When kids prefer one parent over the other

Preferring one parent to the other is a normal stage of development for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. While this can be quite hurtful for the parent who is being excluded, it is helpful to remember that it is a phase and will pass. Find out why kids sometimes have a parent preference and tips on what you can do.
Does this happen in your family?

Find out what can you do when your kids tend to prefer one parent over the other. 

When kids prefer one parent over the other

Preferring one parent to the other is a normal stage of development for babies, toddlers and pre-school kids.

While this can be quite hurtful for the parent who is being excluded, it is helpful to remember that it is usually just a phase which will pass soon enough.

1. Why the preference in parents

One of the main reasons kids sometimes prefer one parent to the other can be attributed to the attachment process.

The attachment phase begins at birth and continues throughout our lives and it is an important process for children to learn.

The purpose of attachment is to find a person who provides ultimate support and trust. While your little one is learning this process, along the way they might exclude a parent or caregiver.

This exclusion may fluctuate back and forth between parents at different times depending on their developmental stages and needs.

It isn’t necessarily about exerting control. Physically your little one’s frontal cortex is not yet fully developed and they can only manage to focus on one relationship at a time. They aren’t able to focus on both parents simultaneously.

For instance, it’s common for babies to initially prefer their mum, as she is often the one who feeds and nurtures them for much of the day, and she’s more likely to be associated with comfort and familiarity.

Toddlers are slightly more fickle however and tend to show a preference for either parent when it suits them.

For example, one parent might have spent time with them all day, but as soon as the other parent comes home, the first parent is instantly excluded from any affection.

Sometimes when you little one favours you or your partner, it’s their way of showing you their independence. Toddlers and pre-schoolers in particular want to prove that they can make their own choices.

Parental preference may also be down to a matter of familiarity and comfort with their routine, such as who puts them to bed each night or who makes them breakfast etc.

If your baby has been breastfed to sleep or your toddler is usually in bed before your partner gets home, you can gently help your little one accept changes by including your partner in parts of their bedtime routine or helping with naps and bedtime at the weekend.
Sometimes a child's exclusion of a parent or caregiver may be exacerbated by your behaviour as a parent.

For example, is one parent more fun and relaxed while the other is the main rule setter and disciplinarian? If so, your child is more likely to attach to the "fun one" - who wouldn't!

Try balancing the discipline and fun between yourselves as parents and see if that changes anything with the excluded parent. Evaluate your roles as parents.
You can also encourage connections with the other parent by stepping back a bit.

For example, if your little one is insisting Daddy puts their shoes on and he’s busy, you could say, “We can go to the park when you have your shoes on, Daddy is busy, let me help and you’ll be all ready when he’s finished.”

2. Tips for the ‘excluded parent’

  • Try and remain calm and not let it bother you too much. Yes, easier said than done, but remember this is a healthy phase for your child.
  • Evaluate your one-on-one time with your little one. Children often attach to the parent they spend most one-on-one time with.
  • Try setting up a new one-on-one routine; bedtime game, making weekend breakfasts together, playing football in the garden etc.
  • Allow your child some personal space. Pushing too much for their attention might have the reverse effect on your child and they might move further away.
  • Reassure them. Consistently affirm your love, and express that you are there for them when they are ready.

3. Tips for the ‘attached parent’

  • Make sure you're not hogging all the fun. Strive to have equal fun and discipline responsibilities with your partner.
  • Step away from your child and re-assure them of your love and respect for your partner. For example, ‘I'm going to run a few errands while you and Daddy go to the park together.’ Or, ‘While Daddy goes to the gym, Mummy is going to help you get ready for bed.’
  • Allow your little one to have some one-on-one time to reconnect with the excluded parent or caregiver.
If your child has a parent preference right now, you and your partner can work together to encourage strong relationships with both parents.

Each child and family situation is unique, so try some of the tips, be patient, remain calm and reassure your child that you love them.
And take heart – as your children start to grow up, they will work out ways to connect with both parents all by themselves!

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