Parental Preference: What To Do When Your Child Only Wants One Parent
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Parental Preference: What To Do When Your Child Only Wants One Parent

Does it seem like your baby only wants one parent all the time? Parental preference happens to all of us. Here's how to handle it.

Published November 7, 2023

by Dr. Deanna Barry

Board-Certified Pediatrician

Medically reviewed by Rachel Tomlinson

Registered Psychologist
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“No, I want daddy!” Have you been on the receiving end of your child’s desperate plea for you over their other parent? Or have they begged for their other parent instead of you? When a child displays preference, it can be disheartening and sting a bit for both parents. I want to offer a fresh perspective that will hopefully reassure you that parental preference is a temporary and normal stage of development.

Parental Preference and How To Handle It

Various factors can contribute to a child’s preference for one parent over another, although we don’t know exactly why it happens and why favorites can change over time. Favoritism does not equate to being a better parent or more loved. Let me say that again. A child showing favoritism does not mean that they love one parent more or that the chosen one is a better parent. The child can love both parents fiercely yet still prefer one at any point in time.

Why Does Parental Preference Happen?

This can simply be a stage of life. Parental preference is a healthy part of development. So, let’s explore a few different reasons why scientists think children might preference one parent over another:

Independence

At various ages, children develop a sense of self, assert autonomy and independence, and begin understanding their relationships with others. They are driven to assert themselves and their preferences, so it might not be about favoritism per se but more about your child wanting to have a say or get things done their way.1

Secure Attachment

It may sound strange, but it can be a sign of security in the family system if your child actively rejects you or your partner. Your child may be enjoying time with one parent over the other, or they may feel like that parent is the secure base they can return to when they need comfort and safety. But it equally means they feel comfortable expressing favoritism and will not be rejected by the other parent. Your child senses they do not have to fear retribution and are not responsible for your emotional needs.2

Gender

There are also gender differences that may align or create conflict between parents and children at different stages of development. For instance, a female child might closely identify with her mother (due to gender), but there is also the potential that during turbulent teen years, the child may develop a rupture or breakdown in their relationship.3

Opposites Attract

Another possibility is that a child could favor the parent who’s more the opposite of them. Although this research focuses on romantic relationships, it’s thought that there might also be similarities regarding how children prefer one parent over another.4,6

Similarities

As children grow older, they will likely bond with the parent they feel is most similar to them. Parental preference may reflect that the child has similar ideologies, interests, or personality traits to that parent. Temperaments of the parent and child (such as both of them being introverted, extroverted, strong-willed, or more flexible) can draw a child toward that parent.5

Family Dynamics

It’s also important to consider your family dynamics. A child may favor their more permissive parent, the one they spend more time with and who takes care of them, or the parent who grants them more attention. Often, this becomes more apparent at a time of significant family transition, such as the birth of a new sibling, travel for work, or illness or death of a loved one.

Don’t Let Your Fear of Preference Overrule Boundaries

Ultimately, the parent’s responsibility is to provide a conducive environment where children can mature into physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually healthy adults. This happens when structure, rules, and expectations are firmly in place. Part of parenting is enduring your child’s dislike for your set boundaries. It’s a child’s job to test limits and a parent’s job to withstand patiently. To secure their status, parents may be tempted to make decisions that lead to their child feeling good and happy rather than providing an environment necessary for their child’s growth.

Ideally, both parents will share in the work and the fun aspects of parenting. Every child benefits from the love and support of both parents. A parent’s role includes deciding which parent will be involved and when, preparing the child for what is coming next, and being with them when they experience big feelings. Both parents need to feel a special connection to their children. Stay calm and steadfast. Hold a unified front.

How To Handle Parental Preference

If your child prefers one parent over the other, you may find these tips helpful for handling the situation.

Unfavored Parent

If you are the unfavored parent, follow these tips:

  • Connect, connect, connect. It may take additional effort, but this parent can build a unique bond with their child even if they never become the preferred parent. Finding opportunities for the parent and child to spend quality time together is critical; show interest in activities your child enjoys and create special activities just for the two of you.
  • It is important not to respond negatively toward your child. You can be honest about your feelings, but remember, it is not your child’s responsibility to affirm you as a parent.
  • Teach your child that their words and actions have consequences and how to empathize with other people.
  • It is easy to feel sad or anxious when your child consistently favors the other parent over you. Remind yourself of the things you do well as a parent.
  • Acknowledge the special bond between your child and their preferred parent. Support their relationship. Do not criticize the other parent to win over your child’s affection.

Favored Parent

If you are the preferred parent, follow these tips:

  • Speak highly of the other parent when alone with your child and in front of that parent. Emphasize what is good and different about the other parent.
  • Offer attention and model kindness and respect toward the unpreferred parent.
  • Allow the other parent to handle a situation instead of jumping in and being your child’s hero.
  • Take time and allow space to let your partner talk openly about their feelings surrounding this, without criticism or judgment. Do not criticize or judge their parenting style. Do not suggest how they might do things differently to win their child’s affection. Instead, listen and be empathetic.

Deep breath, moms and dads. Be gentle with yourself, and remember that parental preference is not a personal attack, even though it may feel like it is. Know that your child loves and adores you both. Down the road, tables may turn, and your child’s favored parent may change.

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Dr. Deanna Barry Board-Certified Pediatrician
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Deanna Barry, DO, FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician in Northeast Ohio. She recently left a large hospital healthcare system to open her own concierge pediatric practice. As an osteopath with… Read more

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