In this episode: Janet responds to a mom who says her 2-year-old has an extreme case of “parental favoritism.” When she’s not home, father and daughter enjoy a wonderful relationship. But if she’s nearby, her daughter “refuses to allow my husband to help, comfort, even exist.” She writes: “We are completely befuddled, and as you can imagine, my husband is just crushed.” They’re both wondering why their daughter behaves this way and how they might address it.
Transcript of “Extreme Favoritism Toward One Parent”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to a parent who says that her two-year-old has an extreme case of parental favoritism. When she’s not home and her husband is in charge, her daughter is fine. But when she is around, her daughter refuses any interaction with her husband. She says that he’s crushed and she’s hoping there’s a way to change this behavior.
Here’s the note I received:
“Hi Janet, thank you for your brave and compassionate insight into toddlerhood. It’s been a complete game changer for our family. My husband and I grew up in authoritarian style households and began parenting that way until we saw our son suffering from the collateral damage of that. Since discovering your work, we’ve dramatically changed our parenting approach and with incredible success, so thank you. Onto my question… Our daughter just turned two. She’s a curious, studious, funny, smart, fiery tempered little girl, who for almost her entire life has had an extreme case of parent favoritism. She refuses to allow my husband to help, comfort, even exist around her if I’m nearby.
My husband reduced his work hours about seven months ago to increase time at home with her and our son, three and a half, in hopes that more quality face-time would help. He’s intentional about not being on his phone or computer around our kids, suggests activities that she loves to do, is ready to pick her up and snuggle her when she gets hurt. He uses the compassionate accepting approaches you suggest to help her work through emotional outbursts, all to no avail. She screams ‘no’ or ‘I want mama’ or just screams when he tries to do anything with her.
If I’m not home, everything is perfectly fine and they get along great. But if I am nearby, she’s a completely different person. I say a ton of positive affirming things about him, ask her to speak respectfully to him and am proactive about suggesting daddy help with that or daddy give her hugs, etc. Her pediatrician said she would work out of it after a couple of months. That was a year ago. We’re completely befuddled. And as you can imagine, my husband is just crushed. Can you offer any ideas as to what the underlying issue is and how we can change this? Thank you.”
Okay. So the big clue here for me is when this mom says, “If I’m not home, everything is perfectly fine and they get along great. But if I’m nearby, she’s a completely different person.” So what that indicates is her relationship with her father is fine. She is comfortable with him. But when her mother is there, she’s got some feelings to share around this. So I would see this as more about her mother than her father. Not that her mother’s doing anything wrong, but she’s maybe not quite accepting these feelings all the way. She’s pushing back on them a little bit.
So for her toddler, the feelings may have become a way that she’s fallen into, for a year now, of letting go of her strong feelings or trying to share them with her mother and her father. This feeling that children this age commonly have that they don’t control everybody and everything and they have to let go of calling the shots, and let themselves feel those powerless emotions. She could be expressing a lot of toddler angst through these situations. And that’s what I think she’s doing.
But it’s also become a kind of story she has about herself now. I don’t think she believes it. I don’t think she believes that daddy’s a terrible choice when mommy’s there, but she’s fallen into this pattern.
The way to shift the story and change this pattern is for both parents to bravely roll out the red carpet for her to have her feelings, to not take them personally. I think the dad should feel very encouraged that when he’s with his daughter without the mother there, she’s fine. That says it all. That says that it’s not about him. Hopefully if he understands that it will help him not to feel crushed, because in these situations children need us not to feel concerned or personally slighted by their emotions. These are just feelings that she’s passing through. They’re not facts about her life, that she doesn’t like daddy and she only likes mommy.
And to encourage these feelings I would look at as parents where they are coming across as uncomfortable in the situation to their daughter. It seems that that’s coming across, from the information I’ve gotten here. (And, again, this is never enough. I would always love to get more.) But it sounds like both the parents are very lovingly pushing back on the feelings. Trying a little too hard to overcome these feelings rather than letting them be.
For instance, when this mother says, “I say a ton of positive affirming things about him to her …” I’m wondering if that’s coming across as she’s trying to sell him to her. Children always see right through that. They see: This person’s not comfortable with me having a feeling about not wanting to be with dad when mom’s there. She doesn’t want me to feel that, so she’s trying to push how wonderful daddy is on me.
It always has the opposite effect of what we want when we try to do those things. Coaxing, selling, cajoling, trying to turn those “negative feelings” around, never works.
She says she asked her to speak respectfully to him. So she’s demonstrating that it bothers her that she’s saying, “No, no, no, I don’t want daddy. I want you.” She says she’s, “proactive about suggesting daddy will help with that or daddy will give her hugs.” Yeah, it’s a little too pushy. This mother obviously doesn’t mean it that way at all. She’s trying to do the right thing, clearly.
