Why kids sometimes prefer one parent over the other

Posted in Learning and Development.

Most toddlers between 18 and 24 months go through a stage where they prefer one parent over the other. While it can be quite nice (if a little suffocating!) to be the one your toddler wants to be with, it can feel really rejecting to be the parent your toddler shuns.

The good news is, this phase won’t last forever and it’s not a personal thing. Your toddler’s brain is still developing, and can only focus on one relationship at a time. When you think about it, maintaining a relationship takes a lot of work – it involves fully absorbing and experiencing another person. A small person doesn’t have the capacity to do this with both parents.

If your toddler is showing a strong preference for one parent over the other, here is what to keep in mind while you ride this one out:

It’s okay to take control (sometimes)

While it’s okay for your toddler to express their preference for playtime with you and not dad, it’s also okay for you to insist on dad being part of the fun. Likewise, if your toddler refuses to have his shoes put on by you, preferring dad to do it, it’s okay to pull rank and say how things are going to go.

However, if your toddler has an emotional need and only wants you, go ahead and offer the cuddles. 

Share the care

If it’s you doing the majority of the caregiving, then obviously, your toddler is going to get used to being with you more, and he may reject dad getting involved. However, by incorporating both parents into aspects of care, your toddler will learn that mum and dad share these tasks.

Your partner could help out with naps on the weekend, for example, or take part of the bedtime routine each evening. If dad is a regular part of the scene, your toddler will get used to it.

Toddler boy walking on beach holding parents' hands - feature

Make it fun

If one parent gets all the ‘fun’ activities, then your toddler might decide that this person is more enjoyable to be around. Think about what you and your partner can do to share the fun stuff between you, so your toddler realises that both of you come with the goods. In other words, don’t let one parent get lumbered with the boring ‘have to do’ tasks, like bath time, brushing teeth, meals etc.

Step out of the spotlight

Often it’s the working parent who gets shunned, in preference for the parent who’s based at home. If this is the case, try stepping out of the spotlight on the weekends to give the working parent a chance to take centre stage at home. Duck out for the morning to run errands and take a worthy break while your partner runs the show. This will enhance the relationship between the two, and let your toddler know that both parents have equal footing.

Show unconditional love

It might be tempting to show your toddler how sad you feel if you’re the one being rejected, but stay strong. Let your toddler know that it’s okay if they prefer one parent over the other and that you love them anyway. Before long, your toddler will have moved through this stage and be ready to reignite his bond with the other parent.

Create quality time

Carve out new traditions or special rituals that your toddler can have with each parent, and try to stick to these, even during the parent preference period. If you’re the parent being rejected, come up with a special activity that just the two of you can do, like going out for a babycino or bug-hunting.

Be patient

There’s no point forcing your toddler onto the ‘shunned’ parent or punishing them if one of you feels rejected and hurt. Your little person is developing his relationship skills and needs the space to be able to make his own decisions. Like most toddler phases, this will pass.

Use the time to strengthen your relationship with your partner and don’t be too concerned with rushing your toddler into developing a stronger bond with either parent. Continue to provide opportunities for connection, and in time, your little person will work out how to enjoy solid relationships with both of you.


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