Duncan Elliot is a life coach working out of Basingstoke in England. He particularly works with people who feel that there must be more to life and are willing to work at it, so that they can feel happier and more in control of their life. He offers life coaching in person, on the phone or via audio or video across the Internet. Click here to contact him.
Catch the wind in your sails!
There is one topic that I come across really regularly: so regularly that I personally think that it should be included in adoption preparation courses. It normally comes with a title along the lines of, “My child excludes my partner”.
Most of the times that I come across it, it's the wife in a straight relationship who's posting. However, gay and lesbian couples also report that their children do this with one of the partners, and occasionally, in straight couples, it's Mum who is the spare part. For the sake of brevity, though, I'm going to talk about the dad in a straight relationship.
The scenario is repeated with many variations but the basic theme is the same: the child wants the mum and not the dad. They want Mum to hold their hand when they're out, put them to bed, make the lunch, push them on the swing and practically every other activity. When Dad does it, they do anything from turning sulky and uncooperative, through sobbing, to exhibiting downright terror. Whilst they may follow Mum around, trying to fit the word “Mummy” into, Mummy, every sentence, Mummy, as many times, Mummy, as possible, Mummy, Dad is somewhere between an unwelcome interference and a source of paralysing fear. They may accept Dad – and even prefer Dad – for some activities, like playing football, but for the nurturing ones, Mum is definitely the one that they seek out.
Where does this come from?
There can be lots of different factors at work here and it can really help the one who feels rejected if they understand where the behaviour is coming from.
Firstly, this is actually expected and healthy behaviour. I'd be more worried about a child who favours both parents equally, or neither of them. This is because children need a “primary attachment figure”. In order to feel safe and secure, they need to start with one person with whom they feel safe and secure. From this person, they can explore and work outwards. They can reach out to secondary attachment figures, safe in the knowledge that if something goes wrong, they have their primary attachment figure whom they can rely on.
This doesn't just happen with adopted and fostered children: many birth children exhibit similar behaviour, although with adopted and fostered children it can often be more extreme. I have a vivid memory, for example, of one of my birth children sobbing at the window as my wife walked off to do the shopping.
So when a child first moves in, they need an attachment figure. They've just been ripped away from their previous one and it's often terrifying for them, as well as being emotionally incredibly painful. They need someone for comfort and security and so they latch onto one of you. And because of the pain and fear, they can latch on very, very fiercely. To them, what's happened to them is pretty much life threatening: their previous source of security has been taken away and they desperately, desperately need a new one. And nothing, but nothing is going to come in the way of that – and that includes the other partner. So while they are fighting so passionately to get the mum to provide that security, they are also trying to get rid of any competition. That can range from just ignoring them to very real attempts to come between the partners and even to get rid of the unwanted partner.
The chances are that, throughout their short life, it has been exclusively, or almost exclusively, mums who have cared for them. They've spent nine months in a mum's womb and foster carers are normally women. If they have been to any sort of early years educational setting, it is most likely to have been populated mainly or wholly by women. It's these women to whom they will have been trying to attach, so it's hardly surprising if, when they move in with adoptive parents or new foster carers, they will see the mum as being the most likely potential attachment figure.
However, they have also been let down, as they see it, by all of these women. That can mean that they give up on mums and instead take a chance with the dad. Alternatively it can mean that attaching to the mum is very difficult. They want to do it, but there's a huge fear of abandonment yet again, as well as lots of pain and anger from their previous let-downs that they direct towards the mum.
Meanwhile, don't forget that the father figures that these children have experienced in their birth families can also be incredibly scary. Their picture of a dad could well be of someone who is violent and aggressive to the point of being life threatening. If they've suffered abuse at the hands of a father figure and then had limited access to men before they come to you, they could well be operating with a template of men as being terrifying creatures.
The long term view
Things will change! Children don't stay the same forever. With birth children, it's a phase that they grow out of, and it's the same, normally, with adopted and fostered children. It will take them time, but they will become more comfortable with both partners. Each child will do so at different rates. But as they become more securely attached to their mum, they will be able to explore attaching to their dad, too. As they experience a dad who is calm, peaceful, kind and loving, they will be able to redefine their default template of what a dad is like and be able to accept Dad as being at least benign and probably positive.
