Patty Cogen, M.A. Ed.D.

© 2001

When I decided to enroll my son of four years old in a music class I didn’t know that he would show me an entirely new side of himself. We had been a family for over a year and I felt he knew I was his mom.

We walked into the big open room, and after I took off our shoes he left my side and cruised around the room, going up to total strangers and patting them. “Hehwoe!” he’d say, sounding like Elmer Fudd. He loved the class. At the beginning of second session he left my side and immediately sat down beside a man and his son. He patted his lap, which was his sign for “I want to sit in your lap”. I was surprised and a bit distressed. I sat down beside him and pulled him over to me. He looked at me as though I were a stranger. “You are my son and we sit together, ” I told him. “You don’t know that man. You have to stay with me. It’s not the same as at the orphanage.”

Frequently my child would engage in what appeared to be mature, overly friendly and independent behavior in group or public settings. I always felt especially left out at these times. It seemed he didn’t need me. Some professionals call this type of behavior “pseudo-mature”. It occurs when a child has had to become independent too soon. Children of depressed mothers, of absent mothers, children with multiple care-givers, orphanage children including infants, engage pseudo-mature behavior because they have to in order to survive. I dubbed these behaviors “orphanage mode”.

I discovered that when my son had been in “orphanage mode” during the day, he had night terrors that night. (Night terrors are different from nightmares in that the child never really awakens nor recognizes anyone or anything; most distressing of all is the unstoppable distress.) When I interrupted the over mature behavior, insisting he relate to me as mom, I noticed the night terrors disappeared.

After our summer music class I postponed my son’s entering pre-school. I knew he needed to learn new behaviors to replace “orphanage mode”. I didn’t have a clue how long this would take, and my husband expressed the fear that this was going to make our child “go backward”. He was right, I was helping him to go backward, to start over and learn how to be healthily dependent on his mom. Over the next year our son learned to turn to me for help, to stay near me, to check back when he went a distance from me, and to not treat every adult as interchangeable. These are home-taught, not school taught skills.

Over the past three months I’ve seen my son grow emotionally moving first into the 9 month “stranger anxiety and peek-a-boo” stage, next into the 12-18 month “I’m going to run away will you catch me?”stage, and recently into the 2 year old “that’s mine, and I won’t do it unless I want to” stage. He cries now when he’s frustrated with toys, sometimes even before he tries to make something work. Best of all he’s looking at me before he heads of to say hello to a new group we’ve joined. He knows that mothers and son’s stay together.