What to Do When a Child Prefers One Parent Over the Other

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?

In my family, I must admit: I’m the favorite parent. Fights literally break out between my young son and daughter over who gets to sit on my side of restaurant booths, accompany me on errands or snuggle closest during story time. Since I’m the one who’s always around to make the meals, help with homework and tuck them in, I tend to take my cachet for granted. In fact, I often feel nothing but irritated when I end up in the middle of one of their ever-escalating tug of wars.

I never considered how my husband might view his sometime silver-medal status. It turns out, not so great. “Yeah, I feel bad sometimes,” he confessed. “It’s like dad’s offered up as a consolation prize.”


Normal, within reason

According to Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, psychotherapist, lecturer and author of The Favorite Child, it’s common for children to prefer one parent over the other.

“Having a favorite parent is totally normal,” she says. “All people have preferences for those with whom they have an unspoken ease or simpatico. That doesn’t mean that the child doesn’t love both parents equally … it means that a given parent meets a given child’s emotional needs in ways that are beyond words.”

Libby, an expert in family dynamics, believes one’s role in his or her family – as a parent or child or both – can have lifelong influence.

Yet she says the favorite parent can change over time and depend on the situation. Favoritism is usually harmless, Libby says, unless the other parent makes the child feel guilty about the preference – if one parent “buys” the favoritism, or the favored parent uses the preferred status manipulatively in her relationship with the unfavored spouse. It can also get ugly in the case of a contentious divorce.

“What is important is that neither parent, the favored or ‘runner up,’ treat the child differently from one another,” Libby says. “The expectation that each parent has of the given child should be similar.”

The sting of being singled out

Susan Jones of Northville often jokes that her husband is favored by their four children. Most of the time Jones makes light of her perceived secondary status, but sometimes it stings.

“I can spend all day cooking a meal. Jamie will come home and plate the food and all of the kids say ‘Thank you for dinner, Dad,'” she says. “It’s sickening! I love the fact that they adore him and love him and thank him for everything, but I’m the one doing all the work here.”

If the kids detect a sore spot, they tend to ramp up the teasing with dad on their side.

“The boys have an inside joke with Jamie that if they think something he says is cool or funny, they’ll play on it. They’ll kind of laugh and go on and on,” she says. “It hurts my feelings a little bit.”

Jones concedes, though, that favoritism has its phases – and sometimes she’s the one on the A-list.

“Maggie’s all about me right now. She will walk around Jamie to come to me and completely ignore him. Katherine did the same thing, but now she’s totally his child, and goes to him with all her questions and concerns,” Jones says. “I think it goes in waves.”


Seeking the softy

In the Dailey household, mom Elaine says her children, Emma and Beth, seek out their father because he’s more permissive.

“I’ll say ‘no’ and they’ll go to Dan because they think he’ll say ‘yes’,” the high school English teacher says. “He’s a little more lenient and I’m more rigid. They look to him because he’s a little more relaxed.”

Dailey says her daughters also gravitate toward dad because he’s more likely to splurge on treats.

“For me, every trip to the store doesn’t mean a chance to get something new. Dan is much more generous opening the wallet,” Dailey says.

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. “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.”

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.”

This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2017.


  • Thank you for the reality check. While it stings when my son prefers to be with dada because I want him to favor me , I have to remember it is not a competition. It is also not my son’s job to affirm me.

  • So I am single dad who lives with his twin daughters. They go back and forth between home and their mothers. Most nights are spent here but lately my twins have wanted to go more to their moms. Which is fine with me given my time spent with them is enough to do things together. But the problem is they ask to go to their moms when I say no. Their mom has always been the “yes” parent if you want to call it that. They have reached an age were they realize they know who to get what they want from. I don’t say no to things like being outside or building some puzzles or reading, it’s the every 15 minute snack wanted, or when it’s time for bed they want to play with toys. She may say no to things at times but when we were together as parents I lost almost every battle, but they were much smaller and just learning how to get things. Now they are 4 and throw fits when I say and say they want their mom, or they tell me I am mean. Just recently one told me their mom said they don’t have to listen to me and it’s gotten so much worse. Now if we are outside playing and they want to wander off to where I told them not too they either turn around and try to say they want to or they just disregard me. Before they would simply turn back my way and follow me or take charge in a different direction. I just don’t want to get to be looked at as a big mean dad just because I say no. I’ve had them since the day they left the hospital and they stayed at home 7 nights a week but just this past month or say they’ve wanted to be with their mom more. I try to say yes within reason but if I break that yes just once even for a cookie or piece of chocolate before dinner everything backfires on me. Thank you for listening. I could go on for hours but I don’t want my children to not want to hangout with me because I don’t say yes all the time.

  • I have a daughter that is now 20 she will be 21 in December I have not seen her since she was a infant but I am trying to get involved in her life I am so ashame and sorry for what I did !! I have talked to through Facebook and she has blocked me I simply can’t and will not walk away i did it before and I refuse to do it Again!! The question I have is I need help on what to do I want to do something that will really just let her know that hey he’s for real !! I’ve offered trips ,vacations ,concert tickets to her favorite singer I’m at a lost she turns it all down what can I do that’s from the heart !! I need help

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  • I don’t think it’s so much that we have a favorite parent as it is that we feel closer to one parent than we do to the other. I have always been closer to my mom than I am to my dad. Does that mean I love my mom more? I am more like my mom as far as my personality and interests. I think my brother has always been a little closer to my dad than he is to my mom.

  • I obtained custody of my Son 11 years ago. His mother was in and out of his life. She has been in jail and in rehab. She has moved 25 or more times, over 12 jobs and about the same with it comes to relationships. She has had relationships with both genders. She used my son to cause the breakup of me and my last wife. She told my son that if my last wife and I weren’t together she and I would be. This is not true, but my now 16 year old wanted it to happen. His grades took a nose dive and his attitude towards me changed. I went from being the one he respected to the one he has little to no respect. I went through a custody battle and lost. Not because I’m a bad parent. I have a stable job, stable environment. How did this happen you ask? Well the court Guardian ad Litem was appointed. She refused to look at any evidence to support that I was and am the better parent. She serves with immunity and there are no repercussions for her decision. She disclosed in an email to me and my attorney that she knows this is not a decision that I had wanted but feels its important for my son to realize his mother is unstable for himself. She then recommend that my ex-wife get temporary primary custody of my son. Since my son has moved in with my ex, his grades have gotten worse. His attitude towards me has gotten worse. I’m at a loss of what to do. She lets him do what he wants but talks a big game.

  • So I came to this page for some encouragement…my son is 2 about to be 3 soon and his dad and I are not together but we do co parent but now I’m starting to see that when he comes home from his dad he cusses cries and refuses to want to come by me and cries for his dad. I’m not gonna lie the very first time he did that it and it tore my heart in half so many things flooded my mind like am I not a good mom does he not love me anymore is what does his dad do that I’m not doing but I read up on it and they say it’s natural but damn it still hurts though . But I understand he dose live with me so he Ddosent see his dad everyday but still I try to incorporate more fun time and bonding time but i feel like it’s getting worse if anyone can give me some more tips or pointers even coping mechanisms that would be so helpful


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What to Do When a Child Prefers One Parent Over the Other
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