Parent or friend: can we be responsible parents and liked by our toddlers?

It was Sunday afternoon and I was stressed out. I was overwhelmed, and Leo was crying. He was looking at me like I had utterly betrayed him. I cuddled him and told him I was sorry, I was just trying to help him, but I had got it wrong. How had this dramatic scene come about? I had taken him to a baby swimming class.

Leo had not been swimming this year until we went to the hotel pool last month. He had been ill, and we had been busy at weekends. He hadn’t enjoyed the hotel pool – it was cold and noisy. I knew swimming was very good for him – the water would support him, and he would enjoy greater physical freedom than he is used to. I was determined that we would get back into swimming with him.

A visit to our local leisure pool went better and I was looking forward to the swimming class. It takes place in a hydrotherapy pool which is great for his muscle tone and there would be no older kids jumping around and shrieking. I had a vision of a lovely mother and son bonding moment in a cosy pool while Leo grew confident in the water.

The reality was 30 minutes of fast-paced activities, feeling like I didn’t have enough hands and a very upset Leo. I felt quite stressed trying to keep up and I felt very guilty that Leo was having such a rotten time. At the end of the class, the stress subsided, and I felt very upset. First of all, I felt very bad that I had put Leo through such a miserable time. Then I felt disappointed that I had failed to find the right class for him. Finally, I felt demoralised. I had acted with the best of intentions and I had upset my son.

It was the final straw in a difficult few weeks. I have a headstrong toddler who understands everything going on around him but is not yet able to move around independently or adequately express himself. He is making good progress, but the fact remains, he must be incredibly frustrated. As am I. We get great advice from Leo’s team. They are so invested in him. But mostly the person responsible for implementing all the measures that will help Leo, is me. That means I have to do physio, encourage him to wear his glasses, offer him nutritious food, use Boardmaker symbols and photos, brush his teeth, trim his fingernails, reduce his reliance on his dummy and divert him from negative behaviours like nipping and hitting. His development and wellbeing depend on all these things. They are not chores, sometimes they are fun, and many are universal to all children. Leo resists many of my interventions and he gets upset with me. I admire his spirit. I know his determination is key to how well he has done so far. But his stubbornness is also very challenging. Especially when I am tired, results seem far off and his little face looks so sad.

But what is the alternative? If Leo got his way all the time, he would survive on chocolate custard and Wotsits. He would never have to do anything unpleasant. He would have his dummy in his mouth constantly, preventing him from using his lovely voice and forming words. He would stop growing and gaining weight that he so badly needs. His eyesight would deteriorate further. He would have pain in his mouth and scratch his face. He would not find alternative ways to communicate. He might never stand, walk or swim. He would harm his little friends. None of this would serve him.

At this moment in time, Leo might know what he wants, but he doesn’t yet see the bigger picture. I have to see it for him. I have to challenge him in the present, so he can meet his potential. I have to make sure we build in lots of fun, playing, singing and telling stories. I need to be there for comfort and cuddles. I need to love and support him without limits, and that includes my own comfort. I have to face being unpopular and occasionally causing frustrated tears because I love him. I have to trust that he still loves me back and that one day he will understand. He might even thank me. But most of all, I need to find a peace that I am doing everything I can, and he is reaching his potential in the world I have brought him into. For him to ask me why I didn’t try harder, would be the most horrific thing of all.

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