Sunday 22 July 2018

Dear David Coleman: My son seems to reject me when I collect him

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I have an 18-month-old baby boy, whom I adore. I am thrilled with him, and it is great to watch him grow. When I was going back to work, I asked my older cousin to care for my son. Long story short, they are both mad about each other, to the point that he doesn't want to come home with me in the evenings. I do everything with him in the evenings and at weekends. Our relationship is good. I am just finding it a bit hurtful that he does not want to come home with me. Have I got something wrong?

David Coleman replies: It doesn't sound to me like you have got anything wrong. Far from it. You have recognised that you need to work outside the home and so you have managed to find him a warm and loving carer.

In fact, from what you describe, the bond between his carer and himself is so good that he finds the transition hard when he has to say goodbye to her. It may be that he experiences the equivalent to separation anxiety in reverse.

He feels so secure with and connected to his carer that he gets a little wobble when he has to leave her. As I see it, this is not so much a rejection of you as an indication of the positivity of his relationship with your cousin.

What we know from all of the literature on attachment is that children feel securely attached when they get consistent, loving and reliable care, typically from one main carer. In the months after your son's birth, you were that carer.

You have already sown the seeds for the security of his attachment through his early experience with you. If he is able to relate to your cousin with such success, then it will be because he already had the sense of security from his relationship with you that he was instinctively able to trust her.

You must have provided that stability, consistency, responsiveness and warmth for him to develop his sense of trust in other adults. You can be rightly proud of what you have achieved when you see how easily he settled with a new carer.

Naturally, from what you describe, your cousin has responded to his trust in her by being trustworthy, warm, consistent and loving. This just strengthens his overall security of attachment as he has this experience of another loving and reliable carer.

I can imagine that he is a very settled toddler once he has returned to your care in the evenings and at the weekends? Does his distress or protest at leaving your cousin extend beyond a short while each day?

If it does, then there may be more of an issue. But if he settles quickly with you - allowing himself to be soothed by you and then being his usual good-natured self for the rest of the evening and through the weekend - then you have nothing to worry about.

It may be hard for you not to experience his reluctance to leave your cousin's house as a rejection, but I do think you are misreading his signals. He isn't complaining that it is you who will be minding him; he is just complaining that something lovely and nice is coming to an end.

The key to helping him through this transition every day is to be prepared. You can expect that he will be grumpy at leaving. You can expect that he might protest.

If you can respond to his protest with empathy and acknowledge that it is hard for him to say goodbye to your cousin, then I think this will go a long way to easing things for him.

So, even if you do feel hurt by his protest that you are collecting him, you need to regulate your own feelings such that you can think about things from his perspective.

You know he loves you and you know that you have established all the right conditions for him to feel securely attached. You have done as good a job as any mother could in your situation.

So, be proud of what you have achieved, and that might free you up to be warm and understanding with him that it is hard to say goodbye to his carer.

The love of a child is not a competitive thing. It doesn't matter who they love 'most' or who they want to spend 'most' time with, as long as the people they are with are warm, loving, firm and consistent. I think you have delivered that for your son.

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