How Do I Stay Close to My Toddler?

QUESTION

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.

ANSWER

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:

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

Laura Markham

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones.

Have a question about parenting your child? Ask Dr. Laura on her Pregnancy.org Forum, Chat with her live on the Pregnancy.org chat on Wednesdays, or Tune in to her radio show and ask her in person! She takes calls every Wednesday at 9am Pacific/ 10am Mountain/ 11am Central/Noon Eastern at MyExpertSolution.com.

Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth." In private practice, and as a speaker and presenter at parenting workshops and seminars, she enjoys connecting face-to-face with parents to help them transform their relationships with their children, regardless of age.

She is the author of an upcoming Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, which will have editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great.

Dr. Markham received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University in New York. She's held many challenging jobs, including running publishing companies with 100 employees, serving on corporate boards and coaching business leaders, as well as counseling families and children. Bottom line, she says, "Raising children is the hardest, and most rewarding, work in the world." Dr. Markham lives in New York, with her husband, 14-year-old daughter, and 17-year-old son.