Q: I have a 3-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and a 7-month-old son with my wife of 6 months. Whenever my daughter comes to visit, especially for an extended period, it disrupts our family routine. She is very spoiled by her mother, in that home she is the baby. In our home she is a “big girl”. She demands constant attention from my wife and I and would rather play with my wife than with me. If we do not give her our full attention, she cries. If she is given a time-out, it usually resolves itself. If she is told no, she cries. If my wife leaves her to play with me, she talks about her mommy’s house and doesn’t want to play with me. Neither my wife nor I get alone time, together time, or the ability to focus attention on our son when she is here. It has gotten to the point where my wife doesn’t want to be a part of this stressful and confusing relationship and she fears it will have a negative impact on our son when he’s older and his sister is treated differently than he is. I am under pressure from my ex to focus on my daughters needs. I am under pressure from my wife to find a solution to our family’s needs. I don’t want to lose my time with my daughter or lose my wife and son. How can I resolve these issues?
A: Even with one family, addressing the competing needs of all members is tough, so with two families, the challenge becomes that much greater, and I certainly empathize with your position! Though 3 is very young and behavioral challenges are expected due to lack of brain development and limited life experience, some behavior can also be attributed to mistaken beliefs. All children strive to attain feelings of significance and belonging and many children develop the mistaken belief that they only matter when they’re getting attention or special service. When we address behavior without addressing the underlying belief, children tend to feel more discouraged and try even harder to attain significance and belonging in mistaken ways. The presence of a baby, who tends to get lots of positive attention for crying and being helpless, can further reinforce this belief that getting special service and attention is the way to matter in their family. Rudolf Dreikurs, a psychiatrist who strongly influenced the philosophy underlying Positive Discipline, said, “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child.” And the best cure for discouragement is encouragement. Unfortunately, we often respond to a discouraged child with punishment, which may stop a behavior in the moment, but increases it’s occurrence at other times or in other ways since a child must feel better in order to do better.
One great tool for addressing a child’s need for undo attention (i.e., the mistaken belief that the child matters only when getting attention or special service), is to schedule regular, uninterrupted, child-lead, one-on-one time, often referred to as “special time,” with each parent. When a child knows he or she can count on planned one-on-one attention, the desperate need to get it at other times during the day lessens. When your daughter requests to play at inconvenient times, you can respond with, “I’m busy right now, but I’m really looking forward to our special time at the end of the day.” One way to ensure special time occurs on a regular basis (so it has the ability to diffuse the constant demand of attention) is to include it in the bedtime routine. For example, you can set a timer for 20 minutes and as soon as your daughter finishes brushing her teeth and getting on her jammies, special time begins. You and your wife could alternate evening special time with your daughter and son. Though your son is too young to understand, establishing the routine now will help show your daughter that meeting his needs for attention is also a priority.
Another helpful tool is using kindness and firmness at the same time with kindness showing respect for your daughter and firmness showing respect for yourself, other adults, or the needs of the situation. Boundaries are important for children so they learn to tolerate disappointment, to respect the needs of others, that their parents are consistent and dependable, etc., but we often believe we should set boundaries and that they should not be tested. We forget that our young children are little scientists, biologically designed to test everything in their environment, including our boundaries. So it’s on us to hold our boundaries firm, not on our children to refrain from testing them. Thus, when we enforce our boundaries, we can do so with kindness. For example if a child doesn’t want to leave the park, we can say, “You’re having so much fun and it’s hard to leave AND it’s lunch time and our bodies need food. Do you want to lead the way to the car or hold my hand?” or, “Candy is so yummy and you want more now AND candy is all done for today. What healthy snack could you have?” or, “You really like playing with __ (your wife) and it’s hard to wait AND she also needs to take care of your brother. Would you like to help prepare his snack or play something with me?” When we identify with and validate a child’s experience, we not only diffuse some of their frustration, we also model appropriate language and respect, helping to meet our long-term goals for their development.
Best of luck in this challenging scenario going forward!