Struggling when your toddler doesn’t want daddy? 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’d always been a hands-on dad with our kids, our then-toddler clearly preferred me over him.
After having being away at work, he couldn’t convince our son to so much as pay him any attention. He’d start playing games, but our toddler would refuse. And diaper changes? I was the “lucky” one who had to do them all.
We have to hand it to dads for being patient when our toddlers prefer us over them. They might feel even more dejected when their efforts—from reading a bedtime story to feeding him at dinner time—don’t seem to make a difference.
When your toddler doesn’t want daddy
If you find yourself in similar circumstances, rest assured you’re not alone. Many toddlers prefer one parent for various reasons, from discipline styles to time spent together to going through a phase.
No matter the reason, both parents feel the brunt of this one-sided attachment—one feels rejected and hurt, and the other can’t seem to catch a break.
Thankfully, you can be proactive and make changes, instead of waiting and hoping until this phase passes. And more important, you can avoid the habits that might make it harder for your toddler to rekindle a healthier relationship with dad.
Take a look at these tips to rebuild and reestablish their bond. As one parent said:
“Very helpful. My 19 month old is preferring me over his dad. I’m concerned because I’m 5 months pregnant and won’t be able to tend to all his needs when our baby gets here. Your video reassured me of what we have to do in this stage. Thank you.” -Kimberly Adams
1. Don’t give in to your toddler’s demands
Those diaper changes my toddler preferred that I—and only I—do for him? That I obliged and changed each diaper was our first big mistake.
You see, giving in to your toddler’s demands will only reinforce whatever beliefs he might have about his preference. He might think that he was right to ask for you, or that you’re the only one who should be feeding or carrying him.
He’ll also learn that his parents will eventually give in if he continues to have a meltdown each time. While you should pick your battles now and then, you also need to set expectations that throwing a fit doesn’t grant him what he wants.
And finally, giving in doesn’t allow dad to spend time with him. Sure, changing a wailing toddler’s diaper may not be the quality time he had hoped for, but these moments add up.
Yes, it’s easier to cave in and change the diapers yourself, especially if it means avoiding yet another tantrum. But the more dad gets involved, the less likely your toddler will resist him down the line.
Free resource: Do you lose your temper with your toddler when he’s extra clingy? Even if it seems like you’ve tried just about everything, you can stop losing your temper—if you start from the inside out and change from within.
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“Thanks for writing this and sharing your personal experiences and wisdom.” -Audrey C.
2. 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 the way he does.
He might be going through developmental changes that surface as separation anxiety. Don’t discourage him from feeling upset or make him feel guilty if he shuns dad. This is simply how he feels, and shouldn’t be punished for them.
For instance, don’t take away a beloved toy because he insists on going to the park with you—and only you. Instead, explain that dad is taking him to the park to spend time together.
And describe how he feels: “You’re sad because you wanted 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.
Check out these 7 qualities of a good father and husband.
3. Encourage regular time with dad
I used to work early in the mornings—so early that I was out of the house before our toddler even woke up. This meant my husband handled mornings on his own, from breakfast to preschool drop-offs.
As hectic as it was, this regular time together started to reinforce the idea that his dad and I were both capable of caring for him. He was able to be alone with his dad every day doing regular tasks. They had to spend time together, with no option of pulling me into the mix.
From morning routines to nighttime rituals, encourage regular time for your toddler to be with his dad. This sends the message that both parents are willing and able to care for him, and makes him less likely to resist. For instance, he won’t demand that you change his diaper when dad has been doing it regularly.
And most important, he realizes that dad isn’t just “helping out.” That both parents are invested in caring for him, regardless of how many hours he sees each of you in a given day.
If dad truly can’t be around for daily tasks, “fun” outings are also effective. They can start new traditions like farmers market trips on Sunday mornings, or playground fun during weekend evenings. Regular daddy time gives both of them more opportunities to be together.
4. Stay in the background
Have you heard of the term “gatekeeping”? It’s when you know exactly how to tuck your toddler in bed, which toy he likes to bring on play dates, and how he likes his pasta cut. So, when dad does it “wrong,” you step in, get involved, and even correct him for his “mistakes.”
The problem? Hovering and delegating reinforce his belief that you’re in charge, and not dad. Your toddler will feel less inclined to spend time with dad if he thinks he has no idea what he’s doing.
Plus, this undermines dad’s capabilities. Sure, he may not do things “the way they’re done,” but this is a partnership. Both parents should be welcomed to do things their way, even if it means your toddler resists at first.
Allow dad the opportunity to develop his own routine, however different it may be from yours. Let him learn from experience how your toddler wants to eat and sleep.
In doing so, both of them feel more confident with each other. Dad is better attuned to your toddler’s needs and doesn’t feel belittled when he does things differently.
The tantrums that don’t let up, the outright rejection when your toddler doesn’t want daddy — this can take a toll on anyone. It’s tempting for dad to take his behavior personally when he prefers you all the time.
