‘Dear Sue, why does my 2-year-old sometimes reject my affection?’
~ Rory McIntyre from Kinross, Scotland.
The first thing to remember is not to take it personally when your child steers clear of your kisses and hides from your hugs.
Two-year-olds’ moods can change as quickly as the weather. There are about a million reasons why your child might be pushing you away (or suddenly seem desperate for a hug.)
Kids have good and bad days just like us. Sometimes he may be a bit cross with you for leaving him to go to work, or at a friend’s house, or at nursery, or at a crèche but this is just a phase. Simple things can make kids less affectionate maybe he didn’t get a turn on the swing at the park, or maybe you said ’No’ to him over something.
Maybe he’s recovering from a tantrum. If he pushes you away immediately after you disciplined him, told him off, or you have just taken away something that he wanted, it’s natural that he feels upset, cross, frustrated or angry with you. His feelings have been hurt and he wants you to know it. Or maybe he’s just exhausted as a full-blown temper tantrum can take a lot out of a little person!
How to respond: First, accept that he’s entitled to feel upset, cross, angry, disappointed or frustrated. Think about how you feel after a fight with your partner, business colleague or a friend — you probably need some time before you feel ready to make up. Your 2-year-old is no different. However, take the bigger picture. Your child needs you to put in firm, fair, consistent boundaries round him until he is able to self-regulate. It’s your job as a parent to absorb his anger or disappointment and not be too affected by it. He needs you to be confident, understanding and compassionate but not over indulgent.
One simple tip is to show him that you understand his feelings: “I can see you’re feeling angry with me because I didn’t let you play for longer with your Lego right? But it’s bed time now & you can play again with it tomorrow. Let’s have a story” Naming his emotion helps a child feel understood & they feel more relaxed. Let him know that you’ll be there for him when he feels like a hug. Assure him that no matter what, you still love him – even if he got angry, broke your rules, or did something naughty. It’s called unconditional love – and he needs to know that you love him even if you’re not too keen on his behaviour at the moment.
Two-year-olds’ emotional lives are complex — they can express their feelings but can’t yet explain them. Maybe you’ve been away working or shopping or doing DIY and he missed you and he’s angry that you were gone as small children have no idea about time. Whatever the situation may be, his strong feelings overwhelm him but he doesn’t know how to let you know what’s going on inside as he doesn’t have the vocabulary to express himself properly yet.
How to respond: If you suspect that there’s an underlying reason for his rebuff, talk to him. Ask him questions in a gentle, relaxed manner — “Are you feeling like I don’t spend enough time with you?” — and accept his responses without judgment.
Explain simply without guilt (as life doesn’t just evolve around him) that you have to go shopping, do some work or go to the post office and even have a bit of ‘Me Time’ and then matter of factly say – let’s play xxxxxx now.
If you play together regularly every day around the same time – he gets used to your full attention and can trust and rely on it. So, he relaxes. Be fully present. If you are playing on the carpet play and be fully there having fun with your son – don’t feel guilty about that Report you should be writing & visa versa – if you in the office don’t feel guilty about not being at home playing! Enjoy building memories that last a lifetime.
It may hurt to hear that he’s angry or upset with you (but that’s life) & he may say, “You’re a mean mummy/daddy,” for instance — but remember that his feelings aren’t permanent. By talking to you, he’s trying to make sense of them so allow him the space to express his emotions and feelings. He will grow up emotionally literate which is a great thing & will have healthy wellbeing & mental health.
He may be going through an “independent” phase.
At age 1 your child may have seemed glued to your hip. At 2 he may refuse to even let you near his Lego tower. This could be because he’s getting older and needs you less, because he’s testing you to see if you’ll be unwavering in your love if he tries pushing you away, or simply because he’s going through a busy stage where his focus is elsewhere (and you’re just interrupting his learning time with your requests for kisses & hugs).
How to respond: Try not to take his rebuffs too seriously. He still loves you but may not need your big bear hugs as much at the moment. If it seems like you’re bothering him when he’s hard at work, (playing) reserve your hugs and kisses for bedtime story time or when he’s not so occupied. As long as he’s sure you love him, he’ll know where to find you when he’s in a more cuddly, affectionate mood.
He may not be the touchy-feely type.
Even if you’re very affectionate, your child is an individual in their own right and may not have a touchy-feely personality.
How to respond: If your child seems independent and slightly aloof, you may have to simply accept him for who he is. Instead of acting hurt & needy yourself, let him lead the way when it comes to affection. Even a more self-reliant child likes a hug from time to time. Don’t fuss, take your lead from your child and relax. Tailor your touch – instead of great big bear hugs and lavish kisses try stroking their cheek gently or a hair tussle. Other kids prefer a quick tickle, high five or quick squeeze.
Try ‘Catch & Release’ as soon as he wants to wriggle free – let him it will make him less hug-shy.
Notice your child’s body language & if you think he’s open to a cuddle – offer him your affection. He’ll take you up on it when he’s ready.
Don’t scold or embarrass your little one if they don’t fancy a cuddle – as that only makes him feel guilty about not pleasing you and may make things worse.
What to do if your child never wants to be held, touched or cuddled.
Some resistance to cuddles and hugs is normal. But if your child never wants to be touched and seems physically and emotionally distant, check in with your doctor as they may be somewhere on the spectrum of autism.
Take a look at my 24 week Toddler System where I cover temper tantrums, fussy eating to bedtime routines here.