Careful response to rejection

 

ASK THE EXPERT:Children often choose one parent to comfort them in preference to the other, writes David Coleman

MY WIFE and I are the proud parents of two beautiful girls aged four-and-a-half and two-and-a-half. My wife works part time and I work full time. All of the caring and nurturing of our children is shared, as much as possible, equally.

My wife was very seriously ill on the birth of our second child, and I was primary care-giver for the first three months of our second baby's life. Although my wife recovered, she still needs a lot of time to rest.

In our styles of parenting, I would be the firmer parent in terms of setting boundaries and sticking to them. My wife would live more for the moment and would be more concerned with ensuring the children are happy.

In recent weeks, my children have started to reject my attention. If, for example, they wake at night, they now cry incessantly until their mother comes in, even though I have been soothing them for years.

This is affecting me as I feel rejected and it is also starting to affect my wife's health as she is getting less rest. My question is obvious: is this development a natural consequence of the parenting role I have and, if so, should I just let it take its course? Or should I work with my wife to ensure that I am re-established as an equal partner in the care-giving stakes, and that she gets more rest?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell why children react or act in a particular manner. There could be many reasons why your daughters now cry out for their mother. I wouldn't be overly bothered by this, as it could be just that they are identifying strongly with her right now.

I am interested to know what your wife thinks of this situation. If she, too, feels unhappy with the level of comforting she has to now take on, then it is appropriate for you both to look at strategies for redistributing the emotional workload involved in comforting the children.

If indeed she is exhausted by the way things are now, then you might want to look at other parenting responsibilities you can take on to free her up so that, for example, the night-time comforting becomes her main responsibility and you pick up slack in other areas such as cooking, cleaning, transporting and so on.

It is frequently the case that a child will choose a particular parent as their source of comfort in preference to the other parent. As you have recognised, this can in fact be more troubling for the parents involved than for the child. As a parent it is easy to feel hurt and rejected if your child suddenly seems to either avoid you, or to favour the care of their other parent.

You may feel reassured to know that it is unlikely that your daughters are choosing their mother's comfort at night in a conscious and deliberately hurtful way. So choosing their mother is not a reflection on your parenting; it is more about what your daughters instinctively choose at the current moment to meet their needs.

Although it may sound glib, your best bet is to remain calm and accepting and continue to be available to them. I am reminded of the old saying: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." In your situation, this equates to you making yourself emotionally available to your children, irrespective of whether they choose to make use of that availability.

What is important is that you don't reject your children simply because they don't seem to value your attention and your love in exactly the same way as they did previously. I would feel confident that your relationship with your children will continue to grow and develop, as long as you don't overreact to this shift in their behaviour.

Of course it is preferable if the children are willing to be cared for equally by both of you. But that would suggest that both fathers and mothers offer the same thing to their children. Again, you have recognised that you take on one role with your children, and their mother takes on a different role with them.

This is a good and natural part of parenting, and it means that your children probably get a nice balance in the way that you both deal with them.

Your acknowledgment of the distress you feel at not being "allowed" to comfort them in recent weeks speaks deeply of your care and commitment to your children. So, from what I can tell from your description, it sounds as if you very definitely continue to be an equal partner in the care-giving stakes.

• David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, author of the book Parenting is Child's Play and broadcaster with RTÉ television. More information about David can be found on his website, davidcoleman.ie

• Readers' queries are welcome and will be answered through the column, but David regrets he cannot enter into individual correspondence. Questions should be e-mailed to

healthsupplement@irish-times.ie