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What To Do When Your Toddler Plays Favorites

Feb12

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Dear Amy,
My husband is a great father. We have a 3 year old daughter and an 18 month old daughter. He does everything right, from getting up with them on weekends to play and watch cartoons (so I can sleep) to taking time off work to come to the 3 year old’s preschool open house and gymnastics classes, to helping put the kids to bed every single night. They are truly blessed. I chose for them the kind of father I always wanted.
My 3 year old girl, however, has always preferred me. I breastfed her until 28 months, and had supply problems in the early days. I really feel like I nursed her constantly until she started solids. Of course, that can’t be true, but I remember handing her to him so I could go to the bathroom or eat or something, and she would scream until I took her back. If she gets hurt, she runs to me. If she needs comfort, she runs to me. She wants me, and only me, and sees Daddy as a poor substitute. I also had a rip roaring case of post-partum depression in the early days (actually, now that I think about it, her whole first year) so I couldn’t endure any crying. It made me feel like a failure as a mother, so she learned that if she cried she got me right back.
Now that she can talk, it’s even worse. Last night when we were going to bed, she woke up, too. He laid down with her so I could brush my teeth and change into my jammies, and she said, “I don’t want you, Daddy. I want Mommy.” I told her that since she’d hurt Daddy’s feelings, I was going to sit in the chair instead of laying down with her. I’ve talked to her about not saying mean things to Daddy, before, and I needed to give her some kind of consequence. Even after I sat down in the chair, and she knew I was staying there, she told Daddy to go away. She would rather lay by herself than snuggle with him! I just don’t understand, because he is such a wonderful dad and he loves her so much.
When I came back to bed, after she’d finally fallen asleep, he said, “Do you think she loves me?” The poor guy was near tears. I just don’t know what to do. I feel like it’s my fault, like if I had had enough breastmilk, she wouldn’t have learned to associate me with food and comfort so heavily. I should’ve let him give her bottles or something. I should’ve left them alone together before she was a year old. Hindsight is 20/20, right? But now I feel like it’s my job to fix it.
The other issue is that her behavior really deteriorates from the time he gets home from work until bed. She gets more timeouts during those 3 hours that he’s home per night than she gets the other 40 – 60 hours a week that she’s home, alone, with me and her sister! I know that dinner time is the “witching hour” for little kids, but it doesn’t happen on the nights when he works late or when we’re out of town.
His relationship with our other child is much better. She lights up when he comes in the room. The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is to talk Daddy up all day while he’s at work. I need to say things like, “Boy, I really miss Daddy! I can’t wait until he gets home!” and stuff, and talk about how much he loves her, etc. Then when he gets home, I need to make a big hairy deal about it, like, “Ok, the party can start now that Daddy’s home!” I’ve also asked him to lay off of the discipline entirely – to let me be the “bad cop” to his “good cop” to see if maybe she’s just intimidated by him (he’s over 6 foot, deep voice, and although he never raises his voice, even his “serious voice” can be intimidating for me, and I’m a grown up. I can only imagine how it sounds to someone who is 1/10th his size!).
Do you or your readers have any other ideas for how I can encourage a healthier relationship between them? It’s so bad, I’ve been thinking about leaving the two of them alone for a few days so that they can work it out. I don’t know what to do. Please help!
Thanks, in advance,
A

