20 month old "rejects"
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. Dad is clueless
and understandably confused.
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 up 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 been properly taken care
of has every reason to think that 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 on to it. Under the circumstances, the child
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 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 Ringo Starr
(borrowed, actually, from 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.