Why Does My 4-Year-Old Boy Act Differently With Me?

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Reader’s Question

My wife and I have a 4-year-old son. His behavior with both my wife and me is different than when he and I are alone together.

When all three of us are together, he always looks to mom for clarification. He seems to push me aside in favor of mom. This happens when it’s bath time, bed time, time to brush teeth, and even prior to when he puts on pajamas. It’s almost always an issue no matter who tells him it’s time to do these things. He loves to read stories but usually I can only read if my wife is unavailable.

If I tell him time for bed, he gets upset, tells me to stop and that I can’t say that. I can’t even put him to bed or brush his teeth. He won’t hug or kiss me goodnight and wants nothing to do with me. There are other scenarios and situations besides night time — it’s not just limited to this — but these are the most common and have been becoming progressively worse.

When my son and I are together, it’s an entirely different situation, even if my wife is in the house but just in a different room. He is absolutely without a doubt, a different person. There’s never any issue with any of the above. He has a great attitude, we always have a lot of fun, and he’s very loving. He will do all that he’s asked or told, never whines or complains, and he does it all with a smile. Our relationship together when alone is fantastic, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We have more than just a father/son relationship; it’s also about being friends.

However, when my wife is present, I’m an outcast to him. Can you offer any assistance in resolving this situation?

Psychologist’s Reply

One of the toughest jobs in the world is being a parent, not just because it’s very time-consuming but also because it doesn’t come with a good manual. There are so many variations to a child’s behavior as they grow that it’s difficult to know what to do. Often you’ll get through one stage, take a deep breath and find that you’re in another challenging situation. Consequently, while parenthood is never boring, you always have to be on your toes.

One of the jobs that young children have is to push boundaries. They are trying to learn the rules of social interactions and just how far they can push things. That is one reason why they do so well with schedules and boundaries. Once kids figure things out, they feel more at ease and can go on to explore the next thing. This may be what your son is doing.

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It could be that he’s struggling to figure out who is in charge when it is just the three of you. Your son may not do well with transition and may need only one person telling him what to do. If he tends to spend more time with your wife, he may believe that she should be in charge and look to her for guidance. Thus, his acting out behavior could be because he’s confused or upset. You may want to try taking turns at putting him to bed and see what happens. However, you both need to be very consistent with both the rules as well as the consequences of his behavior. Both of you need to agree ahead of time what the rules are. There should be a consistent bedtime routine (e.g., first he takes a bath, then he puts on his pajamas, then he brushes his teeth, then he gets in bed and has a story read to him) and the timing of when he gets in bed should be approximately the same time every night. You also both need to agree upon what will happen if he doesn’t follow the rules.

One of the most common mistakes I see parents make is adhering to the idea that it’s easier and/or healthier to allow the kids more power. Although they don’t always show it, kids need structure. Your son may be your friend when he is a young adult, but for now he needs you to be his parents. Consequently, I hope that you and your wife both agree that your family is not a democracy, and your four-year-old should not get to decide what he will or will not do. There are rules, and he needs to follow them regardless of who is implementing them. You can give him choices, like putting on his pajamas himself or having whoever is putting him to bed do it for him, but he needs to know that putting them on will occur regardless. You don’t have to yell or get upset; you just need to be firm.

It could also be that he’s in a “preference” stage and just prefers your wife over you right now. If that is the case, don’t worry. Kids frequently change their preferences at the drop of a hat.

There are many factors that could be impacting your son’s behavior, and it is difficult to know the whole picture from just a brief snippet of information. Consequently, if things don’t get better soon, you may want to consult a local child psychologist in order to obtain a more complete evaluation.

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