Four-year-old Michael lets his dad, Ken, know when he's not wanted at bedtime: "Go away," he says, hitting Ken in the nose.
Bedtime isn't the only time Ken's been the object of his son's rejection. Before bath: "I want Mom to give me a bath"; at daycare: "You're not supposed to pick me up!"; when he's distressed: "I don't want to talk to you."
Why would a child seemingly reject a loving, caring parent? There are a couple of possibilities. Preschoolers are emotionally unpredictable and have difficulty dividing their attention. Have you ever watched three 4-year-olds at play? One minute Sara and David are "best friends," refusing to share their toys with Michelle. The next, Sara and Michelle play happily in the sandbox while David sits alone.
In much the same way, as your preschooler attaches to and forms bonds with one parent, he may simultaneously boycott the other. Tomorrow, his choice may be reversed.
Keep in mind also that behavior that's interpreted as rejection is often simply a child's attempt to promote her individuality and independence.
If your child is keeping you at arm's length, it's up to you?not her?to bridge the gap.
Jump into the fray. Your child may seem to prefer your spouse over you, but that doesn't mean you have to defer to his wishes every time. Assume full responsibility for one or two daily parenting routines, like reading stories or supervising bedtime rituals. When your child fusses, be matter-of-fact: "Tonight it's Daddy's turn to put you to bed. Mommy's in the other room right now." Be sure your spouse backs you up!
Encourage your spouse to get out of the house a few times a week, leaving you in charge. Also, schedule regular one-on-one time with your child and adhere to it. The more you insist on interacting with your child, the quicker she will come to accept you as a welcome part of her life.
Be sensitive. It's possible that a child's "rejection" is not really rejection at all, but a reaction to other emotional struggles or fears in his life. Try to evaluate what's causing your child's apparent rejection. Is there a change he's having a hard time coping with? An unfamiliar schedule, a new baby in the family, a different preschool?each of these can be a factor in your child's attachment to one parent over the other.
"Preschoolers don't have the cognitive ability to communicate with their parents about what's troubling them," says clinical psychologist Lauralyn Hundley. She advises parents to pay attention to what the child is trying to say with her apparent rejection before dismissing it as strictly a behavioral issue.
Set behavioral boundaries. Though your child's feelings are valid, it's important that he understand there are limits to what's acceptable and what isn't. Offer alternatives to behavior you want to stop (hitting or saying "I hate you.") You might say something like, "I know you were feeling angry when you hit Daddy on the nose. But instead of hitting, I'd like you to count to ten, and then we'll talk about what's bothering you."
Above all, don't reject your child, even if you're feeling hurt. She needs your unconditional love and acceptance even when she's grappling with conflicted emotions. When Michael turns his back on Ken at bedtime, Ken doesn't turn his back on Michael. "I'm your dad," he says. "I love you and I'm not going away."
That's the type of dependable presence every child needs?from both parents.
Writer, teacher, mother of three
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1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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