Dear Dr. Debbie,
My daughter’s father and I are co-parenting in separate homes. She’s two. Almost every day she’s with me she’s asking if it’s time to go to Daddy’s house. Not that she’s anxious about going to his house or anxious to leave mine; she’s just confused about time. If we’re heading anywhere near where he lives, she asks, “Is it time to go to Daddy’s house?” Is she too young for me to use a calendar to explain how the alternating weeks work?
Week On Week Off
Yes, she’s too young to understand how a calendar works, but not too young for you to use one with her. I recommend a monthly paper calendar with bright seasonal photos so she can begin to relate time to the passing phases of nature.
Age four is generally when a child begins to grasp the idea of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Age four is when a child understands what you mean by “a little more time” when it’s almost time to leave the park, or to put away the toys, or to snuggle before lights out.
Until then, if a child hears: “Not right now”, or “Later”, or “In a little while”, her brain interprets this as: “No, not ever.” At age two, your daughter is very much in the present with no patience and very little faith that what she wants but can’t have right now will ever happen. Similarly, everything that happened before today might as well be, “last week” which is how many two-year-olds express memories of yesterday or two weeks ago, or two months ago.
Trust a Reliable Source
When you refer to the calendar and count out the days for her, she gets the idea that you know how a calendar works, and that you can use it to accurately know when it’s the day to go to Daddy’s house. When you point out special events such as a visit the two of you took to the zoo or her upcoming dental appointment, she learns that, according to the calendar, the things that you say will happen actually do happen. You could add picture stickers or doodles to the calendar so she can “read” the events, too. The calendar tells all. It’s a reliable tool.
When you refer to the calendar to show her when her Daddy Days are, you are transferring the authority from yourself to the calendar. As you may have noticed, your two-year-old has discovered her own mind, and uses it to oppose yours at every opportunity. You say, “Climb up here on the couch and let me help get your sweater buttoned” and she runs into the next room while taking the sweater off. “I do it myself!” is the frequent expression of the child who revels in the thrill of her burgeoning independence. Yes, this is perfectly normal behavior since she doesn’t understand time anyway and suffers no regret in making you late. A two-year-old will undo progress toward getting out, or getting home, just to prove to you that she is capable of buttoning her own sweater. Even if she isn’t.
Prevent a conflict between you about whether it’s a Daddy Day or not but showing her how to check the calendar herself. This way it’s not up to you when she changes homes, it’s up to the dates on the calendar. There’s no point in arguing with a piece of paper.
Rituals for Transition
Adults use holidays, closet cleaning, tax filing, and other seasonal actions to mark time each year. With a much narrower focus on time, a two-year-old needs daily rather than annual rituals, especially at bedtime, to securely close out one day and look forward to the next. If you make a habit of x’ing out the days on the calendar together, at the same time of day each day, your little one will come to see that the progress through the blocks on the page are as certain as the sun coming up each morning.
Use rituals at the beginning and the end of each week with her, too. A two-year-old with two homes should have transfer rituals as her care shifts from one parent to the other. For example, the day before transition day, you could help her decide on a toy or book to bring to her other home. If she has a current toy or stuffy that goes everywhere with her, help her to set it by the door in preparation for the car ride. Maybe there are pets, or wall posters, or a favorite piece of furniture (such as a child-size rocking chair), that she says “Good-by” to before leaving your home. Or maybe she puts a book on her pillow for you to read with her the first night she’s back.
Even though she can’t yet read or comprehend much about time, a calendar can help a two-year-old feel that there is predictability to transitioning back and forth between her parents’ homes.
Dr. Wood will be presenting a workshop for parents and professional caregivers entitled: “I Had it First!” – Teaching Conflict Negotion, Wednesday, April 6, 7 pm – 9 pm, and Temper Tantrums, Sunday, April 10, 7-9 pm on Zoom. Register online or by phone: 410-990-1993.
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