The great thing is that, hard though it may be at the start, there is HUGE scope to feel great as things change. Dads have told me of the amazing, joyful memories that they have of the first time that their kids have snuggled up, held their hands voluntarily, accepted cuddles when they'd hurt themselves and asked Dad to read them a story. These tiny actions show an immense change in their child's thinking and that can be incredibly touching and exciting when it happens.
If you are the one that the child seems to be ignoring or rejecting, you might like to consider investing in a notebook, ready to write these incidents down as they happen. Put in as much detail as you can, with how it felt, how significant it seemed and how different it was. That can give you a real boost when you read back over it in years to come.
It can also be very beneficial to you to acknowledge the part that you've had to play in these changes. Don't be shy, and don't underplay it at all. It IS down to you: you've spent days, months or years being supportive, caring and loving and that has made a huge difference. If you hadn't been like that, your child would never have been able to slip their small, warm hand into yours, or to climb on your lap and give you a hug. It really is immensely significant and it really is down to you! Allow yourself to recognise the huge difference that you've made to this little child's life and pat yourself on the back for it. Don't you dare be all self-effacing and try to shrug it off as something minor. It isn't: it's pretty close to a miracle and you're largely responsible for that!
In the meantime
In the meantime, don't try to force the issue. That's more likely to scare the kid away than to foster bonds between you. I remember a friend that I was at college with. He is a lovely guy, but he is quite exuberant. He'd bound up to kids to say hello and many of them would disappear behind their father's legs or mother's skirt in record time. Another friend, who didn't actually like kids much, would sit on a chair out of the way and pay them no attention. He'd often, to his dismay and discomfiture, find a toddler clambering onto his lap, waving a book at him, asking him to read it!
The moral of that story is to let kids come to you at their own pace. They will do it when they are ready.
Yes, you can engineer things so that they do spend time with you, particularly if there's an activity that they like doing with you, like swimming, cooking or playing football. But be aware of the reasons why they are acting as they do, and respect why they find it difficult. And also be aware that it really is imperative that they should build a strong, primary attachment. If you can avoid letting your feelings make you do things that intervene in that, that will be fantastic! It may well mean that you're taking a back seat for a while, but remind yourself that it's for a very good reason and that you'll reap the benefit in the end. Your wife may even be jealous when you come home one day all excited and feeling gooey because they put their hand in yours in the woods. She may not get the down of feeling rejected, but she won't get the joy when it changes, either.
Coping with the feelings
Rejection isn't a pleasant feeling. Having a kid screaming because they have to hold your hand instead of Mum's is tough. Sure, the first few times it's quite easy, if you know why it's happening, to be calm and understanding, but when it's repeated in many different ways throughout each day, it can add up. Seriously, you may be looking at a thousand rejections or more. That's a lot! It may be hard, but you can do it.
Often people find it easier to handle if they can see it as just a feeling. OK, so you feel it, but that can be a small thing if you treat it like that. “Oh, it's that rejection thought again” gives you the power to move on. Accepting it and labelling it like that can really help.
The worst thing to do is to fight against it. The more you wrestle with a thought, the longer it stays with you and the more powerful it seems. Thoughts come and go, unless you engage with them. Imagine someone wanted to hike through your house. They come in through the front door and want to go out of the back one. The easiest way to get rid of them is to let them do just that. Seconds later, they're gone. If instead you grab them and try to force them back out of your front door, or stop them and argue about whether they have a right to be in there or not, you'll be stuck with them for much, much longer! It's the same with thoughts. Let go of them and give them no attention and they'll disappear. You can then get on with something important.
And especially don't let your self-talk tell you that you're bad for having these feelings. “Don't you realise what this kid's been through? All of that hell in their lives and you're complaining because they don't want to hold your hand? What a selfish, pathetic parent you are!” Seriously, your self-talk could well be throwing that sort of rubbish at you. And if you let it stick, it will drag you down.
Written down, dealing with these feelings sounds easy, but it there are often subtleties of thought and layers of previous experience that make it trickier than it sounds. Working with someone else can often be very productive. If you'd like to get through these thoughts and feelings more quickly and easily than doing it on your own, contact me.