“No! I want daddy to do it!”
Your three-year-old has wedged himself between the bed and the dresser and refuses to let you help him get dressed.
“Daddy’s at work right now. Mommy’s here! I can help you.”
You attempt to get closer and his little hands push you away.
The hurt inside you grows. “What makes dad so special? I’m here with you all day. And this is the thanks I get?” you think to yourself.
What are you supposed to do?
It’s not uncommon for children to prefer one parent over the other.
Sometimes this is due to a change in the parenting roles: a move, a new job, bedrest, separation. During these transitions, parents may shift who does bedtime, who gets breakfast, or who is in charge of daycare pickup.
Sometimes, a preference comes around the birth of a sibling. One parent cares more for the infant, while the other parent spends more time with the older children.
And sometimes, it’s just because daddy does better bathtimes. Or mommy tells better bedtime stories.
Regardless of the reason, being rejected by your child hurts.
Thankfully, there are things you can do to survive this difficult stage.
Tips for the “non-preferred” parent
Manage your own feelings
It’s okay to feel a variety of feelings when your child pushes you away. And, it’s okay to tell your child how you’re feeling (“I feel sad then you tell me to ‘get away!’”). But keep the big tears, angry thoughts, and hurt feelings to yourself and fellow adults, rather than sharing them with your child.
If the relationship between you and your child is strained, take time to work on strengthening your bond. Spend quality one-on-one time with your child on a daily basis. Join your child in activities they enjoy. Or create “special” activities that are just for the two of you.
Empathize with the struggle
There will be times when the other parent is not available to come to your child’s rescue. In these moments, start by empathizing with their big feelings. Then, set a boundary. “I know you wish daddy could help you. It’s hard when he’s at work and mommy has to help you get dressed instead.”
Look for tips
As hard as it may be to admit, there may be something to learn from the “preferred parent.” Maybe the songs dad sings during bath time take the anxiety out of hair washing. Or the little game mom plays gets him moving in the morning. Stay true to yourself, and see if you can incorporate some of these tips into your parenting too.
Positive self talk
It’s easy to get down in the dumps or to start doubting your parenting when your child prefers another caregiver. Remind yourself that this is a stage, that you are the parent your child needs, and that your worth is not defined by your child’s positive response. If you can’t shake the negative feelings, seek support from a mental health professional or a parent coach.
What if you’re the “preferred” parent?
It’s hard to be pushed away by your child, but being the preferred parent can lead to feelings of helplessness, confused, and torn between two people.
Here are some tips for you:
Support the “non-preferred” parent
It’s easy to jump in and “save the day” when your child is calling for you. Instead of swooping in, encourage your child’s dependence on the other parent. You can stand close by, respond with empathy, and remind your child that he is loved by so many people, including the “non-preferred” parent.
Talk about “same” and “different”
When you are alone with your child, emphasize things that make each parent unique. Brag on the other parent’s strengths. Point out things that you both do well. Or, have your child list a few things she loves about both parents.
Be aware of hurt feelings
Keep in mind that the other parent may be struggling with your close relationship. Even though your child’s preference may make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the other parent may be feeling jealous, frustrated, or hurt. Put your pride aside and give them time and space to talk openly about their feelings. (Remember, the tables may be turned in the future!)
Thankfully, your child is growing and maturing.
With time, they will move past this preference and realize that it’s possible to love both parents in unique ways.
Until then, take a deep breath, find some inner strength as you are passed over for hugs and kisses, and silently smile when the other parent is called in to change a messy diaper.
This article was originally published on Imperfect Families.