This month's question comes from K.P. in California.
Q: "I have an 18-month-old, and he doesn't want to spend time with his dad. He always wants me, and I just don't know what to do. His dad tries really hard to spend time with him, but it's getting to a point where his feelings are getting hurt every time our son rejects him. What can we do to help build up that bond between my husband and my child?"
A: Thanks for your question K.P. This is really tough when a kiddo globs on to one parent and completely rejects the other. It's frustrating for everyone involved!
Let me share that this happened between my daughter and her dad too! And it was so difficult for him every time she rejected him. I'm happy to report that we were able to fix this little problem, but it took a lot of dedication and time.
It's important to highlight that it is incredibly normal for infants and toddlers to prefer Mom over Dad. The relationship they have formed with Mom has been developing far longer than it ever has with Dad. (There's that whole "growing them in your womb" thing that you have going for you).
Additionally, most moms take advantage of maternity leave, which allows them to get a jump-start on forming that attachment/bond with their child during those first, critical months. Many dads take advantage of paternity leave too, but typically only after mom got first crack at it.
Despite moms having the advantage, many dads are able to catch up and form a wonderful bond with their child. Yet, sometimes, we still find ourselves in this situation where the child prefers 1 parent over the other. When we have this scenario playing out, there are a couple of factors that can contribute to it:
1. Discipline:Sometimes, kids will begin to prefer the parent that let's them get away with everything. The parent that tends to be the disciplinarian is often the one that gets shunned by the kids. Many times, in divorce situations, kids will want to be with the parent that doesn't have any rules in the home and is always taking the kids out to do "the fun stuff": a situation that has been termed, "the Disneyland Dad," in the past.
2. Patience and Demeanor: Sometimes, a family may have a parent that seems to have infinite patience. This same parent is also able to remain calm during disciplinary sessions, and has an overall calming and peaceful demeanor. We all tend to gravitate towards these types of people, and kids are no different. If you have 1 parent that tends to yell and 1 parent that remains calm, the child will naturally want to be with the one that remains calm.
3. Parent-Child Relationship:The quality and strength of the Parent-Child Relationship will play largely into how kids interact with their parents. The stronger and more positive that bond is, the more children are drawn to it. In many cases where children turn away from a particular parent, it's because the Parent-Child Relationship may not be as strong as the bond with the other parent. At times, that bond may not be as strong because the parent is less available to spend physical time with the child or the parent is less emotionally available.
Knowing the common forces that cause and/or contribute to your child's preference of YOU over your spouse can help us fix the problem. Sometimes, there are forces outside of your control (such as traveling frequently on business) but there are still some strategies we can implement in these situations.
Now, since I don't have the specifics of your situation, I'm going to give you some suggestions that would be helpful regardless of the details.
Tip 1. Let Dad have a break:If Dad is the disciplinarian in your house, try switching roles for a little while. Let Dad be the one to spoil the kids for a bit, and you take the heavy lifting of being the enforcer. Another alternative is to make sure your roles as disciplinarians are equally shared. When enforcing consequences, be sure it's a "we" mentality. For example, if Dad institutes a Time Out, and your toddler comes running to you for comfort, don't engage. Back Dad up instead, saying something like, "No, Sweetie, Daddy is right. You need to go to your Dad and talk to him."
My own children love running to me when Dad is disciplining them. And my response is always, "You need to go back to your Dad. When he's done talking to you, then we can talk." This sends the message to my kids that I'm supporting Dad and that, if they're looking for someone to get them out of trouble, running to me is a lost cause.
Additionally, be sure you are not disagreeing with Dad's parenting in front of the kids. As long as Dad isn't being abusive, let him finish playing the situation out. When it's all over, you can always pull Dad aside and share your opinion on what happened. If he truly messed up, he can always apologize to the kids after. If your spouse is being abusive, however, you need to intervene immediately. This shows your child that you will protect them and helps to serve as a protective factor against trauma symptoms that they may develop later.
Tip 2. Help Dad Grow in Patience: If your spouse is a bit of a hot head, that's ok. Many of us are, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be working to grow and improve. You can be a very firm and structured parent and still be extremely patient. In truth, this is the ultimate goal.
If you (or your partner) struggle with anger management, there is no time like the present to solve this issue. Take an anger management class, read a book, or talk to a therapist to help work on improving in this area. Frequently losing your patience with your kids is not going to help improve the Parent-Child Relationship. You are at risk of damaging it, and you are at risk of teaching your children to respond to anger in the same way YOU do.
If you are unable to work on your anger management, learn to recognize when you are slipping into that angry place, and then let your partner take over. It's totally ok to let your children see that you are taking a Time Out yourself to calm down. That's a strength in my book. You are modeling to your kids a great coping skill!
Now, let's say you aren't the one with the anger problem, but your spouse is. Have a discussion with them privately about it. No blaming and shaming! Just an honest, loving discussion about the problem and engage in some problem-solving activities together as a team to come up with a way to address it.
If your partner isn't ready to tackle their anger yet, that's ok too. Try coming to a compromise where you give them a signal that let's them know they are too upset to be effective in that moment in the parenting role, and they need to tap out. I've had parents come up with a safety word or phrase like, "Why don't you go have a Hot Tamale upstairs really quick." I've also had parents that simply put a hand on their partner's shoulder to signal the need for a break.
Tip 3. Help Dad Build-Up his Parent-Child Relationship:Regardless of how your child came to prefer you over Dad, you can always help Dad improve his Parent-Child bond. Forming a tight, loving Parent-Child Relationship is a huge part in creating families that are loving, emotionally-healthy, and united. And the more your child feels connected to Dad, the more they'll want to spend time with him. So, it's time to kick quality time into high gear!
Encourage your spouse to take out your son for Daddy-Son time (without you!). You need to stay home this time Mom, and let Dad have your son all to himself. We want your son to associate these happy memories with Dad; so, if you go too, your child will most likely glob onto you, which will defeat the whole purpose of this activity.
Let Dad have the opportunity to engage with your son on some activities that your child LOVES, and make sure you disappear from the room while this is going on. Make this an ongoing activity in your household, where Dad gets to have your child all to himself, doing these activities that your child enjoys. This is important!
Healthy Parent-Child Relationships are not developed over night. They require a lot of consistent time to build them up. This means that, as parents, we need to continuously engage with our children in quality time. The more we do this, the more we build our Parent-Child Relationship. But remember, it's got to be activities your child enjoys, not the other way around!
If you want more information on this point, I have a few articles I wrote on these topics that go into greater detail on how to do this successfully:
I can't guarantee that following these 3 tips will make your toddler suddenly prefer Dad over you. If done consistently, however, you should find that, over time, your son doesn't seem to reject Dad as much as before. You might even see a balance in his preference between you and Dad.
Hopefully this was helpful! Feel free to email me if you have any questions or even give me an update in the future on how things are going. Thanks for your question, and