Parent Q&A: When kids prefer one parent
Lately my son has been really preferring daddy and it’s been hard on me. I used to let dad do the morning and bedtime routine when it was just us because we had so much time in the day to make it up. But now we have a new baby, so my attention is divided during the day. I started doing more of his caregiving activities at nighttime and being the last person to say goodnight to him. This is helping but I just wanted to know if you had any advice for this.
He’s just not that into me
First of all, I want to acknowledge how painful it is when our child is “just not that into us.” When the sight of us makes them cry and they scream for the other parent, as though we are terrifying and awful, it can break our hearts. I feel you on this one – no parent is immune. So the first step is a healthy dose of self-compassion. Notice that hurt, allow it to be there, recognize it as a sign of the importance of your relationship with your child, and give yourself some good old-fashioned loving kindness. Remember that your child loves you more than anything, no matter what.
Next, be aware that this is normal (it’s happening in my family as we speak). As children work to find a sense of autonomy and control, as well as develop their budding personalities, they will naturally pivot from preferring one parent to the other. As you soothe the hurts within you when you feel rejected by your child, remind yourself that what he is doing is normal and healthy, and not necessarily personal.
Finally, a nice way to rebuild connection with a child who has been leaning away from you for a while, and especially when there is a new baby in the home, is to plan regular “special time” together. Even if it’s only 20-30 minutes at a time, setting aside that precious time deliberately and intentionally communicates volumes to the child and strengthens the bond between you. Let him know that this is special time with just Mommy, and you two will do whatever activity he chooses (you can limit this to the activities you are willing to do). The point of special time is not to teach or instruct, or to impose too many limits, so it can be helpful to offer choices of activities that give you maximal opportunities to say “yes” to your child.
And then, observe. Pay careful attention. Show that you are noticing what he is doing and interested in. Support, follow, and enhance his play. Delight in him. Make meaningful eye contact. Offer gentle touches. Lose track of the time – have someone else let you know when you are needed elsewhere. When time is up, tell him what a great time you have had playing together. Let him know which specific activities you did were enjoyable and why – did the colors he chose in his drawings make you feel happy? Did the way he made the animal sounds with the puppets make you laugh? Did you notice how carefully he was listening to every detail of the story you read? Acknowledge, validate, and give the very best gift you have to offer: the gift of your presence.
Walt Whitman said, “We were together. I forget the rest.” This is the feeling of special time.
And then, when he really wants Daddy and has some big feelings about it, you can make space for his feelings and say with confidence,
You’ve got some big feelings right now and really want daddy. I hear you. He’ll come and be with you now, and later we’ll have some special time. I can’t wait to be together then. I wonder what we’ll do!
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!