Sunday 25 February 2018

Dear David Coleman: My 17-month-old son is a nightmare. Please help!

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. I have a boy aged 17 months who's attached to me. I mean, literally stuck to me. He whines all day at me. He's in crèche Mondays and Tuesdays and had huge issues at the start but is much more settled there now. The biggest problem is that he won't nap or go to sleep unless he has my hair to play with. I lie with him till he falls asleep and then I leave the room, but an hour later he's up crying his head off. I also have a two-year-old daughter and she's in her own room - not a bother on her - but he's a nightmare. What can I do?

David replies: It sounds like you feel overwhelmed by having your son need your comfort and your attention to such a high degree. It has probably been exhausting managing a busy toddler and a pre-schooler, particularly if your son's sleep issues disrupt your own sleep.

It can be really hard to know how to deal with small children who seem to want us all the time. We fear that if we give ourselves to them, then they will just keep wanting more and more until we actually, physically, don't have any space away from them.

In practice, what most parents end up doing is trying to be firm sometimes, leaving their child to cry for a bit and not 'giving in' to the demands for attention. At other times, because we have the opportunity and the desire, or perhaps because of guilt, we do give them our time and our presence.

For our children, however, this can seem a bit random. They will find it hard to predict when they will get our physical support or comfort and when they won't. That unpredictability might increase their anxiety and it will also lead to what is called an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.

So, for your child it becomes a bit like gambling. Sometimes when they whine, whinge or cry, they get 'rewarded' by their parents' attention or comfort, but sometimes they don't. Therefore it is always in their interest to demand the attention - because they just might get it.

In a way, the inconsistency in our response to our children increases their level of demand.

I think that children also pick up when parents are resistant to, or seem to resent, the demands that they place on them. They can sense when we are annoyed with them, even if we go to them. They can sense when we would rather be somewhere else.

These kinds of dynamics can also increase children's anxiety or create a sense of rejection, which further fuels their need to seek their parents' attention and comfort (even at the risk of that rejection!).

Indeed, this dynamic could set up an insecure attachment relationship for the child, when the very comfort they seek might also be frightening or distressing for them.

All of this explanation of what may be happening with your son is by way of giving you context for why I'd suggest to you that you just accept that - for whatever reason - your son simply needs you at this stage in his growth and development.

He seems to need your loving comfort. It seems to bring him security and allow him to soothe. So, if you can, try to be warmly available for him.

We need to have faith that when we give our children what they need (like comfort or security), it will satisfy them and they won't keep seeking it. But, if they think we might, or we actually do, withdraw when they need us, they can appear more needy as they whinge, whine or cry in response.

See, too, if you can focus on the positive things about your son. If you categorise him as a 'nightmare', you may create a self-fulfilling prophesy as he grows older. Children do come to believe what they hear us describe about them. If your son expects that everyone will view him negatively, he may end up believing that there is no point acting positively.

Sometimes turning your focus to try to catch him being good can help you and him to notice and appreciate his good qualities too.

So, whenever you can, enjoy mutual moments of delight and joy with your son. Let him know you love and value him. Spend the time with him to help him get to sleep, knowing this is just a phase he is going through. This too shall pass.

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