What should you do if your child clearly prefers one parent over another? That’s what a Dubai-based mother wrote in to ask Gulf News:
“I have a three-year-old son who has always shown a strong preference for his father from about the age of one, just after I stopped nursing him,” the mother writes. “I try to have special times with him where it’s just him and me, and I often bring him treats back after I’ve been out at work all day (both my husband and I work long hours). But he always seems to prefer his daddy, and will often play us off against each other. He won’t say goodbye to me in the mornings and often acts up with me a lot more. It makes me feel sad and like I’m doing something wrong. Why is my toddler rejecting me? How should I deal with him and react to his rejection?”
Gulf News spoke to parenting experts to find out what the mother’s best approach should be...
Difficult but not uncommon
"It can be hard to feel rejected by our children, but please be reassured your son has no conscious intention of doing this,” says Joanne Jewell, an adolescent and child counsellor who teaches Mindful Parenting courses with Mindful ME. “He is a delightful ball of bouncing emotions at the moment and logic only plays a tiny part in his life – as you will often see reflected in his behaviour.”
“It can be difficult and hurtful when a child seems to favour one parent over the other,” agrees Dr Sarah Rasmi, licensed psychologist and founder and director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai (www.thrive.ae). “But rest assured, it’s not uncommon. Many children, especially sons, show preferences for their fathers when they are toddlers.”
The toddler ego
“From a developmental perspective your son is egocentric,” says Jewell, “which means that he is focused on developing his emotions, his needs and learning about how he feels and how other people react to him.”
Jewell explains that this is not manipulation or rejection the way we would understand it as adults, but rather it is a key part of his growth into a person who has a social and emotional awareness of others – “but only after he has learnt his own!”
“A three-year-old does not consider the feelings of others as they are only just learning to recognise and understand their feelings about themselves,” adds Jewell. This is why teaching them the skills of listening, empathy and compassion are so important, she explains: “and we teach these through role-modelling and using these skills with them.”
Presence not presents
It’s not necessary nor helpful to bring treats home for her son, Jewell says: “Please don’t feel the need to bring him treats or presents when you come home – your presence and connection are the most important things to him and I’m so pleased to hear you focus on having one-to-one time with him whenever you can as this is the key to building a secure and long-lasting relationship with him.”
Different parents, different relationships
“There is a lot of research on what happens when a parent prefers one of their children, but very little about children who favour one parent over the other,” says founder and director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre, Dr Sarah Rasmi. “There are, however, some theories on why this happens.” The main explanation is simple, says Dr Rasmi: “Children identify more with parents of the same gender. This also means that sons tend to share more interests with their fathers, whereas daughters have more in common with their mothers.
“It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean that your child loves you any less than he loves his father. The relationships are simply different.”
How to react when a child prefers one parent over the other
Joanne Jewell and Dr Sarah Rasmi share their advice:
- ONE-ON-ONE TIME: “If possible it would be ideal if you could manage 10-15 minutes per day one-to-one time with him,” suggests Joanne Jewell of Mindful ME. Be emotionally responsive to him and engage in child-led play where he chooses the activity. Sit and listen to him, read a book and have a cuddle.”
- AVOID GUILT TRIPS: “Continue to be loving, even when your son rejects you,” says Dr Rasmi of Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “Pulling away will only create more distance. Also, try to avoid guilt trips because they won’t work”.
- REMEMBER IT’S A PHASE: “Children go through phases where they prefer to be with one parent or the other and this is natural,” explains Jewell. “The important thing is to make the time to ensure your connection with him is positive and responsive.”
- PHYSICALLY CONNECT: “Cuddling and tickling release oxytocin (the bonding hormone),” says Dr Rasmi.
- TRY BEING THE ‘FUN’ PARENT: Join your son in his favourite activities, says Dr Rasmi. “Mothers often get caught up in the day-to-day tasks, meaning that they miss out on the chance to be the ‘fun’ parent.”
- START A NEW TRADITION WITH YOUR SON: “Pick an activity that he really loves and do it with him on a regular basis,” says Dr Rasmi. “It will give you both something to look forward to.”
- BE PRESENT: “Be fully present when you are with your son,” Dr Rasmi says. “Put away all distractions to show him how much you value him and your time together.”
- ASK FOR SUPPORT: Dr Rasmi advises the mother to ask for her husband’s support: “Remind him not to swoop in when your son protests (and don’t worry when he does, it won’t last forever).”
- GET DAD ON SIDE: “Tell your husband to vouch for you,” says Dr Rasmi. “Encourage your husband to share stories about how fun and cool you are. These stories will pique your son’s interest – run with it."
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