Dear Jenny: My Fiancé Is Too Harsh With My Toddler
Our resident advice-giver-outer Jenny True provides shouty, full-hearted answers to your niggling questions about pregnancy and parenthood in her column Dear Jenny. Warning: This is not a baby-and-me singalong, this is about yelling into the cosmos and actually hearing something back, sometimes in the form of an all-caps swear. Jenny isn't an ~expert~, but she has a lot of experience being outraged on your behalf. To submit your questions to Jenny, email email@example.com.
My kid and I had a very rough first couple years. His dad — or as we call him, the sperm donor — isn't a strong factor in his life. So a year and a half ago, I find myself a great new guy who my son stuck to like glue! He helped me get some behavioral issues under control with my son, and helped give me the space and support I needed to heal from the toxic situation we were just walking out of.
Mind you, I have PTSD, bipolar, BPD, and chronic depression/anxiety. I handle it all as well as one possibly can, but you can safely assume it puts some heavy weight on my parenting and relationship with my now fiancé.
So let's cut to the chase: I'm worried he's causing damage to our kid. I'm also currently pregnant. I'm huge on child psychology research. I mean, we're parents and we're not going to get out of this alive without making our own handful of mistakes, but my issue is my fiancé disregards all science and research on the basis that it's only presumptions and there's no way to prove which is the best way, or if there's any damage from any of the tactics he chooses to use.
You might have guessed where I'm heading with this: He spanks, scolds, threatens, and doesn't think it's good to "coddle" in the sense of helping our son calm down or trying to assist him if he's crying or having a hard time. He's f***ing 3, man. I don't know why, but my fiancé expects the behavioral discipline of a 12-year-old.
We're both young parents, and to be fair, my fiancé's parenting experience comes from a tough family with a background of whoop-ass and cry-on-your-own-time parenting. The problem is, I strongly disagree, but when I'm depressed, I'm permissive. I just can't see clearly or act accordingly when I'm down in the trenches. I'm also a rapid cycler with bipolar, so it's hard for anyone to take my exasperated rants seriously.
Today was a big trigger day. My son was obviously upset. He needed a nap but couldn't fall asleep, yet he was being good and playing quietly in his room without coming out any other time but to use the restroom. I found that to be impressive, given a few hours went by of him enjoying quiet solitude for "nap time." My fiancé, on the other hand, thought he needed to enforce the fact he needed to be lying down not doing anything, even if he couldn't fall asleep.
My son became distressed. My fiancé went into his room and instead of comforting him and explaining what he expects of him without barking orders, he decided to very sternly tell him HUSH and QUIET DOWN. That wouldn't calm me down, so why would it calm a 3-year-old? I asked my fiancé to go give him a hug and tell him he loves him when he came back from his room. He said he didn't need that, that he was only crying because he wasn't getting his way.
This is the same man who sulks if he doesn't get enough attention from me. He doesn't give a 3-year-old the same emotional and mental support he desperately craves from me. He can't handle me being upset with him — he has to go outside to blow off steam — but he won't even let our kid have a safe room for expressing his strong feelings?
This is all just confusing to me. Aside from these problems, he's a great dad!!! He's a hardworking, playful guy who has great values, and my son enjoys him being in our lives regardless of their issues.
My concern is that I've started to see my son drifting away from him recently and really starting to put a wall up with him. I can't tell if it's normal kid stuff or if he's honestly being hurt by my fiancé's parenting decisions. What do you think?
Hopeful About the Future, Concerned About Now
First of all, congratulations on getting to where you are now. You got out of a toxic situation, and a year and a half later you're with a new partner who gives you space and support, and whom your son loves. You're dealing with a number of mental health issues, any one of which would lay a person low (I have ONE of those — anxiety — and I complain about it ALL THE TIME). And you mention a tough childhood for your fiancé. All of this, and young, too, with a baby on the way.
SHAME US ALL WHY DON'T YOU.
Let's back up for a second. There are a few relationships here: the one between you and your fiancé, the one between your fiancé and your son, and the one between you and your son. There's the dynamic among you all, and you're about to add another person to the mix — a wittle baby.
Let's start with you and your fiancé: You say he needs a lot of emotional and mental support, but doesn't seem capable of giving the same to your son. This makes sense to me; if he didn't receive it from his parents (and I am assuming he didn't), he still needs it (and is now seeking it, impossibly, from other people, and may go on seeking it his entire life). He's also had no model for how to give it, although he did manage to give you the space and support you needed to recover from your previous relationship.
You also say that when you're upset with him, he steps outside to blow off steam. It may drive you crazy, but I think this is actually a healthy behavior. When men and women get upset, we have different physiological responses. When women get upset, our anger dissipates relatively quickly. When men get upset, their heart rates stay elevated for longer (says famed psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman in his bestselling The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work). Unless your fiancé does not return home to work things out or is giving you the silent treatment — a different, premeditated response (and a red flag) — he knows that, for whatever reason, he can't think straight now and has the presence of mind not to make things worse.
In a way, you can handle these behaviors, because you're an adult, and you know where he's coming from (although the last thing you need as a pregnant person is demands on your emotional and mental resources—this is when the world should be conspiring to support your every whim, and that needs to go on for about 18 years).
However, as you suspect, it's different for a 3-year-old.
