Tuesday 12 December 2017

What else can I do to help support my stressed toddler?

My son is 22 months old. Overall he is very healthy and appears happy. However, he is so absolutely attached to me that he is upset when I leave the house without him and when he leaves the house with his dad without me. He will kick and give out and call for me but usually once I am out of sight, he is fine again. His sleeping pattern is also very broken at the moment and he really looks for me a lot during the night, which is taking its toll on all three of us.

It is distressing that my son seems to be upset around me rather than happy that I am there. I am exhausted and my husband is too. To give you some context, in the last four months we got married, moved house, and my husband started a new job. I work four days a week in a moderately stressful job that involves a commute. My son's childcare arrangements changed when we moved. He is at crèche for two days a week and is with a sister of mine two days a week.

Clearly, we have been through a very stressful time as a family and this has impacted on our son despite all our endeavours to minimise it for him. I am looking for some advice that might enable me to accept that this is just how it will be for a while or is there something I can do to support my son emotionally through all the changes.

It is really helpful that you are aware of all the changes that have occurred. Sometimes we can discount the impact of change and how much it can raise anxiety and lead to stress for children (and adults too at times!)

You seem to understand, however, that the big life events you listed that have all coincided in a very short period of time are probably linked to your son's disrupted sleep and his separation anxiety. I certainly think that these major changes are having repercussions for him.

But I also have a strong suspicion that the multiple life changes are having a significant impact on yourself and your husband. I would imagine that you both are experiencing high levels of stress as you try to settle into marriage, a new home, new job, commuting and accommodating to the new childcare arrangements.

I am a big fan of parents minding their own mental health in order to be best able to manage their children.

It is well worth yourself and your husband finding some ways that you can each, separately or together, reduce your stress levels or increase your coping mechanisms (by taking regular exercise, eating well and finding good strategies for relaxing).

Also grab any opportunities for extra naps for yourself! All of these coping strategies will help to reduce that feeling of exhaustion that you both have.

Even if your son did not find any of these events stressful in his own right, he is undoubtedly picking up on your stress. In many ways the comparative success with which he has settled (he is essentially happy and healthy) is a testament to his resilience and to your ability to emotionally support him already.

It may be that if he is under stress then he is showing it by becoming clingier and by being disrupted in his sleep. Mind you, these are also two quite normal behaviours for two-year-olds and so they may both be just part of his natural development.

But in the face of lots of change it does make sense that he might be seeking greater security and becoming clingier. This is probably in response to his new childcare arrangements.

He has to get used to several new people as his primary carers for over half the week. Between the crèche assistants and your sister he will be trying to work out how safe and secure he is in their care. Naturally, he seeks more connection to you because you represent the greatest possible source of comfort for him.

Similarly, if his sleep is especially disrupted it may also be associated with a temporary insecurity. Children need to feel very secure and comfortable to be able to sleep soundly.

If we have stresses or worries in life we can all find it harder to fall asleep or we may wake in the night and find it hard to settle back to sleep. Your son sounds like he is experiencing this same dynamic given the level of stress your family is under.

I do think that you can look forward to his clinginess and his disrupted sleep settling as life settles into a more predictable and less stressful routine.

I would expect the more used to the crèche and your sister that he becomes the less he will cling to you.

Practically you can speed up the process by ensuring that your evening routine becomes quickly and definitively established so that, no matter the stresses of the day, your son can relax knowing how his night will be.

Remaining available to your son, emotionally, at night will also help to support him. Even though it is tiring to be getting up in response to his cries during the night he does need to be reassured that you are psychologically and physically present in the midst of his distress.

Investing your time and energy in soothing him will pay dividends in terms of the security of his attachment. He can grow, trusting that you will be there when he needs you.

As he gets older he will need you less. This is a short period in your family life and is often the hardest to navigate because the lack of sleep just intensifies the impact of other stresses.

If you can hang in with him until life settles down some more, the disruption should pass and he (and you) will get full night's sleep.

You sound to me like you are doing a great job in very stressful circumstances and that is as much as anyone can hope to do.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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