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Friday, April 27, 2012

My Son Doesn't Want Me Anymore

The little boy shrieked at the top of his voice. Glancing around the room, he all but ignored the frustrated man trying in vain to comfort him. His eyes raced furiously to the boxes of toys arrayed around the room; he paused if only to give them a cursory glance, before dashing out of the room. Still in tears, the child wandered from room to room to no avail. Then suddenly he stopped - and sprinted into the waiting arms of a familiar figure - his mother.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks. I'm not sure exactly when, but I think it all began not long after our recent trip to Vietnam. My wife and I have pinpointed our Vietnam trip as the time when our son Z's temper tantrums became more frequent and more acute. Upon reflection, I have also ascertained that the period immediately after the trip was the start of Z's "clingy" behaviour.

I have been involved in the care of my son since his birth, participating in his night feeds, changing him, bathing him, feeding him, playing with him etc. And all this while relations with my son have been good. For the past 21 months I had prided myself on being able to comfort him when he cried, whether it was because he needed milk, or whether he needed to be changed. It is a father's heart - to be there for your son whenever he needs you. But in the past few weeks, the reverse has been true. It has seemed that everything I do makes upsets him.  When I bathe him, he starts screaming; when I try to read to him, he brushes me off. Even after a nice one-hour father-son walk with him, he would dash to his mother the minute we arrive home. And I seem not to be able to comfort him whenever he's crying.

Turning desperately to the collective wisdom of parenting advice on the Internet, I realised that Z's behaviour is part of a developmental phase for toddlers around the age of 2. An article by the Dads for Life movement, Dads of Toddlers: My Toddler Wants Mum More Than Dad, for example, quoted experts who explained that such behaviour is a result of the separation anxiety exhibited by toddlers between the ages of 18 months and 2/1/2 years. During this period the children are supposed to have formed strong attachment bonds with their primary caregivers, and are therefore more "clingy" to them. While I can understand the reason for such clingy behaviour given that Sue is a stay-at-home-mum, and that Z spends most of his waking hours with her, I was however still sad, as the "Internet experts" did not seem to present a viable solution for me - the article advocated among other activities, spending more quality time with my son, something which I feel I am already doing.

Moreover, there was a conversation last week with my wife, and she suggested that perhaps Z is behaving this way because I have been too strict with him and disciplining him far too much and far too often. I was rather worried by that comment. It was true. Looking back at the past couple of weeks, I realised that I had been especially strong in my disciplining of Z - especially since this recent clingy behaviour phase also paralleled his tantrum-throwing phase.

A discussion with my sister-in-law Andrea helped to frame the situation from a different perspective. Andrea recently graduated as a doctor and she shared that according to the development milestone guide published by the KK Women's and Children's Hospital, a 2-year-old can sometimes demonstrate "possessive", "egocentric" behaviour, and that he or she "constantly demands attention" and "clings to [the] mother".

I also turned to my good friend Edwin, a seasoned father of 3, for his advice. Over a meal of nasi lemak, my wise friend reassured me that Z was probably not clinging to his mother because of my firm disciplinary approach. He shared that for himself, he had learnt the importance of love deposits in his daughters' lives. Edwin likened the relationship with each of his children to a bank. While he said he did discipline his children when the situation called for it, however this had to be done in an atmosphere of love. He stressed that his children had to know that he loved them, even while he was disciplining them.

My good friend noted that he would never be able to spend as much as time with his children as his wife Christine, since she is a stay-at-home-mum; nor did he want to - as that would mean quitting his current job to do so, a move that would cast doubt on the family's financial situation. He had, however, learnt how to meet the needs of his kids even though he might not always be able to spend so much time with them. This, Edwin shared, was all because he has a wise wife who "coaches" him on what the girls need most during the times when they are upset with him. For instance, there was a time when Christine disclosed that the oldest daughter was extremely excited over an art project she had done. And when Edwin asked her about the project, the little girl's gushing response to her father confirmed that all was well again. It was his wife, Edwin declared, who helped him to be the good father he was to his children.

I know that I have been depositing dollops of love into the relationship bank with my son throughout his life. And I know this has matured into tangible dividends for us - for instance just over the past few days Z has been asking me to carry him after we return home after a family outing. He has also recently demonstrated a certain sadness in his eyes each morning when I go to work. Sue recounted that only yesterday our son was very insistent in attempting to come to work with me as I waved goodbye to him at the carpark.

I am learning many things from my wise wife. Just a few days ago, she reflected on our son's personality, and shared that the more she spent time with him, the more she realised that he is a person who loves physical touch among other sensory needs. Her realisation has helped me to pursue a more physical interaction with him - by tickling him, massaging him, and just doing the more "Daddy" things with him. I can tell that he is responding well to this manner of interaction, and I know I am doing something right for the first time in a long while. These precious moments seem to serve as an imaginary pen that is re-writing the sad script of "My Son Doesn't Want Me Anymore", and is instead articulating a story of "My Son is Very Attached to His Mother, but also Loves His Father Very Much."

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