Four gen­er­a­tions of mother-daugh­ter bick­er­ing

Mom didn’t know how to re­late to me as a kid

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - MEGHAN LEAHY

Q: I fear that I am fail­ing my 4-yearold.

She is smart and in­tensely emo­tional, be­hav­iour that I wasn’t ex­pect­ing un­til she was a teenager. We bicker fre­quently, and she is ar­gu­men­ta­tive for fun. I try not to say “no” when there isn’t a good rea­son, I try to re­spect her in­tel­li­gence, and I try to show her that she is loved, but she is still very dif­fi­cult.

My mom likes to make com­ments along the lines of “Now you see what I went through” when I men­tion this, and I do re­call feel­ing like an adult in a kid’s body and hav­ing big emo­tions that I didn’t know what to do with. I had a nor­mal, se­cure child­hood, but I am fi­nally OK ac­knowl­edg­ing that my mom did not know how to re­late to me as a kid and that we are less close as adults be­cause of it. She had sim­i­lar is­sues with her own mother.

I am ter­ri­fied of this hap­pen­ing to me and my daugh­ters (younger one is 1½ and so sweet, as was the older one at that age), and I feel like I am al­ready let­ting her down. How much of this is nor­mal, and how much of this is her unique per­son­al­ity or my putting my is­sues on her? She seems so frus­trated so of­ten. It can’t be pleas­ant for her, and I know it’s not pleas­ant for me

A: Thanks for writ­ing. There are two is­sues in this let­ter: the strug­gle to un­der­stand your 4-year-old daugh­ter and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, the fact that your mother did not seem to un­der­stand you (and still takes cheap shots at you). Both of these are dif­fi­cult in their own right, so let me tackle the first one.

Four-year-olds can be a chal­lenge. They’re known for strong opin­ions, con­vic­tions, likes and dis­likes. (Many of these seem to be nonex­is­tent for the first two to three years of their life.) Four-year-olds can show ra­tional thought and pa­tience but then turn around and have a tantrum like a 2-year-old. Four-year-olds will no longer be fooled, de­ceived or eas­ily dis­tracted; all of your par­ent­ing tricks seem to go up in smoke. Four-year-olds may be­gin to have friends and play in­de­pen­dently but will also be­come needy, clingy, whiny and cud­dly af­ter be­ing away from you for too long. Fi­nally, 4-year-olds can use their bur­geon­ing lan­guage skills to ne­go­ti­ate, ar­gue and try to over­power you. It’s ex­haust­ing. Take that 4-year-old and add sen­si­tiv­ity and above-av­er­age in­tel­li­gence, and you have some par­ent­ing work in front of you.

What is dif­fi­cult is that I don’t know what you and your child are ar­gu­ing about. For in­stance, do you hold too many bound­aries and your daugh­ter is (healthily) as­sert­ing her in­de­pen­dence? Do you hold rea­son­able bound­aries but give in or move your bound­aries as soon as your daugh­ter pushes against them? You men­tion that your child is “ar­gu­men­ta­tive for fun,” but no child ar­gues for fun. For bore­dom? For power? Out of in­se­cu­rity? Yes, yes, yes, but her ar­gu­ments are telling us some­thing. I just don’t know what.

As­sess­ing the ques­tions I just listed will help you un­der­stand why you are strug­gling. Pick­ing up some sim­ple child devel­op­ment books will go a long way to­ward help­ing you to know what is “nor­mal” for a child. I rec­om­mend “The Highly Sen­si­tive Child: Help­ing Our Chil­dren Thrive When the World Over­whelms Them,” by Elaine N. Aron, as well as the Louise Bates Ames se­ries on un­der­stand­ing young chil­dren.

I am also won­der­ing: do you as­so­ciate strug­gle with not know­ing your child? Can we know our chil­dren and strug­gle with them? The an­swer is a strong and de­fin­i­tive yes. It just de­pends on why we are strug­gling. I am also won­der­ing whether you are putting your child­hood woes onto your daugh­ter’s shoulders. You state that you, as a child, felt like an “adult in a kid’s body” with “big emo­tions.” We know that your daugh­ter is not you, but this brings us to the real mat­ter of this let­ter: your mother.

Al­though you say you had a se­cure child­hood, there is no doubt that your mother has been a great source of pain. Her com­ments caused you to feel in­se­cure in your re­la­tion­ship with your own child. You de­scribe moth­ers not re­lat­ing to their daugh­ters as some­thing that is be­ing passed down, al­most like a hered­i­tary trait. Of course, you know it is not ge­net­ics, but I hear you: you are afraid that you have a blind spot when it comes to a deeper un­der­stand­ing of your child. And yes, it doesn’t help that you don’t feel as though your mother ever got you, but we are not pris­on­ers of those early years.

I am not sure whether you have ever tried ther­apy, but a good ther­a­pist can walk you around these dif­fi­cult feel­ings and help you find a way to move for­ward with more con­fi­dence in your own par­ent­ing. We don’t erase or for­get our pain; we learn to dance with it. It does not have to steal your par­ent­ing con­fi­dence, and when it does, you can tell the fear to back off.

I don’t know why you are ar­gu­ing with your child, but I do know that the sooner you be­gin to re­solve some of the is­sues with your mother, the more fo­cused your par­ent­ing life will be­come.

You are the par­ent your child wants and needs; get the sup­port you de­serve to feel that way.

GETTY IM­AGES/HEMERA

I fear that I am fail­ing my 4-year-old. She is smart and in­tensely emo­tional, be­hav­iour that I wasn’t ex­pect­ing un­til she was a teenager. We bicker fre­quently, and she is ar­gu­men­ta­tive for fun.

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