My toddler wants only to be with one of his parents at a time

toddlerQ. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old boy. He is an only child. Both myself and his father are in our early 40s. Sometimes when we are both in the room with him, say the kitchen/ living room, he will ask one of us to leave the room, as in “Go away Mammy/Daddy”, and will slam the door in our face. He will then remain in the room with one of us, if the other person tries to come back into the room he will say, “Get out”. Is this normal?

A. Children are naturally rivalrous of their parents’ attention and every child at some time or another will play their parents off one another, or seek to be closer to one parent rather than the other. This is particularly normal developmentally for a child at two and a half years of age who is beginning to be aware of the “power” relationships in the family.

Classically, Freud might have posited this as the beginning of the Oedipus complex, where a child tends to go through a stage of seeking the love of one parent more (usually on cross-gender lines) and to exclude the other. Alternatively, it could be simply that at two and half years old, it is natural for your son to want to be at the centre of attention. When the two of you are talking to one another, he might feel he is not getting enough attention and thus wants one of you to leave.

The key to dealing with the rivalry is not to take it personally and to respond in a matter of fact way. While it is okay for him to want to play alone with one of you, and indeed it is very healthy for him to have different one-to-one times with each of you during the day, it is not okay for him to be bossy or rude in how he requests this. So when he asks one of you to leave, you decide whether it suits you to play with him at that time, but insist on him being polite – you might say, “No, Mum and Dad are in the room now” or “You can play with Dad now, but you must ask nicely” or “Mum and Dad are talking now, we will play later” etc.

This is a behaviour he is likely to grow out of in his own time. By responding assertively, insisting on respect as well as making sure he has one-to-one time with both of you at different times throughout the day, you will help him to stay connected to both of you.

John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.