Yes, You Can Spoil a Child . . . After the Age of Two Years
Part 2

by LuAnn Pierce, MSW, CMSW

Link to Part 1

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In the truest sense of the word, spoiling has to do with dependency and indulgence. According to Webster's, to spoil is "to impair the disposition or character by overindulgence or excessive praise; pamper excessively: coddle." As we discussed earlier, children who are securely attached, by nature, begin to explore and become more independent at about age two. This is the first major push toward autonomy. As painful as it may be for securely attached caregivers to slowly begin the lifelong process of letting go of their child emotionally and physically, it is vital to the child's emotional development that we do so.

Clingy caregivers are a detrerment to a child. While working in a psychiatric teaching hospital, one valuable lesson I learned in assessing the problems of children referred to the center was to observe the parent's reaction to leaving the child in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon. Parents who were overly solicitous (professional jargon meaning the parent did not allow the child to act independently if the child made any objections) also tended to have trouble leaving the child, especially if he or she was crying or fussing, a natural response to being separated from one's parent, particularly if you are overly dependent on them! These children also usually exhibited other behaviors that are consistent with insecure/resistant attachments.

As caregivers we have to separate our emotional needs from those of the child. We must not become dependent on our children to meet our emotional needs. While parenting and caregiving naturally meet some of our most basic needs, a child's purpose is not to meet our needs, but to learn to meet their own.

On the other hand, some of the parents we worked with were quite willing to leave their child and reluctant to pick them up at the end of the day. Parents of children who exhibited the behaviors associated with insecure/avoidant attachments often fall into two categories. One group is generally aloof, somewhat uninvolved and detached from their child and the child's emotional needs. Others are concerned about the child's disinterest in closeness, nurturing and attachment.

In my experience these children have very different reasons for their attachment behaviors. Some of these children develop these behaviors because their primary caregiver is slow to respond to their needs, neglect to meet the child's physical, safety or emotional needs or abuse the child. Others have parents and caregivers who long to be close to them, but the child does not desire or seem to like the closeness, for whatever reason.

For example, some children who are later diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity) are reported to be fidgety and disliked feeling confined/cuddled in the early years unless they were sick or afraid. This is not true for all children with ADHD, but some of them. These children also tend to get overly involved in their activities, thus have difficulty with transitions from one activity to another. This may lead to struggles when their caregiver leaves them or returns to pick them up. There are many other possible causes, too many to hypothesize in this forum.

Some of the stages in the life cycle when our kids have a natural push toward autonomy are:

  • Crawling
  • Walking
  • Starting Day Care
  • Starting Kindergarten or School
  • Puberty
  • Driving/Going out with Friends/Dating Stages
  • Last Year or Two of High School
  • Graduation from High School
  • Leaving Home for the First Time
  • Graduation from College
  • Marriage
  • Birth of First and Subsequent Child(ren)
  • Experiencing These Stage with Their Own Children

These milestones are important to be aware of for several reasons, but primarily because it is during these times that we often feel the closest to our children. Our natural tendency may be to draw closer to them, when what they need to do in a psychosocial sense is "individuate." While they need our support and encouragement, they don't need to feel responsible for our well-being and peace of mind. Ironically, the trend now is toward having our adult children assume responsibility for our care as we become older. When that happens, we become more dependent on them, which adds a new dimension to our interdependent relationship with our children.

Remember that song by 38 Special that said "hold on loosely, but don't let go . . . if you cling too tightly, you are going to lose control . . . ?" It applies to parenting, too! One of the greatest problems I see with preteens and teens is that parents have let go completely, or too much. The flip side, when parents won't allow an adolescent to exercise their need for control and power is just as damaging.

Both may result in rebellion, lack of self control, low self esteem and even depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and other problems. Remember, you are still the parent and have to set limits and discipline your kids when they need it. It is the "loosening" of control and limits that allows them to try out their skills, not giving up your authority as the parent or completely letting go. While children and adolescents think they can "do it" without our help, they still need limits, guidance and discipline as they perfect their skills. Testing the limits is a big part of those transitions mentioned above. Boundaries have to be constantly set, adjusted and evaluated as kids grow and develop. Our job is to figure out, for each child, what works best for them based on their needs, experiences and maturity. Adolescence is much easier if you have been effectively implementing these practices since childhood. It is difficult to suddenly tighten the reigns and set limits for kids who have never had any, especially when they are bigger than you!

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LuAnn Pierce is a licensed social worker and therapist, as well as an author and publisher. She has worked with hundreds of youths and families in the last 15 years. Ms. Pierce writes columns for several other publications and is the publisher/editor-in-chief of Person to Person.

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