I seem to be fighting constantly with my four-year-old son. He is demanding and whingy, and I end up shouting all the time. I know a lot of it is my fault, because I don’t think I really bonded with him. I was depressed when he was born and then again two years later when his sister came along. It was worse then, because I was caught up with the baby and had no time for him at all. I know I should be more patient with him, but we seem to clash all the time. What can I do to help?
Lots of parents can get off to a shaky start in parenting and bonding with their children. This is far more common than you think. As you have discovered, depression can be a major factor in interrupting the bonding process. It is also hard to attend positively to an older child with the arrival of a new sibling, and this can set off insecurity in the older child who feels they are competing for their parents’ attention.
It takes courage to face up to these problems, and I am impressed that you are taking responsibility and seeking help. This is much better than simply blaming the child and continuing in an ineffective way.
The good news is that, far from being fixed, attachment and bonding are fluid. There is a lot you can do to improve your relationship with your son, and to transform the negative pattern that might have emerged. Below are some ideas.
In your short email you spend a lot of time blaming yourself and feeling guilty about the past. I think it is important you accept what happened in the past, forgive yourself, and let go. Concentrate on how you want to parent now, and how your want your relationship with your son to be.
Set some goals for yourself for improving your relationship with your son, and remind yourself of these each morning. These could be simple goals such as understanding your son more, spending enjoyable time with him, or even developing more positive loving feelings towards him, and so on.
Seek some personal support for yourself
Reading your email, it strikes me that some of your depression might be still with you. Self-blame and negative thinking are key features of depression and it is important to learn to challenge these unhelpful ways of thinking. What helped you get through depression in the past?
One option is to seek counselling, or to return to it if you attended in the past. It is also important to set personal self-care goals for yourself (as well as goals for your relationship with your son). Aim to do one thing you enjoy each day, or to take five minutes to meditate, or to go for a walk.
Take steps to improve your relationship
There are lots of practical things you can do to improve your relationship with your son. Perhaps the most important is to ensure you have daily quality times when you can enjoy his company and he yours.
This could mean setting aside a daily playtime when you are one-to-one with him, or having a reading time just before bedtime, or making the most of a daily walk to preschool (ensuring you have time to listen and talk).
The key is to find things that work for you and your son. Some children are outdoor types and are more likely to chat and connect when doing something physical such as jumping on the trampoline, and others might want some quieter activities such as chatting when you sit together for dinner, once you are relaxed.
Setting up quality times like these can require a bit of planning; you need to organise for his sister to be doing something else at the time. And, of course, she needs her own quality time with you too.
The key to success is to plan ahead and keep these times sacred in the daily schedule.
Practise ‘love bombing’
The psychologist Oliver James proposed the practice of “love bombing” as a means of dealing with challenging behaviours and rebooting emotional relationships with children.
By “love bombing”, he means you set aside longer periods of intense one-to-one time with children that are outside the rules and strains of family life, when you can give them your complete attention. These times could include going away for an overnight trip or spending a weekend just following their agenda in the home.
The key is to have as few rules as possible, to follow their lead and to engage in as many fun and enjoyable activities as possible. James proposes that such “love bombing” can reset the child’s emotional thermostat and has the potential to transform relationships. (He has a book, Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat by Oliver James)
Try to see him differently
It also helps if you can see your son’s demanding behaviour in a positive light. He is seeking your attention, which is a good thing, but he has got into a pattern of doing this negatively. Your goal is to break this pattern by not reacting negatively and instead showing him how to communicate positively. You want to help him learn to use his words to communicate with you about what he wants, and to learn how to seek your attention positively.
Get further support
I would also suggest that you get more support and attend an evidence-based parenting course that could build on these ideas over time and give you more specific ideas for building your relationship and managing the challenging behaviour. Contact your public health nurse or local family resource centre for suggestions.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, October 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents visit www.solutiontalk.ie