Why does toddler push mom's live-in boyfriend away?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 22, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

My question is related to my almost 3 year old daughter. Her father and I have been split up since she was a little over a year old, and she does not see him anymore (but she still knows who he is and sees his family every week).

My current boyfriend and I have been together for over a year, but she has known him her whole life. Things were rough at first between them, she would cry whenever he would be around or show any affection toward me. I thought it was just jealousy and that she would eventually understand that she was number 1 and that I wasn't going anywhere. It did stop for a little while, until we moved in together. Now things are much worse. She cries at almost everything he tries to do with her (playing, feeding, dressing, etc.)

I don't know what to do at this point. I have tried everything. I will sit with her and try to explain he is just trying to play with her or whatever it may be, But she will just cry and look to me or run in her room, and she can literally sit in her room and cry for 10-15 minutes; but it's not even a real cry, it's like shes faking to get my attention. It is putting alot of stress and fighting in the relationship, and I am running out of options! I need advice on what to do when she cries, how do I get her to stop and how do I get her to realize he is just trying to be nice to her? And what could my boyfriend be doing differently? He is a very nice man and has always been there for her in the nicest way.

I hope you have some advice for me! Thank you

From: Nicole, Portland (state not given)


Hi Nicole,

I have to raise the possibility that something has happened to make her frightened of your boyfriend. Could he have spanked her in your absence, or used a tone of voice that threatened her....? Maybe he's frightened her in some way that he totally didn't realize. This is a tough but important conversation to have with him. I'd also consider the possibility that there is there something about him that could be off-putting? Kids this age can be reactive to smell, texture etc. Too much after-shave? Bad breath? Rough beard?

I also notice that you say your "current" boyfriend. Have there been other men in her life? It's possible that this man is a good guy but someone before him frightened her and she's now frightened of him. I'm also wondering about this because you say it was "rough" in the beginning, that she cried in his presence or when he showed affection to you. Was there violence between you and her father? Between you and another man that has made her afraid of men in general? It's hard to imagine a child that young being jealous in the way an older child would be, which is what makes me wonder about what she's seen in terms of the "affection" you describe. Has something upset her from a young age?

And here's another possibility. While I applaud you for making sure that her father's family is part of her life, I wonder if someone in that family has said something that has poisoned her/frightened her toward your boyfriend. If you think that's a possibility, I would enlist their aid in the most sympathetic way possible, by asking for their help in accepting him.

Developmentally, this is a young age for her to put any of this together and it's likely there's a combination of factors at work including fear that you will leave her. So here's what I'd do for a while:

Keep his involvement with her to a minimum, including playing and care-giving. It's less, not more, involvement over time that will make her feel more comfortable with him.

Don't be angry with her, don't punish her, if she doesn't want him and don't push him on her in any way.

Make a point to spend time alone with her every day, including "mom and me" time, where it's just the two of you doing something she likes, like cuddling, reading to her, etc.
Don't feel like everything you do needs to include him.

Institute as much routine and consistency as possible in her life.

She's too young to understand much, if anything, of your explanations. Actions are what's important. Her sense of security has been interrupted and it may take time for it to be restored. If your boyfriend feels hurt by this and this is the source of fighting between you, that's would be a red flag for me in terms of your relationship.

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5 comments so far...
  1. Fighting? Your boyfriend gets upset with you because a toddler is not receptive to him? Vice-versa? Hopefully neither of you are getting upset with HER?!?

    Children have minds of their own. Toddlers are old enough to have opinions and emotions, but too young to talk about them rationally. Listen to her wishes, try to understand and accommodate her needs. Eventually she'll be old enough that you can talk through these things -- but a few years after that she'll be a teen and probably won't want to listen anyways.

    Just try to understand how you would feel if your mother pushed you together with a "nice man" and wouldn't understand why you weren't receptive to the idea? She is probably feeling a bit like that right now.

    Posted by TF March 22, 12 01:44 PM
  1. your "current boyfriend"? How many BF's have you brought home to her? It has only been a year since you've been with him? Seems that to some people, their love lives are more important then their kids. It seems to be the new "norm". Sorry that I am being judge-y.Your daughter probably thinks that he's an Ahole and she is probably right! How many stories do we read about how mommy's BF is abusing her kids in some way or another????? 3 year olds are smarter than adults give them credit for.

    Posted by d March 22, 12 02:52 PM
  1. Why is the first consideration raised that the guy is a secret child abuser, or at least mean? Of course that is a possibility, but does it need to be the first thing on people's minds all the time?

