Do you get pushed away by your child in favor of the other parent? Or maybe you can never get a moment to yourself because your child always wants you? This week, Dr. Nanika Coor offers tips for what to do when your child has an extreme preference for one parent.
Are you a parent who can barely get one second to yourself because your child is constantly following you around? Do they insist that they need you and refuse to accept help or comfort from their other parent?
Do you find yourself having to come to your child’s or your partner’s rescue when the two of them are in yet another conflict where your child is insisting that you do something for them that their other parent is available and capable of doing?
Maybe you’re a parent who is often sent away by your child in favor of their other parent. Your child screams for their other parent to give them a bath, change their diaper, or make their grilled cheese. When your partner has to go out, your child clings to them on the way out and wails for what seems like forever after they leave, refusing to allow you to comfort them in any way. Maybe your child constantly tells you how their other parent does X, Y, or Z better than you?
One of the most common dynamics I see in my practice is the scenario where a toddler or young child shows an extreme preference for one parent over the other. Parents have expressed feelings around this dynamic that span from neutral to hurt to furious to exhausted. The rebuffed parent can feel rejected, excluded, and helpless. The preferred parent can feel like they never get a break from being the go-to parent for both their child and their partner. It feels unsustainable for everyone.
A child’s extreme parental preference can result in a situation where there tends to be one parent longing for more parent-child connection and one parent feeling overloaded with parent-child connection.
A child showing favoritism towards one parent is very common, especially in the toddler years. And the favoritism might switch from one parent to the other and back again. It’s yet another way that some toddlers begin to experiment with being autonomous and asserting themselves.
It can fade out as your child matures or it can be a lasting dynamic if an older child feels they have more in common with one parent or finds it easier to be open with them. I've often heard from teens that they have more in common with or feel more understood by one parent, or that one of their parents is more flexible or responds with more empathy when they make mistakes.
In the little-kid years, however, a child’s extreme parental preference can result in a situation where there tends to be one parent longing for more parent-child connection and one parent feeling overloaded with parent-child connection. So what are good ways to address parent favoritism when it pops up?
Here's how the preferred parent can cope
Hold your boundaries
Sometimes, one parent's permissiveness can be a part of what makes them the favored parent. These parents may find themselves not holding firm on limits when tolerating their child's distress or anger feels too difficult.
When you and your partner have agreed that the other parent will do a caregiving task, stick to your decision. It’s okay if your child becomes upset. Show empathy, validate their feelings, and let your child’s other parent manage the situation.
Trust that your partner can handle it
Resist the urge to come to the rescue. Your partner can help your child with their big feelings and your child can survive those feelings. Just because your child prefers you doesn’t mean your way of doing things is the only or the “right” way. Make room for your partner to figure out their own groove with your child. And remember that making sure that your child is rarely frustrated makes it difficult for them to develop the important life skill of tolerating frustration.
Reflect on your need to feel needed
If your need to feel seen, heard, and valued is not consistently met in childhood, you might find yourself particularly dependent on your relationship with your child. Some parents can equate their self-worth with how close they experience the relationship with their child to be. You can lose sight of your job as a parent to meet your child’s needs and start focusing on getting your own needs for validation and connection met through your relationship with your child.
Let your child feel however they feel
When your child is rejecting your partner (who you know loves this child so much and just wants to show it!), it can be tempting to try to talk them out of it. As much as you want to fix this conflict, you can't control someone else's relationship. The more you try to "sell" your partner to your child, the more your child will feel you're trying to convince them of something, and they'll resist with more gusto.
Accept in the moment that this is how your child feels. Validate their experience, even while you hold your limits.
Hold space for your partner’s hurt
While you can’t change the dynamic of your partner’s relationship with your child, you can show understanding for your partner’s frustration and hurt. That doesn’t mean you need to take responsibility for it or fix it, but try to validate how hard this must be for your partner to experience.
Commit to your own self-care
It might be that you’re only giving airtime to others’ needs and rarely your own. Put your own self-care on your schedule just like any other standing appointment. Leave your child with the less-favored parent and plan to be away from your home so that they can figure out their conflicts on their own. That could be a walk or a meal with a friend, reading a good book at a coffee shop, getting some exercise, going to therapy—anything! Make sure your own cup is staying full so that you have more bandwidth for parenting.
Here's how the less-preferred parent can cope
Stay bigger, stronger, wiser, kind
One of your child’s developmental tasks is to try to “destroy” their significant caregivers and to be unsuccessful at that. Children have an inborn need to push back, resist, defy, and lash out at their adults, and they also have a matching need for their adults to “survive” that without becoming weak, mean, or withdrawing altogether. Your hurt feelings can cloud your interactions with your child and your partner, especially if you tend to project anger, disappointment, or sadness when your child tells you that they prefer their other parent. Remember that this is likely temporary and not your partner’s responsibility to fix (even if they could).
