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Dear David Coleman: How can I get my son to be more independent?


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Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. My 3-year-old son shares our bed and was breastfed until recently. I only stopped because he comfort suckled all night. I work part-time and he hates me going to work. He wants me to play with him all the time and gets cross if I say I have to do something else. He seems to be so much more demanding of me than of everyone else. I do drench him in a lot of one-on-one attention 24-hours a day. I do play with him a lot, but wish he wasn't so attached to me. I guess it's normal or have I encouraged it? How can I create a little more independence from me?

David replies: You have invested in maintaining a close and loving bond with him. Your decisions to breastfeed and to co-sleep, for example, were, presumably, conscious decisions deigned to give your son the security, comfort and nutrition that you felt were best for him.

These kinds of nurturing experiences, for infants, babies and toddlers will, very definitely, add to their attachments to their primary carer - in this case you. Your son probably does see you as the most reliable person, who will always meet any need that he has.

While this places a lot of responsibility on your shoulders now, it will not always be this intense for you or for him. He is approaching, or is in, the period of development in which he will individuate, coming to the realisation that he is a separate being, rather than feeling like you and he are one being.

Even if you do nothing, he will become more independent of you naturally.

All of the one-to-one attention that you give him is good for him. Yes it does create a dependence, of sorts, on you. Your son will be used to, and will want, your time and attention if he thinks that you are available to him.

This, though, at his age and stage of development, is a very normal thing and also something very healthy and good for him. When he is thirteen you will think back fondly to these days when you are the centre of his world!

For all that is good about the attachment that your son has, with you, I do see that, practically, it might be draining and frustrating for you also.

It isn't possible to sustain such intense levels of availability, and, in the long term, it is good for your son to separate out a little from you. So, your current approach of being very available at night (assuming you are still co-sleeping) and then being less available in the day is fine.

The key to disappointing children - when we can't give them what they want - is to disappoint them gently and kindly. So, when you are otherwise busy and occupied with running the house, it is okay to not be physically available to your son at the same time.

However, you can remain emotionally available to him, even if you are doing other jobs. That emotional availability, will be seen in your warm and understanding tone of voice as you empathise with him about how he might love to have you play and might be upset that you can't.

It will be seen in how you still acknowledge him, and whatever it is that he is doing, commenting on what you see him do. This shows him, very strongly and powerfully, that you are still connected to him, that you still notice him and that he is still important to you.

We sometimes think that small children are only satisfied by our physical presence, but in fact, they can be satisfied by our emotional connection to them also.

So, even if you can't play with him, because you are busy, you can still acknowledge him and show him that you love him by staying connected to whatever it is that he is doing. If needs be, get him to help you with whatever chores it is that you are doing.

Small children his age love to help, even if they may not be very adept at helping. Getting him involved at the sink if you are washing up, or chopping veg if you are cooking, allows him to be with you and engaged with you, while you still can get jobs done (albeit a lot more slowly).

Health & Living