Q: (Summarized). My three-year-old son is rejecting his father and their relationship is faltering. What do I do?
A: I’m so sorry you and your family are going through this. First of all, know that preference for one parent and rejection of the other is a common phase for young children. The trick is getting through the phase without turning it into something more permanent. The more attention drawn to the rejection, the more solidified it becomes, and the more your son is reprimanded for it, the more resentment towards your husband builds. If 3-year-old Johny hits Mike and gets in trouble for it, Johny thinks it’s all Mike’s fault, as 3-year-olds lack the experience and brain development to reason like adults. So if your son gets in trouble for his treatment of his father, he likely sees his father as the cause of the unpleasantness.
Here are some ideas to help get things back on track:
–Control the way you and your husband respond to the rejection so your son stops associating your husband’s presence with negativity, confusion, guilt, etc.
–Remain neutral and calm. Try modeling, redirecting, and ignoring. For example, when your husband walks into a room, model an appropriate greeting yourself, “Hi, sweetheart! Welcome home!” When your son gives an inappropriate greeting, say, “Daddy likes to be greeted like this, ‘Hi Daddy! Welcome home!’ ” Or, “Daddy likes to be greeted with a hug or a high five.” If he doesn’t choose one of the options, just move on, continuing to model and redirect at each opportunity with a carefree attitude.
–When greeting your husband and asking about his day, keep connected to your son so he doesn’t see his father as the reason for loss of attention from you.
–Schedule daily father/son special time (e.g., 15 minutes before bed) around something your son loves (e.g., wrestling, kicking a soccer ball, playing transformers).
–Leave your son with his father on a regular basis while you go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee. During that time, have your husband meet your son’s needs for food, comfort, attention, etc. When you leave, say good-bye with as little fanfare as possible, leaving your husband to start their alone time with a highly preferred and distracting activity. The more calm and collected you are when leaving him even if he’s very upset, the more he’ll think you really do believe he can handle it and the more he’ll believe it himself.
The most important thing you can do is curb the emotions involved to allow things to return to normal, though it’s easier said than done, particularly since it takes time. Best of luck and please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with more questions.