Thursday 20 October 2016

Should I keep my three-year-old at home for my maternity leave?

Published 06/10/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
Illustration: Maisie McNeice.

Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises on whether or not to send your son to a crèche while on maternity leave and the importance of building up self-esteem for shy children.

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Question: I am about to go on maternity leave and I can't decide whether or not to leave my three-year-old son in the crèche. I plan on taking about nine months' leave. He is due to start school a couple of months after I return to work. Part-time isn't an option at the existing crèche and it is unlikely they would be able to take him back after nine months. Financially it would suit to keep him at home. Would it unsettle him too much to be at home for nine months and then start a new crèche (with the new baby too) a few months before starting school?

David replies: Parenting is never short of dilemmas! Your situation reminds us that there are rarely simple right or wrong choices to be made. There is no such thing as a "gold standard", or state of perfection, when it comes to decision-making. Mostly we should be striving to make "good enough" decisions.

Within families, in my experience, the best decisions usually have to take the child's needs and the parents' needs into consideration in equal measure. Choices have to suit us and our children if they are to be sustainable.

I can't tell you what might be the best thing to do, in your situation, because I don't know your son and I don't know how much you would look forward to spending that time with him, bearing in mind that you will also have a brand new baby to look after too.

So, here are some questions for you to ponder with regard to your son to help you decide how significant the current crèche is to him and how adaptable and flexible he might be:

How well established is he in the current crèche?

How happy does he seem to be, generally, when you pick him up?

Will he be moving to a new room within the current crèche anyway, having to get to know new carers?

How does he react when he meets new people, or goes to new places?

How does your son cope with smaller changes to routine? For example, does he get upset or does he seem easy-going and flexible?

How easy-going is he with accepting babysitters or other minders for short periods?

The more settled he is in his current crèche and the less able he is to cope with any kind of change, the more, potentially, distressing it might be for him to face all of the changes that you have outlined.

However, if he is an easy-going lad, who can take things or leave them, then he might be disrupted for a short while with each change, but he will probably adapt and accommodate to the new environments without too much bother.

Bear in mind, too, that the nine months at home might give you lots of opportunity to increase his flexibility and adaptability, such that he might cope better with the changes that he'll face at the end of your maternity leave.

Beyond your son's perspective on the possible changes, you must also give full consideration to your own feelings about having him at home.

What does your heart, or your gut, say to you about having him at home full-time for the nine months?

How much do you look forward to the chance to parent him full-time, or dread the thought of minding him full-time?

How much financial stress might be removed by having him at home?

Could that reduction in stress have a really positive impact on your family?

How satisfied are you about the alternative crèches nearby, if he can't return to his current crèche?

Your needs, as a mother, having him at home with you, or having him minded while you concentrate on the baby, are equally important. The last thing you'd want is, for example, to end up resenting him because you felt obliged to keep him at home, when in fact it works better for you to keep him in the routine of going to crèche.

Children are, generally, resilient. In most circumstances, if they are given time and emotional support, they can adapt to any circumstances. So, perhaps be guided by your heart on this occasion. If you are happy with your choice, then you'll probably find it easier to be there, emotionally, for your son, whatever changes he faces.

How can I help my seven-year-old get over his  shyness and separation anxiety?

Question: I worry about my seven-year-old's shyness and his separation anxiety. I feel these issues stop him doing things he would really enjoy. If we suggest doing anything such as trying a Beavers group, or going for a cycle with his dad, we get met by "I don't want to go". He loves being at home playing his Lego. He has always been shy and clingy. On the plus side, he is a great student, likes school, has friends and is very well behaved when he is out. He is our eldest child and I'd love for him to be a bit more confident. Any ideas how to help him?

David replies: If we want to help our children become more confident, the place to start is by building up their self-esteem.

Self-esteem is about how we value ourselves and how we may feel like we are worthy, useful people. In my view there are two key elements to self-esteem; our sense of lovability and our sense of capability.

Self-confidence is like a sub-part of self-esteem, and is linked in to the second of those two elements, our sense of being capable. Confidence is about having that assurance in your own capacity, power and ability.

It is possible to act confidently even though your self-esteem may be a bit low and you may not feel so good about yourself. However, if you feel good about yourself then you will invariably feel more confident.

So, rather than just focusing on confidence we are much better off to help children to have strong, or high, self-esteem, as this will undoubtedly lead to greater self-confidence.

It is also not unusual for eldest children in a family to be the most anxious. If you think about it, we were probably at our most anxious as parents when our first child was born. If they picked up on any of that anxiety (as they probably did) it is no wonder that they internalise and feel it themselves.

Oldest children are, also, usually the forerunners in a family. They will be first to experience things like school and extra-curricular activities. They will also be the first to push boundaries, like wanting to play unsupervised, cycling off to a friend's alone, and so on.

When they do push those boundaries, we parents can often get anxious in turn; we can be afraid that they will not cope, or will be at too much risk, and so on. So, just when they are trying to show their ability, they may get met by lots of parental anxiety.

In terms of self-esteem, too, oldest children can often suffer a bit in terms of their lovability. That is not because we don't love them, but because we can often end up most critical of them.

Because of their age, we often have higher expectations of them, and then find fault when those expectations are not met. We also can set unrealistic expectations for our eldest children because we ourselves don't yet know what is reasonable for a child of their age. By the time our subsequent children come through, we have often recalibrated our expectations.

For your child, then, work on his self-esteem. Make sure he knows that you love him unconditionally, and that you accept him as he is, even if that includes his shy nature. Be very careful not to give him any sense that he doesn't meet your ideal.

For example, don't act disappointed or disapproving when he chooses not to go cycling, or not to go to Beavers. Do remain upbeat and positive about these kinds of activities and encourage him every so often, but also respect his decision if he doesn't want to go.

Then, notice all the stuff that he does do and encourage him to feel proud of himself for these achievements. Remind him of the times when he has successfully gone somewhere on his own, for example, or of the fun he has when he away from you at school or wherever.

Show him that you value the help he gives with chores, encourage him to take responsibility for things like making his lunch, or doing his homework, as this might help him feel more capable.

So, rather than noticing that he is shy or gets anxious without you, celebrate his successes and his abilities, letting him know that you love him exactly as he is.

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