Dear Dr Justin,
I have a 3 yr old son. He can be very sooky and clingy, more so to me than his father. He has an older sister who is 6 and is constantly getting frustrated with him for having to always share everything with him. Is it my fault because I tend to give him what he wants to stop the crying, and a lot of the time at her expense?
I feel I’ve created his behaviour in always giving in to him so would now like some ideas on how to change this. His father and I are getting stressed and frustrated and end up sometimes yelling at him.
Look forward to hear from you.
Many parents struggle with the challenge of being responsive to their children without being indulgent. Research shows clearly that our children thrive when we are responsive to them, but they can experience challenges when we are indulgent.
Indulgence vs Responsiveness
Indulging our children means that we give them everything that they want. Such an approach can promote selfishness, and even narcissism. Children who are indulged can develop a sense of entitlement and and expectation that others around them are simply objects, or a means to an end. Such an attitude is obviously unhealthy, and not something parents seek to encourage in their children.
Responsiveness means that when our children express emotions, we turn towards them (rather than against them) and see their emotion as an opportunity to connect with them. But just because we are responding to their emotional state does NOT mean we are giving them everything they want – or indulging them. It just means we are recognising how they feel and being responsive to it.
Here’s a grown-up example.
Some time ago as I perused the property section of the paper I noticed that Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch were selling their Bronte beachfront pad for about $12.5m. That’s about $12m more than a bank would lend me, but I wanted it! I called my wife over and said, “Honey, the Murdoch’s place is for sale. Look at this!” Kylie spent a few moments with me ogling the pictures and then said, “That would be beautiful wouldn’t it. I know how you feel. But I think we’ll be here for a while yet.”
My wife was responsive to my emotional state. She acknowledged how I felt, let me know it was normal to feel like that, and even told me she wished I could have what I wanted. I felt understood. Then she gently reminded me of the reality we faced and I accepted the limits we are constrained by. The same thing can happen with our children.
Give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality
When our children want something, it does NOT mean they should have it. Sometimes it will be completely appropriate to indulge them. On a picnic or at a party, perhaps it is a great chance to spoil our children a little. At the shops in a hurry when they’ve already had enough ‘sometimes’ food for the day, they don’t need it.
When my children were younger and would start having a fit if I would not indulge them with a lollipop at the shops, I would give them in fantasy what they could not have in reality. I would say, “Oh, you want a lollipop. I know how good they taste. I wish I could have one too! What colour is your favourite? Mine is orange. Do you know what? I wish I could have the biggest lollipop ever so I could lick it all day long!” Then I would remind them that we weren’t buying lollipops today but they could have a piece of fruit or have something when we returned home.
It might sound like I was tormenting them, but like my wife with the Murdoch home, there was a responsiveness to the feeling (and a fantasy indulgence) but no actual indulgence in real life.
If you can name it you can tame it
Rather than giving in all the time, our children just need us to respond to how they are feeling. There is a saying that if you can name the emotions, you can tame the emotions. We might say, “Oh you want that so much! It seems so frustrating that we’re not eating that (or going there, or giving you this) doesn’t it. You wish it was different. I understand.” Or perhaps we’ll add, “it’s really annoying isn’t it.” The idea is we are giving our children’s emotions a name. This often helps enormously, whether they are 3 or 33! The great parenting author, Haim Ginott, wrote,
It is a deep comfort to children to learn that their emotions are a normal part of the human experience.
Once you have been responsive (but not indulgent) to your children, you can then set limits. The best thing to do is to ask them to decide what to do. “You feel so frustrated, but you know we can’t have that now. What do you think is the best thing to do now?” Or “What should we do instead?”
Sometimes children will become obstinate. At that point, we return to the previous steps. “I know how frustrating this is for you. You wish I’d just say yes. But we’ve already talked about this. My answer is no. But you can do this or this. Which do you prefer?”
As you focus on meeting your son’s emotional needs, you will find that in time he will become less challenging. He will know you are available and that you understand. Combined with clear explanations for why you set particular limits, these are the most important things you can do for your son.