Favoring one parent over another is normal childhood behavior

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 19, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara
I have a 13 months old boy and in the last 3 months he acts in a way that makes me feel a little hurt. He shows affection to his father (which makes me happy) but whenever my husband goes out of the room my baby starts crying as if I was not there. The same thing happens when we are out and daddy is out of his sight. He looks really desperate.
In addition, he started giving hugs in past month (which I thought him how to do with his favorite toy). My son refuses to hug me. He hugs daddy, he hugs every single stuffed animal or even his fluffy cloths but when I ask him to hug me he just turns around. My husband tried to ask him the same but he just doesn't want to hug me.
Besides that, when I hold him and his father is around, he constantly reaches for him.
Any advice would be appreciated!

From: Desperate Mommy, Chicago

Dear Desperate Mommy,

I feel your pain -- Been there, done that. In fact, probably every parent alive has been on one side or the other in this equation. Does that make you feel better? No? Well, maybe this will.

Preferring one parent over the other is something children do throughout childhood . (Sorry, it's not just a baby thing). It's a way for them to sort out the complexities of relationships and it's one way they learn about the meaning of gender roles. It's normal behavior. It's also exhausting to be the one who is (temporarily) always wanted, overwhelming to be the one who is (temporarily) always rejected and humbling to be in either position because the whole thing can turn on a dime.

That's right.This week's reject can be next week's favorite.

Here's what else you need to know:

Your child is not playing favorites. His behavior isn't purposeful, it doesn't mean he loves you less or that you have a poor relationship. It's about cognitive and emotional development. Sometimes, a toddler who spends most time with one parent may feel the other parent is an interloper and he needs to protect his investment. In a few months, that same toddler may reject the first-favored parent because he's wondering about the other one: You're kind of a mystery. What are you about?"

At all times, the rejected parent could pretend that this is the thought in the child's mind: "If I'm not paying attention to you right now, if I'm thoughtless or dismissive or downright mean to you, will you still be there for me?"

The answer, of course, has to be yes.

So don't take this personally. Don't be hurt and withdraw in a huff, but don't force yourself on your child. If you're the one whose turn it is to give the bath, and your son says, "No, I want daddy!" don't relinquish your turn. It's daddy's job to say, "Tonight, is mom's turn. Tomorrow will be my turn," and to gracefully leave the room. When he says no to your request for a hug, respond gracefully and hopefully: "OKey doke. Maybe I'll get a turn tomorrow."

While the preferential treatment can go on for weeks on end, it should never mean that he can't tolerate you. If he's openly hostile or negative, or can't bounce back when he is with you, seek professional advice.

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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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