Q&A: toddler prefers one parent

Linda writes:

"Okay, so one of my 20-month-old twin girls is going through the"extremely attached to Daddy" phase.  It’s no big deal in regard to my
feelings, but it IS a big deal in regards to our evenings.  When my
husband gets home from work, she goes ballistic.  First, she’s just
thrilled to see him and show him her toys and have him play with her.
Then she becomes extremely fragile and freaks out over EVERY LITTLE
THING.  He can’t put her down or change his clothes or pick up our
other daughter.  We are both torn.  We want to give her all the
Daddy-love she needs.  On the other hand, is it okay to be catering to
her like this?  She is getting to the age where she can start
manipulating and becoming spoiled, isn’t she?  It’s not like when she
was a baby and her wants equaled her needs.  We are wondering if she’s
angry at him for being gone all day.  Of course, he feels guilty about
that thought and has been trying to spend extra one-on-one time with
her in hopes that this will fufill her need.  So far it’s not working.
For the record, our other daughter seems okay with the amount of
attention that she gets from my husband.  Her behavior hasn’t changed.
I think she’s okay with the extra attention that Daddy’s girl is
getting right now, but I (and my husband) certainly don’t want it to
continue like this forever.
What do you think?"

In four months she won’t even want your husband to look at her. I’m completely serious–some toddlers go through phases in which they don’t want anyone looking at them. They’re strange little creatures, toddlers.

It very well might be that she’s angry that he’s at work all day. Or it may be that she’s getting messages from the toddler mothership to cling to him as if her life depended on it. This is a common stage some toddlers go through. I think they’re so strange because they’re really starting to understand themselves as individuals, and they have these fierce opinions and desires at this stage. They can almost express them, but not quite, and it’s incredibly frustrating.

I thought months 18-21 or so were the worst in terms of frustration, acting out, and just generally strange behavior (like wanting to wear the same shirt day after day after day, or only eating peas, and I’d put her clinginess with your husband in that same category). Before I sat down to write this I looked in my Ames & Ilg Your One-Year-Old: Fun-Loving and Fussy to see if they had a special section about clinging to one parent. They didn’t cover it in depth at all, but the chapter with "Stories From Real Life" had all sorts of letters from poor, frustrated parents in the 1970s that sound exactly like the stuff we’re going through now. "Patrick is a Daddy’s Boy," "Twenty-One Months Can Be Hardest Age For Child," "Youngster Frightened By Rain, Fights Against Naps and Bedtime," "Little Boy Bites Less But Pinches and Shoves More," and the letters continue.

But it’s normal, and it’s not going to last. This stage is so frustrating for toddlers that to me it just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to crack the whip and try to break bad habits or really do much discipline, because the emotions are too high and it won’t really stick as easily as it will when they hit the next law-loving phase. Do you remember when you were 14 and you just thought the world was conspiring to makes things difficult for you? I think that’s what it must feel like to be 1 3/4. The best cure for the acting out is to only enforce the rules that are actually important, try to facilitate communication as much as possible, and just hold on because in another 4 months you’ll have a much more confident, steady, fluent child who is happier more often than frustrated.

If your other daughter doesn’t seem upset by not getting equal time with Daddy, then I wouldn’t worry about it because you’d know if she was bothered by it. I’m now imagining how awful his evenings would be if both of them wanted to be attached to him at the hip.

Incidentally, the last letter in the letters section of the Ames and Ilg book is "Watching Young Child Grow Can Be A Joyful Experience." Which you already knew, but your husband may need to keep repeating to himself as he tries to walk through the house with 25 pounds of girl hugging his leg.