How to respond when your child prefers one parent

It’s heartbreaking when your child pulls away from you and reaches for another caregiver. Thankfully, there are things you can do to survive this difficult stage. Here are some tips to use when your child prefers one parent over the other (BONUS: suggestions for the “preferred”…and the “non-preferred” parent!)


It's hard when your child prefers their other parent. Here are some tips to help you cope!

“No! I want daddy to do it!”

Your 3-year-old has wedged himself between the bed and the dresser. Refusing to let you help him get dressed.

“Daddy’s at work right now. Mommy’s here! I can help you.”

Attempting to get closer, his little hands push you away.

The hurt inside you grows. “What makes dad so special? I’m here with you all day. And this is the thanks I get?”

What are you supposed to do?

Parenting well when your child prefers one parent over the other.

It’s not uncommon for children to prefer one parent over the other.

Sometimes this is due to a change in the parenting roles: a move, a new job, bedrest, separation. During these transitions, parents may shift who does bedtime, who gets breakfast, or who is in charge of daycare pickup.

Sometimes, a preference comes around the birth of a sibling. One parent cares more for the infant, while the other parent spends more time with the older children.

And sometimes, it’s just because daddy does better bathtimes. Or mommy tells better bedtime stories.

Regardless of the reason, being rejected by your child hurts.

Thankfully, there are things you can do to survive this difficult stage.

Tips for the “non-preferred” parent

Manage your own feelings: It’s OK to feel a variety of feelings when your child pushes you away. And, it’s OK to tell your child how you’re feeling (“I feel sad when you tell me to ‘get away!’”). But, share the big tears, angry thoughts and hurt feelings with another adult, rather than your child.

Build connection: If the relationship between you and your child is strained, take time to work on strengthening your bond. Spend quality time one-on-one time with your child on a daily basis. Join your child in activities they enjoy. Or create “special” activities that are just for the two of you.

Empathize with the struggle: There will be times when the other parent is not available to come to your child’s rescue. In these moments, start by empathizing with their big feelings. Then, set a boundary. “I know you wish daddy could help you. It’s hard when he’s at work and mommy has to help you get dressed instead.”

Look for tips: As hard as it may be to admit, there may be something to learn from the “preferred parent.” Maybe the songs dad sings during bath time take the anxiety out of hair washing. Or the little game mom plays gets him moving in the morning. Stay true to yourself, and see if you can incorporate some of these tips into your parenting too.

Positive Self Talk: It’s easy to get down in the dumps or to start doubting your parenting when your child prefers another caregiver. Remind yourself that this is a stage. That you are the parent your child needs. And, that your worth is not defined by your child’s positive response. If you can’t shake the negative feelings, seek support from a mental health professional or a parent coach.

What if you’re the “preferred” parent?

It’s hard to be pushed away by your child, but being the preferred parent can lead to feelings of helplessness, confusion, and torn between two people.

Here are some tips for you…

Support the “nonpreferred” parent: It’s easy to jump in and “save the day” when your child is calling for you. Instead of swooping in, encourage your child’s dependence on the other parent. You can stand close by, respond with empathy, and remind your child that he is loved by so many people, including the “nonpreferred” parent.

Talk about “same” and “different”: When you are alone with your child, emphasize things that make each parent unique. Brag on the other parent’s strengths. Point out things that you both do well. Or, have your child list a few things she loves about both parents.

Be aware of hurt feelings: Keep in mind that the other parent may be struggling with your close relationship. Even though your child’s preference may make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the other parent may be feeling jealous, frustrated, or hurt. Put your pride aside and give them time and space to talk openly about their feelings. (Remember, the tables may be turned in the future!)

Here are a few more tips for both parents.

Thankfully, your child is growing and maturing.

With time, they will move past this preference and realize that it’s possible to love both parents in unique ways.

Until then, take a deep breath.

Find some inner strength as you are passed over for hugs and kisses.

And silently smile when the other parent is called in to change a messy diaper.

Need more support?

You don’t have to go through this alone! Let’s get together and talk through your parenting challenges. Learn more about Parent Coaching and schedule an appointment today!

Nicole Schwarz (couch 3)

Welcome! I'm Nicole Schwarz.

I'm a Parent Coach, Licensed Therapist and Author of It Starts with You. I help stressed, overwhelmed, confused parents find calm, confidence and connection with their kids. No one is expecting perfection here. But, if you’re willing to examine your parenting, find encouragement, or try something new, this is the place for you.

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