Dear Miss Faith,
My son is 2.75 years old and recently shocked me by looking me in the eye and saying, “I no love you mama.” Shocked. I said, “you don’t love me? you don’t like that I am changing your diaper right now, do you.” He said, “I just no love you mama. I no love you.” I was stuck. He normally tells me he loves me 20 times a day and is effusive. I feel hurt, of course, that he said this– but mostly have no idea what to do about it. I don’t want to encourage it, but it seems strange to ignore it. I kind of ignored it, “I said, you are upset with mama right now. I love you, bug, even when you are upset with me.” And then I walked away, because *I* needed a moment. ugh. Do you have any insight into this. I don’t want this to become a pattern. I feel rather manipulated and stuck.
You poor thing! Thanks for writing. As hard as it seems, I want to encourage you not to take it personally when your son says this. If your son is normally ‘effusive,’ then telling you that he doesn’t love you isn’t going to mean much–unless he sees that it means a lot to you when he does it. At this age (and most other ages, really) children try out different things, and when they hit on one that gets a big reaction, they feel compelled to try it some more.
I thought the words that you used were lovely, but you are obviously still feeling upset about it, so it seems it wasn’t quite enough. When a young child does something that hurts your feelings, it can be good to tell them how it affects you, but it’s important to do it in a way that isn’t overwhelming. On way you can do that is by ‘playing’ your emotions. “You don’t love me?! Oh no! That makes me feel sooooo saaadddd.” Make a frowny/pouty face. Or even pretend to cry. “Boo-hoo-hoo! Boo-hoo-hoo! My son doesn’t love me!” Peek out of the corner of your eyes or through your fingers, and see what his reaction is (it’s often a little smile). At that point, instead of wallowing in bad feelings –yours or his–, make an effort to re-connect with him.
Do this in one of the ways that kids feel connected, through humor, imagination, physical fun, or snuggles. Blow a raspberry on his belly, nuzzle his neck, chase and tickle. This might also be a good time to show him that you’ll love him no matter what. Do you know the classic picture book, ‘The Runaway Bunny
“? The little bunny says he’ll run away in different ways, and every way he comes up with, the mama bunny comes up with a way to bring him back and love him (as in, “I’ll turn into a fish in a trout stream and swim away from you,” “Then I’ll turn into a fisherman and catch you and hold you in my arms” etc.). You can do a version of this with your son. “Even if you don’t love me, I will love you forever!” “In fact, I love you so much, I’d climb a tall mountain to show you how much I love you.” “In fact, I love you so much, I’d change a thousand diapers for you. Oh, wait! I have! I must love you more than anything!” Make it playful and fun, showing him that you’ll love him no matter what.
I think that this type of thing is very common with kids around this age, because they’re realizing that they’re really separate from you, and they’re also realizing that they have the power to affect you. You can show them that it DOES affect you (by playfully being sad) and then show them that your love for them is not fleeting, but is strong and steady, no matter what they try or how mad they get, or whatever big feelings they have. Does this make sense?
Address Needs Before Methods
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, if I turn it into a game, won’t that just encourage him to do it more and more?” Here are my thoughts on that: I suspect that what your son is trying to tell you is that he doesn’t feel as connected to you as he wishes he did. I believe that it’s best to address the underlying need (for connection) first, and address the means by which it’s communicated later. If you find that he does start saying “I don’t love you” in order to get the game, you can let him know how he can ask for connection in ways that you both can enjoy. Give him the words to say, and then be sure to listen and respond when he does ask in the way you’ve taught him, so he doesn’t have to do something that gets a big reaction to get your attention.
Remember, our kids DO love us, and they want our love and attention more than anything. Being 2.75 is a hard age, full of new emotions and experiences. We can start teaching them the murky realm of relationship, in ways that are fun and loving.