How to handle it when a child prefers one parent over another

Does your son always want only his father? Does your daughter insist that only mom can take her to kindergarten? Parental preference is a well-known and common phenomenon. 

 A toddler girl crying (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A toddler girl crying
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“I only want Dad!” How should parents respond when a child starts to prefer one parent over the other? Here are some recommendations on how the preferred parent, the rejected parent and both parents together should handle the situation.

When you try to bathe your child or put him to bed does he object and demand: "Only Dad?” 

When a father comes to pick up his daughter from kindergarten does she ask where mom is and refuses to leave calmly?

These are examples of parental preference that kids sometimes express. They prefer that only one parent help them with showering, dressing, school pick up or bedtime, with usually mom being the preferred parent but this changes from time to time.

The preferred parent may feel exhausted and tired, without a moment alone and without patience, but on the other hand she feels significant and wanted. The rejected parent, on the other hand, feels hurt and unloved but sometimes, let’s face it, even a little relief. 

Liraz Sneh Orr, a certified parent counselor at the Adler Institute, a social worker and facilitator of parenting workshops, offers several ways to deal with preference and rejection.

What is recommended for the rejected parent?

Respond in a focused way.

Despite the feeling of insult, the rejected parent should hold in this feeling and not tell the child. The response in front of him should be matter-of-fact and clear. Don’t force cooperation with statements like, "I’m your father and I’m going to bathe you even if you don’t like it" or "I’m the parent and I decide who will dress you.” 

On the other hand, it’s not worth giving up, putting up your hands in defeat and conveying to the child a message that the rejected parent is surrendering. Instead, say things like, "You don’t want me to bathe you? OK, if you don’t want to, then neither do I."

Find out what causes the child to prefer the other parent as each parent treats and expresses his or her love and concern for the child in different and unique ways. 

The child may be accustomed to or prefer a specific parent's way over the rejected parent's way of handling something and hence his or her refusal. 

The rejected parent must find out if there’s something that the preferred parent is doing that the child is used to, and because the rejected parent manages a situation differently it causes a child’s refusal. For example, a mother sits with a child during bedtime, tells three stories and then stays for a while soothing the child, while a more matter-of-fact and purposeful father lays the child down, gives a hug and a kiss and leaves the room after five minutes. The bottom line: The rejected parent must find a solution that works for him, suits for the child and addresses what the child needs.

What is recommended for the preferred parent?

Trust, relax and let go. 

Sometimes, especially at young ages, mom is the main caregiver who’s with the kids for many hours and knows what they prefer. 

It isn’t always easy to relax, let go and allow the other parent to care for a kid who’s behaving differently, but it’s important to understand that the child absorbs this and may develop a marked preference over the other parent.

The change in the child's behavior will come with a change in attitude and internalization because the other parent can be trusted even if his way is slightly different and it’s legitimate for everyone to have their own style. 

In addition, the difference between the parents creates flexibility and an understanding that there is more than one way to behave. If necessary, it’s possible to guide, mediate and show other ways of dealing with the child, but there is no obligation for one parent to follow the other parent’s way.

Take a break.

Does the child prefer you during bathing over dad? As long as you stay around when the child is crying and resisting, it will therefore be much harder to let go and for the kid to trust dad. If possible, let go, take a break and go somewhere else. Remember that your presence may prevent the child from getting close to the other parent. If you stay away, your child will understand that you trust dad, and so should he or she.

What should both parents do together?

Go step by step. 

Change takes time. It’s recommended that the rejected parent join an activity with the preferred parent, in order to create a shared experience. This way the child will feel safe, the rejected parent will join in and learn and the preferred parent will learn to trust and let go. For example, when you two are with the child during the shower, you’ll wash the head and the father will soap the body, or tell the child a bedtime story together. First, mom tells one page and dad the next. The cooperation between you is important. Your kid will get used to the presence of the other parent, gradually and without coercion.