How can I get my husband to help more with our young son? Our son is very, very active and can be a real handful sometimes-especially stubborn when we need him to get dressed or go somewhere. At the first sign of resistance my husband loses all patience and just leaves the room-and leaves me to deal with our son. I feel trapped by my son’s behavior and my husband’s habit of abandoning ship. What can I do?

One of the difficulties men face when they become fathers-no matter what kind of discipline they experienced in their families-is that they have not had enough practice dealing with the activity level and willfulness of small children. Most women have had some experience as babysitters when they were younger, or with their friends’ children before their own arrive. Women tend to have more and better strategies for dealing with the stubborn defiance of young children. Men are often surprised at how helpless they can be made to feel, and they are humiliated by how angry they become at a four-year-old. People often think men are without compassion or don’t want to deal with problems, when, in fact, a man may be struggling to manage his own internal level of distress.

The best part of what your husband is doing is that he is separating himself from your son before he loses his temper and makes matters worse. You resent his abandonment of you; he may think you’re the better parent and resent your competence in comparison to him. It would help if you two could acknowledge how lonely, scary and difficult parenting can be and let one another know that you both need help. You need relief. He needs strategies. Here are a few that others have found helpful:

  • He could spend enjoyable time with his son when there is no pressure or deadline to get out the door. Purely playful time together, or reading or chatting at bedtime may help him keep more stressful moments in calmer perspective.
  • Ask friends or other parents of active young boys for practical tips. It will be a relief for your husband to hear that other fathers struggle the same way, and see that couples can find effective ways to work on it together. Share some of the strategies that you’ve found helpful with your son at difficult times, and brainstorm with your husband about ways he might adapt those strategies to make his own.
  • Develop a collaborative tag-team system so you can give your son to your husband when you’re feeling resentful and he can give his son back to you when he feels overwhelmed. Most likely, when your son sees you two working together, he’ll more easily give up his oppositional behavior.
  • In the early evening, when you both still have some energy, debrief each other about the highs and lows of your son’s day, or your day with him. Share your impressions. Try to laugh about it when you can. Isn’t it amazing and ridiculous that children can make us feel so powerless? But it happens to everyone.