We have been having a really tough time in our household. My husband and I have separated and plan to divorce. Now, my 8-year-old son is becoming increasingly wild and impossible to control. His little sister seems to be coping okay, and is trying very hard to be good and not make trouble. This is a relief, because otherwise, I don’t think I could handle things.
— Losing It on Lee
Dear Losing It,
I’m sorry to hear that your family is going through tough times. Eventually, you know that you and your children can come through this okay. But, in the meantime, you need to find strategies that will help everyone in the family hold it together.
Both of your children—your “wild” little boy and your “very good” daughter—are probably suffering but responding in different ways. Your son is reacting by losing self-control, perhaps because this is his way of keeping his parents busy with him when he feels so vulnerable. Your daughter is reacting by perfecting her self-control, and this may be her way of keeping your approval and love secure. Children who are especially “bad” or especially “good” are often fearful that they are not good enough to be securely loved, just as they are.
My #1 suggestion to you and your children’s father is to begin planning and keeping frequent special one-on-one times with each child as the most effective way to reassure your children that they are loved and cared for. Every child knows that their parent’s time and attention is their most valuable asset. Giving them your focused, undistracted attention at relaxed and enjoyable times is the most wonderful gift you can give to your children.
Parents who are going through their own emotionally difficult experiences are often preoccupied, and can seem emotionally distant and unavailable to their children. Especially during difficult times like these, children need the reassurance of their parent’s nourishing attention which continues to communicate, “I care about you and love you very much!”
Providing your children with regular, predictable, and assured one-on-one time satisfies their needs without making them work for it by extra-bad or extra-good behavior. There are benefits for you, too, because children who know they can count on their regular Special Times with their parent(s) are less likely to preen, fight, interrupt, or show off for their parent’s attention.
Here are some suggestions for adding Special Time to your family’s schedule:
- Regularity and reliability is a big part of what makes Special Time so special. Plan it and promise it to your child—and don’t break the commitment if possible.
- Young children benefit from daily, brief Special Times and older children enjoy longer, less frequent Special Times, such as every other day or two times a week.
- Schedule an amount of time that you are unlikely to cancel or give up on because it is “too much trouble.” Even 5 minutes is good, and 10 to 20 minutes is better.
- Set a timer and let it be the bad guy for announcing when Special Time is over.
- Children are in charge and get to say (within reason) what they want to do with you during their Special Time. Parents can relax and enjoy this respite, without the responsibility of teaching or correcting for a little while.
- Special Time is for one parent and one child—it is the experience of enjoying each other’s undivided attention that makes it so special! Even little children quickly learn to respect their sibling’s Special Time because they know they can count on their own fair and equal time when it is their turn.
- Special Time is unconditional, it is not a reward for being good and it is not withheld as punishment for being bad. It is guaranteed as an expression of hope and encouragement that your relationship is okay and can improve, even when mistakes have been made.
- Parents aren’t obligated to continue Special Time if a child misbehaves. Simply end early and express the hope that it will go better next time.
Children bloom when they experience the joy of being the center of their parent’s world for brief, but frequently repeated Special Times. Temporarily safe from the distractions of siblings, schedules, and smart phones, they can bask in your enjoyment of each other’s company. Children who are nurtured with regular, reliable Special Times become more contented and confident children, even when times are hard.