- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

This week’s question: A dad in Florida asks what he might have done to cause his 20-month-old to “reject” him. Whenever he attempts to do something for his son, the child puts up great physical resistance and screams hysterically for his mother. The dad is clueless and understandably confused.

Actually, the father is describing behavior that is not unusual for a child this age. It has its roots in the fact that, with rare exception, the parent who has been at the child’s beck and call until this time 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 a 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 a bit 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 received proper care 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 at his side within seconds, that she serves him hand and foot.

Control is intoxicating, addicting. A person who has gained control over another person is inclined to hold onto it. Under the circumstances, the child might feel that his father’s attempts to become involved mean he is losing control over his mother. Anyone who believes toddlers are not capable of such sophisticated thinking should keep in mind that young children think things they cannot articulate, and their thoughts are 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 it is unwise to lead a child of any age to believe he can control his parents. The right course is for both parents, in the words of Ringo Starr (borrowed, actually, from the late Buck Owens) to “act naturally.” If mom is better positioned to do something for the child, mom should do it. If dad is better positioned, 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 answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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