Wednesday 25 April 2018

Dear David Coleman: Our son has become clingy and I think my wife's way of dealing with it is wrong. What can I do?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

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

Q. Our five-year-old son has suddenly become clingy and anxious about going to any activities. My wife especially is at her wits' end. We've been trying for child number two for a while and have had two miscarriages. It has been really distressing and we are arguing more. Our son's anxiety before crèche or school, pain in his head or tummy, is probably classic, but trying to deal with his upset on the spot is overwhelming for my wife. His meltdowns upset her. I feel she may be overreacting. I think she should be assertive but gentle and reassuring. Any advice?

David Coleman replies: It can be very disruptive and distressing to have your child develop a sudden onset of anxiety.  I am sure it is hard for you and  your wife to deal with it, especially  if it escalates.

You are correct that separation anxiety is a very normal and typical experience for many young children. Your son's anxiety may, therefore, be entirely "classic". However, the sudden onset that you also describe gives me pause for thought.

The fact that his anxiety wasn't generally there, in the past, when he was going to crèche or preschool suggests that its onset now might be linked to some kind of change in his, or your family's, circumstances.

You reference the fact that you and your wife are trying for a second baby and have had the trauma of two miscarriages. Sometimes, from the outside, we might minimise the impact a miscarriage can actually have within a family, with its associated experience of grief. Obviously, every family's experience will be different, but I think any family that has experienced miscarriage will acknowledge how devastating it can be. Miscarriages do bring a huge sense of loss and grief that can be underestimated.

Tension within a couple's relationship after miscarriage, just as with any family death, is a common experience. Each of you will be dealing with the loss of the pregnancies in your own way and at your own pace.

While it would be easy if grief moved at the same pace, and in the same pattern, for everyone, we know that it doesn't. It is easy to misinterpret, misread or simply be emotionally unavailable to the strength of each other's feelings.

This can be at the heart of a lot of the tension or conflict that can arise within couples.

I think the stress and distress of the miscarriages, and the atmosphere it has created within your home, may be very significant in understanding your son's increased insecurity and anxiety.

The phrasing of your query sounds like you may be critical of how your wife approaches things with your son. If she feels you are critical of her, then that too could be adding to the conflict and, ironically, increasing your son's insecurity.

So, rather than advising you and your wife on a particular strategy to deal with separation anxiety, I am suggesting that you might each want to consider how you are processing the distress of the two miscarriages and the struggle to successfully conceive a second child.

It might be really helpful for you to go, together or separately, to talk to a professional about the distress it is causing you in your relationship.

If there are many more rows occurring in the house, then this is likely to be the reason that your son is acting out greater levels of anxiety by clinging and refusing to separate. The unpredictability of when a row might occur, or the experience of an underlying tension, can be very unnerving for small children.

If you can process the loss of your two other pregnancies, you may find that you have greater compassion for each other, and greater capacity to be warm and empathetic towards your son.

Warmth, understanding, stability and a cohesive family unit are what he needs most. If you and your wife can aim for this, then I think you will see a lot of the separation anxiety dissipate, if not entirely disappear.

Mind each other and you will find that minding your son gets easier. Be kind to each other and you will each have greater emotional energy to support him if he gets distressed.

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