My First Emotions: How parents can help restore their child’s trust

Parents ask: My son is 4 and a half years old and he has lived through great emotional stress already:

we moved to another city in Germany, changed kindergarten, he had to leave his friends, the family situation has changed – now he’s got his new German stepfather, and his younger sister was born only 3 months ago. He’s usually cheerful and obedient. But I get stressed due to my education course and my work, and I can’t always control my emotions. I often react badly to his disobedience – for example, I’ve yelled at him, and even used physical punishment at times.

Now my son regularly gets upset about different things – the clothes I make him wear and the food I give him aren’t right. Sometimes he says he doesn’t want to be with me, he wants to live alone, to ‘destroy the town’, etc.

I love him and I admit I’ve done the wrong thing with him sometimes. How can I restore his trust? Perhaps with patience, love and recognition? Or give him more freedom?

Your own answer is very good – patience, love, recognition, and more freedom (but freedom with boundaries). The first thing you need to do is forgive yourself – it is hard being a parent, and no one can do it perfectly. You already show some good understanding from what you write. Here are some things you can try:

  1. Be honest and open about your own emotions with him – eg “I’m worried I am going to be late”; “I am starting to get angry now”. “I” statements are really helpful, instead of “you” statements. So, not “you’re just so annoying”, but “I am feeling really annoyed now”. It would be good if you can describe your own anger rather than acting on it too much. If you feel it’s too much, you could say “I just need to go out of the room for a moment, to calm down”.
  2. With the battles over clothes etc, you could sometimes give him a choice. “Do you want to wear this one or this one?” (both with long sleeves); or, you could say “OK, you want to wear short sleeves. Go into the garden and tell me if you think it is warm enough.” Be prepared to let him choose the short sleeves. You might say “OK, it’s your choice for today. But I am worried you might be cold.” You could then review it the next day.
  3. When he says those things about wanting to be alone, you could say. “It sounds like you are angry. Tell me more about what you are angry about.” and listen to him. You obviously love him and he will know this.

Answer by John Lambie, Reader in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, author of My First Emotions.

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