There are so many things you can’t predict when you’re a new parent. Having your child prefer one parent over the other can create some unexpected friction in a family. Anytime I was sick growing up, I always wanted my mom to take care of me. Even to this day, if something bad happens, I still go to my mom for advice. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I realized that my preference for one parent in certain situations may have caused unintentional problems.
One day, I wanted my husband to take our son up for bathtime, and our son started crying, screaming, and reaching his arms out to me. The first time I thought it was so cute and sweet that he wanted his mama. But then I began to notice that he was preferring me over my husband most of the time. It was really hard to deal with because I was feeling burned out by motherhood and wanted some much needed time to myself. But every time my husband tried to step in, my son would throw a full-on tantrum, leaving me to ultimately step in to calm things down.
In the thick of things, I reached out to the other editors here at The Everymom to see if anyone else experienced something similar. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in what I was going through.
One day, I wanted my husband to take our son up for bathtime, and our son started crying, screaming, and reaching his arms out to me. The first time I thought it was so cute and sweet that he wanted his mama. But then I began to notice that he was preferring me over my husband most of the time.
“Both of my girls have gone through periods of preferring me over their dad,” said Lizzie, Contributing Editor and mom of two. “What has worked each time for us has been a combination of consistency and muscling our way through. Each time there has been a meltdown over going to Dad, I have said something along the lines of: ‘I love that you want to spend time with me. I want to spend time with you too. But this is special Daddy time, and he’s going to read you a book right now.’ The key, I think, is to have the same response every time and then to follow through—even when it hurts your heart to hear them scream for you,“ she said.
This has also been the case in my household. Like Lizzie, it breaks my heart to hear my son ask for me and not go to settle things down. But I also know that my husband is a fully capable father. The only way my son will become more comfortable with him is by sticking to the routine and being consistent.
While we often don’t know the underlying reason for our child’s preference, there are other times that we can pinpoint a singular moment that created the shift. This is less about blame and more about recognizing the context.
“When we moved from Chicago to Michigan with an 18-month-old, my husband had already been working away from home. Our daughter only saw him on the weekends for the months leading up to our move, but we figured the transition would be easy because she was so young,” said Kathy, Contributing Editor and mom of two. “The loving reunion my husband pictured when we were all living under one roof again was not to be. Sometimes, she’d start crying and clinging to me as soon as he walked in the door from work. Turned out we were wrong; she was affected,” she said.
To help, she and her husband tried to carve out a special time without the preferred parent around. “He started handling one of her favorite parts of the day: bathtime,” Kathy said. “It took time, but she came around. Then when we had our second child, my oldest and my husband were best buddies because the baby also had a strong mom-preference. Everything can shift with time.”
Hearing personal stories from someone who has gone through the same thing always helps me feel a bit better. But other times I like to hear from the experts who study the behavior and can share some researched-backed context for why these things happen in the first place. I reached out to Dr. Nina Kaiser, a licensed psychologist and founder of the family wellness center Practice San Francisco, to talk about parental preference.
Read on for my Q&A interview with her.
What causes parental preference in children?
This is a pretty developmentally typical phase that most kids go through. It can be exacerbated by inconsistencies or differences in parenting styles between co-parents, as well as by the way that parents handle and respond to parental preference. Generally, kids go through this phase in toddlerhood and preschool as part of the process of learning about and asserting their power to choose or testing their ability to control the environment around them.
How common is a parental preference?
Very! The vast majority of kids go through phases of parental preference, some lasting longer than others,” said Kaiser. “It can be hard as a parent to not take these phases personally, but this kind of behavior really isn’t personal.
Is there anything parents can do to avoid this happening, even before birth?
The more parents can be on the same page in terms of how they connect with kids and manage and respond to behavior (both parents having a good relationship with the child, both parents consistently implementing the same sorts of limits and consequences in a calm manner, etc), the less likely parental preference is to be a problem. But it’s pretty developmentally typical, so parents shouldn’t expect to be able to entirely avoid it.
What should parents do when their child has a meltdown due to preference?
We usually encourage parents not to accommodate demands or meltdowns related to parental preference. It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of accidentally rewarding preference-related demands in a way that can perpetuate difficult or demanding behavior and validate the idea that one parent is preferable. Instead, it’s helpful if parents can set up a relatively equitable division of responsibility in advance (e.g., set up a plan to trade off nights to put the child to bed), let the child know about the plan ahead of time, and then stick to the plan calmly and consistently.
It’s tempting to give in to tantrums and just let the preferred parent manage. But although this may feel like a short-term fix, it ultimately is not helpful long-term. Although it’s a big ask, if the non-preferred parent can manage things with a sense of fun or playfulness even in difficult moments, the child is much more likely to be responsive. This is really tough—so reminding yourself that this is a developmental phase rather than a personal rejection can be helpful.
Setting up routine opportunities for one-on-one time in which the non-preferred parent and child can do something fun together can also help make that connection stronger and reduce resistance at other times.
Does the sex of the child matter in terms of which parent the child will prefer?
Anecdotally, I feel like we’ve been seeing kids preferring opposite-sex parents, but I’m not aware of any research to support this as a broader pattern, and it can absolutely go both ways.
Any last advice for parents currently experiencing this?
Take a deep breath! This is a phase, and it will pass if you can work as a team with your co-parent to ride it out.
The biggest takeaways from my conversations around parental preference are that it’s common and consistency is key. Until you and your family reach the other side, know you’re doing the best you can in a tough situation. Like so many phases in parenting, this too shall pass.