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Kids' 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 child might be acting standoffish and how to respond:
She'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 your child. Maybe her best buddy didn't want to play with her at recess or her classmates made fun of her at school. Either way, she doesn't want your hugs or cuddles to make her feel better.
How to respond: Elementary-school kids need space to figure stuff out. Resist the urge to try to fix things with a hug. Instead, say, "I see you've had a rough day. When you're ready for some help, I'll be here."
If you feel bad about her rejection, put yourself in her shoes: If you wanted some alone time to cope with distress or disappointment, wouldn't it drive you crazy if someone was in your face about it?
She's upset with you and doesn't know how to say it.
Kids' emotional lives are complex. Maybe you've been away on a business trip and she missed you but is angry that you were gone. Or perhaps you've spent most of the day with your new baby. Whatever the situation may be, her feelings overwhelm her but she isn't sure how to let you know what's going on.
By this age, children are more aware of the power of rejection — and how to wield it. They've undoubtedly experienced it themselves with their friends. They're also beginning to make judgments about you and your behavior, such as whether a decision you've made is fair or not.
How to respond: If you suspect that there's an underlying reason for your child's rejection, talk to her. Ask her questions in a gentle manner ("Are you feeling like I don't spend enough time with you?") and accept her responses without defensiveness.
It may hurt to hear that she's angry or upset with you — she may say, "You're mean" or "I hate you," for instance — but remember that her feelings aren't permanent. By talking to you, she's trying to make sense of them.
Once the initial wave of anger has subsided, try to get back on track by doing a quiet activity together with no pressure or expectation (such as watching a video or reading a story). That quiet time will help the two of you feel a warm connection again.
She's only rejecting Mommy or Daddy.
She's acting up with you and is just peachy keen with her papa — 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 husband comes home or you're suddenly lavishing your daughter with affection. Does your husband expect your child to run to him with open arms, when it's really more her style to warm up slowly? Ask her if there's anything bothering her.
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 child seems distant, you may simply have to accept her for who she is. Instead of acting hurt, let her 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 her your affection. She'll take you up on it when she's ready.
She's experiencing real anger or distress — and acting out inappropriately.
Some kids can 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. Tell your child the behavior is not acceptable and pick a consequence for her actions, like a time-out or taking away a privilege. Then make sure to follow through.
It's also a good idea to talk through what happened — after a cooling-down period and on your child's level. If you think you have any fault in the matter, model taking responsibility and state where you've gone wrong ("I'm sorry I spoke sharply in the supermarket"), what you'll do to repair the problem ("I'm going to try hard not to speak so sharply next time"), and what you expect from your child (talking out her feelings instead of hitting).
At this age your child can handle a discussion about your feelings of disappointment and anger at her outburst, but don't make your feelings the focus of the conversation. Instead, say, "Let's think about forgiving each other for that hard time."
She may not want a physical or public display of affection.
Regardless of your child's temperament, you may need to find different ways to show your affection as she gets older.
How to respond: You can't exactly rush onto the field at soccer practice to plant a wet one on her cheek. But you can develop a secret greeting, share the same joke over and over again, or have a special look that your child knows is reserved just for her. Your child will understand that you adore her, and she'll know where to find you when she's ready to share some physical affection.