Dear Dr. Rene,
My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.
It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Sarah, mother of two
I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.
In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.
I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.
Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.
Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible. It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.