What to do when your children prefer their caregiver

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“Josh! Mama’s home!” I run to my 18-month-old son with my arms open wide. I reach down to give him a hug but he stiff arms me.

“No, no, no!” he screams. He reaches for our nanny, Aurora, for comfort. I like her, too, but this is ridiculous.

“Josh,” I try to reason. “I’m your mama. Come to me.”

“No, no, no!” he screams.

By now, Josh is hysterical and all the neighbours standing in their front yards turn to look at the scene. My face is flaming and I feel my mouth start to tremble. I slink inside the house in shame. I’ve never felt so hurt, except when my older son did the same thing to me at about the same age.

“Attachment issues usually happen around 18 months to four years and it’s very common,” says Jennifer Kolari, child development expert and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid. “Sometimes kids find a parent’s coming and going so hard that they show preferential treatment to the person who is always there. This could be a grandparent, caregiver or one particular parent.”

But don’t take it personally. “Your child’s attachment issue can also be the result of a transition, such as if there is a new baby in the house or he just started school,” says Jennifer. “Some kids adapt easily, and others get upset when you turn off the television or tell them it’s time for bed. Switching gears can be hard for kids.”

There are things you can do to re-connect with your child (see sidebar at right), but the most effective ways aren’t the most obvious. “Parents will try to win over their child, and the child will pull back,” says Jennifer. “The more needy and desperate you look, the more they will stop paying attention.”

How do you win over your child?

Jennifer Kolari offers these tips:

  • Don’t take your child away from the person to whom he is attached. You don’t want your child to associate you with removing him from a comfortable situation.
  • Do keep your distance. Give him freedom. He will come to you when he’s ready.
  • Don’t get mad. Don’t use guilt trips. Don’t use bribery. Instead, say, “I know you like grandma. I love her too, but I can’t wait to have a hug.
  • When you’re ready, I’ll be right here.” When your child does come to you – and he will – use a lot of nurturing behaviours and mirroring to release those feel-good chemicals into your brains. These connected moments will make you both feel good and your child will want to be around you. Nurturing behaviours include snuggling, baby play and touching noses.
  • Do set boundaries and limits. For instance, if you have a live-in caregiver, explain to her that you need time to bond with your child. Or take your child out of the house to bond one-on-one.
  • “If you follow these concepts, the dynamic between you and your child will shift within two weeks,” says Jennifer.
  • I’m trying these new strategies with Josh and I’m amazed at the difference it makes. Now, after I get home from work, I rush toward my son and he reaches up to me for a hug. I swing him around and around. I rub my nose against his. His smile is the last thing I see before I grab him tightly for another hug.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July 2012

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