Wednesday 26 October 2016

How do I get my four-year-old daughter out of my bed?

Published 01/09/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
Illustration: Maisie McNeice.

Clinical psychologist David Colman on how to encourage your child to sleep in their own bed and how you can cope with a two-year-old's aggression after visits to his father.

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Question: We have three children, all of whom have co-slept with me while I was breastfeeding, forcing my husband into the spare room. Child one and two are now in their own beds (bumped out by a new baby each time), but number three is four-years-old and has absolutely no intention of moving to the bunk bed with her sister. I still enjoy having her there with me but I'm starting to feel guilty about my husband who is sleeping alone, and rather lonely. The time has come for her to move on but I just can't get her out. What should I do?

David replies: Regular readers of my advice column will  know that I am a fan of  co-sleeping. I think that it gives children real comfort and security to sleep either in a bed, or  in the room, with their parents.

Indeed, many of us intuitively know that sleeping in company is reassuring and so, even if we don't choose to have our children sleep with us, we will often put them sharing a room with a sibling.

The one dilemma that co-sleeping can create is the dilemma that you have slipped into, namely that one parent gets ousted from their bed as there isn't enough space to fit both parents and a child or children.

Generally, when parents establish that they are not going to be the ones to move, it is the child who decides that they need more space (often by the time they get to toddler years) and so they are happier to go to a mattress on the floor or a bigger bed in a different room.

You have had experience of how the two older children felt the squeeze, when a new baby arrived, and so with a bit of prompting from you, no doubt, moved on to their own beds.

Part of the difficulty with child number three is that there is nobody pushing her to leave. Indeed, because your husband has never shared the bed with her and you, she will feel like your bed is 'her' bed.

I could imagine that she is indeed loathe to give up the comfort, security and warmth of sleeping with her mum.

However, if you and her dad are now clear that the time has come for the sleeping arrangements to be rebalanced in favour of the adults getting to hang out together, then your husband moving back to the marital bed is a first step.

You can anticipate that this might provoke some stress for your daughter. She may feel very displaced. You have to remember that you and your husband sharing a bed may appear quite alien to her, as her dad has always slept in a separate room as long as she has been aware.

She may, in fact, be very distressed by his return and feel like he is trying to push her out. This will require you and your husband to be patient and understanding.

In advance of his return to your bed, and in the early stages of it, you will both have to give the same messages that you both want to sleep in the same bed again and that she is welcome to continue to share the bed with you.

Indeed you both need to be fully committed to the change. If she perceives that either of you are half-hearted about getting back to sleeping together, she may resist the change even more. You, as yet, still seem to be wavering a little!

So, if you and your husband are determined to get back to sleeping in the same bed, you have to be clear and unequivocal with your daughter.

If after a short while of the three of you sleeping together, she becomes unhappy about the probable squash, you can suggest to her that she can, in fact, have her own bed, either in your room or in the bunk bed.

Allowing her to continue to share your room (but in her own bed/mattress) will soften the transition for her and is a nice 'halfway house' to her moving out of your room altogether.

Firmness, about the need for this change to happen, and kindness in how you introduce and manage the change for her will make the whole process easier.

Ultimately, if you and your husband are decided that this is what you want, then you just remain steadfast, but understanding, as she becomes accustomed to the new sleeping arrangements.

My two-year-old gets aggressive with me after visiting his dad. How can I get him to stop?

Question: My son is two and his father and I are separated. His dad takes him overnight twice during the week; one midweek and one weekend night. Our son gets very aggressive with me when he returns home from these visits. I am usually greeted by a smile followed by slapping and/or a full-scale meltdown when Daddy leaves. I find his aggression and sadness when we are reunited upsetting to deal with. Does he blame me for daddy going? I know it's okay for him to have those feelings but am unsure as to how I can make things easier for him?

David replies: I am sure you'd like to be able to make things easier for yourself as well as your son. It must be very upsetting to feel the brunt of his distress upon returning home.

One of the things to bear in mind is that your son is only two. As a consequence he is too young to be able to explain things to him. He learns about his world from the experiences he gets.

He is also too young to be able to get a sense of the passage of time. So, days will come and go for him and he is unlikely to be too aware of what might be happening next.

From his perspective, then, his world might seem quite jumbled up and confused. He spends time with both his parents, but he may not yet feel like that time is very predictable.

It may even come as a surprise to him every time his dad picks him up or drops him home, simply because he is so young.

Hopefully you and his dad try to be very consistent with the timing of the access visits, to maximise their predictability, but I could imagine, for your son that it still feels a little random.

So, when he is with you he will be engaged and busy with his life with you. When the moment for him to go with his dad comes it may be unexpected, no matter how much forewarning you give him. Similarly, when the moment comes for him to be back with you, it might actually be a shock for him.

It is unlikely that it is a 'bad' or traumatic shock; it is just a sudden realisation that his time with his father is over. I could imagine that, if he has enjoyed his time with his dad, he finds it tough to say goodbye and to acknowledge the finish of that time.

I think that is what his actions, on his return to you, are saying. I think he is showing you that he misses his dad and that he wants his time with his dad to continue.

This is not an indictment of you, or a message that he doesn't like you. It is, I think, most likely to be just a sign that he loves his dad, loves the interaction with his dad, and doesn't want it to end.

That said, it is worth talking with his father about how the access actually goes each time. Another possibility, that you do need to consider, is that your son has been quite stressed, for some reason, during his visits with his father.

That stress could also be the prompt for his aggression upon his return to you so it wise to just check. As the transition between each home happens your son has to readjust, every time, to the environment he finds himself in and to the person that he finds himself with. At age two, that is potentially a big adjustment each time.

You don't describe it, but I hope he settles down and settles back into his normal routine with you, quite quickly after his initial upset at his dad leaving. If so, then that is a further indication that his initial aggression is linked to the separation from his dad.

While you are quite correct that it is okay for him to have strong feelings about his dad leaving, it is not okay for him to hit you.

You do need to have a really firm response to his attempts to slap you or otherwise try to hit you. That means using a strong and clear tone to your voice and also gently holding his hands to prevent him striking you.

At the same time you can be warm and understanding about the fact that it is hard every time his dad goes and that you can guess he really misses his dad.

I do think that things will get easier as he gets older and can anticipate the separations each time he moves between your homes. In the meantime, patience and understanding will help him each time.

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