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When Toddlers Play Favorites

Mar27

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Hi Amy,

I usually turn to Google for most everything, but Google isn’t even recognizing my problem… so maybe it’s user error and Google doesn’t understand my long-windedness. You, on the other hand, speak my language and are an expert Googler. So:

My 21-month-old daughter reeeeeeally, really, really does not like my mom. It’s not that she just doesn’t care for her, she seriously has an aversion to her. If you ask, “do you want to go see Grandma?” she’ll say “no no grandma!” or start fussing and shaking her head. And it’s not like she’s just attached to me and doesn’t want to go to anyone else. If you ask her if she wants to go see my dad (who is still married to my mom – so that’s the same house/environment) or her aunt, she is thriiiilled – she’ll go get her shoes to put on so we can go.

I’ve tried to go the route of encouraging my daughter and my mom to spend one on one time together (they go to a Little gym class or to the park together). Once I’m gone, my mom says that she plays and is happy. But if we’re in a group setting (i.e. big family dinner or something), she loves everyone, loves attention, but freaks when my mom tries to talk to her or play with her. She’ll literally shake her head at my mom, cry, and turn and run to my dad or my sister, or anyone but my mom.

I know it hurts my mom’s feelings and I hate it. My mom promises that she is not offended and that kids do this…they choose favorites and that one day, it won’t be like this. But I know my mom. I know it is hurting her. And it is killing me.

I’m pregnant and due in a month… I’d really like to have my daughter stay with my parents when I’m in labor and NOT have to worry about my mom’s feelings being hurt by an almost-two-year-old that does. not. like her. Any advice??

Thanks,
Worry Wart

My advice? LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER. She’s right — the rejection stings, but it is sooooo. Not. Worth. getting worked up over, because toddler favoritism is absolutely 100% developmentally normal. And above all: TEMPORARY.

I have an incredibly vivid memory of sitting in my carseat, screaming my ever-loving head off as my dad backed our car out of the driveway. My mom filled in the details later: I was three years old and in the midst of a furiously terrible “mommy is the only acceptable parent” phase. My dad had the idea to take me to a movie. You know, something fun and special and awesome! Just the two of us! Because Daddy is great!

Ha. Haaaaaa. I screamed bloody murder for several blocks until my dad had enough. He turned the car around and gave up.

The funny thing is that I REMEMBER the screaming, and exactly what I was feeling at the time. And it wasn’t fear or terror or a sense of maternal abandonment or anything like that. Nope, I was just PISSED OFF that I wasn’t getting my way. I wanted my mom to take me to the movie and my mom was supposed to do whatever I wanted her to do, so HOW DARE SHE send me off with my dad instead. I WILL SHOW THEM.

And I did. When my dad turned the car around, I had no sense of his hurt feelings or the realization that I’d just cost myself a trip to the movies. I was simply filled with satisfaction that I was getting my way, after all. I’d won! Or something.

Usually (and this is probably why your Google-fu let you down) when toddlers play Extreme Favoritism like this, it involves one parent over the other. Go on and try searching for “my toddler hates my husband” or “why does my two-year-old only want Daddy at bedtime?” Your Internet will explode with commiseration, I promise.

The common factor, though, is that toddlers at this stage will only “reject” people they actually feel really close to. They are experimenting with relationships and attachment, and the “victim” of the experiment must be someone they feel secure enough with to push away. If Grandma’s unconditional love was actually questionable to your daughter, she probably wouldn’t act this away around her.

Not that knowing the whole developmental armchair psychology of the favoritism/rejection business is particularly HELPFUL when faced with a sobbing toddler who wants nothing to do with you. But it sounds like your mom has been around this particular rodeo before and knows that the best course of action is to basically go about your business and wait it out. Continue to give your daughter fun one-on-one time with her grandmother. Continue with your labor/delivery childcare plan without guilt. She’ll be FINE. It’s not fear of Grandma or even fear that you (or any other preferred adult) is abandoning her to the scary wolves or anything like that. She’s just testing limits and throwing a control-based temper tantrum, to see what happens. Don’t turn the car around and give her what she wants, so to speak.

