What to Do When Your Child Has a Favorite Parent
“Our parenting is directly proportional to our own self-awareness. Often as parents, we need to set aside our feelings to be in service to our children,” says Robin Berman, MD. Easier said than done, particularly when your kid seems to prefer mom over dad, dad over dad, or the babysitter over everyone. Whether you’re a single-parent, two-parent, or any of the multitude of other household types that make up this country, it hurts, and Berman gets it. First and foremost, the psychiatrist and author of Permission to Parent assures us that indicating a preference is a completely normal developmental stage for children. Berman also urges parents and caregivers not to equate favoritism with love—they are not the same thing. Instead, she offers pointers on how to reflect before you react, suggests ways to cope with hard-to-shake guilt, and explains why you should try not to take your child’s perceived preference personally. Lastly, Berman reminds us that “parenthood offers us daily opportunities to raise ourselves, so that we can raise our children,” which translates to this: Zoom out, take a breath, learn your triggers, and let kids be kids.
A Q&A with Robin Berman, MD
It’s universal and a part of psychological development. From babies reaching out their arms to one parent to toddlers and teenagers preferring one parent over the other, this is part of the landscape of childhood. Children and teens are smart—they know which parent to approach to get their needs met, who will be more lenient about video games, and which parent to pick when discussing their first crush. At every stage of development, a level of preference shows up.
Favoritism is quite normal, but it’s important not to equate preference with love. It is hard not to get personally injured when it feels like your child is rejecting you. You’re going to get sucker-punched. You’re going to feel “Ouch, I do so much for my kid, and they’re running to Daddy or the babysitter.” Take a moment to breathe, pause, and then parent.
It is so understandable why parents might feel injured when their child prefers the nanny or their partner. It hurts. Have compassion for yourself. Intellectually you know it is not personal, but emotionally it sure feels personal. Remind yourself of Don Miguel Ruiz’s wise words in The Four Agreements: “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and reactions of others, you won’t be a victim of needless suffering.” Fundamentally, when it comes to parenting, you’ve got to check your ego at the door.
Often there is a comfort level with one parent. If you’re the chosen parent, spread the love. Let’s be real: It feels good to be the favored parent. But try not to collude with your child’s preferences. If it’s always “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” why not say, “I’m so excited for Daddy to read with you tonight.” Or “How fun that Dad is going to take you for a bike ride.” Share the love. But when your child digs into a preferred parent, hold your ground. Validate your child’s feelings: “I know you want Grandma to give you a bath, but Dad is giving you a bath tonight.” Validating your child’s feelings makes them feel seen and felt. It defuses big emotions. One of our biggest jobs as parents is to be an emotion coach, to help kids work through big feelings. Doing this literally grows a more emotionally integrated brain.
But don’t get too comfortable if you’re the favored parent, as you, too, will fall from grace. One day when your child is a teenager, you will be asked to drop them off a block away so that you don’t embarrass them. We all get knocked off the pedestal at some point, which is part of the journey of independence and selfhood for a child.
Just so we are clear: Feeling guilty is part of being a parent.
Working parents, divorced parents, single parents, busy parents—there are a lot of reasons for guilty parenting. Whatever happens to our kids, parents can find a way to feel guilty or make ourselves feel responsible. But try not to let that guilt dictate your behavior, because if you act out of guilt you can easily turn into a pleaser parent: “I worked all day, so I will buy my daughter a toy” or “I am going to let my teen order in even though I made dinner.” Try to resist those urges. Our job isn’t to please our kids; our job is to parent our kids, and parenting means sitting with their distressed feelings (as well as our own). When you feel guilty about something, that’s a signal to be more mindful. “Hmm, I’m feeling guilty. Maybe I need to put down the phone and just be really present and available.” Our presence is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Even if it’s ten minutes of being present when your toddler is taking a bath. Presence will take you out of guilt quickly.
