What To Do When Your Kid Prefers the Other Parent
Chopped liver. Second fiddle. Spare tire. That's how many moms and dads feel when it comes to their children's affection. Why does it happen? Is it OK? And what can you do?
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The issue can even crop up at the dinner table, where Dailey becomes the bad guy when she insists the girls eat their greens.
"Pickles do not constitute a healthy vegetable. They are a condiment," she says. "I sometimes say to Dan, 'Can't you back me up here?'"
Dailey says she is bothered by hints of favoritism because they bring up her own childhood.
"I look at how close I am with my dad and how many times my dad and I ostracized my mom. It was bad," Dailey says. "I worry they'll do that to me."
It's not about you
According to psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell, there's no such thing as a "runner-up parent."
"It's best not to look at it as favoritism. We all have different roles," says Rockwell, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology in Farmington Hills. "A child may be more comfortable talking to mom but going out and playing in the backyard with dad. Perhaps the 'other' parent can look at that and ask, 'How can I be more available to this child and invite this child to feel more comfortable with me?'"
Rockwell says parents should always focus on providing a healthy environment for their children – emotionally, spiritually and mentally.
"It's really up to the parent to do the parenting, and not have their ego so involved that they're comparing 'Junior loves Mommy more than me,'" says Rockwell, who uses meditation to help patients in her private practices in Michigan and New York. "It's not about that. It's about, 'How can I be the best parent in this moment?'"
The first step, Rockwell says, is to "look in the mirror" and recognize your need to be a favorite parent; then realize it's not the child's job to affirm the adult.
"I think parents have to ask themselves all the time, 'What am I doing? Am I trying to bring up a well-adjusted child or am I trying to be No. 1?'"
Favoritism and divorce
According to experts, contentious divorce is a hotbed for favoritism's dark side to surface. Libby says exes often compete for top billing through lavishing gifts or being more lax. In one household, for example, children may get to play video games before doing homework, or not have to make beds or pick up clothes.
"To use children in this way – to buy their favoritism – is a form of abuse, because it is not in the children's best interest," she says. "The children are nothing more than objects in a game."
Psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell agrees it's all-too-common for kids to become pawns in their parents' feud for favored status.
"It is the lowest. It is just not parenting anymore," she says.
Rockwell, a divorced mother of two boys in their 20s, says she always strives to build up her ex-husband in her sons' eyes.
"What parents need to think about is, 'How can I make the most healthy child into the most healthy adult?' – and that only happens when they love, admire and respect both parents, not just you," she says. "It's up to each parent not to promote themselves but rather promote the other."
And whether married or divorced, parents must find a way to work as equals.
"Parents need to consider how they want to raise their children and, in some sort of civilized manner, have a lot of discussion about it," Rockwell says.
Improving your parental rank
The best way to win your child's heart is through quality time. Here are a few simple ways to curry favor – in a good way:
- Share: When it comes to kids, nothing inspires bonding better than treats. Whip up some hot chocolate together or bake – then devour – a batch of warm cookies and you're sure to score major points.
- Read: Cuddling up with a book means sharing ideas in addition to favorite tales. According to the University of Michigan Health System, reading with children every day opens important lines of communication between parent and child.
- Listen: Above all, children just want to be heard, says psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell. Ask your kids about their day, then simply let them talk. "Don't correct them, don't try to educate them … listen to who your children are and where they're going in the world," Rockwell says. "That's better than ice cream."