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When Toddlers Play Favorites

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??

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

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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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Melissa
Guest
Melissa

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… Read more »

Bear
Guest
Bear

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,… Read more »

drl
Guest
drl

so, basically your contribution here is to whine about how men are blamed for the vast majority of sexual abuse, when in fact they are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of sexual abuse/rape?

you sound really, highly intelligent. go back to your men’s drum circle and talk about your feelings some more.

AmyRenee
Guest
AmyRenee

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… Read more »

heather
Guest
heather

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.

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

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… Read more »

MR
Guest
MR

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… Read more »

liz
Guest

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.

Jadzia@Toddlerisms
Guest

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… Read more »

sekret
Guest
sekret

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… Read more »

sekret too
Guest
sekret too

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… Read more »

liz
Guest

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… Read more »

Dayna
Guest

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

Rachel
Guest
Rachel

This is awesome advice – thank you 🙂

Candace
Guest
Candace

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… Read more »

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[…] When your toddler hates someone important, like Daddy or Grandma. Amalah should go down in history as the best advice columnist, really. […]

Em
Guest
Em

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.

jon
Guest
jon

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… Read more »

Melinda
Guest
Melinda

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… Read more »

Ugly Duckling
Guest
Ugly Duckling

Hi, I read all these posts and I simply wanted to add a few thoughts. Children respond to love and to those who they feel secure with. Whenever, a child cries to leave the caregiver, the mom may feel jealous and a bit insecure, but if you look at the reason behind it, it is simply because your child has had a great time! I think in this crazy world of crime and all kinds of horror, if you find a decent caregiver be grateful rather than be jealous. Often the jealous reactions come from a deeply possessive view of… Read more »

Grandma
Guest

I’m a grandma of a 3 yr old. I adore him, I love him and he is my love of my life. I do not live with him. He is my daughters son. However lately due to my daughter having another baby she has been asking me to come help with taking care of kids. Right now my daughters inlaws living with her and her hubby downstairs. The other grand parents usually stay downstairs and my daughter and her family stays upstairs . When I go there my grandson acts very loving to me and always wants to play with… Read more »

Grandpa
Guest
Grandpa

Ugly Duckling, you are wrong when you say a child will not truly prefer someone over their own mother. My wife and I have been very instrumental in raising our granddaughter and she prefers either one of us to her mother. She is almost 4 years old and we have shared raising her for more than half that time. In almost 4 years of being at our house for days at a time, she has never cried for her mom, whether it be falling and getting “hurt”, nightmares or any of the myriad things that children will cry for their… Read more »