Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Will consoling boys make them wimps? Q:I have two sons who are 3 and 2 years old. If either one cries after being hit by the other, falling down, bumping or squeezing a body part, my husband consoles them by saying, “You're OK,” and tells them to stop crying. His logic is to “toughen them up” and not raise “sissies.” I believe at their ages, children should explore their emotions instead of stunting them. Is it possible that my husband's consolation technique will affect our boys' emotional development? P.J.W., Lemont
A:You are so right. What your husband is doing is contradicting your sons' self-experience of feeling hurt and/or scared. In other words, he is telling them that it is bad to listen to themselves and shameful to cry when they feel bad. Children tend to adopt parents' attitudes toward them, and your sons will do their best to do what your husband says and ignore their feelings and avoid tears. So rather than making them tough in a good way, namely resilient and in touch with their feelings, your husband's approach will cause your sons to become tough in the sense of being out of touch with their emotions and indifferent to others' pain. They may have great difficulty being compassionate toward friends and, as adults, toward partners and their own children.
Another danger is that, as adults, they will deny illness and injury and won't seek medical attention when necessary. You need to explain to your husband that acknowledging feelings of pain and unhappiness are signs of strength rather than of weakness-that true heroes always know how they feel and what they are risking.
If your husband won't or can't change his approach, you need to make sure they have a different example to follow. Tell your boys that you and their dad both love them but that you disagree about whether it's acceptable to cry and to feel upset and that you are always available to listen if they are feeling badly.
I'm worried about how we can calm my son's fears Q:My 8-year-old son has been increasingly asking questions whenever his dad or I aren't at home. Questions such as: “Is Mommy OK?” “When is she coming home?” “How long is Daddy working?” Or when it's bedtime for him and his brother: “Are you going to bed, too?” Some days I can answer his questions calmly. Other days I want to scream. Where are these worries coming from? He doesn't like being separated from the family at any time and is very overprotective of his baby sister. How can I help him calm down? He's too young to have all these concerns. N.Q, Evanston
A:Usually, when children have excessive fears about members of the family, either they have experienced a traumatic event, such as the death or serious illness of a close friend or relative and are concerned that tragedy will strike again, or they have angry feelings that they worry are so powerful that they will harm those close to them. If no one in your son's life has been seriously ill or injured, then perhaps you need to consider whether his fears result from angry feelings he is not comfortable acknowledging. Children tend to have very unrealistic beliefs in the power of their feelings-they really believe angry thoughts can kill. It sounds as though your son is feeling resentful over the arrival of a new baby and perhaps because you don't have as much time to spend with him. He may be checking on everyone's well-being to make certain that the family is safe from his angry reactions.
We suggest that you talk to him about the fact that it is normal to feel upset or angry sometimes, especially when a baby joins the household and draws everyone's time and attention. Invite him to share these feelings with you any time. Also, be sure you are making enough special time to spend with your son so as to reduce any feelings he may have of being pushed out of the limelight by his baby sister.
How do I deal with my son's separation anxiety? Q:My 3-year-old loves to explore-when we go to the playground, he takes off. Then at some point he realizes I am not right beside him, he panics and starts to cry hysterically. When I arrive he is usually surrounded by concerned parents and he jumps on me as though I abandoned him, wraps his arms around me and clings like plastic wrap. I feel embarrassed and irritated by this repeated behavior. I have thought about forbidding him to leave my side, but I don't want to turn him into a mama's boy. What do you recommend? A.P., Kankakee
A:The best solution would be to put your track shoes on and try to stay near him when he takes off. That way when he turns around, you will be right there beside him. As his panic when he can't see you shows, your son is not trying to get away from you. Rather, he has a wonderful enthusiasm and curiosity, which you are right not to want to dampen.
For moments when you are tired, try to engage him in a more stationary activity, such as building a castle in the sandbox. Or try to find fenced playgrounds with good sight lines. Most important, though, is to keep in mind both that this is a temporary phase, and also that it will do wonders for his outlook on life to know that you approve of his wishes to explore his world and are willing to provide the safety net he needs when he takes a breath and looks around.
Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D. are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.