Behavior: Why would a two year old have a fit for mom?

My two and a-half-year-old boy is extremely clingy to my wife. When we are at home, he will usually interact with either of us. But he screams for Mommy when he falls, wakes up in the night, when we go out or if new people come over to our house. He will not come to me, his grandparents or anyone else. We tried daycare at 22 months, and he cried for Mommy the entire time. After one week, the day care advised us to wait until he is older to come back. We spend the entire weekend together and he is fine -- until Mommy comes home. My wife is expecting another child in three months and is losing patience

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your little boy may blend two seemingly divergent qualities. He may be both shy and very strong willed. He is also in the midst of a period in his growth that requires him to exert his independence while simultaneously seeking comfort in greater dependency on Mom.

"Clinginess" in two-year-olds can temporarily increase as they "push" the limits of their independence and, in his case, shyness may exaggerate his internal conflict between dependence and independence. It is not unusual for children of this age to do everything in their power to "get what they want." Yet, in addition to the natural "testing" that is a part of this developmental stage, your son's behavior may also reflect an increasing pattern of manipulation that is counter productive to a true sense of security.

Consider whether you have been consistent in what you require from him. If you determine that Mommy and Daddy will alternate putting him to bed each night, expect him to accept this. Particularly with a new sibling on the way, it will be important for him to learn to accept Daddy's help when Mommy is busy with the baby. Determine what kind of schedule will work best regarding caring for your son. Be certain that he does have adequate time with Mommy, but once you and your wife have decided that you are the parent who will put him to bed, make him breakfast or help him get dressed, do not yield to his protestations.

If you have developed a pattern of "giving in," it will take you extra effort to establish your authority. Your son may have learned that he will get his way in the end if he simply screams longer and harder. But allowing his escalating hysteria to override your better judgment will only delay discomfort in the present for increased problems in your future. Your child needs boundaries, but at two-and-a-half, he is not capable of internalizing control with words alone. He must experience, on a behavioral level, that you mean what you say.

In the beginning, you will no doubt find it difficult to endure the intensity of his emotional protest. But you must persist in your belief that he will learn to accept you instead of Mommy in certain situations. The most common reason for failure is a divided parental team. You and your wife must prevail for him to feel secure in your leadership. It is important that your son hear Mommy support the position that Daddy is perfectly capable of caring for him, and that she, too, expects him to accept this fact. She must not "rescue" him or hang around after she has made her belief clear. Reneging on this arrangement undermines your message and encourages your son to doubt his own well-being and capacity to adjust.

Talk with your wife about whether "giving in" is a pattern that persists in other areas when she is with him during the day. If he cries, does she give him dessert instead of the nutritional lunch she had made for him? Does she find herself changing her decisions often due to his protests? If there are other areas in which he has learned to "get his way" through emotional upset, it may be necessary to evaluate the overall consistency of your parenting approach.

What is the nature of your son's relationship to his "sitter?" Is she consistent with him? Is there any reason that he would develop fear based on his time spent with her during the week? Talk with your caregiver. Obtain feedback about his day with her, including activities he enjoys or does not enjoy. This person is his only other consistent caretaker. Has anything changed since this relationship began? Is this person a good match for your son? Does he feel secure and connected to her? If it is not a good match, it is possible that this may be a source of stress.

It is likely that adapting to Daddy's care when Mommy is present will be the first step towards accepting new people with less fear. Your son clearly feels secure with you. He does not "need" Mommy over you, but may be stuck in a natural survival pattern of preferring her over others. It is natural for this preference to increase during this developmental stage. Do not allow his fears to gain prominence over his curiosity. His social "shyness" may decrease with efforts to engage him in activities with other children. Having a "little friend" over to play regularly, visiting that playmate and joining a weekly playgroup can encourage his social development.

Your son is normal in his efforts to express his will at this age, and he may indeed grow out of some of his "clinginess" to Mommy. Still, your job as parents is to consider the potential for his "fits" to become a dysfunctional coping pattern, or for his apprehensions to block his development. Barring any previous traumatic event, your son's behavior requires a response which helps him feel contained and secure in the reasonable limits set by parents who love him. This includes accepting Daddy when Mommy is busy or needs a break!

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