Your child used to be all about mom, but now it’s all about dad! How should you respond?
Sometimes a child develops a preference for one of their parents. This usually occurs around the age of 2 and can last up to five or six years. Most children will switch favourites, sometimes preferring one parent over the other, and then later the opposite. This happens for several reasons.
Why does my child have a favourite parent?
Sometimes, favouritism is the result of how the parents act with the child. For example, one of the parents may respond more affectionately to the child’s needs and requests. In turn, the child will be more attracted to the affectionate parent. Generally speaking, toddlers are also naturally drawn to the most emotionally responsive parent, i.e. the parent who is able to decode, understand, and see from the child’s perspective.
A parent who has difficulty creating a bond with the child or who feels insecure in their role may also cause the child to feel safer with the other parent. In addition, when a parent does not enjoy playing or spending time with their child, the child feels it and prefers to be with the other parent.
In other cases, it is a matter of natural affinities. The child turns to the parent with whom they share common interests.
The Oedipus complex
Starting at 3 or 4 years of age, a child can experience a phase of exclusive desire toward their parent of the opposite sex. This is a normal stage in the development of children called the Oedipus complex. This attraction for the parent of the opposite sex often leads the toddler to exclude the other parent. For more information, see our fact sheet When a child is in love with their parent
How should you respond?
This is not an easy situation, neither for the parent who is excluded nor the favourite. A parent who is excluded may feel that they are not up to the task and feel rejected or abandoned by their child. On the other hand, the favourite parent may feel exhausted from the constant demands of their child. However, to develop their personality, your child needs the attention and affection of both parents (when both parents are present in the child’s life).
Here are some tips to help you manage the situation:
- Show your love. When your child pushes you away, do not force them to give you a hug. Instead, tell them that you are here and you love them. You can also turn the situation into a game by trying to catch and tickle your child, provided the child is having fun, laughing, and you are not forcing them. Also, should they decide to give you a hug, do not scold them saying they don’t hug you enough or that you haven’t been hugged for a long time.
If you are the parent being pushed away, do not think it means you are a bad parent. Continue doing activities with your child to nurture your relationship.
- Take interest in the activities that entertain your child. Offer to play games your child enjoys, even if you don’t enjoy them so much. This is a good way to get to know your child better and to develop your relationship.
- Do an activity every day with your child. You could play or cook with them, read them a story, rock them, or tell them jokes. These activities will help strengthen the attachment bond, and may also reduce favouritism.
- Try showing empathy by putting yourself in your child’s shoes. A child who feels their parent understands them will be more likely to interact with the parent.
- Share your emotions with your partner. It is normal for a parent being pushed away to feel sadness about the situation, however, there is no need to blame the other parent. This would only create tension in your couple, and the best solution is to talk about your feelings (e.g., pain, powerlessness, frustration, rejection, abandonment) with your partner, not with your child.
- Team up for education. As parents, come to an agreement on the rules to be applied to your child. This will give your child a sense of safety, and will also prevent one parent from being deemed as “mean” and the other as “nice.” The favourite parent must also provide space for the other parent to take their place.
- Share the routine. For example, one day the bedtime story is with dad, and the next day with mom. This allows your child to bond with both parents. Should your child protest or cry, do not give in. They must learn to accept that their favourite parent will not always be the one taking care of them.
Shared custody: What to do when your child prefers the other parent
Are you separated and your child always wants to stay at the other parent’s place? No need to blame yourself. Also, avoid giving in to every request from your child in an effort to improve the situation. Instead, continue spending quality time with them to become closer and build a relationship of love and trust. Over time, the situation should improve. If it doesn’t, try to understand what your child is expressing through this behaviour to find solutions. Do not hesitate to seek help from your social circle (e.g., family, friends) or a professional (e.g., psychologist, social worker) to talk about your emotions and find ways to improve the situation.
Things to keep in mind
Children are naturally drawn to the most emotionally responsive parent who is able to recognize, decode, and understand their point of view.
Doing activities with their child allows the excluded parent to strengthen the attachment bond and, perhaps, reduce favouritism for the other parent.
The child must learn to accept that their favourite parent will not always be the one taking care of them.
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist, author, and speaker
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: September 2020
Useful links and resources
DESLAURIERS, Stéphanie. Le bonheur d’être un parent imparfait. Laval, Guy Saint-Jean Éditeur, 2017, 192 pp.
FERLAND, Francine. Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien. 2nd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 264 pp.
GAUTHIER, Yvon et al. L’attachement, un départ pour la vie. Montréal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2020, 140 pp.
RACINE, Brigitte. L’autorité au quotidien. Montreal, Éditions CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 288 pp.
HAMEL, Marie-Julie and Nathalie PARENT. L’enfant dérangeant. Quebec, Éditions Midi Trente, 2016, 143 pp.