Dear David Coleman: My son rejects his mum and it's driving us apart
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. Our son is 18 months old and over the past few weeks he has become needy for everyone except my wife, and cries almost every time I leave or hand him off to her. It is devastating for her. She is a stay-at-home mammy that does everything for him and shows love and affection all of the time. Yet, he kicks her to the curb each time anyone else comes into the room. She is so down about it, saying that she is a bad mother and that we don't need her. I have to tread on eggshells, as I'm scared to have fun with our son in case it upsets her and it's driving us apart.
David replies: It can feel like a real, emotional, kick in the teeth when a child appears to reject you. No wonder your wife is distraught at the way the your son is showing a preference to be with you. She has been investing hugely in being available to him and, as you say, doing everything for him, and so it must be hard to be pushed away in the evenings.
This phase of a child favouring one parent over another is very common. There are several reasons why it might happen.
For some children, the move into "individuation", in other words their first steps to realising that they are a separate entity to their primary carer (your wife in this instance), can often be to assert their new-found independence by making choices.
In your family situation, it may be just that your son, experimenting with being separate from his mum, turns to you when you are available to him. He can afford to do this, because in his experience, his mum is still probably an internalised part of him, such that he has no fear of losing her.
You may just be more fascinating for him, right now, as he is so used to being not just with, but psychologically part of, his mother.
Also, many toddlers will only be able to focus on one thing at a time.
They experience the world sequentially, that is to say they engage fully with something, or someone, and then move, lock stock and barrel, to the next thing or next person, without a backward glance.
So, in your situation, your son may not be able to focus on you both simultaneously, and so when he is with his mum he focuses on her, and when you are there he switches his attention entirely to you.
I wonder how your son is with his mum when it is just the two of them? Is he loving, affectionate and engaged with her, reciprocating the love and affection she shows him?
If he is, then that it the true representation of the quality of their relationship.
It is really hard, though, for your wife not to have feelings of hurt that she is dumped in favour of you. Your feelings of guilt that you are the favoured one, just right now, are equally normal.
The key, however, for you both is not to panic. Like I mentioned at the outset, this is just a phase. It certainly is not worth letting it drive a wedge between you, as neither of you are doing anything wrong.
There are a few things you can do, to lessen the apparent segregation. Do ensure that in the evenings, when you are there together, that you continue to share the parenting roles. So, even if he demands only you, create opportunities for your wife to continue to provide some of the care he needs.
Indeed, even doing things together, as a whole family, not allowing him to insist she is not part of things, shows your son that you feel his mum is an integral part of his life, even when other people are around. So, she might still do some nappy changes, or bedtimes, or story times, or join in the play with you and him.
Most importantly, though, your wife needs to try to regulate her feelings of hurt and rejection enough that she doesn't show it in her interactions with him. Some counselling may even help her to put all this in context.
If she appears dejected, or disappointed, or resentful, it might provoke some anxiety in your son as he may feel his relationship with her is damaged in some way.
Hard though it may feel, she needs to find the confidence that this stage will pass and to know that her relationship with him is always as strong as it appears during the day when it is just the two of them.
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