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 8½ years, and we lived
together for 9½ 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.
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
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.
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!