Q: My almost 2-year-old son has recently started to insist that only Mommy can take him to the potty/get him ready for dinner/help him brush his teeth, and whenever his father tries to help, he explodes with tearful meltdowns. This is particularly distressing for my husband because he is a loving, very involved father. We tend to divide the housework and child care evenly without much deviation, but now that I’m nearly 8 months pregnant with our second, I’ve needed my husband to take over more of the heavy lifting tasks. I think I understand why my son is going through this period of clinginess, but I’m not sure how we should handle it. Any advice?
AI know there are parents reading this right now who have experienced this. And oh, it is so tiring.
It can be exhausting to be the preferred parent, as well as very frustrating to be the parent who is not being chosen. It can begin to feel personal and really sting.
But these preferences are 100 percent developmentally normal in young children, and that can bring you a little bit of comfort. So why do these preferences happen and what (if anything) can we do about it?
In developmental theory, there is this idea called the “polarity of attachment.” The basics are this: The younger the child or the more immature the mind, the fewer attachments the mind can hold at once.
This means when your son is feeling very connected to Mom, Dad comes in and there is simply isn’t a lot of room for him. The son is completely with Mom, both emotionally and physically. The idea of separating and being with Dad (or anyone else) feels threatening to him.
To the father, this can sound dire. “But wait, I am his father! Why doesn’t he love me? Why doesn’t he want me? I am trying! I am a good father!” And trust me when I tell you that this has nothing to do with love or how good a father you are. Because his little brain is sending him messages of alarm to stay with Mom, you are posing a threat, but not in the way you see a threat.
This is preference in its most elemental form.
This is tribalism. This is why, for instance, if there were 11 people in a crowd and they were all wearing different football jerseys, I would go stand next to the person wearing an Eagles jersey. Why? I grew up near Philly and I have familiarity with that.
This polarity of attachment explains (a little) why people fight wars, harbor racist notions and go ballistic for team sports.
We all seek to be with those whom we are like. The difference between grown men painting their bodies at sporting events and your son is that most people can leave the event and shake hands and laugh with their opponents. They are mature enough to see past these tribal lines to see the humanity of others as well as the arbitrary nature of these tribal boundaries.
Your son, though, does not have that capacity. He is too little. He cannot say to himself, “Yo, Joey, snap out of it. This is Dad. He loves you, you love him. Cut Mom a break. She’s tired.” Your son is simply too little.
Does this mean we allow Mom to burn out while Dad sits on the sidelines waiting to get into the game?
What is going to happen (and what is meant to happen) is that Dad is going to step in and take the boy, and he is going to cry. And cry. And cry. It is best if Mom can leave the house for a tea or a much-needed break while Dad handles this, but the result will be that your son will adapt to Dad handling the parenting duties.
The key with Dad stepping in, and this is the most important thing I am going to write here: Dad, you cannot take his preference for Mom personally.
So, as he is crying and wrenching away from you, stay soothing and distracting. Keep saying, “Mom is coming back . . . . I know it is hard. She loves you, and she is coming back.” And then you are going to have some trucks ready or some coloring or his favorite book or even cuddling in front of “Sesame Street” with some milk.
As your son eventually stops crying and his brain says, “Hey, this Dad guy is okay, too!” all of the processes will get easier. Not easy, but easier.
And the best part of all of this? Mom, the new baby and the boy will ALL NEED DAD very, very soon. Desperately.
So, go ahead, Dad. Get confident. Don’t take any of this personally.
Go slow, keep smiling and know that you are helping the adaptive and maturation processes along. Your son will need lots of love when his little brother or sister comes along, so get in the habit of stepping up and stepping in now. Good luck.
8 Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Dec. 15.