Struggling when your toddler prefers one parent over the other? Learn the best ways to help him cope with separation anxiety and take to both parents.
“What am I—chopped liver?” my husband joked. Although he’s a hands-on dad and invested in our kids, our then-toddler always preferred me over him.
Even after being away at work, my husband couldn’t convince our son to so much as pay him any attention. He’d start playing games, but our toddler wanted nothing to do with it. And diaper changes? I was the “lucky” one who had to do them all.
We have to hand it to our partners for being patient when our kids prefer us over them. It’s easy for them to tune out—turn on the computer, stomp and sulk, or just about give up on trying to spend time with the kids.
When your toddler prefers one parent
My husband and I knew that kids go through stages of preferring one parent over the other. Still, we wanted to be proactive and see if we could make any changes instead of waiting it out. Most importantly, we didn’t want to fall into habits that might make it harder for our son to rekindle his relationship with his dad.
And so, this is what we did to rebuild and reestablish their bond:
Don’t give in to your toddler’s demands
Those diaper changes my toddler preferred I—and only I—do for him? That was our first big mistake.
You see, giving in to your toddler’s demands that you in particular take care of his needs, will only reinforce whatever beliefs he might have about his preference. That he was right to ask for mom, or that mom is the only one who should be feeding or carrying him.
He’ll also learn that his parents will give in if he continues to have a meltdown. While we should pick our battles now and then, he learns an unfortunate lesson about the power of throwing a fit.
Plus, giving in doesn’t allow him to spend time with dad. Changing a wailing toddler’s diaper may not be the quality time dad had hoped for, but it does send the message that he can take care of your child just as well as mom can.
Yes, it’s easier to cave in and just change his diapers yourself, especially if it means avoiding yet another tantrum. But the more dad gets involved, the less likely your toddler will resist his participation.
Avoid punishing your toddler for feeling this way
While you don’t want to give in to your toddler’s demands, you also don’t want to punish him for feeling this way.
He may be going through developmental changes that surfaces as separation anxiety. Don’t discourage him from feeling upset or make him feel guilty if he shuns his dad. For instance, don’t take away a beloved toy just because he resisted going to the park with dad.
Instead, explain that dad is taking him out to the park so they can spend time together. Describe how he feels: “You look sad because you want to spend time with mommy.”
Acknowledge his feelings without trying to rush him through them. These are valid emotions he feels, and the more he knows you support and love him no matter what, the less terrible he’ll feel.
Encourage regular time with dad
I used to work early in the mornings—so early that I was out of the house before our son woke up. This meant my husband had to handle him on his own, from breakfast to school drop-offs.
As hectic as it was, this regular time with him reinforced the idea that dad and I were both capable of caring for our son. He was able to be alone with his dad every day doing regular tasks. In short, they had to spend time together with no option of pulling mom into the mix.
Regular time with dad can doesn’t have to be a daily ritual, either. They can have a weekly special treat of getting Saturday ice cream, or playing at the park in the early evening, for example.
The point is to schedule regular one-on-one time between the two of them, providing more opportunity to be together and get in that important bonding time.
Include dad in household tasks
Getting dad involved in the household is a must if you want to ease the toddler-mommy attachment at home.
Yes, mom may spend more time with the kids and has more opportunity to handle household tasks. It’s not so much about dividing duties, but rather encouraging active participation when dad is able to.
One way to do this is to designate “dad chores.” He could be the one in charge of giving your toddler a bath, changing his diapers, or dressing him in the mornings. Your toddler learns that dad also does certain tasks, especially when he’s home and has the opportunity to do so.
Plus, having dad involved in his routine makes your toddler less likely to resist. Over time, he won’t demand that mom change his diaper if he realizes that dad often does it.
And most important, your toddler realizes that dad isn’t just “helping out.” That dad is invested in caring for him as much as mom, regardless of how many hours he may see him in a given day.
Stay in the background
Moms, we have this tendency to be “gatekeepers.” We know exactly how to tuck our toddlers in bed, which toy they like to bring on play dates, and how they like their pasta cut. So we step in, get involved, and even correct our partners when they do it “wrong.”
The problem? Hovering like this reinforces your toddler’s belief that you’re in charge, not dad. He’ll feel even less inclined to spend time with dad if he thinks dad has no idea what he’s doing.
Plus, this undermines your partner’s capabilities. Sure, he may not do things “how it’s done,” but this is a partnership. He too should be welcome to do things a different way, even if it means your toddler resists at first. Allow them the opportunity to develop their own routine, however different it may be from yours.
In doing so, both your partner and toddler feel more confident. Dad is better attuned to your child’s needs and doesn’t feel undermined when he does things differently.
It’s so easy to take our children’s behavior personally when they prefer one parent over another. The tantrums that don’t let up, the outright rejection when your toddler doesn’t want daddy—all this can take a toll on anyone.
But the most important thing for dad to do is to stay involved. Don’t give in to your toddler’s demands: instead, acknowledge his feelings. Encourage regular time with dad and involve him in household tasks. And give dad the opportunity to get involved, even if it means staying in the background.
Because tuning out stresses everyone: dad feels incompetent and uninvolved, and mom feels resentful and burdened with more responsibilities. It also validates your toddler’s unfounded reasoning and preference for mom.
Those days when my son preferred me over his dad have ended, thanks in large part to implementing these tips. Hang in there! One you implement these tips too, your toddler will rekindle an attachment for dad and won’t see him as chopped liver anymore.
Get more tips:
- 15 Children’s Books about Dads
- What You Need to Know About Separation Anxiety
- Dad Bashing: Why We Need to Stop Making Fun of Dads
- How to Involve Dads at Home
- When Children Prefer One Parent
Tell me in the comments: How do you handle it when your toddler prefers one parent?
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