What to do when a child prefers one parent

Playing second fiddle can be a heartbreaking role. Here's what to do when your child prefers one parent.

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

If parenting were a popularity contest, Rob Haringa of Woodstock, Ont., would be in the rear — according to his one-year-old, Kara. There’s no doubt that Kara’s mom, Jocelyn, is her favourite. “She cries when Rob holds her and tries to wiggle to get to me. When I go for a shower, she’ll cry the entire time until I come downstairs.”

Rob is disappointed, even frustrated, that he and Kara don’t seem to have the same bond he had with older daughter Allie. She used to fall asleep on his chest as a baby and now, at three, she continues to be Daddy’s girl. The preferred parent feels the hurt too. Jocelyn says, “It’s very stressful being on the receiving end of this attention. I can’t go anywhere or do anything, even leave a room, without hearing Kara cry.”

A preference for one parent can come with a real sting. Four-year-old Adam Michaels* of Halifax also plays favourites. “He’s attached to me like glue and he’s downright mean to his dad,” says his mom, Kerry. “We had a baby four months ago, so I’m sure it’s tied to that, but when Drew comes in from work, Adam will hardly speak to him…. He won’t even hug Drew at bedtime.”

Whether it’s mom or dad who’s number one, favouritism isn’t personal — it’s mostly about comfort, says Trish Brown, family support coordinator at the West Side Family Place in Vancouver. “With babies, toddlers and even preschoolers, it tends to be mom who’s the favourite because she has usually been the provider of the majority of the comfort — the breast or bottle, food and soothing. When children are upset — when they wake up in the night or get hurt — it’s usually mom who’s the comfort person.”

Temperament can also play a role when a child is drawn to one parent a lot more. Debbie Todt, parent educator at the Burlington Ontario Early Years Centre, says, “Usually one parent has a temperament that’s more in line with the child’s: That parent gets the child better and the other parent may not quite meet the child’s emotional needs sufficiently.” Todt stresses that this isn’t for lack of good intentions — and it can be very subtle. She gives an example: “Perhaps you have a boy who’s very sensitive. Dad is sensitive too, and nurtures that quality in the child. But Mom thinks, ‘I don’t want to encourage that.’”

Favouritism can also be a way for a child to relate to the same-sex parent. A little guy wants to be just like Dad and refuses his mom’s invitations to play soccer; maybe a school-aged daughter relates more to her mom’s activities and interests than her dad’s.

It’s important for parents not to take a child’s preference too personally, Todt cautions. “The parent may feel rejected, but he has to realize this is not against him. Once the child learns that the other parent can make her happy too, it will change,” she says. “But it takes time — it doesn’t happen overnight.”

*Names changed by request.

So what can you do if your child is playing favourites?
Don’t force it. If he wakes from a scary dream, or with a fever, and is crying for Mommy, she should just go to him. It’s not the time to try to convince him that Dad’s great, or for Dad to figure out how to soothe a distressed child. Brown says, “If they’re scared or hurt, they need to know that their comfort person is there for them.”

Build the connection. Todt stresses, “The more the other parent stays involved, the more the child will learn to accept him or her. If the parent steps away, it will get worse.” The preferred parent may have to stand aside from time to time to let Number Two get to know the child and learn how to respond to the child’s cues.

Talk about it. Say your toddler insists that only Daddy can put her boots on the right way. Brown suggests, “If the child is old enough to understand language, Mom might say, ‘We can’t go to the park unless we put your boots on. Dad is busy and if I can’t put the boots on, we can’t go.’” You may have to be persistent, but keep the tone light. Brown stresses, “Try not to take the rejection personally because that comes across as anger and hurt. Kids are smart and they pick up on it.” If a child senses that one parent is cross, she’ll come to the conclusion that the other parent is nicer.

Rejig routines. Everybody knows the importance of routines, such as bedtime, bathtime and daycare drop-off, but be sure to switch up who’s doing the job. Since Zoe Mitchell was born three years ago, the bedtime routine was the same: Her mom, Laura, would put Zoe to bed and her dad, Brett, would tuck in older sister Paige. Zoe was so entrenched in this routine that she would howl whenever Brett tried to put her to bed. So Brett and Laura announced to both girls that they would start taking turns, and they stuck with it, regardless of Zoe’s initial protests. It took a week or so for Zoe to adjust but now, she actually keeps track and says, “Daddy’s turn tonight.”

Watch your body language. Be sure your demeanour tells your child you’re happy to see her. Maybe you’re stressed after stewing in traffic for an hour? Leave it at the door or walk around the block first, Todt suggests. “When you walk through the door, you have to be open to the child so she looks forward to your arrival.”

Look ahead. A strident preference for one parent will likely ease as long as both parents stay tuned in to the child. In time, the preference may even switch.

Still, parents may never be exactly interchangeable. A child may always value his mom and dad in slightly different ways. Todt explains, “Kids will find the niche for each of their parents — they’ll gravitate to one parent for one need and the other for another. That’s shared parenting and that’s good. My daughter is away at school: If she calls and is upset, it’s ‘Can I talk to Mom?’ But if it’s something happy, she asks, ‘Can I talk to Dad?’ She shares the good stuff with Dad, but she needs my shoulder to cry on.”

Baby Kara may be (slowly) finding a role for her dad. She recently fell asleep in his arms — it meant so much to Rob that he talked about it all day! A small step in the right direction.

Getting preferred parent status
It’s important to get involved in your child’s life early on, so she learns that both parents can soothe her in bad times and share a laugh in good times. If one parent — often the dad — is left out of baby care, he may not have many opportunities to learn how to read and respond to a child’s cues. It can leave him feeling tentative about his soothing skills — and that could lead to lead to a not-quite comfortable relationship later on. Debbie Todt, parent educator at the Burlington Ontario Early Years Centre, explains, “The child picks up on that uncertainty and it doesn’t make her feel good.”

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