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  Parenting Advice Column
  Subject: Is it possible to make up for early parental mistakes?

I'm a Danish woman age 28, I'm a single mother with three children ages 9, 8 and 4. The oldest and the youngest are boys. Until two years ago I was married to an alcoholic, then finally I got the strength and confidence to get a divorce. My marriage was nonviolent, except for a few episodes during the years. I was married for 8 years, and we lived together for 9 years.

During the last 7 years, I've studied several books on child-raising and child psychology, and I've learned a lot. When I had my first child, I wasn't aware of the things that now seem so painfully obvious. As a result, my 9-year-old son suffers some emotional difficulties.

There are only 14 months between my son and his sister, and she was sick during the first 6 months of her life, so he wasn't getting his needs fulfilled. He had to settle with the little time I could give him, and that wasn't a lot. I wish that I could say that his first year was different, but I now realize that I wasn't adequate to meet his emotional needs. What happened was that I yelled at him whenever I was too tired to manage the various situations effectively and in a loving and caring manner. And I think I also pushed him away from me. Perhaps this wouldn't have been so devastating if his father had been there for him, but he wasn't.

The fact that my daughter was sick sort of changed me. I couldn't get irritated at a sick child, so I gave her all the right emotional support from the beginning. Within a very short time, the difference in my children became so obvious that I couldn't ignore it. Nor could I ignore the difference in my reactions toward the children. So I finally learned how a mother should be, and I finally became a real mother to my son. But by that time he was two years old.

He was never jealous of his sister, never laid a hand on her, never yelled at her. And I thought that this was wonderful until I read "Coping with Sibling Rivalry". In that article it's written that a child who isn't jealous at all is a child with very little to lose. And a child with very little to lose is a child who has not formed a basic attachment to his own mother.

He reacted in another way - he wouldn't have me touching him for a long time. Not that I couldn't change him, but whenever I would hold him close for comfort or just to give him a hug, he'd resist it. I've come to believe that his problem is that he can't relate to how others feel. For example: When I say to him: "you have to stop arguing when you hurt people, or when others get really mad - there is a point where you shouldn't push it any further, there is a limit - even when it's your friends." Or when I send him to his room for being dirty in his mouth towards me, and I say "Now you must stop, because now I'm really mad at you". He doesn't seem to understand that others can get mad at him, or hurt. He gets frustrated and yells at his friends, "Why are you always walking away from me" or at me "you're always mad at me for doing nothing. I did nothing" And when I try to explain to him that it his behaviors that are causing this reaction in people, he just doesn't understand.

And now I read in one of Dr. Barker's articles "The Social Causes of Crime", "The capacity to be affected by how others feel is developed in the earliest years - before the age of about three. What is more significant is that this capacity cannot be learned or taught or put into a person after that age with any known method of treatment".

I hope that you can understand my sadness in reading this. And here is my question to you: Isn't it possible, if it is in an early stage in life (at the age of 9), that a mother can help a child to develop this capacity. And if there is a way, how? I mean, this is of the utmost importance to me, and there isn't the thing I wouldn't do, if it could help my son get a better life emotionally since I let him down in his earliest years. I know that there are a lot of children who are living lives that include problems of a more severe character. But I gave myself a promise that I would do my very best to give my children a loving, trusting and caring beginning in their lives, so that when they are to begin their adulthood they'll know they are loved and they'll know how to love. I would be very grateful if you could take the time to respond to my letter.

Nicole

Jan's reply

Hi Nicole,

My heart goes out to you in your endeavors to make up for the "mistakes" you made when your son was small. I'm putting the word "mistakes" in quotes, because you really did the best you could, given all your circumstances - including your own childhood. And you have allowed yourself to learn about children's needs despite the painful recognition of what you might have done differently. Isn't that the most important factor?

Articles emphasizing the critical early years can worry and depress those parents who now see that they were not ideal parents for their children. However, there are no ideal parents in this world. We all make mistakes, and there is no turning back the calendar. Recognizing our mistakes can be a devastating and depressing experience - if we focus on that aspect of it. If we take a different perspective, it can be an opportunity to learn better ways of relating to our children. 

One interesting possibility is "sleeptalking", in which a parent talks quietly to a sleeping child. The parent can offer explanations, apologies, reassurances, and expressions of love for the child. Many parents have found that sleeptalking reaches the child on a profound level, improving mutual communication, reassuring the child of the parent's love, and helping him to better understand confusing or stressful experiences. Even infants seem to benefit from sleeptalking. To learn more about this gentle communication, visit While Children Sleep . My review of this website includes a sample script.

See also:

Affirming the Adoptee's Reality: A Way to Intimacy

Although this article is written for adoptive families, the author has much to say about the ways in which we can put heartache behind us, by dealing directly with our own feelings and those of our child.

The Only Real Language is Love

Love Enough for Two

I also offer phone counseling sessions.

Mourning for what might have been is a natural and important step on our path. But we also need to believe in ourselves and in our children. Dr. Barker's warnings are meant to enlighten and motivate new and future parents, not to paralyze those of us who have already made mistakes in the past. Although "putting in" empathy later can be more and more difficult as the child grows, love always has positive results, regardless of the circumstances or the age of the child. It is never too late to love someone!

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