Daughter is rejecting mom

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 18, 2012 06:00 AM

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Our daughter is 20 months old. My husband was getting his masters degree so he has been with our daughter from the beginning. Now he is teaching, I am working full time and she has been put in daycare. She is good at day care and one on one with her grandparents. The minute I, mommy, walk through the door, she whines, cries, screams continually. She is the baby that people turn around and look at in stores!! She throws a fit and will not stop. We do not know what to do. This is our first child and we are older parents.

From: Bonnie, Shrub Oak, NY


Dear Bonnie,

This is a phase. It will pass. That doesn't mean it will be easy.

The most likely explanation for why she's fine while you're gone and then angry when you return, is that it only dawns on her that you "abandoned" her once you are back on the scene. Many kids have this kind of reaction, to more or lesser degrees -- each child is wired individually, after all -- and you need not worry that this will affect her development. Kids also go through stages where they prefer one parent over the other.

Obviously, this must be painful for you. How you react is what's important, however, because the risk is if her behavior pushes you to distance yourself from her. Consider two scenarios:

In the first, you get more and more fed up with your daughter -- How could she do this to me? -- and you withdraw from the relationship.

In the second, you feel inadequate -- Why am I such an awful mother? What am I doing wrong? -- and you become overwhelmed by guilt and withdraw from the relationship.

In both cases, there are serious risks: that your feelings get in the way of your relationship and create an ever-escalating, negative dynamic that feeds on itself -- she thinks you're angry with her, you think she's angry with you. The other is that you get depressed and become unavailable as a mother.

Here are some suggestions:

Try to be as patient and supportive as possible. Don't give in when she pushes you away, but don't force yourself on her, either. Just be there and be loving.

Don't take it personally.

Minimize the places that are uncomfortable for you to be when she reacts in this way. It's an awful feeling to imagine that people that people are looking at you and wondering what you've done. And btw, maybe they are looking at you, maybe they aren't. Don't be too hard on yourself. It's natural to imagine they are in this kind of dynamic.

Create and nurture the good moments between you. The bedtime story, bath time, playing on the floor together.

Here's the caveat: If you truly feel that there are never any good moments between you, you may already be in a downward spiral and need professional help.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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2 comments so far...
  1. Dear Bonnie:

    Just a comment on your concern that everyone is watching her hysterics and judging you harshly. Half the people (mostly those who have never had children!) might be, but the other half are thinking "been there!!"

    Also, it's not uncommon for children to "lose it" at pickup time from daycare, even without the abandonment issues. They've been on their best behavior all day long, and that's a lot of pressure for a little kid. Once mommy or daddy arrives to pick them up, that's their safe zone, and they can act out and release that tension. It's just like grownups being at work all day and not telling off their boss and coworkers and then getting home and venting to their spouses. So there's probably a lot going on with her at that time of day. Think of yourself as her calm and loving sounding board, and just make sure that she knows you will always be there for her no matter what.

    My aunt used to tell me when my son would act out that that was proof he felt secure in my love for him -- he knew he could let it out in front of me and I would still love him. I think that's a very helpful way to look at it when you are in the moment. Hope this helps!

    Posted by SandEE June 18, 12 09:16 AM
  1. My guess would be that this is attention-seeking behavior. When she isn't acting like this, does she get your attention or are you focused on household tasks? What was the nature of your interactions before your husband returned to work? Did you only get involved when she was fussy and he needed a break?

    As the secondary caregiver, your relationship with her is still in its infancy. Don't take it personally, and don't push it beyond her comfort zone.

    I would also wonder whether or not she is getting the attention she needs at day care.

    Posted by TF June 18, 12 03:30 PM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. Dear Bonnie:

    Just a comment on your concern that everyone is watching her hysterics and judging you harshly. Half the people (mostly those who have never had children!) might be, but the other half are thinking "been there!!"

    Also, it's not uncommon for children to "lose it" at pickup time from daycare, even without the abandonment issues. They've been on their best behavior all day long, and that's a lot of pressure for a little kid. Once mommy or daddy arrives to pick them up, that's their safe zone, and they can act out and release that tension. It's just like grownups being at work all day and not telling off their boss and coworkers and then getting home and venting to their spouses. So there's probably a lot going on with her at that time of day. Think of yourself as her calm and loving sounding board, and just make sure that she knows you will always be there for her no matter what.

    My aunt used to tell me when my son would act out that that was proof he felt secure in my love for him -- he knew he could let it out in front of me and I would still love him. I think that's a very helpful way to look at it when you are in the moment. Hope this helps!

    Posted by SandEE June 18, 12 09:16 AM
  1. My guess would be that this is attention-seeking behavior. When she isn't acting like this, does she get your attention or are you focused on household tasks? What was the nature of your interactions before your husband returned to work? Did you only get involved when she was fussy and he needed a break?

    As the secondary caregiver, your relationship with her is still in its infancy. Don't take it personally, and don't push it beyond her comfort zone.

    I would also wonder whether or not she is getting the attention she needs at day care.

    Posted by TF June 18, 12 03:30 PM
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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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