Why Do Kids Behave Differently When Mom is Around?

Dear Dr. Corwin:

I am the father of a two-year-old boy. When I am with him alone, he is a good toddler. He gives me no problems and doesn’t whine or throw tantrums. But when he is with my wife alone, or my wife and I are together with him, he is whiney and has tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. I tell my wife to be more stern with him and discipline him more, but she says that she does and it doesn’t help. Why is he whiney and has tantrums when my wife is around? As long as she is there, he just seems to change.

Dear Dad:
Thanks for your thoughtful question. This is VERY normal for a two-year-old. I assume his verbal skills are not terrific yet, so he is using his body to express how he feels. Whining and tantrums are forms of communication, even if they are not very appropriate ones.

Mothers symbolize NEEDS for children, and biologically kids are wired to associate the NEED for food and survival with their Mom. That is why kids will escalate their behavior to get attention (a connection) from their Mom anyway they can. Dads, on the other hand, symbolize trust, taking risks
and play for kids. So kids don’t get so desperate for that critical attention from their fathers, as it is not an innate survival attachment.

Kids are naturally behaving differently to get the attention they crave. If your wife gives your child attention by talking, looking at him or touching him when he communicates with whining and tantrums, that is why the behavior continues. So here are some solutions:

First and foremost, work on verbal skills everyday by labeling EVERYTHING for your two-year-old. For example, say a word for everything you give him and when he tries to say a word or sound, look him in the eye and say the word again. With improving language skills, you will see these behaviors fade.
When your son has a tantrum with both you and your wife present, let him just have it, provided he is not hurting himself or either of you. In other words, just turn your backs and walk away. When he is done, pick him up and tell him he did a good job of stopping because his arms and legs aren’t moving anymore and his tears are gone.
When he whines, just do the same thing: no talking, looking or touching. You can either distract him, or just remove him from behind when he whines. But the key to changing this behavior is that both of you are paying attention to him when he uses any words and begins repeating his own words to him.
It sounds like you are a very loving and hardworking Dad. Keep teaching your son verbal skills, help your wife to only react to him when he is not
whining or having a tantrum and you should see changes very soon.

Keep in touch,

Dr. Ann