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The Cold Shoulder

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You’ve just come home from a long day at work and you’re excited to see your kid. You throw open the door and your arms expecting your little one to squeal, drop his markers, and beeline to you for snuggles. Instead, he keeps on drawing and mutters an unconvincing hello. You scoot next to him. He inches away, continues drawing, and shouts a random request for a bowl of crackers, completely un-phased by your return.

You’ve been rejected by the very same tiny person you dutifully toted in a front pack (or in your belly for that matter), bum-wiped, and spoon-fed. But do not despair — this is a common and natural occurrence for toddlers and preschoolers. At this age, little kids are testing the world of relationships and exerting opinions and preferences (without a polite filter to soften the blow). Here are some tips to reassure you and get you back on the path to favorite-person status.

Ride the waves of parent favorites

Clinging to one parent while giving the other the cold shoulder is (unfortunately for you) part of the normal attachment process. No doubt, kids develop strong relationships to both of their loving parents, but sometimes it’s reassuring to them to set their eyes on one parent for a time — it’s part of their way of feeling safe and shoring up the biologically-driven bond.

It comes back around. There will be times when you’re not the favorite while your child is busy nurturing her attachment or identifying with the other person. If you stay the course, this usually shifts with time.

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His terms, not yours

It can help to change your expectations of how your child greets and engages with you. Instead of coming in the door thinking he will chat you up about the day’s happenings, the way we adults do, get down on his level and become part of his world as a way to bridge the gap. If he’s drawing, join in. If you need to fix dinner, give him a strainer and some uncooked pasta so he can “cook” with you in the kitchen. If he’s watching TV, sit for a minute (if you can sneak a cuddle here, great) and then suggest turning it off and pulling out a Lego set. While you’re playing, your child will be much more likely to open up and talk. Even if he doesn’t, simply being together is a bonding experience. If you really want conversation, tell an entertaining story about yourself or someone else — you’d be surprised how much kids like to hear us talk even if they don’t contribute right away.

Don’t play hard to get

If you’re starting to feel like a desperate, love-stricken teenager, it’s okay to back off on your overt affection. But don’t resort to turning your back on your child or storming off and playing hard to get. You don’t want to send the signal that your love is conditional and that you can’t handle your child’s hot and cold streaks. Even though your child isn’t leaping into your arms, he still needs you.

Be sure to manage your own hurt feelings without putting this pressure on your kid. It isn’t his responsibility to take care of you and make you feel good. Send the message instead (whether spoken or unspoken): I can give you some space, but I’d love to talk, play, or give you a hug. I’m ready when you are.

Allow for a warm-up

If you’ve been working long hours or otherwise out of the family loop, you might be extra keen on re-connecting with your child. But little kids don’t always return the sentiment in the same way — your absence may create a little emotional distance for the time being. That’s okay. Come back in, continue with your normal routine, and your child will likely inch his way back to you on his own time.

Use humor

There’s nothing like humor to lighten the mood and open your child up. Tell him it looks like you two are having a silent contest or seeing who can act like a statue the longest. Grab a stuffed animal and start having a straight-faced conversation about its day at school, pretend to bump your head on the doorframe and fall … whatever gets a smile. You don’t want to make fun of or dismiss your child’s feelings if he’s sad or angry, but if you’re just trying to engage, a joke is a good bet.

Bonds look different

Sometimes my son gazes into my eyes lovingly as we Eskimo kiss — my husband looking on from across the room incredulously and with an empty lap. My relationship with my son can, on the surface, seem more intimate and affectionate than the one he has with his dad at times. But as I’ve written about before, our bonds look different with each parent, even when they are equally strong and important. Maybe you are the one your child likes to roughhouse and tickle, or ask endless questions to, or share a love of soccer with.

Don’t underestimate how much your child loves you, even when he seems more interested in friends, your partner, a train set, or Elmo. His brain is always processing whether his most important people are available. That doesn’t mean you have to be around all the time (since quality matters more than quantity) or smother him with affection. It just means sending the signal that, even if he’s pushing you away, you’ll still be there when he needs you.

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