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

Second fiddle is how many parents feel about their children's affection. Find out why your child prefers one parent over the other 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 at the time of publication 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 former 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 adult boys, 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 is updated regularly. 

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