Sunday 28 December 2014

'My three-year-old has me wrapped around his finger'

Published 27/11/2012 | 06:00

My son just turned three and he is running rings around me. This has started in the last six months. Everyone says he has me wrapped around his finger – I know this but I can't stop him. I know I spoil him but stopping it is proving impossible. For example, if he goes for a walk with his dad, he will walk, run and skip along. If I go he insists I carry him – and I usually give in for the sake of peace.

At 14 months he was in hospital with a viral convulsion and since then I have been a worrier. We also had a stillborn baby before him. Last month he had a sore throat and I took time off work and probably "over-mammied him" as my husband puts it. How do I make myself a better mother? How do I stop worrying about him? Please help me be stronger for all our sakes.

I don't think your task is to become a "better mother". You sound like you are doing the best you can. It is also unrealistic to intend not to worry about your child. However, it does help children when we can keep our own fears and anxieties in check so that our worries don't overwhelm them.

When you consider all that has happened to you between the death of your first baby and then the frightening viral convulsion that your son experienced it is no wonder that you are very vigilant and alert to your son and his needs.

When people have experienced seriously traumatic events, such as you have, it takes a long time to believe that real danger and the potential for great harm are not ever-present.

I would imagine that you still feel terror that something awful might happen to your son and so you may be over-attentive or hypervigilant. In some ways, it is no surprise that you may "spoil" him, as you describe.

Perhaps you are worried that he won't actually be able to cope? Perhaps you are reluctant to let him get upset if things aren't exactly the way he wants them?

Perhaps you are hesitant to disappoint or frustrate him if you say "no"?

One of the difficulties that you are now recognising is that hypervigilance and being too protective of children doesn't help them in the long run.

In fact, it can teach them to be less able to cope themselves, because they rely on us too much.

It is possible, for example, for children to learn to be helpless when we do everything for them.

It seems that your son might have learned this and that he associates his helplessness with you, more than with other people.

He seems to only take on a role of being helpless (and possibly demanding and attention-seeking) with you because he knows you will either concede to his wishes and demands or do everything for him.

The good news is that he is only three and it is relatively straightforward to get him out of the habit of 'acting helpless'.

The key to changing his behaviour is, however, to be firm and resolute about the decisions you make.

Unfortunately he may well get upset, frustrated and disappointed when you change how you respond to him. He is well used to you giving him exactly what he wants.

Now you are going to change things such that you just give him what he needs.

You do need to be firm and consistent in setting limits on him and in having age appropriate expectations of him (that he can walk for short distances for example).

It will require a bit of resolve and determination from you to set the limits and to not "give in for the sake of peace".

This is not about you suddenly becoming harsh, unloving and dictatorial. You will want to still remain understanding, but you are also going to be firm. This balance between being a kind but firm parent benefits children.

They learn that they can't have everything their own way and that they have to accede to the expectations of their parents, but at the same time they feel accepted, nurtured and cared for.

You have demonstrated your ability to nurture and care for your son, possibly minding him a bit too much.

If you add some firmness, and consistency in your decision-making, to your repertoire I think your son will thrive even more.

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