The way children perceive this, though, is they see right through to the feelings that parent has, which are in this case, I’m not comfortable. I want you to stop feeling like this and I want you to love your dad and want to be with him in this moment. I can’t accept where you’re at here.
So if we understand that these are feelings that aren’t really about her dad personally, and aren’t really about her mother either, actually… Although, her mother’s the one that she I think needs these messages from, even more than her dad right now. She needs these messages of, “You just want me and you don’t want daddy. Yeah, that’s disappointing that Daddy’s got to be the one to do it because I’m busy right now.” Or, “It’s Daddy’s turn and he wants to do it. But, it’s so hard to let go of me. I love that about you, that you care so much about me.”
It doesn’t matter what we say, but that we see this as a drama, some strong emotions that aren’t as specific as they might appear.
I wonder if this little girl has a bit of a flair for drama because, oftentimes, the children I work with that will express feelings to the hilt this way, do that regularly. That’s a pattern that they have. It’s part of who they are. It’s wonderful. Those kinds of people are very fun to be around. Everything’s a little bit amped up, a little more dramatic.
So as far as practical advice, the most important thing is the way we perceive. And understanding what’s really going on here is the key. That’s the part I would work on. How we’re perceiving her in these situations, how we’re perceiving these outbursts and protests and rejections, working on seeing this as positive for her to release, and not positive for her to overpower us with and make us a little fearful, and to convince her make it better. There’s no reason to. It’s good for her to go there and to know that her parents are taller than that. They’re not going to get sucked into the emotions of their two-year-old.
It’s hard not to, I know, because they’re very convincing and because the feelings are real. They’re just not exactly about those particulars. So perceiving this in a healthy way.
In one of my articles, it’s called, When Children Prefer One Parent , I talk about how this is our opportunity as parents to be heroes on both sides. Dad gets to be the hero: “Oh, you don’t want me and here I am, and I love you.” Because he sees through that. He doesn’t let the feelings stop him in his tracks. He doesn’t take them personally. He understands that this is the same girl that was having a wonderful time with him until mom showed up. It’s not about him. She adores him. So welcoming that rejection with the open arms of a person who understands at a mature level, this is unthreatening.
And then the mother being a hero in that respect as well. She has those boundaries with her daughter. She just backs daddy up at whatever he’s doing. So when daddy’s trying to do something with her and she screams, “No, I want Mama!” Then both parents are: “You want Mama and Dad’s doing it. That’s so hard!” And she may have a full-on meltdown around that. It’s a healthy meltdown for her to have.
Seeing your little tiny girl. She doesn’t want to be in the situation of rejecting her father and being so desperate for her mother. She’s kind of fallen into this. We can help her out of that by not giving it power to bother us or change us or change what we would be doing.
Again, I wouldn’t feel as this mother that it’s her job to try to sell her daughter on the wonders of daddy. She knows the wonders of daddy quite intimately. She just needs to know that both her parents are okay with her not getting what she wants in those moments or what she wants on the surface, at least. And trusting the feelings. Always.
So I don’t know all the details of how this parent favoritism has become so extreme, but when patterns repeat themselves like this and even intensify, it’s usually because, without meaning to, we are perpetuating the cycle through our response. We are allowing our child’s feelings to shift us, instead of being those grounded anchors that they need. And children will get us into shape that way. They’ll keep trying until we get it. They’ll keep repeating the patterns until they get the response that they need.
So I see this is good news that these parents, particularly the mother, just have to make a little adjustment here in their perception, and this issue will resolve itself. It really will. But because their daughter’s gotten a different impression for a while now, it may take a little bit longer. But if the parents are consistent and they welcome the feelings and welcome the drama, and they don’t change their minds about what they’re doing with their daughter and who’s going to do it, it will pass.
So I hope some of that helps. And I want to congratulate these parents for all their hard work and their success in making changes. That’s the hardest thing of all.
Also, please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in.
Both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or you can go to the books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in E-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and apple.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.
This is a great article thank you for giving me some clarity.
As I’m a fifo worker being away so much is extremely difficult but when I’m home for the week I make the most of every opportunity with my 3 and a half year old daughter. After the initial day that she’s all daddy, it wears off and then sometimes I can’t so much as put her shoes on. It’s tough because it feels like she’s rejecting me and questioning to myself what am I doing wrong. Especially around bed time too she’s prefers mum to dress her and read her books.
After reading this article, it has given me a much better understanding. Thank you
Hi Pedro – I am so glad to be able to ease your mind. This is very typical behavior, not a sign that you are doing anything wrong.
This is a great article. But it doesn’t help my situation. My wife doesn’t make time for our son, and really has only spent one evening alone with him. He is almost 15 months and loves everyone he knows and spends time with him. However, my wife is usually on Facebook or instagram when the baby and I are playing. When it is the weekend and I am catching up on work she will drop him off at her parents and get her nails done during COVID-19. Doesn’t have much regard for the safety of our son. I cook, clean, take care of my baby and am the breadwinner. Not sure how reading this article applies to my situation.
