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There are times in life when your child will decide they simply don’t want to do something – whether it’s putting on their shoes, going to school or staying over at a relative’s house.
And for parents, it can be a tricky road to navigate. You want to respect their feelings and autonomy, but also... you have boundaries. And with things like school, while it’s always worth getting to the bottom of why they don’t want to go (and even offering the occasional ‘personal day’ to give them a break) sometimes you’ve got to take the tough love approach and send them anyway.
But when it’s something less formal like visiting a grandparent, or staying over at their house, the lines become a little blurry. Should you still send your child if they’ve told you they don’t want to go?
This is the dilemma one parent shared on Reddit this week:
My family’s upset because my four-year-old doesn’t want to see them, but my husband thinks I should make her.
My daughter is four, soon to be five (and an only child), has spent nearly every Friday night with my in-laws since she was a baby. She’s always loved it, and they love it since she’s the only grand kid.
Recently though she has been voicing that she doesn’t want to go over to the grandparents to spend the night. Sometimes my husband’s grandparents (her greats) also get her from time to time for a few hours while we’re still working. She has voiced she doesn’t want that anymore either. She has told them all directly. Needless to say, they’re butt hurt and very much in their feelings about it. I don’t want to force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. My husband, however – always the one to walk on eggshells around his family, always the one to “keep the peace” – says she doesn’t have a good reason and it’s just a phase and she’ll get over it.
Now just to clarify, I talked with her to try and find out the reason, but have never really gotten an answer. I’m not concerned there’s any foul play on the family’s part. If there were ANY signs, I wouldn’t even be asking the question. She is also very attached to me. Sometimes she just says it’s because she misses me. My husband thinks this attachment is unhealthy, I don’t necessarily disagree, but honestly I think I’m her security (dad is gone for work a lot, and when home, he’s also working all the time). Also, in case it’s important, at almost five she has definitely displayed signs of ADHD (me and dad both are, so no surprise there).
Do I make her continue to go? Or do I tell the family I’ll bring her by to see them, when me/dad are there with her? Feelings will get shattered (I’m not so much worried about that, it will just be a major point of contention between me and my husband). If I tell them I am going to respect my daughters wishes, they will resent me (they’re those kind of people, and I don’t mind). Or would that just be teaching her to not respect others’ feelings and giving in to what she wants all the time (ie. spending time with me)? I don’t want her to grow up thinking she doesn’t have a say in what she does.
*The above post has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So, what can they do?
1. Put your child first
It’s a challenging situation to be in, but Hendrix Hammond, family and systemic psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), tells HuffPost UK the important thing here is for the parent to prioritise their child’s feelings and wellbeing.
“I suggest that you listen to your child and encourage her to express her thoughts and emotions without pressure,” he says.
Counselling Directory member Laura Wood-Holden agrees and says it’s important the child has their voice heard and their concerns listened to.
“If the child is able to verbalise why they don’t want to visit the family members house then consider the reasons,” she suggests.
As parents we can often wonder whether our kids are a bit too attached to us, but both therapists agree that in this situation, the daughter’s attachment is “normal and healthy” – especially if the father is away a lot with work.
“At the age of four the child is still developing their attachment style and it is important to help the child feel secure with their primary caregivers as a priority,” says Wood-Holden.
She suggests the parents should be investigating the reasons why the child doesn’t want to stay away and ensuring their daughter has her physical and emotional needs met.
“The child, for example, may subconsciously feel their routine is being disrupted and this is dysregulating them,” she adds.
“There are times that a child may grow from doing something that scares them or that they don’t want to, but overnight at four years old, away from the two people who they should be able to rely on and trust most, this isn’t that time.”
2. Be open with your husband
It is a tricky situation for the parent to be in – having to decide between siding with their child and disagreeing with their husband.
Hammond recommends involving the father in “open and empathetic discussions about the situation” – this includes trying to understand his perspective in all this, which may be rooted in concern for maintaining family relationships.
Wood-Holden points out that the father is an adult “who is able to rationalise and understand why sometimes they may not get their way,” whereas the child is not.
“When a child’s needs go unmet or unheard they learn that they aren’t deserving of what they want, they learn that they must be self sufficient to have their needs met and they learn that their parents will put convenience before their needs, which can impact self esteem in later life,” she says.
2. Maintain open communication with your relatives
At the same time as prioritising their child’s needs, the parent will need to maintain open communication within their family.
Hammond suggests trying to make compromises that accommodate their daughter’s preferences and husband’s desire to maintain family connections.
“It’s also an opportunity to teach your daughter about autonomy and decision-making while maintaining respectful and loving relationships with family members,” he says.
His advice in this instance is for the parent to have a chat with the grandparents and other family members, letting them know they’re taking their daughter’s feelings into account.
If the parent is still struggling to find a resolution after some time, he advises seeking guidance from a family therapist or child psychologist.
“Ultimately, the goal is to find a balance that respects your daughter’s autonomy, nurtures her attachment to you, and maintains family connections without causing undue distress,” he concludes.
3. Keep an eye out for behavioural changes
There are some very rare instances where a child might react badly to someone because they’ve been abused – this could be physically, emotionally or sexually.
Signs of abuse include unexplained changes in a child’s behaviour or personality, becoming withdrawn, seeming more anxious, or becoming uncharacteristically aggressive (you can read more about these signs on the NSPCC website).
If you suspect your child might be reacting badly to a family member because of abuse, it’s essential the child knows they have your support and you are there to listen to them, without judgment, Fiona Yassin, family psychotherapist and founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, previously told HuffPost UK.
“Parents have a wonderful intuition and can often sense or feel when something is wrong with their child,” she said. “If a child tells you they’ve been abused or hurt by someone, you must take it seriously – no matter how unbelievable you find the allegation.”
She urged parents not to take matters into their own hands and to instead get professional support as quickly as possible, while building a strong support network for the child.
“Engage a child and adolescent therapist, allow the police to manage the legal aspect and make your child’s school aware,” she advised. Parents can also contact the NSPCC for immediate help and support.
Help and support:
Childline - free and confidential support for young people in the UK - 0800 1111