Q: I am a single mom, and I am lucky enough to work only when my 5-year-old is at kindergarten. When he's home, I'm home. We do a lot of fun things together, such as cooking and baking and going to the park and playing pretend. We have always had a good relationship — until a few months ago. My son gradually stopped wanting to spend any time with me at all. As far as I can tell, there was no catalyst for this. He just stopped loving me. When I pick him up from school, he rolls his eyes. When I suggest going on a hike together (it used to be one of our favorite activities), he says he doesn't want to go with me. Last night, I tried to snuggle up to him on the couch, and he told me to go away and that he hates me. I know kids say that and don't mean it, but it's hard for me to not take it to heart when I get no affection from him these days. How should I move past this? Does this mean I failed at creating a close bond between us? I feel like such a bad mom.
A: Oh, mama. "He just stopped loving me" just made my heart ache. Every parent has experienced (or will experience) some kind of rejection from their children, so please know that you are not alone.
There is much I don't know that could factor into his behavior, not least among them: Where is the other parent? Has this other been absent quite a while, or are you recently single? Is there shared custody? To understand your son's change of heart, I would want to know about the other adults in his life. One of the reasons for his sudden cold behavior could very well have to do with another adult or child (nothing to do with you at all).
My initial thought, after reading your note, is that there could be some sort of abuse at the hands of another person (a family friend, a coach, a teacher, another child in class or an older child at school). While your behavior has remained steady, it is normal for children experiencing abuse to withdraw, become angry and depressed, and lose interest in once-loved activities (to name a few symptoms). Because it seems his demeanor was quite carefree and sunny up until a couple of months ago, his sudden change calls for a trip to his trusted doctor.
To ensure this exam would be as useful as possible, I would log your son's behavior thusly: When the behavior began (and what was happening at that time, any changes or transitions), when the behavior occurs during the day/night, how often the behavior is happening in a day/week, the severity of the behavior (compared with before it began), what precipitates the behavior, and how you handle the behavior (be quite detailed here). I know that this list may sound daunting, but it will help the pediatrician build a clearer picture of your son and what he needs.
In the absence of abuse (which is the worst-case scenario here, but with one in five children experiencing abuse in this country, I must address it as a possibility), there could be myriad other issues happening with your son. There could be an allergy (to a food or dye, even) causing irritability. There could be the burgeoning of an undiagnosed learning disability (a frequent cause of anger and withdrawal). There could be hearing or visual issues impacting his learning and mood.
Or he could be a 5-year-old boy experiencing a growth spurt. Growth spurts can be pretty harrowing for both the child and the parent. Most parents assume growth spurts are about weight and height, but there are cognitive growth spurts in children, too. Growth is not a steady climb; rather it is a jolt forward, then seemingly moving backward, then another shot forward. Growth spurts can lead to a great deal of crankiness in children and confusion for the parents.
If your son is having a growth spurt and is saying things such as, "I hate you," it is easy to assume he doesn't love you anymore, but that is not how affection works in our children. If they feel out of control, the loving parents will be the first to get the wrath; it's normal. The child feels safest with you. And if you respond with neediness and hurt feelings, the child's frustration grows. Why? Because an insecure parent creates either an insecure child or a bossy child. Even if you have to fake it, don't take your son's ire personally.
And if it's a growth spurt, the storm will pass, and he will want to spend time with you again. Just prepare yourself for the fact that you are parenting a child who is ever-changing. Staying flexible will go a long way.
I know my note has been broad — we have gone from possible abuse to growth spurts — but this is the complex inner life of a child. However you proceed, please know that love doesn't disappear; don't take your son literally when he lashes out. He needs compassion, patience and support. Begin with your pediatrician and move from there.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.