Parental preference: What to do when the kids shun one parent

Do your kids always choose Mom over Dad? It's a well-known phenomenon called parental preference. Here's how to cope.

By Liz Bruckner

Parental preference: What to do when the kids shun one parent
©iStockphoto.com/Steve Debenport Imagery
I'll be honest: I'm pretty sure my 4-year-old son loves me best. I had my first suspicions after he turned 1, and even though everyone assures me it's a phase, his partiality seems to gets worse as time goes by. He prefers to sit beside me at dinner, hold my hand for walks and draw me pictures during craft time. He even insists that I put him to bed every night. His dad? He gets called on for washroom duties.

The problem is, I feel horrible. It's painfully obvious that my husband is gutted at each only-Mom-will-do scenario, and even after spending the whole day in Fun Dad mode, when tuck-in time arrives it's still me our son wants to cuddle with.

According to Judy Arnall, a Calgary-based parenting educator, speaker and bestselling author, my husband shouldn't feel alone. "It's a very normal stage for children to prefer one parent during their early years, and it is usually the parent who they spend the most time with," she says. In fact, it's so common that parental preference happens to one in two families. "The basis of the attachment comes down to who does the most comforting. If one parent is around for most of the falls, scrapes and bangs that require a parental cuddle, kiss or hug, he or she is usually the one a child attaches to more."

How can parents withstand a bout of favouritism?
A good place to start is by making your feelings known. Whether you're the one who's always on call or the one who is perpetually warming the bench, acknowledging and accepting each other's outlook on the situation is a great way to begin getting past this phase.

Arrange quality time with your child
Next is setting up more alone time for the child and the out-of-favour parent. Arnall advises swapping roles as often as possible so the star parent is out of the spotlight. "If Mom is preferred, let Dad be the one to pick up the crying child, and to hold, hug and comfort him when he's hurt or upset. Have Dad do the bedtime routine every second night, and do the entire process completely on his own," she says. While kids may not adapt easily to the change at first, with time and perseverance – and making the other parent unavailable – it will get easier.

Give your kids choices
Also important is the approach to discipline that the "shunned" parent takes. "Being too authoritarian can impact the situation negatively, so try to ease up whenever possible," says Arnall. Schedule a day of fun, filled with snuggles, snacks and one-on-one time, and include your child in the decision-making for part of it. Let her choose how she'd like to spend a chunk of your day together, even if it's playing superheroes or with dolls. When the time comes to get involved, don't set rules and follow her lead. Watch her play style and wait for an opening to get involved. The more you can immerse yourself in your child's interests, the more likely she'll be able to see you in a new light.

Finally, remember that this, too, will pass, says Arnall. "Children develop deep love for both parents, but in different ways. Just as we love our children uniquely, so do our children love us in the same regard."


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