Say it with me: PHASE.
PHASE PHASE PHASE.
And also, PHASE.
I know, she’s “always preferred you.” Still. Phase. Stop blaming yourself. Right now! Stop blaming breastfeeding, stop blaming PPD, stop blaming everything and anything except that this is something that just happens, that a lot of kids go through, and there’s nothing that you “did” to cause this. It’s just one of those things that kids DO.
I preferred my mother over my father very strongly for awhile too. (My mother never had any supply issues, and I weaned myself at five months old, so…there goes that theory.) My mom stayed home, my dad worked, but he was a loving, wonderful father. I just…wanted my mom. I actually remember getting in the car with him — he was trying to take me to a movie or something similarly awesome in the world of a three-year-old — and screaming my head off as we backed out of the driveway because nooooo! mommy! He eventually turned the car around and came home, completely defeated.
And then I grew out of that phase and father-daughter outings became the greatest thing ever, all the way through high school, when my dad and I regularly would go out for lunch and movie together, or to baseball games, and I assure you my mommy phase as a toddler was absolutely NO indication of the kind of relationship we’d have later in life.
But. Still. It’s not a great phase. It hurts the “rejected” parent, it’s a strain on the “preferred” parent. Beyond just gritting your teeth and repeating that THIS TOO SHALL PASS, what can you do?
Well, I’d stop punishing her for her preference. I know you’re explaining it as punishment for hurt feelings, but I think that’s kind of above her comprehension here, and just causing her to dig her heels in. I’d also be very careful with the “good cop, bad cop” routine, because above all things, you guys need to present a united front when it comes to discipline. If there does a time when one parent really needs to play the heavy, then yeah, make it you. Just don’t send her mixed signals about discipline or appear to disagree about it in front of her.
Also, remember that any time she is tired or hungry or in a general toddler funk is NOT the time to be pushing for daddy time. If she’s hungry and wants Mommy to make her a sandwich, and you’re all, “No, Daddy will make your sandwich, Daddy makes the best sandwiches!”, I guaran-damn-tee that all your three-year-old is going to hear is “NO” and THAT will be what triggers the resulting freak-out. Have Mommy get her the sandwich…and have Daddy get her dessert. Like you noticed, toddler behavior deteriorates at night, so maybe focus more on the weekends for chances for him to get involved rather than trying to force the issue with an out-of-sorts kid. Again, her bedtime rejection of him probably isn’t so much about HIM, but because she’s tired and cranky and all she wants in the world is her regular routine, and why won’t you let her haaaaaave that, Mommy? Why is Daddy ruining things?
Aim to encourage time with Daddy when she’s at her best. Trips to the playground (where he can be “there” but she can still be independent) are good. A Saturday morning trip out to pick up donuts or bagels for the family could be a nice ritual (especially as it involves a treat AND doing something nice for Mommy). Have her call Daddy on the phone while he’s at work like a big girl, or have him bring her home little treats from his office. (My dad was a teacher, and used to bring home colored copier paper or little notebooks or highlighters for me, and OH MAN, that would make my whole night.) (And also possibly started my own life of stolen office supply crime.)
Also, do not underestimate the impact of a new sibling. The age difference between your girls is not much, but don’t think for a second that your older daughter doesn’t remember that there was a time when she had you all to herself. She may be afraid that if she doesn’t cling to you and constantly assert her preference, that you’ll suddenly “belong” to her sister. Maybe, instead of constantly praising Daddy during the day, she needs to hear more about you, and how special she is to you, and how you love spending time with her, blah blah blah — all the stuff that we all feel but sometimes forget to say out loud on a regular basis. Build up her confidence that you are not going anywhere, and that when Daddy steps in it’s not because you want to hide from her or prefer being with her sister.
But really, it IS a phase. A really normal, common phase. I hope, in the time it took me to get to your question, you’ve already seen an improvement. And you will, I PROMISE, as your daughter grows and matures and well, STOPS ACTING LIKE A THREE-YEAR-OLD. And all the wonderful, loving (but currently unappreciated) things your husband has been doing for his children will be the foundation to a fantastic father-daughter relationship for the rest of their lives.


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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “What To Do When Your Toddler Plays Favorites”

  1. EdenSky Feb 12 at 12:13 pm Reply Reply

    I just wanted to help heap on the reassurance here, because you need it. My eldest daughter was the same way. For the first two years of her life she cried every time Daddy came into the room. When he got home from work he was greeted with “Oh no, not Daddy!” And I know it really hurt him. Like you I had PPD, and like your husband mine was a wonderful, caring, involved father. Like you I also have an 18 month old who adores Daddy. He’s always been more easy going than me, so by default I have had to be the “bad cop” most of the time and it hasn’t affected their relationship.
    But it does get better! Oh yes, at 5 years old my daughter loves her Daddy very much. As she got older they discovered similar interests and activities that brought them closer together. They play computer games together, cook, wrestle etc. It’s stuff they couldn’t do when she was a baby. See, with babies it’s all about food and comfort and Mama is the obvious person to turn to, but with bigger kids it gets to be about personality and fun.
    So my suggestion would be to find some special activities that your daughter likes doing and have her do them with Dad as much as possible. Instead of just saying you love and miss Daddy, you can say “Guess what? When Daddy gets home he’s going to help you build a fort! (or whatever your kid likes to do) So she will look forward to having him around.

  2. De in D.C. Feb 12 at 12:14 pm Reply Reply

    My son had the same preference for me that your daughter does; and I did all of the things you lament (his father occasionally bottle-fed; I was out of the house 2nights/week for classes). But my boy just preferred me and wouldn’t have anything to do with his father.
    We finally broke out of the rut when I was out of the country for 2mos right before he turned 6. When I came back, surprise, he wasn’t as dependent on me for EVERYTHING (just most things, haha). Even now, at 8 1/2, he still wants me more than his dad, but it’s not that big of a deal. If his dad puts him to bed, afterward he wants me to come in. The reverse isn’t always true if I put him to bed. But whatever. Kids are finicky.
    Probably not what you want to hear, but ditto what Amy said about it being a phase. Just deal with it for the next year or two and know that you’ll be the one making the 2am bedroom runs. And maybe you could plan to go on a trip for a week by yourself. A bit drastic, but your daughter will see that she’d be awfully hungry if she doesn’t eat the sandwich that daddy made.

  3. Procrastamom Feb 12 at 12:37 pm Reply Reply

    My boy, who’s the baby of the family, preferred me over my husband for years. It was only after his preschool years that he wanted to spend extended periods of time with his Dad. My husband is the same as yours…completely involved in his kid’s lives, fed them, changed them, played with them every minute he was home, etc. What a let down it was for him to not be able to spend time alone with his only son. BUT!!! It did change eventually and now they’re the best of friends. They spend their weekends trolling the comic book and gaming stores, like the nerds that they naturally are.
    Also, unlike you, I worked full-time from the time he (and my daughters) was 6 mos old, we bottle fed him AND when he was a baby my husband worked nights and cared for him and his sisters all day while I worked, so they had that bonding time…it just didn’t take. Just wanted to explain the contrast so you don’t blame it all on yourself and what you think you did wrong. You did nothing wrong!
    Kids are such finicky animals.

  4. EH Feb 12 at 1:55 pm Reply Reply

    I have the reverse issue — my baby boy (almost 1) prefers his dad, a little bit. He doesn’t usually outright reject me, but if it’s a choice between going to Daddy or Mommy, he picks Daddy every time. As a mom, that is hard hard hard to take, and like the dads in these examples, I have questioned “what is wrong with me?” My husband is super-involved with the baby, but not MORE than me. So I am hoping the PHASE advice applies to me, too, and just adding my voice to the chorus of “there’s no logic to this baby preference thing” advice.

  5. JennyMooMeow Feb 12 at 3:28 pm Reply Reply

    My son is going throught this very same thing right now. He’s almost 3. Some days are very much all “Mommy do it” days, and some days he’s ok having Dad do things. I think he waffles a lot because of having a good day or bad day at daycare, so that influences the level of comfort he needs. It’s hard on me too, especially now that we have his new 4 month old baby sister in the picture. He’s normally very good with her. I’ve been careful to give him lots of attention and involve him in things I do with the baby. We also make a point to have Daddy time. Some days, Daddy picks the kids up early from daycare and goes to McDonalds for a snack and time on the playground. Yes, it’s a phase and it will end. Yes, it’s hard on everyone in the meantime. Make Daddy time it’s own fun and special things that he can’t do with you. That will probably help things.

  6. professormama Feb 13 at 2:13 am Reply Reply

    Completely a phase, totally normal, so so normal! Kids love their mommmies, until they get a little older and realize daddies are cool for al the reasons daddies are cool. My son was such a mama’s boy despite the fact that I work and his dad stayed home with him for a couple years. Now that he’s 4, his dad is by far way cooler than me, they go on adventures and build things with legos etc. He still likes a kiss and hug from mama when he gets hurt, and prefers me to put him to bed, but otherwise loves his dad these days. I know so many peopel who had the same thing hapen, I think somewhere between 3 and 4 is the magic age for most kinds to grow out of it, but definitely by 6….
    Try having the daddy do fun outings on weekends just the 2 of them, for ice cream, the library, science center, whatever she will enjoy, and eventually she’ll grow out of the mommy only thing.

