When Your Child Shows Parental Favoritism

Mom kissing toddler at the playground
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Nothing is worse than walking into your toddler's bedroom to tuck them in and hearing the words "No, Daddy do it!" Or what about when Mommy is headed out for a much-needed girls' night and she hears the pleading cries of her three-year-old exclaiming, "I want Mommy" as she walks out the door? 

Almost every parent on the planet has witnessed favoritism from their child. And whether you are the favorite parent or the parent being shunned, the first time it happens can be confusing and sometimes downright painful. But do not despair. This type of behavior is not only common among kids, but it is often expected. Still, it needs to be addressed. 

At issue is the fact that both parents need to feel that special connection to their child. And everyone needs a break once in a while. While the least favorite parent needs to feel close and spend quality time with the little one, the favored parent cannot possibly care for themselves if they are never able to separate from the child for a few minutes.

Why Favoritism Happens

Toddlers and preschoolers are known for having strong preferences. In fact, anyone who has had a child that wears a princess dress everywhere they go, or insists macaroni and cheese every day for lunch, knows that the concept of being set in their ways in not reserved for adults. These little humans dig their heels in and insist on having things a certain way. This includes wanting one parent over the other.

On the bright side, favoritism shows that your child feels very close to the preferred parent. Likely, they have developed a secure attachment. Favoritism also indicates that they are maturing and able to think beyond their immediate needs. Additionally, they probably really enjoy their one-on-one time and want to make sure it continues. 

With older kids, favoritism might occur because a teen has more in common with one parent or they are able to communicate more freely with one parent over another. Other times favoritism can develop because of a divorce situation where teens might gravitate toward the parent that allows them more freedom or provides material things.

What Research Says

New research has uncovered a genetic phenomenon that ensures that, at least for some genes, one parent's influence dominates. The research was conducted by genome scientist Howard Chang, MD, Ph.D., along with postdoctoral scholar Jin Xu, Ph.D., and graduate student Ava Carter.

Research suggests that even though the favored parent appears to be selected randomly, the choice, once made, lasts for generations of cells.

Their findings, which were published in Nature Genetics, are important because it could mean that the favorite parent has a much greater influence over certain brain circuits than the other parent. This means choosing a favorite could not only impact the functioning of these networks but could also be responsible for any potential dysfunction.

Common Misconceptions

Despite the reason behind a child's preference for one parent over another, there are things that both parents can do to make the most of a difficult situation, the first of which begins with having a healthy view and understanding what it does and doesn't mean to be the favorite.

It is important to remember that favoritism implies a preference or a stronger pull toward one person, but it is not the same thing as love.

Even if a child says they love one parent more than another, what they really mean is that they prefer one parent over another. The problem occurs when parents assume that their child does not love them as much as the other parent and they set out to do something about it.

This desire to be the favorite may cause some parents to begin making parenting decisions that make children feel good rather than providing a healthy environment necessary for their growth and development. For instance, rather than remaining firm about bedtimes and treats with younger children or curfews and driving rules with older children, parents who do not want to be unfavored may find themselves backing down.

While it is normal to want to be chosen or selected, do not confuse this with the other parent's parenting ability.

Favoritism does not mean that the preferred parent is a better parent. In fact, there are a number of things that go into a child’s decision in choosing a favorite. Sometimes it is simply a stage of life; other times it is because they share similar interests or personality styles. Still other times, kids may choose a favorite parent based on that parent's permissiveness.

Parents should focus on providing an environment where their children can grow and develop into emotionally, physically, and socially healthy human beings rather than striving to become the favored parent. Consequently, this often requires creating an environment like that requires structure, rules, and boundaries that kids may balk against.

Remember that if left unchecked, the negative repercussions of trying to be the favorite parent can be significant. As a result, parents need to be honest about their desires to be the favorite parent. Recognizing that these feelings exist is the first step in making sure this desire is not consuming and that the focus remains on being a good parent rather than trying to win a child's love.

Tips for the Unfavored Parent

If you have ever been on the receiving end of rejection from your child, you know that it stings a little. But, it does not have to be the end of the world.

With a little work, you also can build a bond with your child even if you never become the preferred parent. After all, every child benefits from love and support from both parents.

Keep Negative Feelings Under Control

While it is completely normal to feel a variety of feelings when your child pushes you away, it is important not to respond in a negative way toward your child. Remember, kids are very candid about their feelings and often do not edit them. Resist the urge to snap at your child or to withdraw emotionally.

