Three Year Old Regression
The core of this has been my son's recent behaviour. It's not the only factor--travel fatigue, sickness, etc. etc. have all played their part, but he has been the big issue. I'm not going to go into the details, because I think that would be counter-productive. Suffice to say he's been having tantrums and meltdowns at the drop of a hat, and we've seen a lot of regression to baby mannerisms and clinginess.
This is pretty normal for late three's (he's three years, nine months), from what I can tell through Google and talking to my friends. Contributing factor A is mental development. He's more aware of the transitory elements in life, object impermanence if you will, but certainly that there are few guarantees, and this is making him insecure.
Contributing factor B is sibling rivalry. As his sister (now 19 months) grows older, he's relating her more to his age group, and therefore any difference in treatment is more obvious: e.g. I'm more likely to pick her up and carry her if she's upset; I won't insist on her using her words when she asks for something.
So this is normal and not in itself anything too tough to handle, except for a couple of nights last week when he woke up in the middle of the night and flat out refused to go back to sleep or leave us alone. The real problem with it was my highly subjective reaction, which let his behaviour get under my skin.
Disclaimer before I continue: I am writing about the bad times. There have been good times in the past few weeks where I was thrilled to bits with my son. I'll get back to those at the end of the post.
I Don't Like Not Liking Him
I find tantrum-throwing four year olds and relentlessly whiny children deeply unpalatable. This is a hangover from work where I've had to deal with both of them. While I learned how to cope with them, I regret to say I privately scorned the parents for their children's behaviour. Now karma's come back to bite me as my own child exhibits this behaviour.
Also, up until now, I've always been able to tell myself that my son's misbehaviour is age-appropriate and only to be expected. This kind of behavioural regression, even if it actually is age-appropriate, is a lot harder for me to be philosophical about.
Just to really highlight things, my daughter is (mostly) delightful and a strong reminder of how gorgeous my son was at this age. I feel like I've lost the little boy I loved and have ended up with... something I'm not comfortable typing for posterity. Something unlovable.
I'm not proud of my reaction or my feelings. I've read before that there will be times when you find it hard to love your child, or put another way, that you won't be able to like them despite your unconditional love. I thought I'd experienced that before now, but I hadn't appreciated that there will be long term phases (not just a few hours) where I will be so disappointed in my child that I become one mass of maternal insecurity, blaming myself for letting him get to that point and hating myself for feeling this way about my own child.
And that's why I felt I needed to post this. To admit that I struggle, and to share those struggles with other mothers who are going through or will go through the same thing. Half the purpose of this blog is solidarity.
Anyway, we've been tackling this issue ever since we got back and I realised pretty quickly that I was going to need to tone down my gut reaction and remain calm when my son kicked off. This promptly turned me into a pressure cooker, and I started snapping at my husband instead--or worse, losing my temper with him for losing his temper with our son because if I was having to hold it in, everybody else could too!
We did discover that hay fever had been aggravating him, but for the most part, dealing with his behaviour has been trying to figure out his insecurities and tackling them one at a time.
He started crying at the school drop-off, something he hasn't done since his fourth day of school, eighteen months ago! I talked to the school, finding out who deals with him the most during the morning which turned out to be the new assistant. The old assistant, who left at the end of last year, was probably his favourite member of staff. I've been explaining to him that Miss L will take good care of him, can always call me if he needs me to be there and will give him a hug if he needs one. He seems unconvinced, but I like what I've seen of the new assistant, and I think once he's got used to her he'll get more confident.
She told me that the first thing he does when he comes in in the morning is go to the reading area and read a couple of books before going to work, so now at drop off, I kiss him goodbye and tell him to go and read a book. It's all trying to help him move through that transition.
Equally, he's suddenly developed a fear of the dark. I took him to Target and let him pick out a new nightlight (we have one already, but it's not very bright). He doesn't want us to leave the room when he's going to sleep, but we are firm that we want him to fall asleep on his own.
This seems to be clinginess rather than an active fear of monsters or anything, but it's been really tough getting him to stay in his room until his nightlight goes green (which happens at 6:15am). He's on Benadryl for the allergies right now, which has definitely helped. Beyond that, we're just trying to be consistent and enforce suitably dire consequences.
Et cetera, et cetera. I'm trying to reduce the double standards, either being more demanding of our daughter or being less demanding of our son--where appropriate. I'm being quicker to cuddle him and carry him on occasion. I don't think a little bit of cossetting now will do him any harm, and honestly, I tend towards a pragmatic attitude with both children.
Still to work on: being better about planning in advance what we're doing and telling him. I do try and ask him what he wants to do, but I think the not knowing whether we're going out or staying home is causing him some anxiety--he always wants to go out, and he is afraid he will be disappointed. We're particularly bad about this at weekends.
None of these are overnight solutions, but we do seem to be coming out the other side of this phase. Whatever bug(s) was running through the house has passed, and after a patch of sleep deprivation last week (assorted causes), I'm back on an even emotional keel--aided greatly by my husband taking the children out for about four hours over the weekend; I cleaned the kitchen thoroughly and felt both virtuous and mentally-rested.
More to the point, I feel happier about my son again. He's still whiny and he still has meltdowns on occasion, but it's getting easier to focus on the good stuff, the stuff that makes him him and the son I adore.
On that note and to sign off, I'm going to list some of the lovely things about my son. Both because it's good for me to remember them and because it's not fair on my son to omit them.
- I love listening to him play games, making up his own adventures.
- I love how he dances spontaneously and sings songs that morph from standard songs to his own creations and back again.
- I love that he wants to go and open the door for his sister when we hear her wake up from her nap.
- I love his wicked, gleeful smile.
- I love how he wants to play with his sister. He's yet to reach a 'no girls' phase (I've probably jinxed this now). Not only that, he can play nicely with her. Yesterday, they amused themselves for forty minutes and I only had to intervene twice. Twice!
- I love that he's recently got over a huge hump of fussiness and has started eating things with cheese in, drinking milk and sampling different kinds of meat! (Still fussy, but drastically less so).
- I love how he's running his finger along the text in books he's memorised, still trying to figure out the reading thing.
- I love reading to him. I'm surprised by how much more fun it is reading to a three year old than a toddler (more interesting books and no "Again!" as soon as I've finished).
- I love that for all his flaws, he's still above average when it comes to listening to me, behaving appropriately, taking turns and saying 'sorry'.
- I love our moments when it's just me and him. For two years, it was just me and him most of the time, and there is something unbelievably special about reclaiming that every now and then.