“What have I done to cause my 18-month-old son to reject me?” asks a new dad. Whenever he tries to hold his son, feed, dress, or change him, the child puts up great resistance and screams hysterically for his mother.
Actually, Dad is describing behavior that is not at all unusual for this age child. It has its roots in the fact that with rare exception, the parent who has been at the child’s beck-and-call until now has been the mother. During infancy and early toddlerhood, even the most well-intentioned father is considerably less involved with his child than is his wife.
A nurse friend of mine tells me that people who are hospitalized for relatively long periods of time do not like it when a new nurse takes over their care. Some even put up resistance when the new nurse attempts to do something for them and demand to know why the previous nurse is no longer available.
Likewise, this child has become accustomed to his mother’s care. She is a known quantity in his life; his father is not. Under the circumstances, when his father attempts to do something for him, it upsets his sense of security.
When confronted with a new caregiver, a hospital patient may become demanding, perhaps even sullen. Under the same circumstances, a toddler falls apart. Toddlers are not known for restraint, after all.
Add to this the fact that a toddler who has been properly cared for has every reason to think he controls his mother. It has not escaped his notice that every time he makes a loud noise, she appears within seconds and seems to want nothing more than to please him.
Under the circumstances, the child in question might feel that Dad’s attempts to become involved mean he is losing control over his mother. Anyone who thinks that toddlers are not capable of such sophisticated thinking should keep in mind that young children think things they cannot articulate, and their thoughts are highly intelligent. In fact, the first three years of life are the years of optimal learning.
I know of no instant cure for this problem. I only know that it is unwise to lead a child of any age to believe that he can control his parents.
The right course is for both parents to, in the words of the late Buck Owens, “act naturally.” If Mom is better positioned to do something for the child, Mom should do it. If Dad is better positioned, then Dad should do it, and he should do it with loving, good-humored determination.
If Dad starts something, he should finish it, no matter how hysterical the child becomes. This does not qualify as “trauma.” It is a bump in the road, but to a toddler, all bumps are apocalyptic.
[Family psychologist John Rosemond: parentguru.com, johnrosemond.com. Copyright 2023, John K. Rosemond]