Dear Child Psychologist,
Today my two-and-a-half-year old said, "Mommy, I don't love you." It really made my heart drop, but I'm not sure he knows what he means. I had told him I loved him before he said it, and I think it might be his way of acting contrarily.
We have grown very distant since the birth of our daughter five months ago. I am glad to have found your site because I am reminded of how important it is to educate myself in parenting. I want our love to flourish, and I have been punishing by putting him in the "peace corner" but I don't like to isolate him either. My husband and I have resolved to figure out a better way to bring love and joy back into our family.
Thank you in advance for your response.
To have "grown very distant" from your son since the birth of your daughter five months ago must break your heart. And while your son certainly does not understand the full import of saying that he doesn't love you, he must feel the distance also, and is trying to express it to you.
The birth of a second child often leaves the older child feeling abandoned. That we are naturally and appropriately absorbed in caring for the new baby can throw the first child into a panic that includes acting out. If we respond to that with punishment, their misbehavior can often escalate.
When kids feel their love for us strongly, they usually don't need a lot of discipline, even as two-year-olds. Punishing them erodes our relationship with them and sets up a cycle of more acting out. Punishment that hurts physically will shape angry, rebellious children. But even milder punishment, like a timeout, makes kids contrary and rebellious, as well as making them feel even more isolated from the rest of the family.
If, instead of punishing, we reconnect and rebuild our relationship with our child, we usually find that their behavior improves.
I would recommend beginning with cultivating your empathic connection with your child and connecting with him whenever possible to repair your "distant" relationship. Your son needs you now, especially, to feel good about himself when he feels displaced by a little sister.
Of course he will need your discipline, but discipline actually means "teaching," not punishment. You can set limits, but first connect with him -- and offer him empathy when he doesn't like your limits. You will probably need to work extra hard to build bridges with him for awhile. ("I know you're disappointed that I have to get the baby up from her nap, but she's crying and needs to get up. But when I bring her down, why don't you and I read a book while I feed her? Can you pick a book you love while I run and get her? I can't wait to snuggle on the couch with you and read.")
My web site is a good place to start. I particularly recommend the articles in the Parents Toolkit section (In the blue sidebar on the left left), Especially Positive Discipline, Reconnecting with your child, Building a Great Relationship with your child, and Give Choices.
If you'd like to read some great books on parenting, here are two recommendations to check out:
Smart Love: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline That Will Make You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William Joseph Pieper, M.D.
Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.
I applaud you and your husband for your decision to find better ways to discipline and to bring love and joy back into your family. Please let me know how it goes.
All my best,
-- Dr. Laura Markham, PhD