Thank you Sue.

  24. You didn’t ruin him you sweet mom ❤ my son is exactly like that but I didn’t overly protect him at all. Some of it is just kids developing at different rates! Promise. Definitely let him struggle though.it’s good for them. But trust me you did not harm him permanently. You are a wonderful mother.

  25. Can I ask the same question but now my son is 20 years old.
    A gentle and happy toddler and child. Higher than average IQ. Giving and selfless.
    Slow to (physically) grow became picked on as he approached adolescence. Withdrew and rebellious as a teen.
    Incredibly sensitive and easily hurt. Expelled from one school and finally dropped out.

    Clearly as a father I did not equip him with what he needs to thrive and perhaps even survive.

  26. Janet, please reassure me that I’m doing the right thing. I found you when my son (now a little over 3yo) was 13 months old and ever since then I have tried my best to follow your methods religiously when it comes to setting empathic limits with difficult behaviors but fully accepting all of the emotions as well as modeling empathy and apologizing and not forcing apologies. I have prided myself in my ability to stay calm and empathize through even the most intense meltdowns.

    But I recently had another baby and my 3yo is having huge emotions emerge around the subject. Yesterday I went to go change the baby’s diaper and my 3yo had a meltdown because he didn’t want me to. I empathized with him while continuing to follow through with the task and at some point within the event I found my hand caught in a cabinet door while my 3 year old was slamming/kicking his feet and I ended up badly injuring myself. Once I got my hand free I had to walk away to cool down and lick my wounds. When I re-emerged my 3yo acted like nothing had happened. When I explained to him that he really hurt me he sort of just shrugged it off and kept playing. I have to admit that for the first time, I took my son’s behaviors personally and it hurt my feelings that he didn’t seem to care how much he hurt me. He’s tried to hurt me plenty of times before, but I’ve always been able to gently stop him. He is becoming more powerful though and it’s becoming harder for me to protect myself and I’m a little scared of him hurting the baby.

    It got me to thinking – when should I expect my son to start showing more signs of empathy and compassion ? When does he start regulating his emotions rather than using destruction and violence as a means of expressing his difficult emotions? When will he start apologizing on his own accord? Part of me feels as though I can’t expect all of these complex skills to happen from a 3 year old (especially during this difficult time of transition in his life) and that they will happen in time and part of me is suddenly afraid that I’m doing something wrong and that there’s more I should be doing to teach my son how to regulate his emotions and how to empathize.

    Please help me.

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