Instead, express how it makes you feel when your child says they prefer the other parent over you, but do so in a matter-of-fact, non-condemning way. By being honest about your feelings, you are exposing your children not only to the fact that words have consequences, but also teaching them how to empathize with other people.

For instance, you might say: "I feel sad when you say you don't like me or tell me to go away." Save the tears and frustration for another adult, not your child. It is not your child's responsibility to affirm you as a parent.

Respond With Empathy

There will be times when your child will want the favored parent and it is simply not possible to meet this demand: The parent is out, working, ill, etc. When this happens, be sure that you respond to their demands for the favored parent with care and compassion. You also might want to consider setting a boundary.

You might say something like: "I know you wish Daddy could help you tie your shoes. But when he is at work, Mommy will help you."

Even if your child is a teen and is upset by your rules, you can still respond with empathy. Hold firm to your rules without yelling or criticizing the other parent in the process.

Build a Connection

If you feel like the relationship between you and your child is strained or awkward, make an effort to build a connection and strengthen the bond between the two of you. For instance, set aside time each day to spend quality one-on-one time together. Additionally, you could join your child in activities that they enjoy or create special activities that are just for the two of you.

The key is to create time when you can be together so that your child can come to appreciate what you have to offer.

Remind Yourself of Your Positive Attributes

It is easy to feel sad or anxious when your child consistently favors the other parent over you. As a result, it is important that you regularly remind yourself of the things you do well. Remind yourself that this is only a phase and will not last forever.

And remember your worth is not defined by your child's response to you. You have value despite what your child thinks.

Avoid Being Resentful

It does not help your situation to be jealous or resentful of your spouse's relationship with your child. In fact, lashing out with mean words or criticisms toward the preferred parent may just drive a deeper wedge between you and your child.

Instead, acknowledge the special bond they have and support it. It does not diminish your worth or value as a parent just because your child prefers the other parent.

Tips for the Preferred Parent

While it is hard to be pushed away by your child, it can be just as draining to be the preferred parent. After all, being the preferred parent means that you are preferred for playtime to bath time and everything in between.

When this happens, you may be left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. What's more, you may feel torn between two people and may even feel guilty because your child prefers you.

Strike a Balance in Parenting Duties

In some families, it is not uncommon for one parent to take on all the work-related parts of parenting like helping with baths, brushing teeth, and bedtime routines while the other parent has all the fun and plays non-stop. Ideally, both parents will share in both the work and the fun aspects of the parenting.

You also want to avoid the good cop/bad cop scenario in your parenting duties. Likewise, you should present a united front when it comes to discipline, bedtimes, curfews, and other household rules.

Support the Unfavored Parent

Rather than jumping in as soon as your child insists that you tuck them in, allow your spouse to handle the situation. While it is important to respond with empathy and understanding for your child's preference, you want to avoid rescuing them too soon.

Speak Highly of the Other Parent

When you and your child are alone, take that time to emphasize all that is good about the other parent. Remind your child of everything the other parent does well and how they are different from you. Then, talk about the things that are the same. Finally, have your child list two things they like most about each parent.

This exercise will help them see that being different is not a bad thing and that they can love different things about both parents. 

Do Not Ignore Hurt Feelings

Being shunned by your child is hurtful. Even though you may be enjoying your close relationship with your child, your spouse may feel frustrated, hurt, or even jealous. As a result, it is important that you make time to listen to how they feel.

Allow them the time and the space to talk openly about their feelings without criticism or judgment. This is not the time to offer suggestions on how they can change or what they need to do differently. Instead, just listen and be empathetic.

Remember, down the road, the tables may turn and you may be the parent that is no longer preferred.

A Word From Verywell

Remember, showing favoritism is a sign that your child is growing and maturing. With time, your kids will move past the preference for one parent over the other. After all, it is absolutely possible for your kids to love both parents in unique ways.

Until then, just breathe. Sure, it may require you to muster some inner strength as you are passed over from time to time. Just remind yourself that this is just a phase—one that your child will likely outgrow.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Xu J, Carter AC, Gendrel A-V, et al. Landscape of monoallelic DNA accessibility in mouse embryonic stem cells and neural progenitor cellsNature Genetics. 2017;49(3):377-386. doi:10.1038/ng.3769

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.