If the preferred parent isn’t available and your child is upset, accept and validate your child’s feelings and carry on. That could sound like, “You wanted Mommy to give you a bath, I hear you. I’m helping you with bath time today.” Welcome the disappointment they show. It’s hard to be a tiny human who wants the power to control everything around them and not be able to actually do that! Show your understanding of their dilemma. Use intentional breathing to keep your nervous system out of fight or flight. You’ll be better able to meet their anger, frustration, or aggression with calm resilience, and kind but firm limits.
Remember the moments of connection and attunement that do exist with your child
You might become so preoccupied with your child pushing you away that you forget to notice that they prefer playing a certain game with you and that only you can make their grilled cheese crispy like they like it. You’re forgetting your bedtime ritual with them or that silly joke you’ve been making with them since their infancy.
Consider keeping a list of these moments, and when you’re feeling poorly about your role as the less-preferred parent you can look at them for a mood boost. Remember to take your opportunities when they present themselves. When your child invites you to talk or play with them, put down what you’re doing and take them up on it. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, you’re still making deposits into the bank of goodwill between you.
Prioritize parent-initiated connection
Often the preferred parent is the one who’s most willing to engage in the kinds of play or activities your child loves. Start taking an interest in your child’s interests. If they’re playing alone, ask if you can sit and watch them for a few minutes. Notice the themes of the play or the toys they choose. Ask them about the characters in the shows and books they gravitate toward. Invite them to play their favorite game before they’ve even asked. Bring your work to where they’re doing their homework and ask if you can do your work nearby. Show them that you want to be with and around them for no other reason than that you enjoy their company.
The worse you feel, the worse you’ll behave with your child.
Schedule a standing playdate with your child
Plan to spend time with your child alone without the preferred parent present at least once per week. That parent should be entirely unavailable to both of you. Whether you stay at home or go out for an activity, focus on being as present as you can for your child. Hold space for big feelings, stay calm, set appropriate boundaries, and have fun! Over time you’ll likely both start really looking forward to this one-on-one time together.
Choose radical acceptance
Resist the urge to make your child’s preference for their other parent mean something concerning, or something negative about you, your partner, your relationship with your child, or their love for you. You may never know the exact reasons for their preference for their other parent, but you can acknowledge that it is, in fact, happening.
That truth does not imply meaning, however. Rather than trying to convince your child to feel differently, be accepting of their strong feelings as the more mature person with a fully developed brain. Try to view these episodes as something separate from you, as something happening internally for your child, and meet them with neutrality.
You need self-care, too
While it’s important not to have an outsized reaction in your child’s presence when they are asserting their preference for the other parent, that doesn’t mean you should ignore your feelings. Validate yourself by internally naming your feelings and noticing where in your body you feel the sadness, anger, or hurt.
Don't sit alone with painful emotions, saying things to yourself like, “My child hates me,” or “It will never get better,” or “Forget it—I give up.” Talk with a trusted friend, fellow parent, or a therapist who can help you cope with, process, and reduce those heavy feelings so that they don’t get in the way of your parenting. The worse you feel, the worse you’ll behave with your child.
For the next 30-90 days, have both parents try out one or two of the strategies from today’s episode. Make note of any shift in the parent-child dynamics in your home. Do you feel differently as the preferred or less-preferred parent? Let me know how it goes!
Your child—just like you—is doing the best they can in any given moment.
It’s only because you love your child so much that you feel such a longing to be more connected to them. And it’s only because you can’t pour from an empty cup that a preferred parent needs a break some of the time. Of course you’d both be feeling a lot of difficult emotions. At the same time, your child—just like you—is doing the best they can in any given moment. Your child’s thoughts, behaviors, and actions are about them and their experience in the world, not a reflection of how worthy you are as a parent. Make sure each parent gets some one-on-one time with your child as well as some self-care time. The less-preferred parent can figure things out and help your child with the disappointment that can come when they don’t get exactly what they want, in the exact moment they want it.
And take heart, non-preferred parents! Some adults I know who had a parent preference when they were small, and that continued through childhood, really appreciated when their less-preferred parent took it in stride, wasn't threatened by it or angry about it, but rather respected that this was their choice and ultimately had nothing to do with the parent themselves. In their tweens/teens, these kids (now adults) initiated connection with the less-preferred parent, having appreciated that their parent was able to continue to offer affection—even when it was rebuffed—the whole time.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint!