Parental Preference: When Our Kids Like One Parent More Than The Other

When our kids start screaming, “I want Mommy!” or “I want Daddy!”, it’s not because they hate us. Parental preference happens when routines can disrupted.

Sometimes, it’s hard for us to rely on our partners when parenting younger kids, especially when they start throwing a tantrum or melting down because it’s not “mommy” or “daddy.” But when they’re crying and screaming, it isn’t because our partners didn’t do it right — it’s because it breaks routine. Younger kids thrive on certainty and they don’t understand the concept of swapping roles for a day or an hour yet. This struggle and meltdown is known as “parental preference” and it can happen with older kids too!

Parental Preference: Why do kids do this?

Besides breaking the routine, kids don’t have the ability to comprehend multiple realities yet. Our kids’ pre-frontal cortex and their amygdala — the two parts of the brain most responsible for that ability — need experiences to build up their abilities to do so. Which means, it’s inevitable for our younger kids to start kicking, screaming, and crying bloody murder when they want the other parent. The meltdowns stop when they become tweens, teens, or young adults but the preferences won’t. They’ll just know how to communicate or demonstrate it in a way that doesn’t involve screaming.

Another way to look at it is that our kids choosing a parent is their way of exercising their independence. Younger kids are exploratory learners; they want to do things on their own because they learn that way. Not because they hate us or anything.

Sex and personality can also play a role in their preference, according to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Boys will identify with their fathers and girls, with their mothers based on their physiological appearance. However, personality similarities can make them prefer the other parent simply because “they think the same.”

It doesn’t change the fact that it hurts.

Hearing our kids scream for the other parent hurts, especially when we’re wired to love them to bits. Their meltdowns can sound like a scream of hatred and trigger thoughts that they’d be happier in a home without us in it. It’s why we sometimes get defensive; we’re aware that it takes two to make a baby and so it annoys us to no end when someone doesn’t get it. Coupled with the distressing sounds (and this is assuming we don’t have heightened senses), parental preference can injure our egos more than we think.

It’s also why we sometimes back off from being hands-on. With the kid screaming for the parent they prefer, we’re wired to “solve” the problem for them and the quickest and easiest way to do so is to find that parent. However, that also puts a strain on the marriage and relationship. Wherein, one parent will feel too overwhelmed because they’re now assigned to specifically do something and will feel that the other is shirking from their responsibilities.

How do we deal with parental preference?

Dealing with parental preference is more of an internal battle than it is an external one. It’s just that our kids’ screaming or their blatant denial reaffirms a lot of our doubts as parents. But we can’t just plug our ears either. How can we hear what our kids or partner want when we have cotton balls stuck in our ears?

Here are some ways we can deal with our kids’ parental preference:

1. Remind ourselves that we are their parent as much as our partner is.

What makes us cave into our kids’ desires is that we believe that, as a parent, our job is to solve our kids’ problems and thus, give them what they want. However, that’s only one aspect of parenting and we also know that’s not how Life goes. We can’t always get what we want. Besides, our kids have 50% of our genetic material — that’s the bare minimum and most obvious reason why we have to step up in becoming a parent.

2. Remind ourselves that kids are not aware of how powerful words are yet.

Younger kids, especially toddlers, don’t know how powerful words are. Whatever they say, they just repeat it from somewhere. And a lot of times, they just assume it’s right especially if they heard it from us. So if they scream, “I hate you!”, they probably heard it from us when we were frustrated. Their thinking goes, “We say I hate you when we’re frustrated or not happy with something.”

Unfortunately, being adults means we tend to analyze their words more deeply. But our age also allows us to have more mastery over ourselves. When they start screaming and the thoughts start running there, stop, close our eyes, and hold their hands. Internally chant to yourself, “You’re okay.” until the thoughts start focusing more on the kids.

This is called self-soothing — an act of regulating one’s rising emotions.

3. Verbally affirm their want for the other parent with your love for your partner.

Saying that we love our partners as much as our kids love and want them shows them that they’re not alone in their big feelings for the other parent. We often forget, amid the screaming and shouting, that there’s one thing both we and our screaming child have in common: love and want for the other parent. In a way, we are using the quarrel to bond but at the same time show that we can help them just as well as their preferred parent.

4. Rotate routines early on.

Although parental preference is inevitable, rotating routines especially when they’re babies can ease the transition. Being active and present parents may not be easy, especially for those who are still working. But our kids are still wrapping their heads around the concept of money and working for it so to them, what matters most is if we’re there. They’re at the stage in their lives wherein they’re deciding whether to attach to us or not.

5. Avoid complaining about it or being sarcastic.

While sarcasm is a typical coping mechanism for stress, kids don’t understand sarcasm yet. Witty or sarcastic remarks require an extra layer of language comprehension and with their big emotions, all the more they don’t have the bandwidth to sit down and get it. So, when riding their meltdown with them, focus on linear and non-cryptic statements. Keep it straight but balance with empathy by parroting the statements or words that reflect their feelings.

When kids prefer the other parent, remember: it’s not because they hate you.

It’s easy for our brains to believe that our kids are capable of hate because that’s been our experience with other people. We’re so used to adults that sometimes, we forget that our kids don’t have that extensive an emotional spectrum. Even Pixar’s Inside Out demonstrated that well by introducing the original five — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear — before coming up with a new set in the second movie: Ennui, Embarrassment, Envy, and Anxiety.

So when they ask for the other parent, always connect with validation. But at the same time, hold our ground especially when we know that our partner is not in the right mental headspace. Our kids often verbalize their preference for the other parent it’s because they seek safety which they often find in the familiar. But this is also our chance to make ourselves familiar to them especially when we want them to understand and truly believe that we’ll be there for whatever crisis they may have.

More about dealing with kids’ tantrums?

Coregulation: A Successful Parenting Strategy That Helps Tame Toddler Tantrums
Understanding The HALT Method: Discipline With No Drama
Little Things That Can Overwhelm Kids and Why

Shop for Modern Parenting's print issues through these platforms.
Download this month's Modern Parenting magazine digital copy from:
Subscribe via [email protected]