Ask the Expert: My daughter is making strange with her father
John Sharry helps solve your parenting problems
Is there anything we can do to help her calm down and accept her father? Photograph: Thinkstock Images
Q My one-year-old daughter has spent the past six months without her father because he has had to work away. He has recently returned home and our daughter is very nervous around him. As you can imagine, she is very attached to me but with my husband coming home this attachment has increased to the point where she screams and roars if she’s not within a half-metre radius of me. It’s making life very difficult as my husband is not able to help me look after her and she will not be around him unless I am close by.
He has tried to take it slowly and let her get used to him but she does not seem to be taking to him at all. I think the problem is partly a strange face in the house but also her very close attachment to me. I left her with him for two hours the other night and she was crying until I came back. This is going on for nearly two weeks now and she doesn’t seem to be warming up to him.
Is there anything we can do to help her calm down and accept her father in the house and lessen her need for me to be present at all times?
A When babies are born, initially they are relatively happy being cared for by any adult. However, when they reach the age of six months or so they begin the process of forming more exclusive attachments – meaning they only feel comfortable being cared for by their parents or main carers.
This means they can “make strange” when meeting new people and experience anxiety when separated from one of their parents.
This “making strange” process and “separation anxiety” varies greatly from child to child (with some children being relatively mildly affected), though it tends to peak at the age of about one year and then declines over the next two years as children become more socially confident.
With your husband being away for six months, he was not round for that early period of attachment formation which means that your daughter is relating to him more as a stranger and thus experiences anxiety when he is caring for her and she is separated from you.
The good news is that attachments aren’t fixed and young children can learn to form new relationships with new carers (and parents who have been away). Although children tend to have a hierarchy of attachment figures (usually turning to Mum first as their primary carer), they have room for other parental and caring relationships. In fact, it is enormously beneficial to their emotional wellbeing to develop an attachment to their father as well as their mother.
The key to achieving this is gentle patience and persistence but once your daughter experiences her father as responsive, consistent and tuned into her needs, a loving attachment will grow.
Adopt a gradual, gentle approach
Generally it helps to adopt a gentle, gradual approach. It is important to slow down and go at your daughter’s pace and this can require a great deal of patience as her pace might be much slower than you think. For example, the first step is to help your daughter to become comfortable and to have fun with her father while you are present.
Set up regular times where you are close by and your husband can sit and play with your daughter. This might mean you sitting right beside your daughter at the beginning. Let your husband be the lead in the communication and play; you might just sit there and read a book but have no expectations initially of going away and leaving them.
Encourage your husband to play in a slow, responsive way. It helps to have lots of toys that your daughter likes. Your husband should first watch your daughter carefully to see what she is interested in and then respond warmly.
Try to have several of these “father-daughter play sessions” a day with you present. You can also have these shared times during daily routines such as bathtime, feeding or changing a nappy where you are present but your husband slowly becomes involved and takes the lead.
Once your daughter is comfortable then gradually withdraw from these interactions but make sure to do this at your daughter’s pace. For example, you might first just sit a bit further away or then stand up and do something else close by, before you leave the room.
Practise withdrawing and coming back before your daughter gets distressed. For example, you might get up and leave the room while your daughter is caught up in the play or activity and then come back before she has called out for you. Your goal is to work towards them being alone.
Support her father managing her distress
When your daughter does become distressed (as all one year olds will do), support your husband learning to soothe and reassure her. This might mean that you don’t take over but instead you sit with them as he holds her, but you let him take the lead in being warm, reassuring and helping her calm down.
Learning to manage your child’s distressed feelings is, of course, one of the hardest things to do as a parent but once your husband has the experience of getting to the other side of a period of crying and helping his daughter calm down, this will be a breakthrough for both of them.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus Charity. He will be delivering special parenting seminars, ‘Promoting Confidence and Helping Children Overcome Anxiety’ in Cork and Dublin. See solutiontalk.ie for details.