Have you been on the receiving end of your child’s desperate plea for you over their other parent? Or have they begged for their other parent instead of you? When a child displays preference, it can be disheartening and sting a bit for both parents. I’d like to offer a fresh perspective that will hopefully reassure you: parental preference is a temporary stage and a normal part of development.
Parental Preference and How to Handle It
A variety of factors can contribute to a child’s preference for one parent over another. Favoritism does not equate to being a better parent or more loved. Let me say that again. A child showing favoritism does not mean that they love that parent more, and it does not mean that the chosen one is a better parent. A child can love both parents fiercely yet still show a preference for one at any point in time.
Why does parental preference happen?
This can simply be a stage of life. Parental preference is a healthy part of development. At various ages, children develop a sense of self, assert their autonomy and independence, and begin to understand their relationships with others. Children are intuitive to their environment, and it is instinctive for them to maximize their safety. It may sound strange, but it can actually be a sign of security in the family system if your child actively rejects you or your partner. It indicates that a child is maturing and thinking beyond their immediate needs. Your child senses that they do not have to fear retribution and are not responsible for taking care of your emotional needs.
Parental preference may reflect a child with similar interests or sharing personality traits with that parent. Temperaments of the parent and child, both being introverted or extroverted, strong-willed or more flexible, can draw a child toward that parent. Favoritism reveals that a child has developed a secure attachment and feels very close to the preferred parent.
A child may favor their more permissive parent, the one they spend more time with and who takes care of them, or the parent who grants them more attention. Often this becomes more apparent at a time of significant family transition such as the birth of a new sibling, travel for work, or illness or death of a loved one.
Don’t let your fear of preference overrule boundaries.
Ultimately, it is the parent’s responsibility to provide a conducive environment where children can mature into physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually healthy adults. This happens when structure, rules, and expectations are held firmly in place. Part of parenting is enduring your child’s dislike for your set boundaries. It’s a child’s job to test limits and a parent’s job to withstand patiently. To secure their status, parents may be tempted to make decisions that lead to their child feeling good and happy, rather than providing an environment necessary for their child’s growth.
Ideally, both parents will share in the work and the fun aspects of parenting. Every child benefits from the love and support of both parents. A parent’s role includes deciding which parent will be involved and when, preparing the child for what is coming next, and being with them when they experience big feelings. Both parents need to feel a special connection to their children. Stay calm and steadfast. Hold a unified front.
How to handle parental preference:
If you are the unfavored parent:
- Connect, connect, connect. It may take additional effort, but this parent can build a unique bond with their child even if they never become the preferred parent. Finding opportunities for the parent and child to spend quality time together is critical; show interest in activities your child enjoys and create special activities just for the two of you.
- It is important not to respond negatively toward your child. You can be honest about your feelings but remember it is not your child’s responsibility to affirm you as a parent.
- Teach your child that their words and actions have consequences and how to empathize with other people.
- It is easy to feel sad or anxious when your child consistently favors the other parent over you. Remind yourself of the things you do well.
- Acknowledge the special bond between your child and their preferred parent. Support their relationship. Do not criticize the other parent in an attempt to win over your child’s affection.
If you are the preferred parent:
- Speak highly of the other parent when alone with your child and in front of that parent. Emphasize what is good and different about the other parent.
- Offer attention and model kindness and respect toward the unpreferred parent.
- Allow the other parent to handle a situation instead of jumping in and being your child’s hero.
- Take time and allow space to let your partner talk openly about their feelings surrounding this, without criticism or judgment. Do not criticize or judge their parenting style. Do not offer suggestions on how they might do things differently to win their child’s affection. Instead, just listen and be empathetic.
As said by clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy, “Remember this: Your child’s rejection is not a barometer of your parenting. In these moments, there’s nothing wrong with the in-favor parent, the out-of-favor parent, or the child. Your child’s rejection is a sign that they feel safe enough in your presence to even express their displeasure.”
Deep breath, moms and dads. Be gentle with yourself, and remember that parental preference is not a personal attack, even though it may feel like it is. Know that your child loves and adores you both. Down the road, tables may turn, and your child’s favored parent will change.