What to do when your child favours one parent over the other
Why do young children often seem to have a favourite parent? And what can you do if you’re the rejected party?
My 2-year-old son, Tom, was such a mummy’s boy, we nicknamed him Oedipus. Don’t get me wrong: he really loved his dad but he was far more interested in me, to the extent that he’d planned our wedding down to the last detail (bride and groom both in pink dresses). My hubbie was relegated to a gooseberry whose parenting confidence visibly shrank each time his son said, “Go away! I only love mummy!”
So one evening, Hubbie and I sat down with a bottle of red wine and came up with an action plan. I needed to butt out and daddy needed to be more hands on. The result: six months later, young ‘Oedipus’ is now a dedicated follower of daddy, and has decided to marry his sister instead of me.
He and I will always be close, but Tom now has a really special father-son relationship, too. Whether they hero-worship dad or are tied to mum’s apron strings, lots of children go through a stage of preferring one parent to another. While common sense tells us it’s just a phase and we shouldn’t take it personally, it can be really hard on the shunned parent.
“I’d say that all children have ‘favourites’, but some show their preference more overtly than others,” explains child psychologist Linda Blair. “Children instinctively create ‘pecking orders’ to make sense of the world they live in – it’s completely normal behaviour.”
According to Linda, there are lots of factors that can affect how your child relates to each parent.
Up to 3 years, children tend to be closer to the main carer. Between 3 and 5, they become interested in gender roles and may gravitate towards the parent of the same sex.
If ‘fun-time’ dad builds train tracks and serves up ice cream, while ‘eat-up-your-greens’ mum washes up and chases you with a nit comb, favouritism may hardly be surprising!
A parent who has less contact with their child may seem more exciting than one who’s around all day. But being around your little ones is not the same as being with them: when it comes to kids, it’s the quality of the time, not the quantity, that counts.
Help your child by showing enthusiasm for any expression of affection, rather than making him feel that love is measured.
Linda Blair, child psychologist
Children are quick to perceive if one parent is more of a pushover than the other, or if one is approachable while the other is distant. Inconsistency is difficult for a child to understand, so may be divisive.
When they’re tired, ill, or in need of reassurance, children naturally want the ‘nurturing’ parent – usually the main carer. We all have different strengths as parents, and assume greater importance to our children at different times.
Shared interests or hobbies create close bonds between parents and their offspring. This may change as the child grows and develops new interests.
If parents are bickering, children may feel that they have to take sides, especially if mum and dad try to involve the children in their disputes.
Preferential treatment of one parent may be a way of getting attention, especially if it gets a reaction. This kind of attention-seeking behaviour could be indicative of other underlying issues.
We all get on better with some people than with others, and parent-child relationships are no exception. These may be the ties that bind, but some knots are trickier to tie than others!
The main thing is to show your child that love is not a competition; that we can like and love people in different ways and for different reasons and that, no matter what, parental love is unconditional.
“Help your child build this most valuable of emotions by showing enthusiasm for any expression of affection, rather than making him feel that love is measured,” says Linda Blair.
“As soon as Jed walks through the door, it’s all about daddy and I don’t get a look in. The boys really love the rough and tumble with their dad, and I think they probably get away with things a bit more with him. It’s nice to see the closeness they enjoy and by the time Jed gets home, I’m ready to hand over care of the boys to him anyway!”
“I didn’t want to be a ‘wait until your father gets home’ kind of dad. When I’m around, the boys think it’s play time! It gets to Belinda if they’ve played her up during the day, then are as good as gold for me. As Belinda's with them all day, she does more of the disciplining, but the main thing is that we back each other up.
Belinda and Jed, both 36, mum and dad to Chris, 3, and Rob, 2
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