Relationship Connection: My husband won’t say ‘no’ to our toddler

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Question

My husband and I have a 3-year-old. The issue is that my husband never says “no” to our son. Whatever my son whines for, he gets from my husband: unlimited candy, watching TV, no bath, staying up hours past his bedtime. My husband works late shift, so I am the one with my son more.

It is causing big problems because apart from some things just not being healthy for our son, whenever my husband is with us, our son will throw a fit over everything until he gets his way. I hate to see this because our son is normally a very happy boy, but the screaming and crying for hours over every little thing really drains me. Plus, my husband sees so little of the fun, happy-go-lucky side of our son that he is starting to avoid being with him as much.

I know that our son would change if my husband started to say “no” with some things, because I have seen how he has changed with me. For example, he used to throw fits with me about TV, but after about a week of me saying “no” every night, he now accepts it. In fact, sometimes even without asking me, he randomly says, “No TV today, mommy,” like he was thinking of asking me but then answered his own question.

I have talked to my husband about saying “no,” and he knows it needs to happen, but he hasn’t been able to do it. And he doesn’t see the stark difference of how happy and loving our son can really be.

Answer

Toddlers are a daily mix of joy and frustration! They’re asserting their autonomy while needing lots of security and structure. Even though you and your husband are feeling overwhelmed by your split strategies for parenting your son, the good news is that your son will respond well to whatever approach you both agree on. Without some unity, these tantrums and battles will continue and only get worse when he’s older. 

I imagine that since your husband is working night shifts and doesn’t get to see his son as much as he’d like to, he’s likely more permissive with his parenting approach. This is a common dynamic for parents when they feel guilty about not being around as much as they’d like. They often feel the need overcompensate by indulging with fewer rules and giving in to demands. Unfortunately, this interaction is more chaotic and leaves both the parent and the child feeling more powerless and insecure. 

In order for his good intentions to stick, he’s going to need to deal with his guilt and trust that his limited interactions with his son are still going to bond them to each other. Your son will benefit more from a mixture of play, warmth, structure and redirection than by only play.

Children, especially small children, do better when they know that they’re not in charge of their parents. It actually creates anxiety in children when they can overwhelm their parents with their demands. Distracted and permissive parenting leaves children feeling more insecure and anxious

If your husband feels guilty and gives in to your son, work together to find ways to maximize his time with him so he can know that he’s building a secure connection with him. Perhaps you can both set your son up for success by having planned activities with clear parameters instead of letting the toddler structure all of the interactions.

For example, you can plan some time playing a game together, eating a healthy snack together, reading a book before bedtime, making the bedtime routine playful and structured, etc. Toddlers thrive when there is play and structure. 

Even though child-led play is important for his development, it’s more important right now for him to know that he can make choices within the loving structure his parents put in place. You’ve already seen how secure your son feels when he knows the rules and follows them. In fact, he’s even enforcing the rules himself! 

Keep working with your husband on creating the structure for your son. Your husband may rely on you to help him structure these interactions until he can see how beneficial it is to your son.

If your husband refuses to cooperate with you and continues to undermine the structure, then this is a marriage problem that may require more personalized attention with a marriage counselor. You’re on the right track, and these efforts will hopefully help you and your husband feel more unified while your son gets the play and structure he needs. 

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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