Five is hard: can you attachment parent the older child?

It happens to the most attached parents among us. We’ve breastfed, co-slept, and slung our babes happily. It was easy—or, it became easy, once we got into the groove and shook off Aunt Maud’s disapproving glare. We saw our children grown and flourish, loved, connected, happy. But then, at some point, the demons of self-doubt return. Our child goes through a phase we see as difficult and challenging. Almost inevitably, this happens when we’re not at our best—pregnant, tired, stressed. And we wonder—is it possible to AP the older child?

Five seems to be the milestone when these demons attack most ferociously. Makes sense: it’s such a milestone age in our culture. The preschooler becomes a kindergartener. The stroller’s abandoned; first loose teeth come. The search for self becomes super-pronounced, and our five-year-old is frighteningly selfish. (I write about that aspect of five in Ferocious Five.)

It hit one of my friends very hard when her eldest daughter turned five. She asked our playgroup community for help, and she framed her struggles under this big question: “Is it possible the attachment parent the older child? This five year-old who’s driving me utterly, completely crazy every moment of every single day? Is it time to bring out the conventional discipline–punishment–toolbox?”

This was my response. I had seen Cinder through five pretty successfully. Not yet Flora. Bear that in mind as you read. Check out Ferocious Five for the lessons Flora taught me.

Five is hard. But so is two, three, four, six, sixteen–all in their different ways. Part of the trouble is that our children move onward and forward through the different ages and stages, while we, their imperfect parents, have just figured out how to cope with the preceding one.

Is it possible to attachment parent the older child? Possible, necessary, critical. And here is where the difference between AP “things we do”–co-sleeping, breastfeeding, babywearing–and the AP “things we are” plays large. We don’t carry our five year olds, the majority of us don’t breastfeed them any more, we’re not necessarily co-sleeping with them. The “do” stuff is gone. The “be” stuff is all that remains.

And how do we “be” with the older children? I think this is one of the points at which our paths can diverge quite dramatically. And I don’t know that there is one *right* answer. For what it is worth, based on my sample of one five-year-old shepherded through some challenging stuff to date, these are the principles that helped us:

1. Make their world larger.

At five, Cinder’s world got larger. We’re homeschooling, so the massive change that is five day a week kindergarten wasn’t part of it–but think of what a huge change that is for the average five-year-old, and how hard it must be sort out, everything so new. Still, even minus kindergarten, it was so clear to us that a five-year-old was very different from a four-year-old. And absolutely, we butted heads because while he had moved on, I was still mothering a four-year-old.

A huge breakthrough for me was to make his world larger–ride his bike on (safe!) streets, cross the street on his own, go into stores on his own, play a bigger role in everything. I can’t quite remember all the different changes we did, but they’re pretty much irrelevant–they wouldn’t necessarily work for your child. Talk with her. What would she like to do now that she couldn’t (or wasn’t interested) in doing a year or six months ago?

2. The only person whose behaviour I can control is myself.

The other thing I always come back when we run into “downs”: the only person whose behaviour I can control is myself. And if I am unhappy with how my child is acting, the first step is not to look for a way to change my child, but to look at myself, within myself, and ask myself what can I do to change how I am reacting and communicating with my children? What am I doing–reflexively, thoughtlessly–that I can change. Start with me. When I’m okay, when I’m balanced, when I’m grounded–well, very often, the problem goes away, because it was in me in the first place. My children mirror me.

And, if the problem really is in the other–if it is all my Cinder being crazy or my Flora being whiney–when I’m taking care of myself, reflecting on my behaviour, and acting from a place within me that’s grounded, well, then I can cope and talk and help them sort through whatever craziness they are going through at the time without losing it.

3. Re-connect, re-attach.

I strongly, strongly believe that any punishment–be it a time out, a withdrawal of privileges, or the most innocuous manufactured consequence–does not help these situations but serves to drive a tiny, but ever growing, wedge between the attached parent and child. The absolutely best thing I’ve ever read about discipline was in Gordon Neufeld’s *Hold On To Your Kids*–absolutely aimed at parents of older children, through to teens. We’ve talked about this before, but this is the essence of what I take away from Neufeld’s chapter on “Discipline that Does Not Divide”: “Is [whatever action you were going to take] going to further your connection to your child? Or is it going to estrange you?”

So what do I do when I kind of want to throttle Cinder? I work at re-connecting. I call them re-attachment days. Have a bath together. Wrestle (I’m not advising it for pregnant mamas 🙂 ). Go for coffee (for me) and cookie (for him) at Heartland Cafe, just the two of us. Really focus on him and try to enjoy him. So often, that’s what he’s asking for by being obnoxious–really focused attention from me.

Now if I could only ensure I always give it to him so that we wouldn’t go through the head-butting phase in the first place!

4. Remind myself of what I want to say and how I want to act.

What do I do in the moment? That’s way harder in practice, no question. When I’m really frazzled, I leave notes to myself in conspicuous places with “when Cinder does x–do not say/do this–say/do this instead.” (Fridge and front door best places. Also, bathroom door.) And I tell my children what they are–“Those are reminders to me of how I want to treat you and talk to you, even when what you are doing makes me very, very angry.”

5. Sing.

Sometimes, I sing, “I want to holler really loud, but I’m trying really hard not to, someone help me figure something else to do, I think I’m going to stand on my head to distract myself…” (This works really, really well with two and three year olds too, by the way.)

6. Forgive. Move on.

Sometimes, I don’t catch myself in time and do all the things I don’t want to do: yell, threaten (if there is an “if” and a “then” in a sentence, it’s almost always a threat)… and then I apologize, try to rewind, move forward.

7. Put it all in perspective.

And always, always, I remind myself that 1) the worst behaviours usually occur just before huge developmental/emotional milestones, changes and breakthroughs, 2) my child is acting in the best way he knows at this moment, and if that way is not acceptable to me, I need to help him find another one, and 3) I love the little bugger more than life or the universe, no matter how obnoxious he is. (This is a good exercise too: after a hard, hard day, sit down and make a list of all the things you love about your little one. From the shadow her eyelash make on her cheeks when she sleeps to the way she kisses you goodnight… everything you can think of.)

And, finally, if I want my children to treat me–and others–with respect, I must treat them with respect. No matter how angry or tired I am.

Lots of love and support, 

“Jane”

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...

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