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What to do when your child prefers the other parent

All parents experience moments when their child dismisses them in favor of the other parent, grandparent or caregiver. This can be heartbreaking, particularly when it happens to the primary caregiver, but any parent. Kids, particularly young ones, don’t mince words. They’ll say something along the lines of, "No, I want daddy to pick me up from school.” Or it can be a matter of insisting that mom, and only mom, can cook for them.

Family experts acknowledge that it's typical behavior if a bit jarring to the spurned parent. It can be a matter of child development unrelated to anything, but often this is the response to a move, a change in schedules, a new job or a parent’s divorce. Children are creatures of habit and often react strongly to change to their routine.

Tips for the rejected parent

The parent should not take it personally when this happens, but they can still address this behavior:

  • Control your feelings: Parents can say that it is hurtful if the child behaves in this way, but share the true feelings, angry thoughts and real tears with another adult instead of the child.
  • Focus on connecting: Strengthen the parent-child bonds with quality 1:1 time. Participate in favorite games or pastimes or create special activities that involve just the two of you.
  • Empathize within reason: Allow them to have those strong feelings and show empathy towards them, but then set a boundary. For example: “I know you want mom to dress you, but she’s not here, so can we do it together?”
  • Ask for tips: The priority for both parents should be raising happy and well-adjusted children, so set aside your ego and ask for help even if it’s from your divorced coparent.
  • Stay positive: Relationships with children often shift, so remind yourself that it may be just a stage and stay positive amidst this adversity. However, professional help may be necessary if the feelings persist.

Active coparenting makes a difference

Married parents may have an easier time troubleshooting parental favoritism when they live under the same roof, but the challenge shouldn’t stop separated or divorced parents from trying. Ideally, they have a workable parenting plan in place, but it may be necessary to revisit the schedule or modify the plan to accommodate the child's needs better. It is often useful to formalize these changes with the help of a knowledgeable family law attorney.

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