  7. Kara Feb 13 at 10:34 am Reply Reply

    Totally a phase. My niece is three and OBSESSED with her “Papa” but wants little to do with her “Nana.” It’s just a thing. They do this. They’re fickle little creatures.
    My friend’s little girl (also 3) will yell at her, “You’re NOT my mommy and daddy IS my daddy. Go away, Mommy.” They’re three. It’s what they do.
    It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s a developmental thing. They don’t understand hurt feelings because they don’t yet get that others have feelings.
    I agree that you shouldn’t punish her for her preference. But don’t pander to it, either. Do things in a way that’s normal and convenient. If you’re busy and she wants Mommy to take her to the potty, well, too bad, Daddy is going to have to do it or she’ll have to do it alone. If you’re not busy and she wants Mommy, then, whatever, do it.
    Also, I am willing to bet that once you stop making a big deal of her behavior it will get a little better on its own. Here’s an analogy for you: When my sis and I were little, I always wanted the cat to play with me. He always went to my sister who couldn’t have cared less what he was doing. She didn’t chase him around the house trying to dress him, she didn’t try to pester him out from under the couch with sneaked slices of turkey lunch meat. She just let him be. Okay, right. Simplistic, but my point is that, everything with a small child is a battle of wills and you have to pick your battles. If you constantly urge her to “play with Daddy, like Daddy, spend time with Daddy, LOVE Daddy” she isn’t going to do it because, hey, not her idea.
    Anyway, you are not a bad mother. You did nothing to cause this. You didn’t. It’s a phase. Just don’t make it worse by blaming yourself and then overcompensating. Reassure your hubby that she loves him, she’s just THREE!

  8. Lori Feb 13 at 4:06 pm Reply Reply

    I echo the earlier posters and add my two cents:
    My husband felt horribly rejected by our infant daughter, who never, EVER had a bottle o’ NUTHIN’. All Mom’s boobs, all the time. I wore her like the proverbial sweater.
    It was a phase.
    He taught her to ride a bike at three, tell time at four, hit the snot out of a baseball at five.
    Fifteen years later, the daddy-daughter bond could not be stronger. I think he’ll be teaching oil changes this weekend. And for god’s sake, they go on ice cream dates.
    Relax. It’ll pass. I hope all the advice helps.

  9. Angela Feb 15 at 11:49 pm Reply Reply

    My son is three and he has always preferred his father over me. Just today at dinner, he told me “I don’t like you!’. Eh.. it didn’t really hurt my feelings because he loves me in other ways and I know it’s just a phase! He really doesn’t know what he is talking about and after all, he’s only three! They do not realize the impact their words make. Your husband will get his time with his daughter. I have my time with my daughter (21 months) and I know eventually, she’ll be all like ‘ Daddy!’. Funny thing though, my son has always strongly preferred his father over me since 1 year old. Prior to that, he was on my boob all the time, very attached. I look forward when they are older, we can do more stuff together, actually communicate better, etc. I wouldn’t worry too much about preference, just let it go and keep encouraging father/daughter time. :)

  10. Umi Hashitsume Feb 18 at 9:41 am Reply Reply

    I don’t have kids, but I still remember ONE day my father came to pick me up in Kindergarten. Boy, I CRIED! After that, my mother tells me he refused to come pick me up, because that incident traumatized him that bad… Later on it gets better. With my father, we grew distant, because he moved away… I think the important thing is this IS a phase and as long as the fathers keep at it the children will start being able to relate to them.

