What To Do When Your Toddler Has a Favorite Parent

Wondering about your child's parental preferences? Learn more about why they happen and how to work through them.

As parents, we've all been there – the phase when our little ones seem to develop a strong preference for one parent over the other. It might feel endearing initially, but it can also stir up big feelings, especially when things like bedtime stories and quality time are involved. Not to mention, it can become exhausting for the preferred parent to always be needed and make the other parent and/or any other caregivers feel pretty rejected. But not to worry— it's a common part of parenting toddlers, and learning how to understand your kiddo’s favoritism and big feelings will help you to navigate the complex world of toddler preferences (and believe me, they have a lot of preferences!) a little bit more easily.

The Natural Progression of Toddler Preferences

It's entirely normal for a toddler to favor one parent over another. This preference often surfaces during specific routines, like feeding times, bath/bedtime routines, and even playtimes when it can pop up if your toddler only wants to share their toys with one parent. Your child's inclination towards a particular parent is not a reflection of love but a result of repeated positive interactions. As toddlers grow, so does their need for autonomy, making parental preference a natural part of their development.

Several factors contribute to a child's preference for one parent. It can be influenced by shared interests, temperament, or even perceptions of permissiveness. Think of the concept of ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’; despite parenting from the same place of love and affection, one parent, perhaps the one that enforces more boundaries, might adopt the role of ‘bad cop,’ and the parent who is able to focus primarily on play gets seen as ‘good cop.’ Family transitions, such as the arrival of a new sibling or changes in routine, can also amplify these preferences–especially if one parent  is more occupied with the new family member. Your child's feelings and preferences are complex, and understanding them is key to navigating this phase.

Navigating Through the Toddler Preferences Maze

The Impact of Parental Favoritism on Feelings

Dealing with a toddler's preference for one parent can stir up hurt feelings. As the "not chosen" parent, it's natural to feel a bit sidelined. However, it's crucial (albeit, sometimes difficult) to do your best to not let these emotions show. Instead, maintain positivity and continue to show affection even when it seems one-sided. I know that can feel like a big ask, especially when a parent can feel snubbed by someone they really want to form a deep connection with.

In some cases, parental preference can even escalate to extreme favoritism, causing distress and confusion for the less favored parent. It's crucial to address this situation with sensitivity. Communicate openly with your partner about the dynamics at play and work together to create a supportive environment for the child. (Seeking guidance from a pediatrician or child psychologist may also be beneficial in extreme cases.) Consider this phase as an opportunity to teach your child about your unconditional love and that even when things get tough, you’ll always be there for them. It’s showing up in tough moments like this that foster true connection with your toddler, and models empathy at the same time.

What To Do When Your Toddler Prefers One Parent at Bedtime

Bedtime can become an absolute battleground when a toddler strongly prefers one parent during this routine. Especially at the end of a long day, this can be rough on both the parent and the kiddo. This scenario often leads to questions about how to manage bedtime when the child is adamant about having only one parent tuck them in. To tackle bedtime routine preferences, try to involve both parents in the process. Make it a team effort, with each parent contributing to different elements of the routine. Perhaps one can do bathtime, and the other can read books. Having both parents share in the bedtime routine can be immensely helpful. But, if your child just isn’t having it, one effective strategy is to involve both parents gradually. Start with sharing specific tasks, i.e. both parents helping with the bath, both taking turns reading a page of a bedtime story, and so on. As the child becomes more comfortable, you can transition to a more independent bedtime routine.

This not only strengthens the child's bond with the less preferred parent but also shows them that both parents are a unified front when it comes to their care. And, by showing your little one your camaraderie as a parenting team, you’ll also be supporting each other in creating a sense of shared responsibility.

Involving Both Parents in Quality Time

Along with the team effort, taking turns allows the child to experience positive connections with both parents. If the preferred parent is usually in charge, consider having them step back occasionally, giving the other parent an opportunity to take the lead. This will also give the preferred parent a little time to recharge their batteries.

Creating Unique Bonds

If you find yourself as the less favored parent, try to create special activities and traditions that are exclusively yours and your toddler’s. Think outside the box and outside of the routine – a unique outing like a picnic in the backyard, baking a special treat together, or inventing a silly game and its rules are all opportunities to create fun, memorable moments. The goal is to find small opportunities to generate feelings of fun and connection that will help form a unique bond with your toddler that goes beyond bedtime stories and routine responsibilities.

Signs + Strategies for Parental Favoritism

Signs of Parental Favoritism and Its Effects

Recognizing signs of parental favoritism is important for addressing the issue effectively, and compassionately. Signs may include a child consistently seeking one parent, expressing discomfort or distress around the less favored parent, crying/yelling when the preferred parent leaves the room, or showing an otherwise noticeable change in their behavior. The effects of parental favoritism can manifest in the child's emotional well-being, potentially leading to feelings of neglect or insecurity.

So, How Long Does Parent Preference Last?

One common concern among parents is wondering how long the phase of toddler preference will last. The truth is, it varies for each child. For some, it may be a fleeting moment, while for others, it could persist for a more extended period. It's essential to approach this phase with patience and understanding, knowing that it's a natural part of a child's development. But, just like those early sleepless nights, this will pass.

5 Strategies to Deal with Parental Favoritism

  1. Open Communication Between Parents: The first step in addressing parental favoritism is open and honest communication between parents. Acknowledge and discuss any concerns or observations regarding the child's preferences. Avoid blame or defensiveness, and instead, focus on understanding each other's perspectives. Is the preferred parent burnt out? Support that. Is the rejected parent feeling frustrated and hurt? Support that. Supporting each other is the first step in helping to support your toddler through this phase.
  2. Equal Involvement in Parenting Responsibilities: Actively involve both parents in various aspects of caregiving and parenting responsibilities. This includes routines like bedtime, mealtime, and playtime. By sharing these responsibilities equally, you provide the child with opportunities to bond with both parents, reducing the likelihood of favoritism.
  3. Create Shared Positive Experiences: Plan activities that involve both parents and the child. These shared positive experiences can include the routines mentioned, but also things like family outings, game nights, or special traditions. By creating enjoyable moments together, you contribute to building stronger connections between the less favored parent and the child.
  4. Encourage Individual Quality Time: While shared experiences are crucial, it's also essential to encourage individual quality time between each parent and the child. This one-on-one time allows for unique bonding and helps the child develop a positive association with each parent independently. Consider activities tailored to the child's interests during these individual sessions.
  5. Seek Professional Guidance if Needed: If parental favoritism persists or becomes a significant source of stress within the family, seeking professional guidance may be beneficial. A family therapist or counselor can help identify underlying issues, provide strategies for improvement, and facilitate open communication between family members. Professional support can be especially helpful in extreme cases of favoritism.

Navigating with Patience and Love

This phase of toddler preferences is a natural part of parenting that requires patience, understanding, and a collaborative approach. Whether your child strongly prefers one parent at bedtime or exhibits extreme favoritism, just remember that this rough patch is temporary. As your child grows from a baby to a toddler, the dynamics of your relationship with them will inevitably shift. Parenting is a dynamic and ever-changing experience, and the love and support you provide during these different phases of their childhood will contribute significantly to your kiddo’s overall growth and development. Try your best to embrace the challenges and navigate them with patience and love.