Sorry to hear this, Bob. Sounds like your wife is mentally checked out and may need professional help to work on being present with her family.
I enjoyed both of your articles addressing this topic. I’m curious if this advise holds true for a preschool/kindergarten age child? THANK YOU for shedding important insight so I can better understand my children.
Thank you, Marie! Yes, my advice would be the same for a preschooler/kindergartener. If you would like to provide more details I may be able to understand why this is happening for you.
Seems like you married a terribly lazy and selfish woman who can’t do anything right. That’s sarcasm. It’s very hard to believe that she does absolutely nothing for your family, and that you do everything. I would be very resentful and checked out if I were your wife and made to feel that way.
Wow, what a way to dismiss a stranger’s concern
Hello, My 7 year old son is extremely attached to his dad. This began when I weaned our son at age 2. It seems that there was an attachment rupture and I can’t get back to a place where he loves us equally. He also always prefers that his daddy put him to sleep at night. He has even told me that he loves his dad more than he loves me. It’s really painful and the rejection is making me want to “back away” from my son at times. It breaks my heart but sometimes I just can’t bear being rejected by him so consistently. I am a working mom but my family is my top priority. However, the strained relationship with my son leaves me heartbroken and in tears often and makes me consider re-evaluating my priorities. My dream would be to strengthen our bond and to have our son love us equally but I don’t know how to get there.
Through your other article I knew most of this and I have been able to diminish most big tantrums. Now it is mostly little things like daddy having to help her eating or pouring her a drink. Daddy is the favorite here. I blame it to his being less consistently. But sometimes I start doubting it because she often runs at dad after being away for a while and not me. I know we are okay and I do not feel like she doesn’t love me or anything, but I sometimes do think dad is her favorit. He deserves it by the way, he is a great dad.
But is he really or does this has to do with testing as well?
I feel you deeply on this one. My son is 2.5 now and for nearly 5 months now its all about daddy. It hurts and it’s painful. All of the articles talk about the security and the emotions the child is going through. I honestly think it’s a pattern they fall into. No clue how it starts though and why the dad and not us. This article touches on it too although most of it doesn’t apply to us. One day my son has a blast when dad is not around but others when I go to pick him up from his nap all he wants is dad. So it’s sporadic. I feel like he plays with my heart sometimes as I think oh yes we are getting better and then boom he cries for dad as if he is at war somewhere far. He is also not into drama as this article suggests. He is a perfectionist and quite a gentle and kind little toddler. The dada preference started slow and mild and its full blown to comments like, grandma is here now and i dont need you anymore. We are both super hands on. We are about 60-40 around him ( me being the 60%). However, I strongly believe that it’s all about dads world. His side of grandparents (daddy phase started the same time they moved closer to us), his hobbies as they are both obsessed with golf, his language…. he is in dadas world and not mine. I’m the cook, the groceries, the driver and the housekeeper. Not to say that dad doesn’t do the hard work because he sure does. The difference is that I don’t get the praise or the love and dad does. The biggest blow is now after all these months when he gets hurt he wants dad not me. Before I used to say at least he comes to me for comfort and I even lost that. One thing that is helping us is setting boundaries. We say “oh im sorry you want dada but it’s my turn to put you to sleep. It’s my turn to feed, its my turn…. So we are addressing the need emotionally but still holding that boundary. I also made a visual schedule of things that dad does and things that I do. Little dude gets excited about it and he forgets about his pattern. Its only been a few days but it seems to be working a wee bit more. But yes he does light up and smile when he sees dad and never me. Dad is also the one who is constantly worried about him getting hurt etc. Im more chill and hold all those fears in my head. who knows what the psychology behind it is really. Every child seems to be so different. I understand the general theories but its not a formula that applies to every child. Its been especially hard on me as I have not seen my family for 20 months now due to covid and travel restrictions. Im also not working so all my eggs are in one basket and that basket seems to be rejecting me. Hang in there mama. When they are teens we will ground them for this! – SJ
Wow! This article made me cry. I don’t know how I missed this one. I could have written this about our family. My daughter has VERY strong emotions and opinions. She is 2.5 at the end of the month, but this has actually been going on in some form since she was 3 months old!! I wish I had read this article back then. I realize after reading this it has gone on so long because we have allowed it become a pattern for her. It is her “normal”. Poor girl has been trying to work through her feelings for years and we have not let her. Thank you for writing this and for not piling the guilt into us parents who are trying the best with the pathetic tools we have been given by previous generations. My husband and I both struggle with letting others have emotions and not being effected by them in unhealthy ways. People keep telling us it is a “stage”, but for it to go on this long seems way more than just a “stage or separation anxiety. She does absolutely fine when I am not there or even with other people that are not her father, like friends and grandparents. I now see it is because it has not become a pattern with them.