Toddler Favoritism Is Real. Here’s How To Handle It.

Toddlers naturally play favorites, but it can create tension in a household. Here's how to handle this new assertion of dominance.

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A child reaching for their favorite parent.

For toddlers, having a “favorite” parent is second nature. But toddler favoritism can lead to tension in a household. A child who plays favorites can make every day feel like some awful reality competition. The only thing missing is someone saying, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” But know that like most emotionally devastating kid behaviors, this one too is totally natural.

As a baby, a kid might have snubbed one parent over the other because they found the person it was easiest to get stuff from. That’s not anyone’s fault. And in fact, both parents are in their kid’s broader hierarchy of “people who can get me stuff.” This hierarchy most likely has a deep evolutionary root that allowed our species to thrive. Sadly, it’s hard to use “evolution” as a way to feel better.

“A child definitely needs to attach,” explains educational psychologist Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “They usually attach more and love more with the person who’s with them most and they feel safest with.”

When babies become toddlers, reasons for favoritism shift a bit. They’re asserting a new found independence. And that is a great thing for a toddler to do. It’s what will eventually find them leaving home in 30 years (probably). Though, that doesn’t particularly remove the sting.

Borba returns to the idea of proximity and safety. “Certain parents do certain routines or rituals that just seem to work more with a particular child.,” she says. “If it resonates and works, the child is going to be more attracted to that particular parent.”

It’s also possible parents will meet specific emotional needs at different times. Borba notes this will absolutely shift back and forth as time goes on. The important thing to remember is that a kid isn’t trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. And, in fact, the ability to say “shove-off pops” might just be an indication they feel so confident with a parent that they’re not afraid of losing them.

But Borba notes that figuring out the reason for favoritism can be a complex affair. “The best parents dig a little deeper to understand the ‘why’ factor,” says Borba. She notes that favoritism can be linked to a kid’s preference for spending time with a certain gender, or an affinity towards a unique parental disposition, or the fact that one parent lets them get away with stuff.

“Instead of being jealous, learn from each other when you see this stuff,” says Borba. “Ask what works and what you should be applying so you can both be getting the same gains and help the child be the best they can be.”

What to Do When a Toddler Plays Favorites

There are some ways that parents can help each other if either are being snubbed by a toddler. It just takes some subtle subterfuge and some good self-talk.

1. Don’t Take A Toddler’s Favoritism Personally

Seriously. Parents are dealing with a new human who isn’t particularly emotionally sophisticated. They’ve only been on the planet for a couple years. “It’s a long haul developmentally,” Borba says. “Kids will change just like parents will change.” She adds that the favorite today may not be the favorite tomorrow. And remember that it’s not your kid’s job to make you feel good about yourself.

2. Get In Or Get Out

Favoritism can easily be linked to the amount of relative time a parent spends with a kid, Boba explains. She notes that this can be common in dual-earner households where work schedules don’t mesh with bedtime schedules. The solution is to have the favored parent leave the unfavored parent for some good stretches of one-on-one bonding.

It also works if the snubbed parent gets into the game as much as they can. They can do stuff like taking a kid on errands, going to get ice cream or hanging out. It all builds a case for being a good choice. There’s a nice bonus if that time is linked to the favored parent getting out on their own to do stuff like getting haircuts or having beers with a pal.

3. Communicate With Your Toddler Frequently

Borba notes that one of the biggest issues in favoritism comes when the unfavored parent gets a chip on their shoulder. “Resentment can build,” she says. “And we fail to realize that those resentments can spill over to the child.” Instead of letting it fester, Borba says that parents need to have matter-of-fact conversations. It can be during date night, or in the evening when the kid is asleep. But either way, the conversation needs to happen quietly.

4. Split Discipline Between Mom and Dad

Fathers who’ve been riding the fun-dad wave and avoiding the tough talk need to do their share. Having one bad guy in the house isn’t good for anyone. A united discipline front shared between you and your partner might help your kid spread the cuddle wealth.

“What often happens is the child will favor the parent who more lenient and calm,” says Borba. “The bottom lines is if you’re on the same page regarding discipline and strategy, not only will you get faster results in turning the behavior around, you’re less likely to have resentment. That’s better for the child.”

5. Don’t Push Your Toddler

Being demanding, or pushing back against toddler snubs, can actually make the situation worse. Instead, parents should reaffirm their love for their kid. It’s all about parents letting the kid know they’re available for them regardless.

“It’s better to figure out what works for the child and how they respond,” says Borba. “Find relaxed enjoyment time with the child and you’ll build a healthier relationship. It’s child driven. Not parent driven.”

Sure, all of this may not do much to diminish the reality competition parents feel day to day. But Borba points out that parents should be happy their child is attached to a parent at all. “See it as a positive that the child is confident, the child feels secure and realize your turn will also come.”

How To Deal With Toddler Favoritism

  • Never push back on toddler snubs. Instead reaffirm your love for the child.
  • Don’t become jealous if your toddler prefers your partner.
  • Never take your child’s parent preference as a personal attack. Resentment can build and spill over to the child.
  • Explain to your partner how you feel when being rejected by the child.
  • Plan for the favored parent to take some time away so the unfavored parent can bond with the child one-on-one.

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