Daddy Do It! What To Do When Our Kids Play Favorites

On occasion, we answer reader questions on our blog. We choose questions based on the issues we frequently hear about from families we work with. In today’s post, I answer a reader’s question about their little one preferring one parent over the other.

Reader Question

My daughter tends to gravitate toward me (Papa), who is home with her more frequently. If I am home, she refuses to let her Dad help her with anything, give her a bath, or give her affection. Last night it came to a head when after when she didn’t want him to hug and kiss her goodnight. It was understandably quite upsetting to him. In the back of my mind I'm certain this is normal, but I also feel as though I need to do something.

Is it normal for kids to do this? If so, when do they generally get past it? I'm concerned that my partner might withdraw because of his hurt feelings and I am worried this will only make the problem worse.

Dear Reader,

You are absolutely right; this is quite normal! I am not sure how old your daughter is, but I can say that this is often the case for the 2-3 year old age group. They play favorites at different times and it can be very upsetting to both parents...for the parent feels like they have to do everything and for the one who feels rejected by their child. I can hear it is causing a great deal of stress for your family.

One issue is, once the child realizes what an impact the behavior has, they see it as a good way to get attention. I have seen it become a power struggle for young children both in my own family and in many that I work with. I clearly remember when my second child was two and went through this. She started screaming from the time we got in the car, "Mama get me uppy" and would chant it continuously until we reached our destination. If anyone else tried to get her up, she screamed and would keep at it for several minutes. It was just her way of trying to manipulate her environment and feel some sense of control over her world. Totally normal, not misbehavior, just wanted to make sure things will be just how she wants them.

As with many parenting challenges, the more of a power struggle it becomes, the longer the behavior continues.

Here's a few ideas-

1) Make sure your partner has special time alone with your daughter. Whether she wants it or not, its important for each parent to have one on one time and usually once the favored parent is away, they relate just fine with the other. They may cry when you go, but that usually doesn't last.

2) Disengage the power struggle. As hard as it may feel to your partner, letting it go for a short time may help ease the tension around it. This worked really well with my kiddos and with many families I have worked with. It means not asking for affection, not giving hugs and kisses when the child doesn't initiate it, not making a big deal at all in front of the child. When it comes to actual care (diaper changes, baths, getting a child in and out of the car, it is ok to let the child fuss/cry about it for a few minutes and let the other parent do it.

3) Connect when it's calm. At a time when everyone is calm, it may help to talk to your child about what it means to be a family. In our home, it means everyone works together to care for each other. You can tell your child that you need help too, so daddy will be picking her up, etc. The trick is keeping your own and your partner's emotions calm and kind. If a parent is mad about their response, it just fuels the power struggle more. This is hard though, I know.

Bottom line, know that this will pass. Just when we hit our absolute limit with a child's behavior, it often changes. Hang in there and thanks again for sharing your question.