When a Child Prefers One Parent

Question:

Dear Dr. Rene,

I have a two years and eight months old girl. I nursed her for 18 months. After that point, I slowly have faded into the background. If daddy is around, I am out. I can’t give her a bath and put her to bed without dealing with tantrums about why daddy isn’t doing it. She regularly pronounces her love for daddy. Sometimes, she goes out of her way to say that she does not love mommy. I try to be cheerful in spite of this, but it is really, really hard. I feel like the third wheel in my own family. She also refuses to be comforted by me if he is around; sometimes even if he is not. My husband tries to make room for me, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. He says it is “just a phase,” but, for the most part, it has been like this for almost a year.

Answer:

It is normal for a child to go through phases of preferring one parent over the other. I have heard from many parents in this position, including my husband, that it feels really bad.

My older daughter was always equally happy if it was me or her dad giving her a bath or reading to her. My younger daughter took about three years to warm up to the idea of her dad participating. In the first year, she strongly preferred that I hold her. By two years old, she only wanted me to read to her and tuck her in. On nights when it was his turn, she complained and cried. While I know it hurt his feelings, he always seemed to take it in stride occasionally saying things like, “I’ll just keep loving her and eventually she’ll come around.” She did. By the time she was about three years old, he was among her best playmates.

In the moment, the first answer is to not react in a big way. If you over react and get upset or angry, the situation often escalates to a power struggle. Raise your voice and you may spark a tantrum. If you under react and give in to it being the preferred parent’s turn, you give your child’s push power. Your child is more likely to push for the other parent the next go around because it worked.

The second answer is to give your child empathy, validate their feelings and let them know you understand. My husband would say something like, “I know you’re sad, you love when mommy reads to you, she’s great at it.” This dampens their need to argue.

And third, move forward through the process. As you can, continue to read the story, tuck-in and give love. This means my husband would finish the bedtime routine through her upset. If I took over or if he gave up, it encourages the push to be bigger the next go around.

If bath or bedtime are particularly difficult, it may be helpful for the preferred parent to “be away” during that particular time for several days in a row, and the non-preferred parent should strive to make the time enjoyable. If it’s bath, bring extra toys, make it a bubble bath, give extra playtime. If it’s bedtime, read and snuggle a bit longer each night. When the preferred parent re-enters the schedule, continue to alternate nights often and work through the difficult times.

It may also be helpful for each parent to spend some fun alone time with each child in the house every month. This is being sure that individual pairs in the family get regular time to connect individually.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I’ve found another family mantra, bloom where you are planted. We’ve been discussing this one with our girls all week. We’ve touched on this over the years, but this week it hit home when we went on vacation with a few other families. This vacation included a day at a low-key amusement park, a dinner show, lots of shopping and late night time at the open-24-hours hotel pool. I get “low-key” and “amusement park” are incongruent, but it is a park with swings and wooden coasters as opposed to the crazy big coasters even my kids prefer. My kids made the best of it, they rode every ride that looked remotely fun. The other kids deemed the rides “for babies” and sat out most of them just watching. While in line for a roller coaster, they complained to their mom that she “wasted her money,” and that “this place is lame.”

The much anticipated day at the amusement park was also an unseasonably cold 45 degree day with light rain starting by lunchtime. Early in the morning my girls and I decided to make the best of it, enjoy what we could. The other families bailed by 2:00 p.m. The girls and I stayed, we rode rides in the rain til 7:00 p.m. My 15 year old commented, “Yeah, it’s raining, but we are here, and this is fun.” The dinner show unfolded in a similar fashion. My girls singing and participating with the adults, the other children rolling their eyes. My girls enjoyed the pool, just the two of them.

There are several ways to teach this attitude:

  • Model it – My husband’s example was about a day we spent with my high school friends at a community garden in Richmond. He says he couldn’t think of a more dull way to spend the day, but decided to make the most of it and went for nature walks and played tag with our girls.
  • Highlight it – When your children keep an upbeat attitude, let them know you noticed.
  • Focus on solutions not problems – When it started to drizzle, my daughter said, “If it rains harder, we could stop and see a show or have lunch.”
  • Live in the moment as it is, rather than focusing on what it isn’t – One of the other children commented, “my friend Beth went somewhere good for vacation.” She couldn’t be grateful for where she was when she focused on where she wasn’t.
  • Practice gratitude – The more children practice gratitude, the more they feel it. We were blessed to have time away together as a family, that alone is reason to be grateful.
  • Smile more – It’s easy and can help improve your mood and your outlook.

I hope my girls keep this attitude as they grow. I want them to fully enjoy and make the most of wherever they are.

For our other family mantras, please visit: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/mantras-in-our-family/.

Please share your family mantras here!

Corrections Shouldn’t Feel Like Corrections

The theme this week is working through problem solving with your children. Our third guideline is ‘corrections shouldn’t feel like corrections.’

This guideline is easier to follow with younger children. When a two-year-old says, “I need a ram-baid,” we don’t tend to correct in a heavy way such as, “no, you said that wrong! It is band-aid, not ram-baid.” Rather than feeling like a correction, you might say, “oh, you need a band-aid. let’s go get you a band-aid.” You might very clearly enunciate the correct word, but the words all together didn’t feel like a correction.

This guideline is harder to follow as children get older. When your fourth grader has gotten the last two math problems wrong, and is working through a third in the same incorrect way, it is common for parents to say, “no, you’re getting this one wrong too! Why aren’t you thinking?” When corrections feel like corrections, we tend to turn children off to the problem solving process. By all means, you may need to correct the math problems, just use lighter language. This might be something like, “I see your having some trouble working through, how can I help?” or, “hmmm, this seems tough. Why don’t you walk me through the last problem, and we’ll work together?” Yes, you are correcting, but it doesn’t feel like correction.

The idea here is to keep them engaged in the problem solving process.

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

Teaching Patience

In class, we encourage people to listen to others, to take turns speaking and to wait until a friend is finished, so they avoid interrupting. It can be helpful to coach children to listen to others and wait for a break in conversation to speak. When children are little, it may work more smoothly to give a visual or physical cue. A physical cue might be a talking stick. You can introduce this at dinner time. Take a popsicle stick or something similar and discuss how whoever has the stick is the speaker and others must be listeners. Practice passing the stick regularly and develop a cue they can give if they need the stick next. This takes practice, but it quiets the table and gives everyone time to speak and actually be heard.

I had a mom in class who taught her children that if she was on the phone or speaking with someone and they needed her, they should put a hand on one of her hands, she would then put her free hand on theirs to let them know she felt the touch. This exchange of hands was a signal to mom that the child wanted her attention, and a signal back to the child she would get to them as soon as possible. For this to work well, the first 10 or 15 times, the mom immediately following the hand exchange said, “excuse me, my child needs me,” turned to the child and said, “I felt your hand, how can I help you?” The child has learning to trust the system. After several immediate successes the idea is to gradually add a bit of time. Start with a 5 second delay before you turn and speak with the child, a few times later a smile and a 10 second delay before turning to the child. Gradually work your way up to a few minutes or more.

If waiting for you on the phone or computer is often problematic, you might give them other things to do such as a writing pad beside the phone to communicate that way or just activities they can quietly do to fill their wait time.

After each time they successfully wait, draw attention by saying something like, “wow, that was a while to wait. You were so patient!” You might also highlight when you or they are patient about waiting in life. Talk about how it was nice to have pleasant conversation waiting in the grocery line, or how they were able to wait for a turn on the slide at the playground.

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