Lots of toddlers seem to go through a phase where they reject one of their parents – and oh my giddy aunt can it hurt.
After you’ve dedicated so much time and love to their upbringing and nurturing them as this tiny baby, all of a sudden your child is trying to exert as much independence as possible: moving about unaided, eating their own dinner, and playing alone.
Around this same time, you might find they lean towards one parent – while pushing the other away. If you’re ‘the shunned one’, you might find your toddler doesn’t want you to hug or touch them, or even read to or play with them anymore.
While it can be pretty soul-destroying, Rachel Melville-Thomas, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), says it won’t last forever. And you’re certainly not alone.
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“It is quite common,” she tells HuffPost UK. “It’s the task of toddlers to try to make sense of the family world, and who they are attached to. Sometimes they make very fixed decisions!”
An article in the New York Times suggested it’s a way for toddlers to show their independence, as they have few outlets for autonomy.
Children are exploring decision-making at this age, and parental preference is one way to test it out, Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, a physician at a children’s hospital in Chicago, told the publication.
Rachel Melville-Thomas suggests young children are trying to understand how the family works and their role within it. “Some toddlers will be very sensitive to how much attention they receive from each parent – so may react really strongly to a loss of closeness to a particular parent,” she says.
This loss of closeness could be a result of a new baby, a new working situation, or other changes. “The reaction then is to save all their focus for the one they see most,” she continues.
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The therapist adds that this is indeed a phase and “it tends not to last long, as the child develops and begins to accommodate the patterns of family life”.
By the time your child is three or four years old, they learn to trust that both parents are equally caring and connected, she suggests.
Gender also seems to play a part in who children choose to side with as they develop, the therapist has noticed.
“Toddlers, at about two years, notice they share the same gender as one of the parents and just want to be with them and do the same things in a passionate process of ‘being the same’,” she says.
“Then the opposite gender parent can be seen as different, and ‘not like me’ and can be pushed away. In same-gender couples, the toddler might identify with the parent most like them – for example, the lively physical parent, or the quiet cuddly one – and then pull away from the other.”
But when children reach about three years old, the reverse can happen, she adds – so the opposite gender or different personality parent becomes very exciting all of a sudden.
How to cope if you’re the rejected parent
While it’s nice to know it’s nothing personal, it can still suck if your child won’t even let you cuddle them after you’ve previously been so close.
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“Try not to take it personally and see the big picture of a toddler’s view of the world – it will change,” says Rachel Melville-Thomas.
So what can you do in the meantime? Dunya Poltorak, a pediatric medical psychologist in Michigan, told NY Times we should listen to our child’s preferences, so if they refuse to hug you, just accept it. It’s really important to not take it personally or to show it bothers you.
You can also see the plus side. A child showing they’re comfortable rejecting a parent means they’re securely attached – so your child knows the love you have for them is unconditional, according to Dr Heard-Garris.
If you’re the parent who’s currently flavour of the month, there are things you can be doing to support your partner. Accept the situation for the time being, advises Melville-Thomas, while speaking warmly of the other parent, and gently encouraging the toddler to enjoy some time – whether that’s storytime, singing or play – with the other parent.