Q: I've always urged my 5-year-old boy to be independent. Often I have expected too much of him for his stage of development and have ignored or not helped him for fear of spoiling him. I now realize this has been interpreted as rejection by him.
I have tried to change, telling him how sorry I am, but he gets hostile and yells, "Stop talking to me! Get out of here! Bad Mommy!" I am devastated and angered by his reaction. I then proceed to have my own "temper tantrum," which I know is wrong and not helpful.
How can I let him know I'm sorry for my behavior of rejection and my overly high expectations? Do I just keep my feeings to myself and change the behavior?
I long for a closer, loving relationship between us, although I'm not very hopeful.
I have been in individual and group therapy for three years, but none of this has solved the problems in our relationship. I am considering therapy for him and for us.
A: Somehow parents have always confused spoiling with expressions of love. They're really quite different.
You can spoil a child with too many presents, rewards, even constant praise, but not with love; not with attention when he's talking to you, nor with compliments that have been earned. These help a child feel secure.
In the first year of life he needs to feel almost as safe as he did in the womb, and he can if someone usually answers his cries when he's hungry, lonely, bored or frustrated by all the things he still can't do. The importance of trust cannot be overstated.
The child with on-again, off-again support is walking on quicksand.
This seems to be the problem in your house. When you apologize, your child explodes because he thinks you might let him down again. And then you get mad, and he knows he's right, which undoes your efforts as soon as they're made. This has to stop, and since you're the grown-up, you'll have to do the stopping.
Your idea of psychiatric help for your child is excellent and so is joint therapy. The children's hospital near you has a fine, short-term program for "oppositional children" where you and your little boy can learn new ways to deal with each other and get along better.
You'll also want to continue your individual therapy. This is the only way you can learn to love yourself enough to show love to your son.
Even without professional help, there are many things you can do to soothe the situation.
Go to him every night after he's asleep, and rub his back gently for a few minutes: a healing touch. After a week or so, add a few sweet nothings that he can absorb in his dreams. Eventually, you'll be able to wake him just enough to apologize and say a simple "I love you" and he'll just smile and go back to sleep. Defenses are lower in the dark.
You also can leave him occasional notes on his night table with a smiling face or a small, unexpected gift, with a thank-you for "being so much fun yesterday." He'll appreciate it, even though you'll have to read the messages to him.
The daytimes will be harder, but not insurmountable. You need to set aside regular chunks of time for yourself, and you also need to do things together that don't call for much interaction. Consider an afternoon at the movies, and a swim once or twice a week at an indoor pool.
This doesn't mean all will be peachy. You'll still have to admonish him, but do it as seldom and gently as possible for the next few months. You'll find good examples in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (Avon, $4.95). And when your son hurts your feelings anyway (and he will), leave the room and take deep breaths. You don't want to abuse your power nor do you want to let your child abuse his.