Being # 2 is great most of the time. I get it. I’ll take it. I’m not their mom. She’s the sun. I’m the moon. I had plenty of experiences with our 12-year-old son, Eric, of being arbitrarily rejected and I’ve got to say that I dealt with it really well. I had my moments when I got fed up of pouring my heart and soul into this creature only to be summarily executed by a look in his eyes.
It has been different with our 3-year-old, Emma. Deb is still # 1. There’s no doubt about that, but she hasn’t rejected me the way Eric did at her age. It made me think about what I was doing differently.
But then it happened. Nothing had changed on the surface. There wasn’t a full moon. I was just as bald and bearded as the day before. I went into her room after she woke from an afternoon nap. She looked at me and turned away and said: “No, I want to be alone!”
I know what you’re thinking: “David, she just woke up from a nap. What do you expect?”
I hear you, but I’m always able to cheer her up after she wakes up with some freestyle stuffed animal puppeteering.
I was taken aback. She’s three after all. I didn’t think three year-olds pulled the “I want to be alone” line, but I said okay and I left her with her 50 blankets and stuffed animals.
But the treatment continued. She didn’t want anything to do with me for the rest of the day with a few exceptions here and there. The next few days were similar. I backed off because my efforts just seemed to fuel the fire.
I went into the bedroom and let off some steam with Deb. I was hurt and angry. I have been a constant river of love with this girl. How dare she reject me like this. I don’t want to deal with this again.
There was a part of me that heard myself saying this and reacted punitively: “You call yourself a therapist. Please. What do you expect? Do you just want her to cater to your fragile ego and put a smile on her face every time she sees you?”
“Of course not,” my angry and wounded part replied. “It just hurts. It’s not rational. I know she’s three. I get it, but it still hurts.”
Then the healthy adult stepped in: “You’re hurt. That’s understandable. But she needs to be able to express herself like this and the fact that she feels safe enough to do that with you is a testament to your bond…Oh, and punitive voice, take a hike. You’re just gonna cause trouble.”
The wounded part replied: “I guess you’re right about her feeling safe, but you know what I went through with Eric. Do I really have to do this again?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. She’s not Eric. She’s her own person. She’s going to have a lot of moods, feelings, reactions and stages. That’s part of growing up. Lick your wounds. Talk about it with Deb. Breathe. Give her space when she wants space.”
You get the picture. There’s this internal three-way conversation going on between my punitive/critical voice, wounded and angry child and my healthy adult voice. The healthy adult stepped in to make sure I didn’t react impulsively with Emma. He also put that punitive voice in its place by validating the angry and wounded child. That created space for those feelings to exist without being dismissed, shamed and shooed away.
When the feelings have the space to exist, they don’t have to morph into other more persistent states as a result of pushing them away.
I made this process a lot tidier than it can be. I am still feeling wounded. I know the deal. I see it happening, but it still hurts and that’s okay. We played together this morning. I was Mater and she was Lightning McQueen. Then I tried to hold her hand. She said no. Then I said: “Lightning, can you hold Mater’s hand?” That worked. Mater it is, I guess. Just don’t demote me to # 3!
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, helping couples with their relationships since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist with a web-based private practice and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global. David lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids and toy poodle.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on March 1, 2017.
Originally published at medium.com