Why is my toddler is pushing me away?


My partner and I have both been very involved in our son’s care ever since he was born.  Even though he was breast fed, I gave him a bottle and cuddled him and, as much as I could, got up with him during the night and let him know that I was always there for comfort.  I thought we had a great relationship, but in the last few months I feel as if  everything is changing.  He’s showing more and more of a preference for his (other) Mom, and will push me away or say “No!” if I try to do something for him—even if it’s something he wants, like a cup of juice.  I’m really feeling bad about this, but nothing we do seems to change the situation.  Help!

You didn’t say how old your child is, but I’d be willing to bet that he’s almost two years old.  As toddlers become more independent, parents notice that their child’s behavior with them begins to change in ways that are challenging.  There is no predictable pattern or timing for these changes—sometimes an eighteen-month-old begins to assert himself by saying ”No!” every five minutes, while other children seem easygoing and cooperative until they’re almost three and start to be oppositional for the first time.  The changes in behavior are a result of your child's trying to find out more about how to be independent from his parents, and much of his energy is devoted to figuring out how to "become himself".  Some of his behavior, of course, will be delightful.   You probably love seeing him imitate what you do: trying on your clothes, doing housework, or pretending to talk on the telephone. It's the negative assertion of independence that is difficult.

Children at this age often experiment with identifying with one parent and excluding the other from certain activities, such as bathtime, or reading stories.  It’s as if they want to be in a club with only two members, and the uninvited parent is told, “Go away, you can’t play.”  It’s common for children to do exactly what your son is doing:  showing a strong preference for one parent over the other as he sorts out who he wants to be, and who he wants to take care of him.  In families where one parent is at home more often or is the “primary parent”, that parent may win the popularity contest—but not always.  The preference  is sometimes based on the sex of the child or the parents, but I’ve seen many children, boys and girls, with parents of the same sex who go through exactly the same phase.  Even in families where a child has not been breast fed and both parents have been equally involved with feeding and comforting from birth, a toddler may cling to one parent and push the other away. 

It can be hard on both parents when this kind of parent preference occurs.  If your toddler is always wanting his (current) favorite to care for him and refusing the other parent’s involvement, the preferred parent may start to feel very overburdened.  At the same time, she may find it hard to resist her toddler calling for her to help him or comfort him, especially if the child gets upset when the other parent tries to help. It usually doesn't help if she tries to coach the other parent on what to do or not do--in fact, that kind of coaching can make life even more tense. It’s just as difficult when an “at-home” parent is the one being rejected—he or she may feel as though all the hard work of the day is unappreciated.  If it’s the “working outside the home” parent who is being shoved out, he or she may worry that it’s because she or he has been away all day.  What parent wouldn’t find this kind of rejection painful?  

Nevertheless, even though it’s natural and understandable to feel hurt when your child prefers his other parent, it's important to recognize this behavior is a just an unpleasant but normal phase in your child's development.  If you act upset or angry with your child for preferring his other parent, he’ll probably react by intensifying his preference.  If you let the issue of "who does what" become a power struggle in your family, everyone loses because your toddler is likely to become angry and resistant with both parents.

The best approach  is to accept that for now, when both parents are present, the "preferred parent" will be more active and the other parent will be helpful in any way that he or she can (maybe by doing more of the household chores).  Instead of trying to compete, the "preferred parent" should make an effort to frequently leave the child alone with the other parent on a regular basis, even if the child protests.  (I don’t mean alone in the room—I mean alone in the house!) In this way, the child and the parent who is being pushed away will have the opportunity to work out their own  relationship.  If possible, have that one-to-one time every day.  If that’s not practical, make sure that several times a week your toddler is on his own with each parent for several hours at a time. Parents who try this approach find that their toddlers adapt very quickly once the option of choosing between parents is removed.  Of course, once the "preferred parent" returns, don’t be surprised if your son acts as though he is being rescued from a desert island, even though he has been having a great time up until that moment!