When you leave her with Grandma, reassure her that it’s okay to be angry and that you’ll be back. Your mom should then also reassure her that her emotions are okay and not naughty, and then let her calm down on her own (within reason) before attempting to really engage with her.

And also make sure that your mom resists the urge to go overboard with the spoiling and permissiveness in an attempt to win her over. Beyond the relationship/attachment aspect, this is also your daughter’s way of testing out her control (and lack thereof) over her environment. If your mom is consistent with the rules and limits that you place on her at home, she’ll actually feel more secure around Grandma than if it’s a Crazy Fun-Time Candy-Fest all the time.

And instead of stressing over the situation during your birth and hospital stay, look at it this way: Your daughter is only rejecting Grandma because she’s actually super-confident and secure that she CAN do it safely, without any “real” consequences, like Grandma not loving her anymore or going away forever. While it’s annoying behavior, for sure, Grandma’s house is probably the very best place for her to be during the tumultuous new-sibling time.

Photo source: iStockphoto, Thinkstock

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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17 Responses to “When Toddlers Play Favorites”

  1. Melissa Mar 27 at 10:30 am Reply Reply

    THANK YOU for asking this question and Amy for answering it! My 2 year old LOVES her Papa (my dad) – as long as he isn’t physically present or trying to hold her. She will talk to him on the phone, smile at him from across the room, talks about him all.day.long, but if he tried to give her a hug or kiss or high five? Not a chance. She runs away. It’s a new behavior in the last few months, before that Papa was her most favoritest person ever in the whole wide world. My rational mind knows it’s a normal toddler stage, but the emotional side of me just wants my baby to love my dad and my dad to not be offended that his granddaughter runs away from him. Amy’s answer is helping the emotional side of me calm down a bit ahead of a visit to Grandma and Papa’s in a few weeks :)

  2. Bear Mar 27 at 10:36 am Reply Reply

    I hate to be this guy, but there is one other slim but serious possibility – this kid really doesn’t feel safe with Grandma for some reason. The overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members and friends, not strangers, however much Stranger Danger we’ve been indoctrinated with. And women are known to be molesters abusers of children, too.

    Statistically, based on what we know about child sexual abuse, it is relatively unlikely that this is the problem – much more likely that it’s exactly what Amy has suggested. But: not impossible by any means. What’s more, erasure of the possibility of sexual abuse at the hands of a female relative is the same silence that contributes to erasing/invalidating the experiences of people who are survivors of this type of abuse. And I kind of suspect that if it was Grandpa or Uncle Phil in this poster’s scenario instead of Grandma, Amy would have at the very least nodded in that direction. 

    Well, that was unpleasant. Here, have some baby otters to help shake it off: http://cutebabyotters.com

  3. AmyRenee Mar 27 at 10:56 am Reply Reply

    do you ever leave her alone with Grandpa or Aunt as well? Or other caregivers? If Grandma is the only person you regularly leave her with (for one-on-one time or babysitting) it may be that she has figured out that “lets go visit Grandma!” or “Grandma is going to play with you today!” sometimes means “Mommy is going to leave me!” while “lets go visit Grandpa or Aunt” really does mean “visit” as in, you stay with her at their house. So she might not be reacting to the idea of hating Grandma so much as the possibility that you might be leaving – lots of kids go through this at this age when it comes to daycare drop-offs, babysitters etc.

  4. heather Mar 27 at 11:31 am Reply Reply

    We have this same thing with my daughter (2.5 years) and my dad, her usually beloved Grandpa. However, when he’s around she usually ignores him and refuses to have anything to do with him. Because she’s a little bit older we can talk about being polite and not ignoring people. She can prefer Grandma all she wants but we don’t tolerate being rude to people, especially Grandpa. Besides that, we leave it alone and between insisting that she maintains her manners and ignoring the rest of her behavior it’s pretty much stopped.

