It’s a challenge to know how to respond when kids pick a favorite caregiver, regardless of whether it’s mom, dad, a grandparent, or even a daycare provider. It’s no surprise that the most common scenario is a young child who wants mom over dad. This question came to us from Sandra:
Julie has always preferred me since she was a baby. She’s now 5 ½ years old and, if I’m around, it’s still just all about mommy. Dean, her dad, feels really left out. While we agree on almost all our discipline strategies, his style is more tough/loud and mine is to help her calm down first and then talk it through. Dean is at his wits’ end! He’s hurt by her, but also angry at me because he claims I enable her so she prefers me. I feel this is untrue, so we are at odds with each other and feel stuck.
My response to Sandra:
This is such a tough issue for both of you. It’s hard when our kids pick a favorite caregiver! But the more you two are struggling with hurt and anger, the more your daughter senses the underlying anxiety and stress. That increases her anxiety and it’s easy to have the conflict spiral as she retreats to the safest person. Also – if she senses she is a disappointment to her dad and that he is frustrated with her, her sensitivity will cause her to withdraw. His neediness will feel unsafe, even though, of course, it’s a direct expression of how much he cares for her!
Most likely she has pretty sensitive nervous system wiring, and safety is a big deal to her. When our sensitive daughter, Bethany, was young, she greatly preferred quiet, gentle people over louder, less predictable people.
Some thoughtful questions you might consider:
- When has her dad disciplined her in a way that felt safe and loving, and maybe even increased their connection, while still guiding her toward wisdom and respect? Whenever that time was, it could be a template for him for future interactions. Conversely, are there times when you have let her off the hook and not held her accountable to make right what she’s made wrong? Learn from each other’s parenting strengths as you both work to communicate to your sensitive child – “You are safe, loved, capable, and responsible for your actions when you mess up.”
- What will it take for Dean to be at peace with Julie preferring mom over dad during this season of life? During parenting challenges Jim would often ask this thoughtful question: “What are you going to do to be okay if this doesn’t change?” If you need your child to change for you to be okay, your child can sense that. It increases anxiety in the child because she now feels responsible for your emotional well-being.
- When Dean and Julie have their best connection, what is happening in both his actions and his heart? The connection has to be on her terms to feel safe. Joy is inviting. Expectation is threatening because it bears the possibility of failure and rejection.
Some practical ideas to move forward:
- You could start activities together with the three of you, gradually giving your husband a stronger role, and then you could take a break to go do something while he finishes the activity with her.
- They could do weekly daddy-daughter dates, or a special weekend away occasionally to increase their time together and just have extended fun.
- Dean might consider using some of his God-given gifts to mentor, coach, or encourage other kids at church, school, or in the community. This might take some of the pressure off of your daughter and show her dad in a different light.
- He can look for those spontaneous little opportunities to connect and share a laugh. But if he makes an effort and it doesn’t go well, giving space with a peaceful, light-hearted tone builds safety and security in the relationship.
Following up with Sandra:
When I followed up 5 months later, Sandra reported that things were about 50% better. Here are some ideas she said have helped:
- I go out with a friend every Tuesday night so dad puts her to bed.
- He takes her out somewhere fun for Daddy/daughter “dates”, usually involving ice cream. 😉
- She is getting older and more independent from us in general, and more brave.
- I think the biggest thing is that Dean has taken a break from being the hard-nosed disciplinarian and lets me do more of the discipline. When he does discipline, he tries hard to be gentler (lower his voice) and keep his anger in check. His goal was to be less “scary” to Julie and work on the safety/security issue that you teach. We work very hard on forgiving, forgetting and moving on, and demonstrating grace.
- It’s also been hugely important that we show ourselves to be a team, and that I demonstrate my love for Dean frequently in front of her. Sometimes I tell her we had an argument but we worked it out and made up, and then I make a point to hug Dean when she can see it. I often remind her what a great dad she has.
It’s a long road. She still prefers me over dad for most things, but she has shown more affection for him over time. We love it when she runs into his home office and says, “Daddy! Daddy! I have to tell you this!” or “I have to show Daddy something!” And there’s always hugs and kisses and she feels very safe and comfortable with him.
This is not an isolated result. Nor is it always mom who the kids pick as their favorite caregiver. We coached a couple where the mom had been shaming in discipline. Her girls strongly preferred their dad and both demanded to be tucked in at bedtime by him. The “loser” would complain loudly when it was her night with mom. But as both parents grew in communicating the Connected Families Framework during discipline, the girls began to really enjoy their mom and looked forward to trading time with each parent before bed.
This issue needs time to improve, so make sure a child’s preference doesn’t become defining or a source of angst. It is the angst that can be a main element feeding the negative dynamic. If a parent resents a child for a lack of affection, the cause of that resentment is probably parental insecurity. Instead, look at the challenge as a great opportunity to communicate true and unconditional love.
When parents take an honest look at their relationship with their child (even when they are being rejected by that child) they will usually begin to see positive changes. Remember to:
- be safe.
- increase your joy-filled connection times.
- be determined to be peaceful (rather than anxious) about your child’s preference.
As we’ve said many times in the past: If God has given you a child He has given you the ability to connect with that child.
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