Extreme Favoritism Toward One Parent

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.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar pedro larranaga says:

    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

    1. 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.

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