It can be so difficult to remain calm, open, and curious when our kids say alarming things.
We moved from one side of the state to the other approximately 4 months ago with our then 2-year-old (since turned 3). She has taken the move quite badly and still cries for her old friends. She often says she wants to go back to our old home and doesn’t want to live where we now live. She had been friends with those children since they were born so had a strong bond. She has, in the meantime, made new friends here but is still establishing bonds. She has now also started saying she doesn’t like herself and continues to say she wants to move back.
I have tried focusing on the positives of where we live now, organizing playdates, enrolling her in activities and daycare, face-timing her old friends and helping her write postcards to them, but she still seems very upset about the move. How can I help her move forward? When she says she doesn’t like herself, I am worried that she is spiraling into self-loathing or depression. Is this possible at this age, and what can I do to help her?
As our children’s pillars of strength, the leaders they look to for support and guidance, our feelings in any given situation have a powerful impact. They not only influence our children’s perceptions of experiences, but tend to completely define them. So, one of the big challenges we face as parents is learning to hold the reins on our fears. Regulating our own feelings is the key to supporting our children to express theirs in the healthiest possible manner. It’s also the starting point for understanding what is going on with our child.
The first thing I would advise is dialing back concerns and projections like these: “I am worried that she is spiraling into self-loathing or depression.”
A 3-year-old child might say “I don’t like myself” for a number of reasons, none of which reflect a deep affliction. In your daughter’s case, it sounds like she is trying to process her feelings around moving, which is a major transition for her. “I don’t like myself” is part of that processing and could easily mean:
“I don’t like the unsettled, uncomfortable way I feel inside.” Children often feel that their emotions actually are them. This brings up an important point: It’s vital that we accept all our children’s feelings, no matter how inappropriate, overblown, ridiculous, wrong, fake, or worrisome to us they might seem. When we give children the message that their feelings are wrong, shameful, or unsafe, we teach them that they are those things. That makes it harder for our children to accept, trust and like themselves.
“I don’t like this new “me” as much as the “me” I was with my old friends. I miss them.” Moving means loss, particularly in the hearts and minds of young children. In your daughter’s case, she not only lost her familiar home and routines, but also some intimate relationships that were affirming and important to her. Years ago, one of my friends shared an observation that has always resonated with me. The gist was that we choose our friends not so much because of who they are, but because of the sides they bring out in us. We like people because of who we are with them. That might sound self-centered, but I believe there’s truth to it, and that your daughter has had to leave behind the self those friends brought out in her.
If we allow ourselves to run with our concerns and projections (which our children seem to instantly sense), our children’s reasons for making their provocative statements might shift. As innately curious, eager learners, kids can be compelled to repeat words and actions that they sense have thrown us for a loop, puzzled or upset us. They want to understand why. So, when repeating a phrase like “I don’t like myself,” your daughter’s intention might have shifted to wondering: “How do these words have the power to upset you?” Or, ”My mother seems fearful… does that mean I should be afraid of not liking myself?” That’s how these situations get complicated and harder to unravel.
So, besides dialing back projections of self-loathing and future depression (and I hope the perspective I’ve shared helps you to do that), I would work on supporting your daughter to process and heal her feelings of loss in her way and time. Here’s how:
1) Stop trying to make it better.
It pains us when our children express unhappiness, and we naturally want to help them feel better. Your efforts to keep her busy, active, and “focused on the positives” are certainly understandable and the instinct most of us have. The problem is that our children, like all of us, can only truly heal when they’ve fully expressed their sadness. This is where respectful, attuned parenting can be totally counter-intuitive. Yet, it’s imperative.
2) Perceive grieving as healthy.
Rather than perceiving her cries and complaints as a problem or something negative, try seeing each of these moments as golden opportunities for you to encourage your daughter’s healing.
3) Just acknowledge her feelings and let them be.
When she cries for her old friends, encourage that (really) by acknowledging, “Yes, yes, you miss them so much.” And then leave it at that. The huge challenge for all of us is to refrain from adding: “But we’ll visit them soon,” or “Let’s write them a note right now,” or “But you really like your new friend Dakota” and to simply let missing her friends hang in the air for as long as it needs to. Similarly, if she says she wants to go back, I would acknowledge, “Yes, you want to go back to the home you knew and loved. Of course, you do.” With nothing more. And if she says she doesn’t like it where you are now, just acknowledge, “You don’t like it here,” adding nothing to these sentiments, braving the silence, giving these feelings all the room they need to live and breathe. That’s what will help her to move forward.
4) Fearlessly explore with your daughter the thoughts and sentiments she expresses.
When she shares something that gives you pause like, “I don’t like myself,” be curious, open, patient. Remind yourself that children tend to perceive differently than we do. As always, focus on acknowledging rather than judging or jumping to a conclusion. Go slow and leave lots of room in between your gentle questions and acknowledgements for her to digest and maybe respond. “You don’t like yourself… Hmm… That sounds like it doesn’t feel very good… Which part do you especially not like?” Don’t expect clear answers or worry if you don’t get them. If your daughter needs to share more later, she will.
What matters is that we utilize these opportunities to demonstrate to children that we can be open and calm rather than reactive and scared. This is how we build trust and offer our kids a safe place to share their uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel deeply honored and proud of yourself whenever your child takes you up on it.
I sincerely hope that helps!
(Photo by Nikolay Gromin on Flickr)