When your child rejects you, stay, reassure, and listen.
When your child wants his other parent badly, simply stay with her and listen to her feelings. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re the Daddy, and Mommy is going shopping. What your child needs is your confidence that things are OK, and the permission to cry hard and let her grief show, so it can dissipate and be done with.
So encourage Mommy to say a nice, slow goodbye, with kisses and hugs, but with enough separation so your child can really sense that Mommy’s leaving. You can hold your child, even though she wants to run to Mommy. When you hold her, not tightly, but with enough confidence that she’s able to work hard against you, you’re letting her show you deeply-held feelings of desperation.
These feelings keep her locked in a tight little world, where it always feels like Mommy is the only person who can meet her needs. She can’t feel your help, no matter how lovingly you offer it. She can’t feel anyone else’s help, either. Her emotional mindset can only indicate that “It’s Mommy or no one!” as long as she carries these stored feelings of desperate longing.
So when you say, “Sweetheart, I’m right here. I’ll take good care of you. Mommy’s coming back soon. I promise you. She’s always coming back to you,” you’re showing her that you think she’ll be OK with you for an hour without Mommy. You’re listening to her feelings, which tell her she’s in great danger. You’re allowing the power of those feelings to dissipate. You’re helping her to rebuild her impression of her world, minute by minute and passionate wail by passionate wail.
Listen until she doesn’t feel like crying any longer. Mommy can stay the whole time, a few feet away, to listen, too, or she can go do her errands and come back. Either way is fine, as long as you keep showing your child your love and confidence.
I know a number of fathers who had been thoroughly and consistently rejected. When they heard this information, they gathered up their courage, and then Staylistened to their toddler go through an hourlong, heartbreaking cry for Mommy, saying simply, “She’s coming back. I’m right here with you. I’ll take good care of you.” At the end of the hour, their relationship was forever changed. The child felt completely and totally at home with Daddy, for the first time ever, and this dramatic change held.
When it’s not a goodbye that’s the issue, but a demand that “Daddy has to get me dressed, not you!” or “I only want Mommy to cut my toast,” move in and say, “I’m going to dress you today,” or “I’m going to cut your toast,” and an intention to listen to the feelings your child is serving up to you. See if your confidence brings a good cry or tantrum. Don’t get her dressed or cut that toast yet. That’s not the point. The point is, first and foremost, that feelings bubble up when you propose to be the one who helps. Listen to the feelings before getting busy doing anything. Staylistening is paramount.
Staylistening brings freedom from pickiness, from prickliness, from a narrow view of the many possibilities of the moment. Staylistening, oddly enough, expresses your love. So just do that, until your child says, “OK, can you help me with the blue shirt?” or “Daddy, please do triangle toast, OK?” And, when you finally get to the toast-cutting stage, if your child feels you’ve done it all wrong, then she wasn’t finished with her cry. She is now taking care of the next part of the emotional scrubbing job she started.
When we listen to a child’s deep feelings, the grief she’s had to manage is released, and a child has so much more energy for connection and closeness. When you’ve heard the very worst of what a child feels, and you stay, it makes a deep impression. You didn’t go away hurt, or go away angry. You will have won trust in the staying. Try this. Let us know how it works for you!
Here’s how it can work
My daughter lives with me and sees her dad twice weekly in my home. When my daughter was around 2 years old (and prior to that) their time together was not always consistent, which caused some insecurity and fear in their relationship. When my daughter was able to see her father consistently, they generally had a close and comfortable time together. But when they reconnected after a more prolonged separation, my daughter didn’t want to spend time alone with her father; when we were both present she would not want me to leave the room.
To help with this challenge, I started doing Special Time just before my daughter’s dad’s visits. I noticed that this helped loosen up feelings. I found that what would happen is that during her dad’s visits she started having more and more outright upsets. Something would trigger her and she would get upset and come to me and refuse to talk or play with her dad.
I would then move in close and listen, not trying to fix anything but just sitting with her. She would cry and rage about whatever upset had happened and would not want to see or even look at him, saying she didn’t want him or that she never wanted to see him again and he must go away. Often, she would be on the floor with me, away from where her father was (he was usually in another room), crying for various lengths of time. Then, once she had finished with her big cry, as quickly as the upset had flooded in, she would jump up and bounce back into connection with her dad. It was remarkable to me to notice how she was able to move back towards him and reconnect with joy and openness so easily.
It’s difficult to convey in writing the tone of what I said to her in the middle of Staylistening, when she was most passionate about not wanting to be with her dad. One of the things I said that I think made a difference was, “Your dad is a good man,” and, “Your dad loves you so much, sweetheart.” I think it was important for her to hear me saying these words because of the confusion she feels about the tension that has arisen between him and me in the past. What is difficult to convey is that I wasn’t saying this in a way that tried to correct or argue with or criticize what she was saying about her dad. I said my part in a neutral and loving tone, while at the same time allowing her to say what she needed to about her feelings about her dad.
There were also a few occasions where she had long cries as I was about to leave her with her father. This was a bit more tricky to manage, as he would become triggered by this and wanted me to leave quickly rather than “prolong the agony.” In our parenting meetings with each other, we talked about the Listening Tools and how they work. Although he understood and appreciated their value, without having the support of listening time for himself, he was not going to be able to be fully present while she was totally rejecting him. But I remained clear about what I was aiming for. By talking about the approach in meetings with him, rather than in the middle of a difficult moment, and through him seeing that it really worked to improve their relationship, those occasions became easier.
My daughter would also initiate Playlistening and ask for Special Time during her dad’s visits. He would help her do rough and tumble play or aeroplane jumps off the couch, and she would ask him to help her “fly.” She was able to do this because she was getting Special Time from me, and it was familiar and something she enjoyed thoroughly.
Once, after a period of several big Staylistening sessions, her father and I were having one of our parenting meetings, and he started to talk about the changes he had noticed. He talked about his own difficulties with staying present when she cries or stomps away, and yet he recognised how it helped her to release these big feelings. He remarked on how much their physical play helped them to reconnect, especially after longer periods of separation. He expressed deep gratitude at how close he feels to our daughter as a result of this.
This was a remarkable development, given that his upbringing was so very different from the Parenting by Connection approach. Although what I was doing made sense to him in theory, he had some resistance to it. But by using the tools effectively we were able to see real changes in their relationship. What a joy and privilege to be part of this process, and to be able to offer genuine support to my daughter in this challenging situation.
–a mother in Johannesburg, South Africa