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When Toddlers Play Favorites

By Amalah

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??

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

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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