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Toddler not happy to see me at daycare pickup?

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My 21-month-old son is in a fantastic babysitter/daycare situation where he gets tons of one-on-one attention. He loves it there (runs right in without looking back every morning). But, when I pick him up, he's completely indifferent to seeing me. As a matter of fact, he sees me and often ignores me (or appears to) and then instantly acts out! Usually that means throwing a toy or pulling my hair. Of course, he's perfect all day long for the babysitter. She was shocked the first time she saw him throw a toy.

The hair pulling I have combated very successfully with your suggestion to say "ouch" and focus on myself, not him. I have no idea how to react to the throwing. Right now I take away the toy, tell him we don't throw, and put the toy away. Most of the time he simply doesn't seem to care that the toy is gone. He has now started throwing things at home too.

I guess I have a couple of questions. First, why isn't he acting happy to see me and how can I make the daycare pick-up easier on him (and me)? Second, what do you feel is the best way to get him to stop throwing toys? Everybody talks about the big smiles and hugs they get from their toddlers when picking up their kids from daycare....I'm missing something here!

I think I should add that I'm a teacher, so Carter has only been back at daycare for about 4 weeks. The throwing was occasional this summer, but not like it is now!


Dear Kristy,

Your little guy sounds wonderful. I suspect that he IS happy to see you, but one of two things is happening.

#1- He's having a hard time making the transition. Toddlers live in the moment. When you show up, he's in a different world. How can he switch gears and connect with you? He needs a little help.

Jen, a home childcare provider, has this advice for you:

"I've definitely seen this behaviour before! I think it often has more to do with a toddler's ability to deal with transitions, than their attachment to mummy. When I see this behaviour in kiddie-winks in my care, I am careful to create a predictable end-of-the-day routine to help ease the transition (ie. snack, read books, get our coats on, look out the window for mummy). It works beautifully"

Ask your childcare provider to help your son make this transition every day. If that doesn't help, then we need to dig a bit deeper.

#2- He's mad, and he's letting you know it. First he gives you the silent treatment --"I'll show her! I won't even look at her!" But that's not quite enough to make sure you get the message, so he tops it off by throwing a toy, or pulling your hair!

I know plenty of kids are just happy to see their parents, but there are many kids who respond as your son does when reunited with their parents after a separation. In fact, it's classic and written about a lot in the psychology literature. It doesn't matter how good the daycare situation is, kids still miss Mom, and many of them let her know they're mad in no uncertain terms.

So here's the important point: Your son's disappointing reaction when you pick him up from daycare is not a reflection of his lack of affection for you at all. It is a plea to you, saying "Mom, I have all these sad feelings about how you were gone, but I'm afraid that if I show you by crying you wouldn't understand. So I'm MAD. And I won't even talk to you. But I will show you how mad I am at you by throwing something or pulling your hair!"

Your best response? Speak to the feelings, not the behavior, and certainly don't punish the behavior and get into a power struggle with him. Say "You seem so mad you don't even want to look at me, and you're throwing things. I think you're sad and you missed me. Can I give you hug? I missed you too, and I really need a hug!"

If he resists the hug, or pulls your hair, say "You are so mad at me that you don't want a hug. You are so mad at me you want to pull my hair. You are mad I was gone. You missed me. You were sad inside."

If he keeps throwing things, you can say "You are so mad at me that you are throwing. We don't throw. Can you show me how mad you are by roaring like a lion?" He will probably roar so loud you'll both end up laughing.

I know he's only 21 months old, but he knows these words. I think he will hear you. You might feel a bit funny saying all this in front of other people, but I predict that it will make a tremendous difference in your son's behavior, because he will feel that you DO understand him and accept his feelings.

Kids who feel their moms can be depended on to comfort them and empathize with their feelings usually run to their mom for comfort when she arrives.They may burst into tears from the effort of keeping it together all day in her absence, but they certainly don't ignore her or act angry. That's healthy attachment.

In addition to changing what you say to him when you pick him up at daycare, you might want to give some thought to how you respond to his feelings in general. If you can see things from his point of view, and empathize with his feelings even when you have to set a necessary limit, he will feel he can depend on you with the full range of his feelings, including his sadness and anger. That's the foundation of emotional health, and a child who feels that way is almost certain to greet his mom with a hug when she picks him up at daycare.

I'd love to hear what works to help your son make this transition every day. Please keep in touch.
Dr. Laura

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