What To Do When Your Child Plays Favorites

It’s heartbreaking to see a look of disappointment and confusion on your partner’s face when the child he’s invested so much time and energy in decides he’s on the outs. During our daughter’s first two years, my husband, Craig, was quite hands-on with overnight feeds, bathing, bedtime, and more. He assumed that would guarantee smooth sailing during the toddler years and beyond.

Not so.

Day after day after work, the joyful greeting Craig had grown accustomed to receiving from our daughter Ivy was replaced with a screeching, “No Daddy.” His sad eyes watched her curls bounce up and down as she ran to hide. One by one, he was stripped of his duties—the moments he lived for—like an errant soldier.

Some afternoons, I’d find myself coaching our daughter to greet him. (“Just say hello, Ivy” or “How about a quick cuddle for Daddy!”) Other times, when it got really bad, it’s possible I even bribed her with a treat. But nothing seemed to work. Even our nanny, Alice, found the trend troubling.

“It’s difficult to watch,” she’d say. “His face just drops. He’s trying so hard.”

DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

A child’s favoritism of one parent isn’t personal, according to Vancouver-based family support coordinator Trish Brown. As she told Today’s Parent, it’s really just about comfort. And Craig shouldn’t feel alone. According to a survey by Parents.com, “More than 90% of mothers and fathers say their child has favored one parent over the other at some point.”

Still, it’s sometimes hard to be rational when you’re hurt, and after a few months I noticed a shift: my husband’s sadness had become tinged with resentment. His usual soft tone with Ivy changed, and he became shorter and less patient. He expressed to me that she needed more discipline. Suddenly the man who didn’t believe in “cry it out,” the man who was happy to wake five times a night with her or sleep in her bed to make sure she felt loved and safe, was trying to assume a different role in the house. If he couldn’t be the soft one, then he was going to be the disciplinary. Red flag!

NO DADDY = 1,000 MOMMIES

I understood how he went from hurt to anger. After all, it had been months of being pushed out, and he was struggling to hold onto his place in our trifecta. But I wasn’t okay with discipline coming from a reactive place, an outlet for his pain. I started reading, talking to other parents, and trying to referee between my stubborn two-year-old and my very stubborn 40-year-old.

I also had to make a conscious decision to check in with myself. I had become frazzled and exhausted being the on-call parent 24/7 for weeks on end. We had just moved to Singapore from Tokyo, and I was trying to settle us all in, support Craig in his new job, get my daughter sorted into some classes, make friends, and start up a business of my own. The reality is that a child’s cry of “No Daddy” echoes with the sound of a thousand “Mommies!” I was wearing all the hats and firing on all cylinders. I was the only one who could get her dressed, take her to the bathroom, change her dolly’s clothes, watch kids’ shows with her, feed her dinner, bathe her, read her books, and put her to bed. She even, I hate to admit, moved into our bedroom and pushed my husband to the guest room.

At a certain point I recognized that 90% of the conversations my husband and I were having were about how upset he was that our daughter wouldn’t give him the time of day. Finally, during one of these talks, I said, “What about me? How do you think it feels to be on the other end of this challenging phase? I’m burning out.” I was trying not to resent him for not noticing, but negativity has a way of seeping through the cracks and there I was standing before him in tears asking, “Who, and at what point, was someone going to notice me in this equation?”

BABY STEPS FORWARD

I love our daughter dearly, and value the bond we share more than anything else in the world. But I’ve worked with kids my entire adult life and I know that if you don’t take care of yourself first, then you can’t offer children the love, care, compassion, and, most of all, patience they require. We knew this issue needed to be bumped to top priority.

“Once the child learns that the other parent can make her happy too, it will change,” Todt told Today’s Parent. “But it takes time – it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Mentally compiling the information I’d gathered, Craig and I actively began taking steps to ease him back into favor. This started with him having more alone time with Ivy. It seems obvious, but more recently I’d become worried about leaving them, concerned it would trigger one, or both, to have a meltdown. I had gotten used to keeping the peace and managing the household dynamic, as well as everyone’s emotional wellbeing. But I realized I had to let go and leave them space to grow together again. Craig made special dates with Ivy to go to the beach, the water park, or the tropical bird show. They’d go on bike rides or just sit together to watch “Winnie The Pooh.” In this time, I got a massage or took a walk. I read. I stared at the ceiling and enjoyed the silence.

When they did argue, I supported Craig. I realized that our intelligent little being was picking up on the fact that I was uncomfortable with him reacting to her, and she was feeding into that. Instead, I told him in private when I didn’t agree with his methods. In front of Ivy we remained a united front.

FINDING A BALANCE

I asked Craig to make a conscious decision not to react negatively, or at all, to her pushing him away. I wanted him to enjoy the moments they did share, the hugs he did get, and not ask for more. Craig has always been the parent who is insatiable when it comes to love and affection from our daughter, and I strongly believed that was putting her off. As a toddler starts seeking independence, they need a different kind of support and attention from their parents.

In the end, he realized he had to allow her to grow and change from the baby who would snuggle him for hours, sleep on his chest, and go willingly on countless outings with him, to the toddler who wanted to explore the world on her own terms. Now he goes along, though still has moments of frustration. Still, taking baby steps ahead, we try for one story a night with Daddy and then Mommy still puts Ivy to sleep (in her own bed). Next week, we’ll try for two. Soon, I have no doubt, Daddy will be back in the good books again.