‘I Only Want Mommy’

Q: My three-year-old daughter has been particularly fussy lately, especially during Yom Tov. Whenever she wanted something, even something simple like a drink of water, she would refuse to take it from her father. I thought it was humorous at first, because it seemed as if she was doing it as a joke. But as time went on she became more and more stubborn, and would even throw a tantrum when my husband would offer to help her get dressed, etc. When I asked her why she felt this way she shrugged her shoulders and had no answer —even though she can usually express herself very well.

My husband has issues of his own. He lost his job after working for a year and a half and just recently began a new one. His general employment history has not been very consistent, and this definitely puts a strain on our relationship. We don’t argue in front of the children, but I have anxiety about him actually keeping a job on a long-term basis.

My husband tends to be in his own world, often caught up in whatever his present emotional state happens to be. He is not particularly focused on our two children (we also have a one-year-old son). Unfortunately, my daughter, as young as she is, can be manipulative when trying to get what she wants, so it’s hard to figure out if she is behaving this way to get attention — especially my husband’s — or if this behavior is connected to something else that needs addressing. I can’t control my husband’s moods, or his worries — which distance him from all of us. Any suggestions?

A: Children’s behavior can be enigmatic and difficult to analyze. Since your husband is often distant from family members, and you describe your daughter as being “manipulative,” one type of picture is painted. Perhaps your husband can, in fact, give her more attention in a way that he can follow through with. It can be a 10-minute activity that he doesn’t mind participating in. You could make him a make-believe supper from your daughter’s toy kitchen, focusing on foods that he likes. When at work the next day, your husband could call her on the phone and ask if she’s making supper for him again. This 10-second verbal interaction will bring back a memory and help them forge a personal connection. The two can sing a song together on Shabbos, and then sing it together during the week. There are numerous ways to connect with a three-year-old that don’t have to be as time consuming as a Lego project.

A second type of picture might arise in your mind, with the worry that something in your husband’s behavior is indeed frightening her. Seeing one’s father experience mood swings and behave in a distant manner can be very disturbing in itself. Your responses of disappointment towards him can be internalized by your daughter, causing her more anxiety and resentment against him.

It would be helpful for you to go for individual or marital therapy to work on these issues. If, after time and working on the father-daughter relationship, there is no marked improvement, it is highly advisable to bring your daughter to play therapy to work on her fears. We can only conjecture what is causing your daughter’s behavior, and highly sensitive issues often surface in a play-therapy environment that would not appear elsewhere.

Tantruming can be a form of manipulation, or a response of fear towards another individual. If effort is put into improving the father-child relationship and her responses improve, it is more likely (but not definite) that this was the source of her previous actions. But anxiety at such a young age needs to be explored more thoroughly if such behavior continues.