When your child only wants one parent

I love being a dad to my 3-year-old son, but when he pushes me away, I sometimes feel unfairly treated. He may wake up crying and I rush to him, only to be told, “Go away! I want Mummy!”

Other times, he may want attention and cry out, but when I go to him, I get told, “I don’t want you, Daddy! I want Mummy!” And when I need to help him brush his teeth, he screams, “No, Daddy! I want Mummy to help me!” No matter what the circumstance when he does this, it hurts my feelings.

I feel that I am not good enough as a parent. What runs through my mind is, “I love you, my son, and I want to help you. Why do you push me away?” I tend to feel resentful. I sometimes give up and call for my wife to take over.

These feelings are not my son’s to own. They are mine, and have simply been triggered by son. I have talked about these moments and my feelings in my Dad’s group and with my regular Listening Partner. Layer by layer, I have uncovered the sources of these feelings of mine.

Memories of what it was like for me as a boy have flooded in when he pushes me away, rather than be the understanding father I want to be, I give up in frustration because I am afraid of getting hurt. I become just like a child pushing away painful feelings instead of staying with them and working them through. Talking through my thoughts and feelings not only gave me this insight, it also helped me to be more aware of my unconscious reactions.

The next time I was pushed away by my son, rather than taking things personally, I stayed to listen to him. I said to him, “I hear that you want Mummy.” He kept crying, and I reassured him, “I am here with you now.” I stayed with his cries and kept pouring loving attention toward him. Eventually, he calmed down, his anxiety of not having Mummy with him passed, and he allowed me to hold him after we made eye contact with one another.

On occasions when he wants to play but only wants Mummy, I try to engage him playfully. I may say, “You don’t want me? What about Monkey?” My son will usually persist with, “No, Mummy.” But I offer, “How about Donkey? Ee-oo! Ee-oo!” By now, he realizes that he has my attention and I am here to play! I get down on all fours on the floor at eye level, and keep walking around saying, “Ee-oo! Ee-oo!” He climbs on my back, and we are playing! Using play to reconnect helps me take things less personally. It’s an invitation to connect, even though he’s feeling a bit prickly. When he’s able to laugh, I know we are connecting!

Reflecting on these moments, I’ve learnt several things.

  1. Self-care is important. We need to be able to talk through our thoughts and feelings with a listener to create space within us that allows us to be conscious of our triggers and not take things personally.
  2. My son does want to connect! But when I have a list of To-Do’s running through my mind, I may be there physically, but I am neither present nor attentive. These moments happen, and he remembers them. I need to persist in my attempts to connect with him, because children, like adults, protect themselves from hurt. If I haven’t been present with him, he would rather push me away than risk feeling the pain of me not being fully with him. I can easily misconstrue his efforts at self-protection as him rejecting me.
  3. Children sometimes set up situations that enable them to work through their feelings of hurt. Often, when they show they need limits, that’s what’s happening. For example, when I picked my son up from childcare yesterday, he seemed happy. We returned home and we both played on the mat, until he started to tell me he was upset and wanted to throw things. I told him I wouldn’t let him do that, and he started to push me away. I moved close so he couldn’t throw anything, and within seconds he started to cry hard and deeply. I wasn’t sure what was wrong but stayed with his tears. When my son had his bath that evening, we found a big scratch on his leg that was not noticeable under his pants. Perhaps he was angry and sad about that minor injury. He knew he needed to get those feelings out of his system.
  4. As a father I have 50% of the duties of parenting in the family. Whether he wakes up in the middle of the night, needs to have his bath or brush his teeth, I must NOT give up in frustration every time he pushes me away and screams for his mother. To give up would increase the burden on my wife that will eventually wear her out. My son needs attention, and he also needs to release those feelings that tell him that there’s only one person who loves and understands him. I love him. I listen to him so I can understand him, too. If I listen to his feelings about wanting Mummy, he and I eventually connect, and I learn more about him as I listen. My wife doesn’t get overburdened. And we both have energy to connect with one another at the end of the day.

Finally, these reflections would not be possible without the willing listening support of my fellow dads!

Benn Lim is a certified Parenting by Connection Instructor and local eastern suburbs dad he operates regular workshops for parents particularly dads to help them connect better with their children.