What to Do When Your Child Plays Favorites

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Little kids sometimes play favorites. Actually, it happens quite frequently. I remember the toddler years when my husband would try to get up to help during the night only to have the cries for mommy intensify by the second (or so it seemed at 2am when we were all completely exhausted.) I also remember that screaming for me after a fall or bump, no matter how tiny.

Parents try not to take these things personally, but sometimes it’s hard. Rejection hurts. Also? The “favorite” parent never gets a break. You know that age-old parenting joke about the only break a parent gets happens in the bathroom?

There were years when tiny fingers appeared just under my bathroom door each time I dared to “take a break”!

In all honesty, I didn’t mind it. My husband was on the road a lot in those days and the kids and I had a special bond. These days, the tables are turned. My son, a mama’s boy from minute one, is very attached to my husband. If he’s home, it’s all daddy all the time. I guess it’s his turn to try to get one of those coveted “breaks”.

What’s the deal with playing favorites?

Toddlers and preschoolers are known for their secure attachments and specific preferences (toast with no crust, anyone?) They dig in their heels on certain issues and sometimes wear the same shirt for ten days straight. Other times, they choose a favorite parent and won’t even consider spending time with the other one.

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The good news is that when your child plays favorites, it’s a sign that she feels very close to you. She developed a secure attachment and she wants to stick to it. It’s also a sign that she’s growing and thinking beyond her immediate needs. She knows that she has a special relationship with you that is separate from her relationship with her other parent. Finally, she probably loves that 1:1 attention! Little kids love their special time with their parents and they will go to great lengths to make sure they get more of it.

The problem, of course, is that both parents need to feel that bond and everyone needs a break once in a while. You can’t possibly care for yourself if you can’t separate from your child even for a few moments. You need time to recharge and relax.

Keep trying.

It’s easy to throw in the towel on this one, especially when it involves a screaming child who appears completely distressed in your presence. Don’t take it personally. It’s not that she doesn’t want to be with you, it’s that she really wants to see the other parent.

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Remain calm and provide reassurance that the other parent will be back soon. Speak in a calming voice and empathize to help your child calm down.

Create a special ritual.

Little kids love to work together with their parents. We are always doing things for them, it seems, but they actually love to get in on the action! Try baking together to make a treat for the other parent. Make homemade lemonade and serve it with the play tea set. Build something huge and fun out of boxes!

By finding an activity that you enjoy doing together, you begin to carve out your own special time. When you do this consistently, your own attachment to your child will strengthen.

Be a joiner.

It might be tempting to get some work done or go for a run the moment your child is engaged with the “favorite” parent, but the best thing you can do is try to join the fun. Sure, there will be times when your child needs 1:1 time with that parent, but it doesn’t have to be every time.

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If you see your child playing pretend with mom, put together a costume and get in on the action! If they are cooking together, ask how you can help. You get the drill. Stepping aside only isolates you more, but if you join the fun you become part of the bond.

Above all, provide plenty of reassurance. Toddlers and preschoolers tend to struggle with separation anxiety. They worry that time away from the “favorite” might somehow damage the relationship. Listen to your child’s concerns and reassure her that mom – or dad – will be home soon with lots of love to give.

What do you think?

What to Do When Your Child Plays Favorites

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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