    Posted by di March 22, 12 03:15 PM
  1. Boy, we're really putting an emphasis on one word, here. She said current, yes, but maybe that's because she dated men before that never met her daughter and had no impact on her. The truth is-we don't know so let's stop projecting the worse case scenario on this woman. I am the product of a home were my Mother's boyfriend moved in a couple years after my father and she divorced. I was very young and very skeptical of him. Skip ahead 22 years and he's the man I danced with at my wedding during the father daughter dance. Barbara's advice is spot on. Let her adjust to him on her own terms. No child likes to feel forced into a relationship. Eventually, she'll grow used to him and realize the benefits of having him around-making her laugh, fixing her a snack, being great for a hug. It should be on her terms, not yours.

    Posted by Linney March 22, 12 10:28 PM
  1. She's only 3 and I really don't understand why she would think of him as anything other than a father figure. She's not comprehending that he's not her father. While I think everyone's mind obviously jumps to some sort of abuse she may have faced at his hand or in the past, its very possible this is simply her "I prefer mommy stage" and the letter writer is just sensitive to it because he is not her father. He might be doing this if he were her birth father as well. My kids both went through phases were they preferred my husband to me and vice versa and would cry if the other did something. I think you do have to be careful not to read too much into the actions of 3 year olds. You don't want to miss something serious, but you also have to remember they aren't little adults and aren't capable of abstract thought and reasoning.

    Part of me agrees with Barbara about letting him do less with her now. You are not married and you do not say if this relationship is expected to become permanent. However, if this is the man you end up marrying, he is going to pretty much become her father (or at least father figure) and will help you in raising her, so it is important for them to have a relationship.


    Posted by ash March 23, 12 08:54 AM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. Fighting? Your boyfriend gets upset with you because a toddler is not receptive to him? Vice-versa? Hopefully neither of you are getting upset with HER?!?

    Children have minds of their own. Toddlers are old enough to have opinions and emotions, but too young to talk about them rationally. Listen to her wishes, try to understand and accommodate her needs. Eventually she'll be old enough that you can talk through these things -- but a few years after that she'll be a teen and probably won't want to listen anyways.

    Just try to understand how you would feel if your mother pushed you together with a "nice man" and wouldn't understand why you weren't receptive to the idea? She is probably feeling a bit like that right now.

    Posted by TF March 22, 12 01:44 PM
  1. your "current boyfriend"? How many BF's have you brought home to her? It has only been a year since you've been with him? Seems that to some people, their love lives are more important then their kids. It seems to be the new "norm". Sorry that I am being judge-y.Your daughter probably thinks that he's an Ahole and she is probably right! How many stories do we read about how mommy's BF is abusing her kids in some way or another????? 3 year olds are smarter than adults give them credit for.

    Posted by d March 22, 12 02:52 PM
  1. Why is the first consideration raised that the guy is a secret child abuser, or at least mean? Of course that is a possibility, but does it need to be the first thing on people's minds all the time?

    Posted by di March 22, 12 03:15 PM
  1. Boy, we're really putting an emphasis on one word, here. She said current, yes, but maybe that's because she dated men before that never met her daughter and had no impact on her. The truth is-we don't know so let's stop projecting the worse case scenario on this woman. I am the product of a home were my Mother's boyfriend moved in a couple years after my father and she divorced. I was very young and very skeptical of him. Skip ahead 22 years and he's the man I danced with at my wedding during the father daughter dance. Barbara's advice is spot on. Let her adjust to him on her own terms. No child likes to feel forced into a relationship. Eventually, she'll grow used to him and realize the benefits of having him around-making her laugh, fixing her a snack, being great for a hug. It should be on her terms, not yours.

    Posted by Linney March 22, 12 10:28 PM
  1. She's only 3 and I really don't understand why she would think of him as anything other than a father figure. She's not comprehending that he's not her father. While I think everyone's mind obviously jumps to some sort of abuse she may have faced at his hand or in the past, its very possible this is simply her "I prefer mommy stage" and the letter writer is just sensitive to it because he is not her father. He might be doing this if he were her birth father as well. My kids both went through phases were they preferred my husband to me and vice versa and would cry if the other did something. I think you do have to be careful not to read too much into the actions of 3 year olds. You don't want to miss something serious, but you also have to remember they aren't little adults and aren't capable of abstract thought and reasoning.

    Part of me agrees with Barbara about letting him do less with her now. You are not married and you do not say if this relationship is expected to become permanent. However, if this is the man you end up marrying, he is going to pretty much become her father (or at least father figure) and will help you in raising her, so it is important for them to have a relationship.


    Posted by ash March 23, 12 08:54 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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