Parents can spur favoritism by trash-talking the other parent—I see that often in the context of divorce. Parents can also unwittingly fuel favoritism by giving in to the child’s preference. For example, you are about to help your child with their homework and they say, “I want Dad” and you go get their dad instead of holding the feeling and simultaneously holding the line by saying, “I know you want Dad, and Mom is helping you now.” Another way parents can fuel favoritism is the good cop/bad cop dynamic. This means one parent holds the line and dishes out the discipline, while the other is the Disneyland parent. Kids tend to gravitate toward the Disneyland parent because they are more lenient. In the long run, that makes for really bumpy parenting. Instead of this rocky teeter-totter, try to meet in the middle. Be both a loving parent and one who is capable of setting limits. Being a united front makes a giant difference in favoritism.
The way favoritism can be harmful is if a parent acts on their injured feelings. For example, saying, “Fine. Go to Dad—see if I care!” Time for a parental time-out. Zoom out, sit in the balcony, and reflect before you react. A really intuitive child will figure out, based on a parent’s reactivity: “Oh, this parent is fragile and vulnerable, and I need to take care of them.” That stunts a child’s own self-development. Roles reverse, the child becomes the parent, and their dependency needs do not get met. Instead of responding to this preference from a place of personal injury, compassionately work through your feelings so that you can manage theirs.
In my book, Permission to Parent, I have a whole chapter titled “Being an Emotional Grownup” [Editor’s note: You can find our conversation on that chapter here.] Being an emotional grown-up means setting aside your feelings instead of unintentionally projecting them on your child. It’s a learn-as-you-go process, and we’re going to make mistakes. We are going to get personally injured by our children and act out on that, and that’s okay—we can always circle back. If you had a tantrum because your son chose the nanny, then you get to regain your composure and try again. When there is rupture, follow it with repair. We can always take a mom/babysitter/grandpa/dad do-over. Parenting is messy, and of course we are allowed to make mistakes. But the good news is kids are quite forgiving.
That happens all the time. I have many clients who work full-time, and the favorite parent is the nanny. First, acknowledge the hurt, and care for it. Try to take the high road and think to yourself: “This person is helping me while I’m at work all day. This person loves my child, I feel grateful and hurt.” Holding both feelings often helps manage them. Acknowledging the feeling of hurt but not acting out on it is very important. Remember it’s not personal. These tiny little developing souls have been read to by the nanny, had their bruises tended to, had their food made, etc. Allow space for that person to be loved and cherished.
Remind yourself that it is wonderful for our children to have attachments to many people whom they feel safe with in this big world. The more, the merrier; the richer the village, the happier the child. No individual person gets their needs met from just one person. Your spouse cannot meet all your needs, a single friend can’t meet all your needs, and children are the same.
Managing the transition really helps defuse the charge. Typically the babysitter’s exhausted, the parent comes home and wants to be with the child, and this changing of the guard happens too fast. A rapid turnaround between caregivers might work for the parents who want their privacy and time with their child, but often it does not work as well for the child. Try having the babysitter or grandparent sit down to read a magazine for five minutes, while you change your clothes, etc., to make the transition softer and less abrupt. This lets the child know that they don’t have to choose between the parent and the nanny or grandparent; it indicates that you’re all there to love them. The child will realize it’s not one or the other—mommy or the nanny—they’ll realize that they can have both, and in the long run, that is really healthy.
I’ve seen divorced parents or step-parents do everything for a child, give their all. They cut their nails, wipe their nose, pack them a school lunch, and then the five-year-old announces, “Hey, I don’t want you to come. Dad and I are going for pizza.” Ouch. It’s okay to feel injured. You are human, why wouldn’t you feel injured? But try not to act on that injury.
What you think and feel as a parent and what you say are two entirely different things. I call it the internal parent monologue versus the external parent monologue. Respond with, “Go, have the best time with Dad, sweetheart.” But you can be thinking “Ugh, I do everything for you, and this is how you treat me?” You are allowed to feel the pain and injury. Call a friend and tell them you’re seeing red, go for a run, or cry in the closet. But don’t act on those feelings in front of the child. Give the child some love and lick your wounds in private. It is really tough in the short term, but in the long run, you will be helping to raise an emotionally whole child.
Psychiatrist and parenting expert Robin Berman, MD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, a founding board member of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, and an advisory board member of Matthew McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin Foundation. She is also the author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Love and Limits.
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