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What To Do When Your Toddler Plays Favorites

By Amalah

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 postpartum 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,

Say it with me: 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.


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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