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.
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’ve 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 revealing, 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 from an adult perspective. Yes, when an adult screams, yells or cries it is 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 child 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 perfectly 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 acknowledgement 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.
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