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Does your child have a "favorite" parent?

Rest assured: parent favoritism is actually really common, and developmentally normal.  Preferring one parent over another doesn't always mean they love that parent more than the other or that one parent is "better" than the other. It often means that a particular parent is what they are focused on in the "here and now." This can be just one stage of life that they are working through. In addition, kids don't cover up their feelings or thoughts: kids are infamous for "telling it like it is" without holding back. They also can be exploring their own boundaries and autonomy and what it means to express themselves. With that being said, it can be equally hard to be in either of these roles. Being the "preferred" parent can be exhausting and overwhelming while the "non-preferred" parent can experience shame and rejection, which sometimes can trigger unresolved wounds from childhood. The problem is what the "non-preferred" parent sometimes does as a result: lashing out, guilt tripping, becoming passive aggressive or retreating deeper from the child. The "preferred" parent also can get caught up in a never ending cycle of exhaustion without setting and holding boundaries, leading to resentment and burn out. Then it can become a larger attachment problem. Some Strategies Surrounding Parental Favoritism:
  1. Determine where you'll be making small shifts. Will you focus on switching parent duties during bathtime? Bedtime? Specific time on the weekend? Determine where you want to focus your energy. Don't try to make too many changes all at once.
  2. Prepare your child for what to expect together. For example: "Starting this evening, mom and dad are going to take turns doing bath time with you." Point to calendar, "tonight, dad is going to do bath time with you. Then on this night," point to the calendar "mom will do bath time. We both love spending time with you. We can keep track using this calendar." (use a visual if possible, maybe even M for mom and D for dad or pictures of your faces.)
  3. Give the child something they can decide on related to the activity. For example, the child can decide what music they listen to during bath time, how they want to walk up the stairs (like a robot, like a snake) to get to bath, or checking the calendar to see whose turn it is. Give them something they can be in control of. For example: "OK, let's go check our special calendar to see whose turn it is to have special bath time with you. Then you can cross off the day with a marker."
  4. Remind the child of this plan often, so they are prepared. Kids do better when they know what to expect. Remind them earlier in the day of something later in the evening.
  5. Validate any feelings or sensations that come up during this but stick with the plan and do not deviate, even if the child is upset. "It's OK to feel upset. You really want mom at bath time tonight, but look: we checked the calendar and it's dad's night. I know it's really hard when we can't get exactly what you want AND dad is excited to spend time with you. Do you want to read a book while in the bath or play with the letters? You get to decide."
  6. For "non-preferred" parent: try to stay as "neutral" as possible. Focus on your own feelings while reaffirming your love and connection. Do not say things like "I guess you don't want to be around me," or "you don't like me." These comments don't help and focus on our own ego and put responsibility on the child for your happiness and comfort. You can focus more on your own emotions and how the experience is like for you, "I wanted to do that activity with you, and that's OK that you want to do it with mom. I will always love you no matter what." It is not the child's responsibility to not hurt your feelings.
  7. For both parents: do your best to watch your body language and tone when interacting with the child. Children pick up energy and if you are angry, frustrated, or don't want to be there, they will sense it, and that will worsen things. Children immediately sense when we are being inauthentic and uncomfortable. Keep your negative feelings out of this as much as possible. Avoid being resentful or making meaning. Do mindfulness or deep breathing to prepare yourself and stay as regulated as possible, seeing past the behavior. Or you can tell yourself in your head "this is just a stage, she is learning and growing."
  8. "Preferred" parent: be honest and determine your boundaries. It's important to name when you feel exhausted, suffocated, overwhelmed, etc. If you don't do this, it's like being in a room where someone can't stand you, but nothing is said or acknowledged. It's the elephant in the room. The child can feel that and then makes meaning of it if it isn't named. Determine and hold your boundaries. Boundaries are what we will do, not what the child will do, and it is not up to the child to hold the boundary. It is up to the adult. It is completely OK to say "I am feeling really tired in my body right now and I need a break. I am going to go into my room for 5 minutes. I'm going to set this timer and then I'll come back and see you. You can play with ____ while I'm gone."
  9. Work as a team, don't undermine one another and rescue. Allow the "unfavored" one to take the lead on the activity, while serving as back up support, then walk away and leave them be. Speak highly of one another in front of the child such as "dad loves spending time with you" or "you and mom have a special connection" but don't force it or try to sell it to them, as children will pick up on that right away and that won't feel authentic.
  10. Learn and explore what it might be about the "preferred" parents' responses, activities, interactions that seem to be preferred by the child. What is it that the child is drawn to in that relationship? What is working for that child?
Lindsey Boland, LLC  Our passion is working with children and families to tackle challenges like these. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please contact us and we can work with you to develop strategies specific to your own family.