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  Parenting Advice Column
  Subject: Toddler reacts to excessive separation

Question:

Hi Jan,

I am the step mother of a 3-year-old girl. She lives with her mother, and we have standard visitation - every other weekend, etc. We created some stability while she was with us for the month of July (summer visitation) and she seemed to calm down a little.

Her mother does not keep any consistent schedule for her, and she is in daycare and baby-sitters until 9 or 10 most nights, no "family" meals, etc. Is there any documentation concerning the welfare of the child, keeping consistency, etc.? My husband is going to try to get his ex to agree to continue some of the family rituals we started, but unless there may be some "scientific" proof, she is less likely to agree. Also, how is the best way to deal with the inconsistency that is present in her life? Basically, how can we best help her in this situation when we have so little time with her and her mother is not willing to compromise or see that maybe things could be different?

I am a stay-at-home mom with an 11-year-old daughter, and feel guilty that our time is taken up trying to create a smooth time around the 3 year-old ... she throws incredible temper tantrums.

Thanks for your response.

Bridget


Jan's Reply:

Hi Bridget,

Thank you for writing and for visiting our site.

As you are probably aware, age 3 is far too young to cope successfully with the separations this little girl is having to experience: both the day care and the month-long separation from her mother. One of these separations would be very difficult for any child this age. Having to cope with both is probably beyond the capacity of any young child. Her temper tantrums are her way of expressing the fears and worries these circumstances are creating. I would be less concerned about the "inconsistency" of day time rituals such as meals, and far more concerned about the excessive and lengthy separations.

Rather than focusing on the "rituals", I would urge your husband to make any suggestions he or you can think of to minimize the number and length of the separations. Can her mother work fewer hours, start a home business, or in some other way have more time with her? A child this age needs as much undivided attention from her mother as possible, unless the parenting is abusive. In a few years, lengthier visits with you can be a stabilizing influence. Until then, no matter how much love and attention you give her, the unavoidable fact that she is at the same time separated from her mother will make it difficult for you to help.

It must be frustrating for you to want to help, and to see how you might help, yet not be in a position to provide the kind of attention she needs right now. I commend you for your caring and concern, but there is only one person who can satisfy her need for her mother's time and attention.

There is a vast amount of research that confirms the importance of mother-child bonding in the early years. During these years, the best way for you to help would be to do whatever you can to strengthen your step-daughter's bond with her mother. Then in later years it will be that much easier to help her in other ways.

All good wishes,

Jan

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