Amanda inquires about a discord between her husband and her nearly three-year-old daughter: “I am writing to ask for your guidance on an issue that we have been experiencing in our family for the last year and a half: an extremely attached-to-Mama Sophie who is often so cold to her Papa that he feels very sad and rejected.
Last night Kevin came home from being away a few days for work, and Sophie wanted nothing to do with him. She just wanted him to go away and was screaming for him to leave. Kevin was very sad, saying that he has a daughter who is not attached to him. I wish I could say this was an isolated incidence, but it is not. It is the norm. We instituted ‘Papa-Sophie’ Saturday mornings 6 months ago, so that they could bond one-on-one. If I am present, it is extremely difficult for Kevin to spend more than a minute or two with Sophie, because she very much demands me physically and emotionally. The Saturday mornings seemed to help a little in the father-daughter relationship, but for the past few months, she screams and cries when he goes to her in the morning and she tells him to put her in her bed and leave. Sometimes she’ll just fall back asleep for an hour.
Bruce, this is so painful to watch…Sophie not wanting to be with Kevin, and Kevin feeling unloved and unliked by Sophie. Sophie and I talk about Papa often and lovingly very regularly when he is at work or away traveling (which is quite frequent…and when he is home, his workday ends after 7 or 8pm at night. He often works on the weekends, too. This behavior towards Kevin started when Kevin was away for us for an entire month while we were in the process of moving).
I thought this current state of emotion would improve between Sophie and Kevin, but it has not, and I am beginning to see Kevin withdraw a little from Sophie. It is so difficult to really talk about this with Kevin because he tells me, ‘you’re going to say it’s my fault.’ On top of that, Kevin is extremely stressed out with his work, which is incredibly demanding, taking almost all of his waking time and sapping all of his energy, as he can’t stay asleep due to the anxiety that awakens him. He has nothing left to give… he is just managing to ‘get through this’ until he can find another job.
What can I do, what can we do as a family to heal the divide that, for now, exists between Sophie and Kevin? How can we nourish the attachment between Sophie and Kevin that seems so weak that it does not exist?”
While I am not inclined toward being the “expert” with a ready fix, I welcome this question, and particularly the raw authentic emotion of a mother who wants the abundance of her love to nourish and bond both her daughter, her husband and their relationship.
I like to try to understand this sort of situation from multiple angles and hope that a more accurate and empathic understanding will organically give rise to improved connections. Thus we look at Sophie first: at around two years old it’s not uncommon for kids to be rather bossy, ordering around grown-ups and petulantly pitching fits when he or she don’t get his or her way. Keep in mind that while “terrible twos” trips nicely off the tongue, three is often the time of even more highly pitched tantrums—an exhausting stretch for parents to be sure. When it comes to tantrums, by the way, it’s often best to let them have it out (so long as she’s not hurting herself, i.e. with head-banging); our task is to serve as the bowl to contain their overflowing feelings.
Children at this age also tend to have some issues with choices, wanting things both ways and yet not having the maturity to allow the loss of whatever they cannot have (i.e. she really does want to keep her cake and be able to eat it too). In this case Sophie probably does want daddy, but she also wants mommy (and keeps powerfully attaching to her in dad’s absence), and once she gets frustrated it all turns to poop and we’re in the red zone of unreasonable petulance (think the out-of-control queen in Alice in Wonderland shouting “off with her head”).
Keep in mind that transitions are hard—waking from the nap, school to home, dad re-entering the family. Unfortunately in this case, the reunion moment where Kevin is ready for a big hug marks a disruption in the Mommy-Sophie alone time, thus provoking a hissy-fit rather than a Hallmark moment.
Also, the context of this problem seems to mark the confluence of separation individuation (going back to around 18 months, when kids start venturing back and forth from mom or dad’s knee at the park, needing the secure base of a non-clinging, non-anxious, and non-rejecting upon return parent) with a father who must travel frequently (thus creating some issues of confusion about feeling abandoned, and then retaliating with rejection at the point of reunion) further confounded by a move, which can be unsettling to a child who likes consistency to help them feel secure. After all, if houses can change, parents can come and go rather suddenly, the idea that the child could suddenly experience a loss that does not reverse itself (i.e. the move) may have provoked anxiety about other potential losses.
Power struggles may also be at play here, with a child working the oldest strategy in the kid handbook: divide and conquer. By rejecting dad and siding with mom, Sophie tries to nominate herself into co-parent power role. Perhaps she gets to sleep in the big bed, gets more special mommy time, and generally gets her way when daddy is away… and thus it makes sense she would perceive his return as a loss of attention, power and centrality.
Finally, kids unconsciously give away their unwanted feelings. Thus what we parents feel can often be a good indicator of what they feel: in this case, rejected, disempowered, unwanted, hurt, angry, confused, sad.
In trying to understand this situation more fully, we must also try to wriggle into Kevin’s shoes. Dads can often feel a little extraneous to newborns, not to mention left out in the cold as the mom and baby have a love-fest of bonding. Compounded by economic pressures, many dads feel like they must do more in return for less. When the child finally starts to attach with them, and then pulls away, it is doubly hurtful—as if designed to break these father’s hearts.
