My 5-year old son lives with his mum, 20 minutes down the road from me. Our arrangement is he comes to me Fridays to Sundays. We've been living apart around 1 year. He always tells me he hates coming here, and not only has he never told me he loves me, sometimes he actively emphasizes that he doesn't love me. This hurts, of course, and though I don't respond too childishly, I do sulk a bit for a while, before telling him that what he said made me sad, and I'm sorry for my sulking and I love him anyway. I guess the separation anxiety is normal, but that he refuses to ever express love for me is troubling (as well as difficult personally for me). Does this ring any bells with anyone, and should I be approaching it differently?
The things we hear about "love" as a child (and adult) are confusing, conflicting, and often do not at all reflect how "love" actually feels. Radio plays songs that describe "love" as a most extreme feeling. Same for half of anything they can watch in movies or television. (Some) religion require you to "love" both your deity and the people around you (or go to hell to be eternally tortured). The "love" between parents and children is presented with hearts, cute bears, and over-idealised in media just like romantic or "religious" love.
It is not surprising that some try to explore their feelings - and find that their own feelings are nothing like the extreme descriptions of that thing that everyone calls "love".
First and formost I would be very proud that your child feels safe enough to admit his feelings. After all, all world tells him "not to love" is a horrible thing.
Now, in return, make sure that he continues to feel that safe around you. Tell him that it is OK if what he is feeling is more a "I like you!" instead of whatever the adults tell him about love. It is even ok to sometimes really hate your parent (perhaps tell him an anekdote off when you did hate one of your parents for a while). But also tell him that he will always have your support regardless. That he does not need to worry.
Also: It is quite possible that he is (consciously or subconsciously) testing if you will really stick with him even when he does not tell you the thing everyone wants to hear.
should I be approaching it differently?
You say you sulk for a little while. I strongly suggest you don't. Simply disregard what your son says about not liking/loving you. Most likely, it's not true. Instead, immediately answer him with something like "well, you don't have to like me. I love you very much anyway, and always will."
I don't think five-year-olds actually know what they say when they tell you they don't love you. Kids love their parents almost unconditionally, but they haven't thought about what it entails, it's just a given. Parents are just always there for you. Going through a divorce upsets this, so your son has to deal with a lot of emotions he hasn't encountered before and can't name yet (I've got some personal experience with that; my parents divorced when I a few years older). What he felt before, he knew to call "love". Now there are lots of confusing feelings he has no experience with; but he knows it's different from before. It's likely his display of anger towards you is a sign of distress. You need to help him deal with it instead of sulking - he's a child and is not in control of his life; you and your wife caused his world to break apart. Don't expect your five-year-old child to deal with your feelings on top of his own.
Your son might feel any number of emotions, for example:
- He feels he lost you
- What he always took for granted was lost, he's afraid of more bad surprises lying in store
- He is disappointed that you "left him"
- He saw how his parents stopped loving each other. Now he might want reassurance that his parents don't stop loving him - and he tests it by saying hurtful things
- He's hurt by the divorce and wants to hurt someone back (maybe he even acts the same way towards his mom)
This is why I would react by telling him immediately that no matter what his feelings towards me, I love him anyway.
If this is caused by him not finding the right words to describe his feelings, you could try to help him by asking more specific questions: "Do you mean you're angry at me because I'm no longer at home?" "Are you disappointed in me? Did you expect me to do ... instead?" "Are you afraid I don't like you anymore?" This might help him to put words to what he actually feels.
It helps to know what exactly he feels in order to reassure him.
Also, others may disagree, but I would not tell him I'm hurt by him saying he doesn't love me, for several reasons:
- He's preoccupied with his own feelings - don't add to the burden by expecting him to consider yours, too (plus IMO he's still a bit too young to actually be able to consider them, but others may disagree)
- It might be exactly what he wants to achieve - he might want to hurt you, and telling him it works might be counterproductive if you want it to stop
- Since hurting someone is bad, and your son knows this, he might hear "I'm hurt by what you say" as a request for him to stop saying it, and he might start to feel bad about it. If it's true that he doesn't understand his own feelings, you telling him you're hurt by what he says could translate in his mind to "what I feel is wrong".
- I actually do believe that children are not required to love their parents (even the ten commandments only require children to honor their parents...). They didn't ask to be born. Parents shouldn't require their children to love them, and therefore they shouldn't complain that they're hurt when kids tell them they don't. What we do for our children, we do because we love them and because we are responsible for them, not because we expect them to love us.
Try not to let his words get to you. If he loved you before the divorce, he loves you still. If this behavior continues and you can't get more specific emotions from him, maybe talking about it with your ex-wife might give you a clue why exactly he tells you he doesn't like you; your son might not want to (or might not be able to) explain it to you, but he might tell his mom, who could then tell you.
I have an anecdote which might not really prove all that much but might help alleviate at least some peoples worries. I'm happily married live with my wife and have a lovely 6 year old daughter. We (me and my daughter) have always had what I felt was a pretty good relationship though I am usually the stricter parent.
Around the age of 5 my daughter started telling me that she loved mom more and sometimes usually after apparent guilt that she didn't love me. It would be both in cases when there might be reasons for her to be angry with me, like when I was being strict or when I was putting her to sleep (she has always strongly preferred mom putting her to sleep for reasons we've never quite figured out), but sometimes it would be completely "unprovoked". I was never particularly bothered, though I did explain that this could be understood as hurtful, but that it's ok to feel however she feels and that I love her.
Roughly a year later this completely ceased we are now told, how we are the best mom and best dad and how much she loves us, quite often. There has been no change in our behavior to her or to each other. I have some theories on the reasons for the changes though completely unsubstantiated. I think it's partly her having matured and having a better idea of love and partly back then she was trying to test boundaries.
To be honest, I'm not convinced she has a fully developed sense of what love exactly is even now, though I'm sure it has gone a long way. How much she loves someone still very strongly correlates with how nice they have been to her lately etc.
I realize the OP's situation is different and it's certainly worth exploring the situation given the divorce and possible issues with his/her Ex. Personally the fact that he hates coming would be more worrying to me, but even then it's important if that's just when he comes or throughout. From my experience many kids hate change so the fact they don't want to go somewhere doesn't mean they don't enjoy themselves while there.