  5. Olivia Mar 27 at 12:57 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter has been going thru a serious phase of “only mommy can do it” since she was about 2.5 (She just turned 3). Anytime it’s suggested that daddy do anything for her, she has a major tantrum. If we push it and he goes ahead with changing her clothes, she will strip them off and bring them to me. *sigh* They really don’t get that this can be hurtful to the rejected person. I’ve tried explaining that this makes daddy sad and she just really doesn’t understand. It’s been getting a little better lately, though. I’m sure your daughter will stop rejecting grandma eventually.

  6. MR Mar 27 at 4:08 pm Reply Reply

    Amy hit the nail on the head. Phase phase phase! And they only do this with people who are guaranteed to love them anyway. My now 3.5 year old dd did this with my mom for quite a while. Wanted nothing to do with her if I was around. Preferred my father over my mom if I wasn’t there, and just all around snubbed Grandma. My mom recognized this as NORMAL child behavior and simply looked forward to her outgrowing it. My parents are coming to visit this weekend and my dd has been counting down the days for two weeks. She asks to call Grandma, video chat with her, send her pictures, and it is the Grandma, Grandma, Grandma show. OP, your mom seems to have her head in the right place and is not upset by it. She knows it just happens. You are really lucky in that. A lot of people get upset and mad at the parents for “allowing” this to happen. Just thank your mom for her patience and understanding that this is a phase.

  7. liz Mar 27 at 4:50 pm Reply Reply

    Bear, I was really glad you were that guy, because now I don’t have to be.

    But I was going to be that guy.

  8. Jadzia@Toddlerisms Mar 28 at 10:44 am Reply Reply

    I think this is the first time that I’ve had some disagreement with the advice given.  Assuming that it is completely clear that there isn’t something along the lines of what Liz and Bear alluded to going on (and yes, that crossed my mind, too), I’m not really in favor of just letting the toddler be hateful to people.  

    A few of my kids have gone through this phase (more often involving favoring one parent over the other), and it’s a fine line between respecting the toddler’s feelings and making the point that it is not okay to be hurtful or exclusionary to other people, and that those other people do have feelings too.  (Obviously I’m not talking about a crying toddler here, but rather, the toddler who is having a tantrum or simply being nasty to the non-favored person.)  I know that developmentally toddlerhood is a really self-centered time of life and there’s not much to be done about that, but I don’t think it’s too early to be teaching one’s child that other people’s feelings matter, too.

  9. sekret Mar 28 at 5:11 pm Reply Reply

    I”m actually being a weenie and typing this under a different name than usual because, yeah…my daughter hates my parents. Both of them, my mom more than my dad. and has since she was tiny. and I know exactly why, it’s because my mom especially is just…not great with kids. Which is a weird and uncomfortable thing to realize about your mom. And it SUUUUCKS so much, because my mom is so hurt by it, and I don’t really know what to say. ANd now that she’s three, I feel like we’re at the stage where, as Jadzia said, she needs to learn that she has to be NICE to people and screaming and not letting certain people help you into your chair, for example, is rude and unacceptable. But at the same time, the whole scene makes everyone so uncomfortable that I never know how far to push it (and have been meaning to email the smackdown about this very question, actually). Because it’s not ignorable behavior. She’s also pulling it in our household, alternating between mommy has to do it and daddy has to do it, and sorry, no: our household is not a democracy, and she doesn’t get to order the adults around and tell them who is doing what. But I am not sure how, exactly, to handle it.

    • sekret too Mar 29 at 5:54 pm Reply Reply

      Thanks for this comment! My son also doesn’t really like my mom (though he’s not really old enough to express it outwardly too much…yet) for the same reason. She’s not great with kids and tries too hard instead of just letting him play and be and joining him in that. She’s always trying to wave something in his face or get his attention when he just wants to play with whatever (and as a toddler that changes every 10 seconds). So far we’ve tried to coach my mom on how to play with him but she doesn’t really get it and is super jealous of my dad and how easily my son goes to him and plays with him. It’s really tough. And then there’s my MIL who insists on holding him even if he doesn’t want to be held. We don’t have a consistent plan here yet…we usually let him fuss a bit while he’s being held and then intervene if he gets really upset but I know it’s also hard for her b/c my son loves this grandpa too and goes willingly and easily to him. So it’s painful for both grandmas. We’re working on the nice part but he’s 15 months, he has no concept of manners yet though we reinforce if something is not acceptable behavior. Yeesh. Sorry for the novel.