For dads it can be useful to contemplate where they were at when they were the age their child is now. Did father leave the family, have an affair or fall off the wagon, etc. at this point? We can be triggered to unconscious wounds and then be re-experiencing traumas as if we were young children again, taking hard enough feelings and making them rather overwhelming. In addition, if themes of rejection or abandonment are relevant to any given father, it can be helpful to realize this and avoid projecting the abandoning mother, or old lover onto either wife or child.
Then there is Amanda’s psyche. Can there be unconscious feelings of anger for the travel? Is mom ready for a break when dad returns, and this makes the sensitive child feel that they are about to be handed off and thus cling with all their might to the mother? Could the mom feel competitive with the daughter and fear that she will end up bearing the brunt of her daughter’s rejection if the tables turn?
By being conscious, and not ashamed of our Shadow selves—our darker, possessive and competitive natures—we are freer from being possessed by them and thus unconsciously acting them out.
While these thoughts cannot possibly capture the nuance of even this, much less any other given situation, the spirit of these ideas is toward thinking expansively, compassionately and non-defensively.
As for strategies to consider for helping this situation heal:
VERBALIZE THAT TRANSITION IS HARD, as this helps frame the issue as a transitory feeling state and reminds us that it will pass. We might say to Sophie, “It’s hard when daddy goes, and it’s hard when he comes back. Transition is hard.”
Activities to help ease transition might include calendars with days being crossed off until dad returns (which makes this also a teachable moment in that it conveys the relevance of a calendar); making cards for dad when he’s away; daily check-in phone calls. Sometimes the underlying anxiety for a kid like Sophie is that mom will also go away, so the message that Sophie will always be taken care of can answer the unconscious dread and sometimes help diminish the fear that drives the negative acting out.
Given that the moment of reunion is often fraught, consider shaking things up—go meet dad at the airport one time; meet dad at the ice-cream shop; decorate with a welcome home banner, etc. Kids sometimes do well when you frame a choice for them: do you want to greet dad in your green dress or your blue dress slyly give Sophie control over something, while making the accepting back of father a non-negotiable aspect.
Kids like structure: “Dad will come in, we will tell him about your day and the latest projects you’ve been doing, then mom and dad will read you a story and in the morning, we’ll have breakfast together” can be a calming sort of mapping of what is going to happen.
SUPPORT DAD—give the love to dad that Sophie cannot, and leave her have space to be rejecting. Beware reinforcing negative behavior (i.e. lots of begging, mea culpa guilt, withdrawal and self-pitying despair in the parent in response to her petulant rejections sends a message of weakness that gives too much power to the child, and thus makes her anxious. Dad’s best play is to stay on message: “I see you are mad at me, don’t want me right now, hate me, etc. but I love you just the same.” In order to be able to do this, dad needs to really feel the love from mom.
A dad (or mom) who stays with love and centeredness in the face of rejection will be rewarded with a deeper bond and the knowledge that the child has been offered an image of enduring love that they can, in turn, internalize and carry with them throughout their life.
MENTALLY ARCHITECT A POSITIVE OUTCOME: Envision Sophie being four or five and drawing peacefully as dad comes in from a trip and she calmly greets him (rather than perhaps dad’s fantasy of her running across the room and leaping on him for a big hug). Picture the family having a group hug and a harmonious transition to peaceful, engaged and lovingly respectful dinner together. Visualize Mom and Dad reading a story together with Sophie happily between them. They tuck her in and then Amanda and Kevin truly catch up and listen to each other as Sophie sleeps peacefully in her bed.
Hold this (or your hand-crafted future image) in your mind. When Sophie escalates, and you start to feel anxious, breathe deeply and ask, “What action and/or thinking leads to that lovely future moment?” You’d be surprised how well consciously architecting a more harmonious vision can help organize our cells into just knowing how to get there.
So, today let’s send love to all parents who are feeling frozenly rejected, hurt, angry and even tempted to throw in the towel on it all—banding together in spirit to support these moms and dads in the service of hanging in and finding the love to conquer the transitory hate and fear that resides somewhere in each of us, and in all our collective children.
p.s. As I was crafting this post I received a follow up email from Amanda. I think it underscores the point that consciousness leads to change in mysterious ways. It read: “Kevin actually took a real day off work today…I was very much surprised…and elated! And guess what? He agreed to go with Sophie to a little class that I usually take her to… a 2-hour ‘parent-tot’ preschool. They had a good time together. Sophie cried for just a few minutes when I dropped them off, but then she was fine. Also, it was SO great for Kevin, because he was with 12 other little ones, all within 6 months of Sophie’s age, and he had a very positive experience, especially with one little boy, Keaton, who wanted to hold his hand and be near him most of the time (some parents don’t attend). I think this gave Kevin an understanding that he is absolutely okay as a parent, that children Sophie’s age naturally gravitate towards him and like him and are comforted by him.
Hmmm… this out-of-the ordinary desire for Kevin to want to take a real day off with the intention of spending time with Sophie within hours after I write to you about asking for direction. Coincidence? Something tells me no…”