What To Do When Your Child Favors the Other Parent

Parents holding hands with toddler

Dear Selfless Esteem,
My 2.5-year-old daughter prefers her dad / my husband over me. I thought it was just a phase, but it’s been this way for over a year. I’m her primary caregiver but he’s home often. I make sure to play with her, and I’m the only one to take her on outings like the library and such, but when she gets upset or hurt, she only wants dada for comfort. She wants to leap out of my arms to him always. It makes me so sad. Why is this happening? He’s such an incredible dad but I wish she wanted us equally.
Second Favorite

Thanks so much for bringing up this common and disheartening dilemma. I hope your sadness dissipates as I offer an explanation and some suggestions. Here are 5 things to do when your child favors the other parent. 👨‍👩‍👧

1. Don’t Take It Personally.

First of all, try not to express your sadness to your toddler because that would be counterproductive. Instead, take it in stride just like you would for any of her other inexplicable yet typical toddler behaviors. In fact, not taking your child’s behavior personally is necessary for every developmental stage, not just toddlerhood.

But how can a parent withstand what feels like rejection? One way is to stay close to God and receive His unchanging love (Psalm 136:26). See the post, “Why Selfless Esteem Is Better Than Self-Esteem” for details about His unconditional love. Understandably, you value your relationship with your child, but your relationship with God is what’s fundamental to satisfy your heart’s desires (Psalm 37:4).

Another way to cope with this behavior is to trust that as long as you’re attuned to her needs and meeting those needs, she’ll have a secure attachment to you. It sounds like you’re providing intellectual stimulation and entertainment by taking her to the library and playing with her. (See “11 Toddler Programs” by Behind the Classroom if you’d like more ideas.) Be sure to meet her other needs as well. For a description of the attachment cycle, see the video “What is the Attachment Cycle?” by Empowered to Connect.

2. Roll with It.

There are numerous possible reasons why your daughter only wants her father when she’s upset. You said he’s home “often.” But you’re part of her daily routine as her primary caregiver. Therefore, one hypothesis is that she’s trying to connect with him more because she has no capacity to understand his schedule and know when he’ll be home. Or, maybe the reason is simply that she’s comforted by his deeper voice and stronger arms.

Nevertheless, use these occurrences as teaching moments regarding her emotions and needs. For example, you could gently say to her, “You’re sad and you want ‘dada’ to hold you,” as she goes to her father. When she’s calm, show her how to name various emotions by using children’s books, such as How Do I Feel? by Hinkler Books, and help her practice using her words to ask for what she needs. And as she gets older, she’ll be more able to identify and express the reasons for her behaviors.

3. Strengthen Your Marriage and Co-Parenting Relationship.

Man and woman holding hands

Thankfully, your husband is an “incredible dad.” When you’re outside of your daughter’s purview, discuss topics with him like discipline, structure, and values to decrease the chances of her splitting and favoring a more lenient parent.

Meanwhile, you and your husband should be each other’s “favorites” because someday, your daughter will likely move out, but you’ll still have each other. For this reason, invest time and effort in your marriage, i.e., have date nights by hiring a babysitter or participating in babysitting cooperatives. Please see the post, “4 Ideas to Revive Your Marriage.”

4. Trust Your Time Will Come.

There should be no sense of competition between you and husband because you each have incomparable strengths that she can draw upon throughout her life. Rest assured that your daughter will benefit from your unique gifts and talents. Just the fact that you’re a female has an advantage because she’ll probably prefer to talk to you about puberty and menstruation—even if her father’s a gynecologist!

5. Pray About It.

Throughout your child’s life, pray about every concern. A mother’s passionate prayers are certainly heard by God (James 5:16). See the post, “How To Pray in 5 Simple Steps” and “The Real Truth About God” for more information.

This brings me to one final word of encouragement about God’s love. “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). On that note, receive and enjoy His steadfast love. 💞

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New King James Version®. Copyright © 1984 by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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  1. TC

    This was such excellent advice, Gina! You really covered it from seemingly all angles. I can attest that children do make an extra effort to connect with the parent that is home less. My husband is not home much but when he is, my son wants everything from him, water, etc. He will literally hold his hand up and say “NO, Dada” if I go to give him a snack or water or something. 😊

    1. Gina Leggio

      Thanks so much for your comment…Glory to God. And thanks especially for sharing your experience so that others can relate.

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