Tuesday 17 July 2018

Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old has no respect and curses at me all the time

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

Q. I find myself again in tears after another day of being told to "shut up", "f*** off", and being called names by my five-year-old son. After he was born I suffered very badly with post-natal OCD, and mild depression, which I fear affected our natural connection. Now it feels like he has no respect for me and doesn't even like me. He is usually a very kind-hearted and soft young boy and his aggression is only reserved for me. He is closer to his dad than me and spends most of his time with him. Please help. What am I doing wrong?

David replies: You sound very powerless in your description of your relationship with your son. Indeed, he almost sounds like the one in charge, as if you have no role in parenting him.

Perhaps, as you worry, your early attachment with him may have been affected by your post-natal OCD and mild depression. In fact, it sounds like your ability to bond with him was more affected than his ability to bond with you.

I wonder, if you were feeling a bit disconnected from him, did his dad step in to take on the role of primary carer? If so, then his attachment with his father may be stronger than his connection to you.

Overall, though, if he is, as you describe, a kind-hearted and soft young boy, then, in terms of attachment theory, he is probably securely attached.

Maybe that secure attachment was fostered more with his dad than with you, but this is not anything that will prevent you establishing a more positive relationship with him.

For a start, though, you might need to think of him a bit differently. As it is now, you seem to have a very negative perception of his behaviour, and an equally negative perception of your ability to be a loving and authoritative mother to him.

Perhaps the way the relationship has deteriorated over the years has led you to question, or doubt, your parenting ability. This, no doubt, interacts with your anxiety (such as underlies the OCD that you experienced in the past) and so you are more likely to have developed a negative cycle of thinking.

The more you feel you are a bad mother, the more anxious or upset you might feel. This probably compounds any anxiety that is present, making it harder to be a "good enough" parent, such that you continue believing yourself to be a bad parent.

This kind of negative thinking can become very circular. Perhaps you might want to think about therapy as a way to help you break out of this negative cycle of thinking? Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can be very successful in addressing anxiety and OCD and it might help you to get into a more positive frame of mind for building your relationship with your son.

It might help you to believe in yourself again. With greater self-belief you might approach your son with more positivity and less expectation that he will disrespect you or reject you.

You can also take advantage of your son's positive relationship with his dad. Try to arrange fun activities for all three of you together.

During the activities, make sure that you are fully engaged in the fun and allow your son to see your joy and your enjoyment of him and the activity together. If he doesn't naturally do it, then prime your husband, to notice and reinforce the fun, positive, things that you and they are doing together.

Your husband also needs to back you up and support you when, or if, you need to be firm in disciplining your son. Your husband needs to underline that it is never acceptable for your son to call you names or to curse at you.

Catching your son being good, and commenting on it, is another really effective way of building positivity into your relationship with him.

Remember that you have power, just by dint of your role as a parent, and because you are an adult. Match this power with some self-belief and you may present a very different personality to your son, one that is much more assertive. You may return to appearing to be "in charge" and this, too, will help your son to respect and listen to you.


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