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When a Boy Wants Only Mom

QUESTION: Our son is almost three years old. His father is very good with him. He tries to spend as much time with him as he can. However, my son is quite often hostile to him. I don't quite understand this. When my husband tries to dress him, he screams "No mommy do it". When he asks him questions sometimes, he just tells him to "Go away". Is he jealous of my husband? Is this normal? Do children grow out of this or is there some way we should be dealing with this. My husband finds it very frustrating and so do I. I don't want to be the centre of everything all of the time.

I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

ANSWER: Your son is at a stage in which he is having a "love affair" with the opposite sexed parent. The healthy and natural resolution to this "oedipal complex" as it has often been named, is simply that he comes to understand that he gets to have both Mommy and Daddy, and that he can have a wife of his own someday!

Clearly, your son is not trying to make you his wife. He is however competing with Dad for your attention during this period. This classic phase can be interpreted to be a developmental working through of two of the most powerful emotions we will ever experience: love and hate.

In short, he is experiencing a crisis which, if resolved, results in deep ego strength. D. W. Winicott, the famed child theorist, calls this stage "the first maturity", which occurs between 2 and 5 years of age. He describes it as a developmental crisis which is meant to prepare the child for handling the intensity and ambivalence that is life. The drama of competition with the father allows the child to experience two of life's primary emotional forces. He learns to handle strong feelings by integrating rather than disintegrating in the face of conflictual feelings. If this period is handled without rejection by both parents, he learns to internalize mother's love which actually frees him to identify and associate with his father in some important ways.

Do not get lost in too much interpretation! The important concept is that Dad not take the rejection of his son personally. Your son needs to feel that Dad can tolerate the rejection without losing his father's love. Your husband can take comfort in the fact that he is an adult and his son is a child. You are clearly supportive of your husband, and your empathy can go a long way in creating a buffer for Dad's natural reactions. Support him, but share the emotional meaning of this stage and its resolution as a higher purpose in raising your child together.

Your son is doing his job in using Dad to represent an emotion that he must come to terms with if he is to function well in the world. It will also help future stages (such as adolescence) if he experiences a taming of this very primal force. It is the father's ability to absorb his son's aggression that allows the child to develop internal strength and stability. If your husband did not experience this with his own father, or felt serious rejection from his Dad, this stage could be more challenging for him. And he may need greater support in resolving his own issues with his father so he can remain loving and nonreactive to his son's behavior at this time.

Your job is also to remain tolerant and neutral to your son's clinging. Be clear that Daddy is an available and acceptable resource. Do not give in to his demands for you to do everything for him. Be loving and firm with limits and reflecting that Dad is his option. But do not shame or rebuke him. You must absorb your son's expression of dependency without reacting with rejection. If you succeed in this, he will internalize your love and be more capable of independence in the future. Simply accept his feelings as normal. But be clear that you and Daddy love him and can equally address his needs, but accept that he wants only you and for Daddy to disappear. (But not really!).

When this stage resolves you will have one very calm and confident child. This will be his first experience with resolving the conflict of having strong, competing emotions. And he will have won! If he wins, you all win. He will be capable of expressions of love to you both and he will learn that this is a family in which conflicting feelings can be expressed and resolved. A sense of well-being is the result of experiencing love and hate in a family that is able to contain and transform these primal energies, without making anybody go away! Somehow, this tempers the polarities of the primary forces inherent in life and renders us more capable of experiencing the ups and downs of living with less distress and more equanimity.

And by the way, you should also congratulate yourself on the stable and nurturing environment the two of you have created in order for this natural crisis to emerge. Your son must feel that you are safe people to express these strong feelings to you rather than repress them. Now it is your job to prove him right!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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