Your fiancé "spanks," "scolds," and "threatens" him. I've written before about spanking; it's an enormous part of U.S. culture, but it's a short-term "solution"—not to behavior issues, but to the parent's frustration with them — and has the potential to create big problems for the kid.
Your fiancé is correct that that there's no one way to parent, but making a child feel unseen, which makes a child feel unsafe, has lasting consequences. Spanking, scolding, and threatening a child for having normal emotions and reactions confuses their sense of self.
The fact that your fiancé went into your son's room because he wasn't doing exactly as he'd been told — particularly when falling asleep isn't necessarily possible — indicates a great need for him to be in control. This is something you might want to be on the alert about as your son gets older and, as happens with kids, he gets more resistant to being controlled.
You can't change him, and it's not your responsibility to try. However, it is your responsibility to protect your children.
You ask if it's "normal kid stuff" for a 3-year-old to put up a wall against an adult. The short answer is no, if the adult is acting respectfully toward the kid. But it's possible your son perceives the need to protect himself from your fiancé.
Let's be clear on two things: You refer to "their issues" when you talk about your son and your fiancé. Your 3-year-old does not have issues.
Second, you call your son "our kid." It's incredible to find someone who wants to co-parent with you, particularly when mental health issues make it difficult for you to parent sometimes. Three-year-olds are a handful, and it must be a huge relief to have found someone willing to step in.
Still, your fiancé's behavior concerns you, and when it comes down to it, that's your kid. And if you don't want another adult to spank, scold, or threaten him, it's time to get back in touch with your oh-hell-no.
You say "the problem is" that depression is hindering your response times, and you — or your fiancé — are dismissing what you call "exasperated rants" as a symptom of bipolar disorder. That's not the problem. The problem is that your new boyfriend is exhibiting behavior toward your kid that alarms you. (It also may be a problem that your fiancé is not taking you seriously when you get upset, but I can't tell whether he's dismissing you or you're dismissing yourself.)
It's ideal for kids to see their parental unit on the same team, but in this case I believe it's good for your son — and your fiancé — to see you defending him against what sounds like regular, violent behavior. And whether or not your fiancé did it, your instinct to send him back into your son's room to tell him he loves him was right on.
As you might be aware, given your pregnancy, you're about to have a child with this man. You respect his values and feel grateful that he supported you during a difficult time, so it seems you see the potential in him to become a father, stepfather, and partner who can love and support you all.
Here's the thing: You can't change him, and it's not your responsibility to try. However, it is your responsibility to protect your children, and that may involve going deep with your fiancé. He's come out of a difficult childhood that informed who he has become as an adult, a partner, and a father, and he's young. He's had little time to learn anything else, and any behavior change here — which comes from cognitive change, a long-term investment — will happen "on the ground," so to speak, in real time with your family.
See if your fiancé is willing to talk about his anger.
I might back way up. Here's one example of what that might look like: Set aside a time to talk. Check in with your mood to decide what a good time to talk looks like for you. Leave the house — ask a neighbor, friend, or relative to take your son for a couple of hours, and take a walk or go to a café. Spend some time planning what you're going to say and practice it if you can. Use "I" statements: "I'm excited to be marrying you," "I'm hopeful about having a baby with you," "I'm grateful to have your help with parenting my son," and "I feel anxious/concerned/worried when I see how angry you get."
Then tell him, "I'm not going to let you spank my son anymore, and I will continue to intervene when you threaten him, but I want to understand the feelings that lead you to want to do this."
Now, it's your turn to listen. The Gottman Institute has some pointers on what to do next: Listen without judgment, look for feelings, climb into the hole (they explain what they mean by this), and summarize and validate.
See if your fiancé is willing to talk about his anger. See if you're willing to listen to him talk without judgment. See if you're able, together, to continue to talk about your family dynamic and the vision you have for your future together.
If your fiancé is going to get to the root of his behavior toward your son (and, potentially, his child on the way and, of course, you), the only way he's going to get there is with space and support.
In the meantime, put your foot down about the spanking, scolding, and threatening. And please connect with your health care provider for more specific guidance on your domestic situation.
Final note, on the relationship between you and your son: Try not to call his father "the sperm donor." In fact, try to keep any negative feelings about him, and any stories that are not appropriate for a 3-year-old, between you and your fiancé and other adults. Bad-mouthing your kid's father — no matter what he's done, or not done — hurts your son, and hurting him may corrode your relationship with him. His father's absence is a pain you can't fix, but you can make it worse... or you can ease it. Try to hold his love for his father, and his need for him, in a safe space.
HOLY SH*T IS LIFE HARD. I DON'T KNOW WHY WE EVEN TALK TO EACH OTHER WE SHOULD ALL LIVE IN INDIVIDUAL CAVES AND COME OUT ON A ROTATING BASIS SO WE NEVER HAVE TO ENCOUNTER ANYONE. BUT FOR THOSE TIMES WHEN WE MUST INTERACT REMEMBER THAT EVERYONE ELSE IS PROBABLY DOING THE BEST THEY CAN BUT SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO STAND UP FOR WHAT YOU KNOW IS RIGHT AND GET REALLY GOOD AT BOUNDARIES. YOU GOT THIS.
Dying to ask Jenny a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.