For this Father’s Day, I will address a common problem for the fathers among us: Sometimes fathers are disturbed because the kids seem to be partial to their mothers.
Developmentally, young children — those under 6 years old — often do have a greater attachment to their mother. Though there are fathers who assume the role of primary caregiver in the early years, it is often mom who nurses the baby and usually is the primary nurturer.
For this reason (as well as a hardwired predisposition) the child often feels a greater attachment to mom early on.
Not to worry — this will change. Later, girls typically become more intensely attached to their fathers, and mothers can struggle with their own feelings of sadness and rejection. Boys can also prefer to go off and do guy stuff with dad. In adolescence, all bets are off — your kids will pull away from you both!
Fathers often bring a unique element of spontaneity to their parenting. They are usually the ones who throw the kid into the air or the pool, who give them tickles, who challenge them to races. This is a much needed aspect for a child’s development. But when the kids are anxious or tired, they turn to mom.
As the father of a young child, you are likely familiar with the feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy and sadness when your child falls down, gets a boo-boo and despite your presence starts screaming for mommy.
Little kids going through stress or separation anxiety can also become really glued to their mothers. Sometimes this is a problem for her — she wants desperately for you to distract the kid and give her some relief, but the child simply won’t let this happen.
This is completely normal.
The good news is that there are things you can do to help with your child’s attachment to you, even in the early years.
- Pick a daily ritual and make it yours — bath time or tucking-in time or a rhyme before bed. For example, have three bedtime songs and let the child pick which one you sing each night. Little kids respond well to repetition.
- Find some special things to do with your child that are for you two alone. You can play checkers or kick a ball or look at the stars, and whenever you do these activities, it is your own special time. Create a few rituals and traditions that are just for you two, and that can grow over time.
- Don’t force the issue. In frustration, when your offspring is crying for mommy, it is tempting to insist that you be the one to help. That almost always backfires. You are making an anxious child feel he has no access to the one thing that is most soothing.
- Remind mom that you are not leaving it all to her to manage but rather doing the best you can given your child’s current time in development. Talk with her about your wish for closer attachment so that she can facilitate your wishes.
Until your child outgrows this phase, reinforcing your valued presence with simple rituals will go a long way. Happy Father’s Day!
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .