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Toddlers' moods can change as quickly — and with as little warning — as the weather. There are about a million reasons why your child might be pushing you away (or suddenly seem desperate for a snuggle). While the best advice is usually just to wait it out like a thunderstorm, here's a list of some of the more common reasons your toddler might be acting standoffish and how to respond:
He's had a bad day.
Just like grown-ups, kids have days when all they want to do is crawl under a rock and stay there. While the issues may be less complex than those adults face, disappointment and frustration can bring out the loner in a toddler. Maybe he didn't get a turn on the swing at the park or he got reprimanded at daycare. Either way, he doesn't want your hugs or cuddles to make him feel better.
How to respond: Respect his desire for distance but let him know that you're there if he wants your help. He may just have to lick his wounds on his own and will seek you out after he's done pouting.
She's recovering from a tantrum.
If she pushes you away right after you've disciplined her with a time-out or by taking away something she wanted, it's common sense: Her feelings have been hurt and she wants you to know it. Or maybe she's just tired — screaming and collapsing on the floor in misery can take a lot out of a person.
How to respond: First, accept that she's entitled to feel disappointed. Think about how you feel after a fight with your spouse or best friend — you probably need some time before you're ready to make up. Your toddler is no different.
Before you give your toddler space, show that you understand her feelings: "You don't want to talk to Mama because you're mad that she didn't let you run in the parking lot, right?" Let her know that you'll be there for her when she feels like a hug. Assure her that no matter what, you still love her — even if she broke the rules.
He's upset with you and doesn't know how to say it.
Toddlers' emotional lives are complex — they can express their feelings but can't yet explain them. Maybe you've been away on a business trip and he missed you but is angry that you were gone. Or perhaps he's upset that you've spent most of the day with your new baby. Whatever the situation may be, his feelings overwhelm him but he doesn't know how to let you know what's going on.
How to respond: If you suspect that there's an underlying reason for your child's rejection, talk to him. Ask him questions in a gentle manner — "Are you feeling like I don't spend enough time with you?" — and accept his responses without judgment.
It may hurt to hear that he's angry or upset with you (he may say, "Mean mommy," for instance), but remember that his feelings aren't permanent. By talking to you, he's trying to make sense of them.
She's going through an "independent" phase.
At age 1 your child may have seemed glued to your lap. As she gets older, she may refuse to even let you near her block tower. This could be because she needs you less, because she's testing you to see if you'll be steadfast in your love if she tries pushing you away, or simply because she's going through a busy stage in which her focus is elsewhere (and you're just interrupting her learning time with your requests for kisses).
How to respond: Try not to take her rebuffs too seriously. She still loves you but may not need your hugs and kisses as much right now. If it seems like you're bothering her when she's hard at work, save your hugs and kisses for bedtime or when she's not so occupied. As long as she's sure you adore her, she'll know where to find you when she's in a cuddly mood.
He's in a Daddy-favoring (or Mommy-favoring) phase.
He's acting up with you but is just fine with your partner — or vice versa.
How to respond: It's normal for kids to go through phases of clinginess or rejection with each parent, especially if one of you is working outside the home full-time. But if you think your child's change in attitude means something more significant, look at your and your partner's behavior. Do either of you somehow encourage this favoritism?
It could be that without realizing it, you're acting annoyed every time your partner comes home or you're suddenly lavishing your little one with affection. Does your partner expect your child to run to him with open arms, when it's really more your toddler's style to warm up slowly?
She may not be the touchy-feely type.
Even if you're very affectionate, your child is her own person and may not have inherited this trait.
How to respond: If your toddler seems distant, you may have to simply accept her for who she is. Instead of acting hurt, let your child lead the way when it comes to affection. Chances are that even if she has a more self-reliant temperament, she'll still need a hug or a kiss once in a while — when she's upset or scared, for instance.
Try to read her reactions, and if you think she's open to it, offer your affection. She'll take you up on it when she's ready.
He isn't feeling well.
Your normally cuddly toddler is suddenly impatient and testy, pushing you away when you expect him to embrace you.
How to respond: If it's a really striking shift, consider a check-up at the pediatrician's office. It could be a physical issue, such as a newly developed allergy or some other illness.
She's feeling real anger or distress — and acting out inappropriately.
Some toddlers occasionally cross the line, and their rejection becomes physically violent (pushing, hitting, or biting, for example).
How to respond: Even if it isn't especially painful, it's important to take a very definite stand against any sort of violent outburst. For a toddler, this means setting a clear and simple consequence: "No. Mommy doesn't like that. If you do that, I'll have to put you down / take you home / take it away." Then make sure to follow through.