One recent morning, my son woke up and started his usual chirping birdcall from his crib down the hall. I nudged my husband, and he dragged himself out of bed for morning duty. But seconds later, from the other room:
No, I want my mommy.
Quiet negotiations from my husband.
No, only mommy.
Rejected, my husband came back. My son was adamant – only mommy could lift him out of the crib. Only mommy could take him to the bathroom, change clothes, and make breakfast.
Most toddlers go through periods of days, weeks, or months of gravitating to one parent – and they’re not exactly subtle about how they show it. If you struggle with the shifting allegiance in your house, it may help to keep these ideas in mind:
- Preference is a healthy step in attachment. It’s a natural part of a child’s built-in attachment system to have one main squeeze. This is the go-to person as they’re developing a sense of self and figuring out how relationships work. Whether or not your child wants one special person or will spread the love depends a lot on her temperament.
- Ride the wave. If you haven’t noticed this already, there will likely be times when the preference changes (even if it’s a year down the road). It may not look exactly the same – for example one parent may always be preferred when it comes to the vitals like sleep, feeding, and so forth – but it’s likely that if you’re the parent feeling rejected, your special time is coming.
- Respect the warm-up time. Some toddlers need time to warm up to a parent who’s been gone all day. You might be excited to walk in the door and lavish hugs and kisses, but sometimes the direct approach will backfire. Know that your toddler might need a while to get in the groove and reacquaint herself with you after a separation. Instead of swooping her up and asking about the day, try getting on the floor and playing whatever activity she’s into at the moment.
- Handle your hurt feelings. Of course it’s natural to feel hurt if your favorite little person turns her cheek, but acting upset won’t help your case. It tends to either create a rejection-feedback loop (wherein your kid actually starts egging you on because she knows it gets a reaction) or, equally as bad, your child may start to show you affection from a place of trying to please you. The last thing we want is for our kids to have to take care of us emotionally. This is a time to show your unconditional love by staying open and available.
- Check out the home front. There’s no one reason children attach to the hip of a certain parent – some kids are clingy with the person they see and are taken care of by most, while others leap into the arms of the away-parent because of his or her novelty. But there are some things to keep in mind about your home dynamic: Does your toddler need more alone time or a special routine with the out-of-favor parent? Is one parent distracted and/or having trouble connecting during family time?
- Keep your eyes open. When you get it into your head that you’re the unpopular parent, that’s all you tend to see. Remember that kids show their love and attachment in different ways, so be sure you’re staying open to all the signs of affection that your toddler shows – they may not be on your terms, but they are just as important.