When a Child Prefers One Parent

Question:

Dear Dr. Rene,  I have a 2 year, 8 month old girl. I nursed her for 18 months. After that point, I slowly have faded into the background. If daddy is around, I am out. I can’t give her a bath and put her to bed without dealing with tantrums about why daddy isn’t doing it. She regularly pronounces her love for daddy. Sometimes, she goes out of her way to say that she does not love mommy. I try to be cheerful in spite of this, but it is really, really hard. I feel like the third wheel in my own family. She also refuses to be comforted by me if he is around; sometimes even if he is not. My husband tries to make room for me, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. He says it is “just a phase” but for the most part, it has been like this for almost a year.

Answer:

It is normal for a child to go through phases of preferring one parent over the other.  I have heard from many parents in this position, including my husband, that it feels really bad.

My older daughter was always equally happy if it was me or her dad giving her a bath or reading to her.  My younger daughter took about three years to warm up to the idea of her dad participating.  In the first year, she strongly preferred that I hold her.  By two years old, she only wanted me to read to her and tuck her in.  On nights when it was his turn, she complained and cried.  While I know it hurt his feelings, he always seemed to take it in stride occasionally saying things like “I’ll just keep loving her and eventually she’ll come around.”  She did.  By the time she was about three years old he was among her best playmates.

In the moment, the first answer is to not react in a big way.  If you over react and get upset or angry, the situation often escalates to a power struggle.  Raise your voice and you may spark a tantrum.  If you under react and give in to it being the preferred parent’s turn, you give your child’s push power.  Your child is more likely to push for the other parent the next go around because it worked.

The second answer is to give your child empathy, validate their feelings and let them know you understand.  My husband would say something like “I know you’re sad, you love when mommy reads to you, she’s great at it.”  This dampens their need to argue.  And third, move forward through the process.  As you can, continue to read the story, tuck-in and give love. This means my husband would finish the bedtime routine through her upset. If I took over or if he gave up, it encourages the push to be bigger the next go around.

If bath or bedtime are particularly difficult, it may be helpful for the preferred parent to “be away” for several days in a row at that time and the non-preferred parent to strive and make the time enjoyable.  If it’s bath, bring extra toys, make it a bubble bath, give extra playtime.  If it’s bedtime, read and snuggle a bit longer each night.  When the preferred parent re-enters to schedule continue to alternate nights often and work through the difficult times.

It may also be helpful for each parent to spend some fun alone time with each child in the house every month.  This is being sure that individual pairs in the family get regular time to connect individually.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

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