Thankfully, this attachment isn’t permanent. For starters, avoid punishing your toddler for feeling the way he does—he needs to know he’s loved, no matter what. That said, don’t give in to his demands and do everything yourself just to avoid a tantrum.
Instead, encourage regular time for him to spend with dad, including doing household tasks. And make sure dad gets involved without your input, even if it means you staying in the sideline (or outright leaving them alone to run an errand).
The most important thing? Don’t give up or assume all the responsibilities.
Otherwise, he feels incompetent and uninvolved, while you feel resentful and burdened. This arrangement also validates your toddler’s unfounded reasoning why he doesn’t want daddy.
Those days when my son preferred me over his dad have long ended, thanks in large part to implementing these tips. Soon, your toddler will rekindle a strong attachment to dad—and won’t see him as chopped liver anymore.
Get more tips:
- Stranger Anxiety in Toddlers: 5 Things Every Parent Should Know
- What to Do When Your Toddler Is Hysterical at Bedtime
- How to Get Toddlers to Listen Without Yelling
- How to Survive the First Few Weeks with a Newborn and Toddler
- Toddler Not Listening? 10 Things You Can Do
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Justin Gonzalez says
I hope my daughter is just going through a phase. I woke up with my daughter every night to change, feed, and rock her back to sleep. All of a sudden she will let me change her buck only mom can feed and rock her back to sleep. Why is this happening? It hurts. She will still have me carry her all day long but I have been tossed out at night. What can I do?
Nina Garcia says
Hi Justin, it’s really tough when our kids only want one parent, but it truly is a phase and doesn’t say anything of the parent that you are. It might be a logistical thing where she likes how mom rocks her, or she’s simply going through a stage where she wants mom to do certain things for her. Take heart the fact that she still will let you carry her all day long. If need be, you can simply not make it a choice about rocking her back to sleep, if only so that mom can rest. It’ll be rough the first few attempts, but hopefully she’ll also learn that it’s okay if dad rocks her, too 🙂
I am going to seek counseling for this, but am really tired, and (truthfully) hating being a father right now.
My toddler is 3 1/2, and after so much co-parenting (I was a stay-at-home dad for the first 9 months, and have continued to be very involved since), she strongly prefers her mother over me. Each morning when I get her up, I’m greeted with “where’s mommy?” And frequently, when picking her up from daycare, she wants to know why mommy isn’t getting her. On my good days, I laugh it off, and we do what we need without conflict. But I go through small periods where I feel very resentful. And although I still do the ‘proper’ thing by hugging her, giving her approval, and trying to show love, I am becoming more and more resentful, and feeling isolated. Secondarily, despite trying to keep a good attitude and be social, I don’t feel like many mothers view me as ‘the other parent’, rather than someone equally as capable of parenting as my wife, and this makes me feel isolated.
My wife is extremely patient and supportive, and although I will continue pushing forward, I understand why many fathers leave their families.
M son is 2 months old, and my husband trys to spend time with him, but my sons just cries and call for me the best he can. Is it because I do the majority of care for him?
Nina Garcia says
Hi Cindy! See if you can give your husband more time alone with the baby so that they can both get used to each other. It’s tempting to jump in and just take care of it, but giving them a chance to be together, even if the baby cries, can work out in the end.
It’s completely normal for a baby to feel more attached to mom. Baby is ONLY 2 months old and just spent 9 months inside of you and getting used to the world. Supporting you and helping you together would build the bond better.
This makes it seem like the child’s feelings don’t matter though. There are other ways to bond than diaper changes or “getting involved” with minor things. For my daughter something as simple as just playing with them builds that bond up better.
This was very helpful for me to read , about 2 to 3 months after our toddler turned 2, all of a sudden he just completely stopped wanting daddy at all, he would cry and whine and throw tantrums when I would go to work (mind you i only work 3 days a week 4hr shifts and that has not changed ) or to simply just to get out of the house by myself.our pediatrician gave us advice but nothing has worked so far and I feel horrible with this whole situation and foe my husband who is very hurt. He thinks our son just hates him and as for me I’m just so run down from having to do everything for our toddler and home. I hope this works.
My 3 year old is very attached to me because I stay at home with her. But her dad works like 70+ hours a week. Sometimes she only gets to see him in the morning when hes getting ready for work. Even on the weekends. Now she wont give him hugs or kisses before he leaves like she used to and it makes him really upset.
I dont know what to do. Hes not around enough to take her anywhere. He tries to play with her when he can but lately that hasnt been able to happen.
Any ideas? We’ve got about an hour in the morning where they are both up.
Nina Garcia says
Hi Christy! I can imagine it’s a frustrating experience for all. On one hand, we want that bond, but on the other, the circumstances we put ourselves in don’t allow for much time to develop that. First thing is to remind him is to be patient if she doesn’t want to hug or kiss him. This is important even if he does see her all day—we have to respect their boundaries. Then, those brief times they are together, I would step aside completely so that he’s alone with her. He can take care of her needs and spend time with her. That way, they get to have one-on-one time—even if it’s brief, at least it’s consistent.