Saturday 21 April 2018

Ask the expert: My four-year-old son won't leave my side. Please help!

Illustration by Maisie McNeice.
Illustration by Maisie McNeice.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Parenting expert David Coleman advises on what to do when a child is anxious after believing he was abandoned and how to cope with an eight-year-old daughter who is volatile and moody.

Question: My four-year-old is going through a phase of never wanting to be on his own. We had an incident where he woke up one evening and my husband was in the shed (with the baby's monitor) and my older son thought he was in the house on his own and became so distressed that he could be heard on the baby's monitor, which was in the bedroom next door.

We have tried to reassure him that he is safe and that we will always mind him, but he is petrified to be on his own. I would appreciate any advice as it is hard going having him stuck to my side!

David replies: Just, to be clear, as I understand it, from your query, your husband was out in the shed, while your four year old and your baby were asleep. You, presumably, were away somewhere? Your husband took the receiver of the baby monitor with him to the shed in case the baby woke up.

In fact, it was your older boy who woke. He went looking for you or his dad and, when he couldn't find any adult, he got really upset, such that your husband was able to hear him over the baby monitor.

So, for the period of time, he was looking for you and his dad, and for the time he was crying, before your husband heard him and came back into the house, your son fully believed he had been abandoned with nobody to look after him.

He, for that period of time (maybe three to five minutes before your husband heard him?), had the experience of total terror. He may, in fact, have believed that his life was at risk or that he would have to survive on his own.

During this few minutes, his body would have been flooded with adrenalin and his sense of fear, or terror, was probably all-pervading. Any normal coping strategies that he might have had to deal with anxiety, were probably overwhelmed.

Because his anxieties were so inflated during this experience, it may have changed his overall anxiety tolerance, leaving him more prone to getting anxious, especially about his physical safety and security. So, it makes good sense, from his perspective, to ensure that you or his dad are ever-present now.

If he can guarantee that you are around and available to him, then he doesn't run the risk of being "abandoned", as he may have felt that he was during that incident.

Part of the difficulty that you now face, is that he doesn't feel reassured by your promises that you will mind him and keep him safe. There are two probably reasons for this.

Firstly, his trust in you has been rocked by the experience of being left alone. Naturally, it will take time for him to rebuild that trust in you. Trust cannot be rebuilt by verbal assurances. Trust can only grow again from consistent and reliable action on your part.

He, consequently, will need time to realise that you are, in fact, minding him reliably and consistently.

He needs weeks and months of stability, predictability and consistency on your part to be reassured that you are, in fact, always going to be available to him. That time cannot be foreshortened by simple verbal reassurance.

The second reason why your verbal reassurances may not be effective is that he may feel you don't fully understand just how scared or anxious he is now and was on that fateful night.

Part of your job, now, is to show him, through empathy, that you can appreciate just how frightening it was to feel alone that evening.

So, I think you and his dad need to talk with him about what happened, using lots of empathy to demonstrate that you can see, from his perspective, how scary it was for him.

I think you'll find that he will be more receptive to your reassurances when he knows that you really "get" just how terrified he was.

For now though, just make sure to be present and available to him. Don't try to force him to cope on his own, or test his ability to feel secure when you aren't there.

Be there with him, as he asks you to be, and give him the physical reassurance of your presence. Then, in time, he will be more ready to cope alone.

How should I deal with my eight-year-old  daughter who is moody and volatile?

Question: Can you help with my eight-year-old daughter, who is very volatile and moody? She completely overreacts to little upsets. Her behaviour is very unpredictable. She can be happy one minute and then can completely lose it. For example, she was doing a picture of herself for her Communion and just flipped, tore it up, saying she was too fat and became inconsolable. She is actually really thin but is conscious of looking fat all the time.

She is also very conscious of how she is seen in public. The extremes of her moodiness worry me.

David replies: In many ways, your daughter sounds very insecure about, and unsure of, herself and how she might present to other people. She seems to get very worried about how she is perceived and very worried about whether others will approve of her or what she is doing.

This suggests to me that her self-esteem is low. The self-consciousness that you describe seems, to me, to be greater than other children her age may experience.

If she feels dependent on the opinion and reaction of other people to determine her value, then she leaves herself at the whim of their judgement. This could certainly explain her moodiness and volatility.

Indeed, if, over the years, she has received negative comment about her appearance, or her performance on some task (like drawing), it seems like she has now internalised that criticism such that she is now critical of herself, without even hearing any external negative opinion. That is the hallmark of low self-esteem: believing that we are neither lovable nor capable.

So, to help your daughter, I suggest that you work to build up her self-esteem. There are a range of different things that you might do with her to achieve this.

Regarding her sense of lovability, it is important that you tell your daughter how much you love her and why you love her. Be specific about the things that you can see in her that are lovable.

Allied with this, you must also show that you love her by being accepting of her. So, even when she is critical of herself, or annoyed with herself, you need to acknowledge that this is how she feels (rather than trying to deny her feelings, or simply telling her she is great).

Generally, you need to use empathy as much as possible to let her know that you understand how she feels, even if you don't agree with her feelings.

To help with her sense of capability, give her lots of opportunities to contribute, usefully, around the house. This lets her know that you need and value what she offers when she helps with chores and such like.

Involve her in decision-making about things that will affect her. Even though she is just eight, she will still have an opinion. Children feel better about themselves if they believe that parents take their opinions seriously.

When she does things, try to acknowledge her progress to achieving goals, not just whether she reaches them or not. If she is only ever focused on the final outcome, she may miss opportunities to recognise the effort she puts in.

Treat her mistakes as learning opportunities rather than simply punishing her. Children do get things wrong all the time. Importantly, though, they often perceive our punishment of them as criticism of them personally, rather than a correction of their behaviour.

Where you can, encourage her to self-evaluate positively. For example, you could say to her "you must be so proud of yourself and all the work you did on that picture".

This shift will make a big difference in helping her to become more positive than negative and to rely on her own sense of how well she is doing.

Focusing relentlessly on the positive things in her life, by commenting on them and recording them - reminding her of them will also help to challenge her negativity.

I do think that as her self-esteem grows, and she feels better about, and more accepting of, herself, a lot of her moodiness and volatility will reduce or even disappear.

Health & Living

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life