A few weeks ago, I and a number of other consultants were asked to help a couple with three-year-old fraternal twin boys determine why the boys have not learned how to fall asleep on their own. Both the mom and the dad felt exhausted, frustrated, and defeated. Their innumerable unsuccessful attempts to put the boys to bed in their own room and to have them sleep through the night left the parents feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Both the mom and the dad are hardworking professionals in their midthirties, and the boys have been in daycare since the age of two.
This family’s experience reminded me of the perils and challenges of first-time parenting. We learn to parent by trial and error, often on the fly. I remember being too anxious to let my first child cry it out and feeling like a bad mother if I did not cater to his every whim and whimper. The first parenting gig requires the terrifying transition from tending to one’s own needs to caring for a newborn 24/7. New parents feel overwhelmed, insecure, and perhaps a bit resentful. Parenting engenders conflict, tension, and fear. I simply cannot imagine what I would have done had my first children been twins rather than my last ones.
In this family’s case, while I did not have the opportunity to learn many details about the pregnancy or the twins’ earlier years, it quickly became clear that these parents were frightened to set limits, say no, and institute normal and genuine limits and boundaries with their boys. In fact, in exact opposition to setting limits, the parents behaved as if gratifying the demands of the boys was the best way to handle the issues. For example, in describing the boys’ bedtime routine, the parents satisfied each and every request on an unlimited basis—getting up for a snack, getting a drink of water, going to the bathroom, insisting the mom or the dad sleep in the bed with them, and demanding that only the mom or the dad read certain books well into the wee hours of the morning. The parents didn’t seem to understand how the excessive overgratification of their sons’ demands contributed significantly to the nocturnal nightmare of the boys’ sleeplessness and the unending fatigue and frustration for all of them.
The various sleep experts gave the couple their specific advice for how to take control of this untenable situation. However, as we know from our personal experience, our reluctance to set limits and take control can conflict with our need to feel loved, special, and admired—we fear having to be the bad guy and the disciplinarian will taint the loving parent-child connection.
I was able to comment on a few of the parents’ twin-related inquiries. They described how one boy is the caretaker of the other and how the cared-for twin often does not speak up about what he wants or needs. Given this predicament, they asked if the boys should be separated in preschool. In the last part of our interview, the mom shared that she felt upset that the cared-for twin came home one day and told her that he did not feel “special.” The mom’s sadness was immediately apparent, and she talked about how hard making both boys feel special is. I asked her in what context her son had shared this remark. She replied that the teacher had likely reprimanded him for something, and his feelings were hurt. I cautioned the mom to try to find the context in which a child says something. In truth, his feelings were hurt because he disappointed his teacher. Whenever possible, parents can reframe events for their children and help to provide a context for understanding what has occurred. This mom seems to feel that her maternal obligation is to make her sons feel special all of the time.
Helping parents understand that saying no and setting limits help children feel secure and in control is vital. Excessive gratification can interfere significantly with the development of impulse control, frustration tolerance, social skills, and respect for authority. We must do some honest soul searching into our personal histories and present circumstances to understand what prevents us from being comfortable with rules, routines, and expectations. What we’ll most likely discover is a conflict between feeling like a bad parent and recognizing the importance of being a consistent disciplinarian. Essentially, feeling comfortable with setting boundaries can make the difference between raising healthy, well-adjusted children and raising ones who exhibit behavioral difficulties. If this couple learns how to institute a sleep routine according to their rules and expectations, they will be rewarded with the positive consequences of saying no with love, consistency, and conviction.