  11. Amy-May Feb 27 at 7:38 pm Reply Reply

    As the mother of 6, I’ll try to smack you gently :-)
    STOP PLAYING THE GAME! 3 year olds do not make decisions for adults. Period. Short of genuine illness, a 3 yo should not have the power to change a parents plans. Let her make 3 (1 per year of age) decisions a day. Stuff like, red shirt or blue, turkey or ham sandwich, or which book to read. NOT which parent helps her get dressed, makes the sandwich, reads the book or puts her to bed. You’re teaching her to be a fit thrower by allowing her “preference” to change your mind/plans/rules/convenience. Yes, it’s a phase, but that doesn’t mean you have to cooperate. And beware the temptation to excuse bad behavior by claiming, “It’s just a phase…”

  12. Biju Mohan Mar 21 at 3:29 am Reply Reply

    Hi all,
    I’m a father of the cutest, 20 month old daughter. However, u can imagine my plight that I’m resorting to ‘googling’ what should a dad do when his child does not want him !!!
    I’m glad I read these reverts from all of you. It make me feel much much better to know that this is a normal phase; and that she too, like most of ur kids, will grow up to like & love her Dada as much as he loves and adores her. Gives me renewed strength to keep doing my part without expecting anything in return, for now.
    Thanks.

  13. Jamie's Mom Apr 21 at 7:24 pm Reply Reply

    I’m so glad to have found this site and hear that this is normal. I’m sure hoping you’re all right about the phase thing. My little 22 month old so often makes me feel left out when Daddy’s around. I can’t help but take it personally and it breaks my heart.I know there are times when she’s happy to be with me but it’s so hard not to be hurt when she chooses favorites.

  14. jonah Apr 12 at 8:53 am Reply Reply

    Thank you Amy-May for offering some advice that very few parents are willing to follow: the parents make the decisions! My daughter regularly attempts to manipulate with the ”I don’t love daddy. I only love mommy” tactic. It goes over like a led balloon with me and my ex-wife. No, this is NOT a phase children go through. Enough with these silly blanket statements, please? The majority of children do not show intense inclination toward one parent over the other. Of our five children it is only the youngest who was 8 months at the time of divorce, who has shown a preference. We need to valuate every child individually. In our case, the problem stemmed from our daughter feeling very insecure about her importance in her mother’s affections. We corrected this by having mom spend a half hour of uninterrupted(meaning no tv, no texting with friends, no phone calls) interacting with our daughter. Within weeks our daughter was fine going with me or over her grandparents and no more ”I don’t love…” nonsense.

  15. Kinga Apr 28 at 4:58 am Reply Reply

    I was looking up on this “preffered parent” subject, when I foung this forum. Thank you Amalah and guys for the comments. 

    I am home with my two girls, 9 and 34 moths old. My older one always wants Daddy and sometimes says: “go away Mummy” in additon to “I want Dadd to do it!”. I breastfed her until she was 1 and she was so clingy on me, she wouldn’t go with Daddy, she sreamed, cried….And here we are.

    She got clingy to Daddy just before my younger one was borne, since that, she’s acts differently when Daddy is home – like a Princess – and shows her preference wherever she can. It does hurt me. I had a time when I felt relieved – early on, bc I had to spend a lot oif time with the newborn, but now I feel really depressed.

    Also, I am the ondisciplining her and Daddy only spend FUN time with her. I am probably exaggereting,bt it feells like I cook helthy food – what she hatey – then Daddy gives you something else and buys her desserts – what she loves. Even when she says she does’t want to eat dinner, shge does if Daddy feeds her! I do cleaning and cooking while they are doing D.I.Y. outside together – I love to do that too! 

    My partner is a really wonderful person, the one I always was dreaming about. I admire him as a father and even feel a little bit jealuse. He’s so patient and just can not say : NO – generally to anybody.He works hard during the week and he’s away from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but he always try his best to be in time ,get staitgt into helping when home ,never complaines he’s tired (however wakes up 6) and doesn’t take any time off from us to go to the PUB with his mates or anything like that. If he wants to do something he organises thgat way so we can all go – even if it’s a pint in a pub ( reallky rare) .

    I am the opposite, I’m not scared to confront with people if I feel suppressed. I am home all the time, have no familly to help with the kids, so I wake up and go to bed with them. I have no time to do anything out of the fammily, what doesn’t help in this situation as I feel thast all my hard work going to a really bad direction with no positiv result.

    But let’s hope, it is just a phase!

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