  10. liz Mar 29 at 4:46 pm Reply Reply

    Here’s my rule. Children do not have to kiss, hug, touch or be touched by anyone if they don’t want to. They do have to be polite and respectful, but they do not have to let anyone within their personal space.

    They have to say hello, they have to say goodbye, they have to say please and thank you, and (within reason) they have to answer polite questions like “how was your day today?”

    They also are not allowed to hit, pinch, bite, or grab, and they have to play nicely.

    But…they really don’t have to touch grandma if they don’t want to.

    I do suggest that grandma come to you. That she bring fun crayons and paper, and that she just get down on the floor and begin to draw things. Or that she bring stickers and start to make a collage. Have all the other grownups do something boring like talk about politics, but stay in the room, and let your daughter go to grandma if she finds what grandma is doing interesting.

    • Dayna Apr 11 at 8:49 pm Reply Reply

      Best advice, Liz. Really. I loved the suggestion!

  11. Candace Mar 30 at 9:37 am Reply Reply

    My son did this with my mom, right after we moved to Texas from Maryland and we were living with them while we looked at houses.  Talk about upheaval in this poor little one’s life.  He was 20 mos, and my younger son was 5 months.  And he HATED my mom.  Who is great with kids, and has never laid a hand on him, and LOVED my dad.  You know what? It went away. He grew out of it, and at 2.5 years old now he freaks out when he sees my husband come home from work. It’s odd, but I really think it’s because he realizes he will not be getting mommy’s undivided attention (between him and his brother I am a SAHM) anymore and so he throws a fit.  So we starting counting the behavior (it’s a tantrum, not real fear, I have seen that child truly fearful), and it has been working! 1-2-3 magic was really helpful in this regard.  Now if a child is screaming in fear, clearly, we would not count that behavior.  But if you suspect it is just a tantrum, as Amy mentioned, that the child is unhappy NOT to be getting her way, I would look into 123 Magic, and count it.  A calm consistent approach really really helped us.   Good luck!

  12. Em Apr 13 at 2:07 pm Reply Reply

    I’m with Liz & Bear here. Amy’s advice is “listen to your mom”, my advice is to “listen to your child”. Hopefully there is nothing inappropriate/ abusive happening, but please don’t gloss over the idea that maybe your child is trying to tell you something.

  13. jon Apr 23 at 9:05 pm Reply Reply

    HI am a father to a a lovely 2 and a half year old girl who I adore dearly. Since me and her mum dont get on, i only get her weekends where my mum helps me out when im at work and when im off work, i spend as much quality time with her.

    Her mum is a very insecure woman and gets jealous when I hug or show affection to my little girl due to the fact she knows I dont want to be in a relationship with her since we cant get on,but will stand by my daughter whatever it takes.

    We have had a few arguments where she instigates it and I try to keep calm even when arranging pick up times etc. Lately, I look at my daughter and say “papa loves you” i hug her constantly and cant get enough of her. I know her mum is jealous and insecure as i dont want to be in a relationship with her due to all the quarells and she cant take that I love my baby. However, when i try to hug my daughter she pushes me away, when i say I love her she says no no . I dont know whats wrong, is she shy? is she going through a phase knowing I love her and she’s acting up? im getting confused if when she is with her mum during the week if anything is being said to her? as i only see her 2 days . pick up friday morning, drop her sunday afternoon.

    If someone has had similar experiences, id love to hear

  14. Melinda Jun 08 at 1:12 pm Reply Reply

    Ha, yeah, my sister pulled this stuff on me. I’m 9 years older than her and she was somewhat developmentally delayed. I had to pick her up from daycare after high school sometimes and walk across a 4-lanes-in-each-direction highway (with a cross walk and light) to get us home. She pulled her hand out of mine and darted across that road without waiting for a light. I could’ve killed her! Of course, I didn’t do anything to her, I just FIRMLY grabbed and held her hand for the rest of the way home so she couldn’t do anything like that again. 

    A few years later, I was her favorite person. Kids are finicky. 

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