At age two, many children are developing strong preferences for all sorts of things: clothing, food, toys, and yes, people. In a two-parent home, almost every child will favour one parent over the other at some point. Though this favouritism is common, expected, and developmentally appropriate—it can also be pretty painful.
Children’s preferences are often fickle and fleeting, but sometimes they do last, even for months: perhaps your child wants only one member of the family to put them to bed, or will only listen when a particular person reads to them.
As tough as it can be to be rejected, being the preferred one can be a challenge as well. You may feel smothered, needed, and clung to, while worrying at the same time about mitigating the hurt your partner is feeling.
No matter which side you find yourself on, trust that favouritism is a phase, and it will pass.
Here’s how to handle parental favouritism:
Try not to take it personally
This is tricky: being rejected hurts, and it does feel personal. The truth is, it almost always isn’t and, in fact, it’s a sign that your child feels safe enough in their relationship with you to experiment. “[Your child is] secure enough in your love to know that he can jilt you and still get a warm welcome back,” explains Krista L. Swanson, Ph.D, child psychologist at the Early Childhood Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Don’t put the emotional burden on your child
We know, being spurned stings 🐝 😢. The truth is, a two-year-old isn’t ready to truly empathize yet, and doesn’t understand that their words and actions can hurt us so deeply. Saying “that really hurt my feelings” and walking out of the room can be tempting when your child screams for your partner instead of you. Try to remember that understanding and controlling their own emotions is already a huge task for them—burdening them with yours is too much.
If letting them know they hurt you feels important, a simple “that didn’t feel good to me” will do. Regardless of what you say or do, try to remain calm, present, and unruffled.
Validate their feelings, empathize, and reassure
When your child is upset because they wanted someone else, let them know you understand what they’re feeling, as hard as that may be. “I know you wanted Grandma to sit with you, and it’s hard for you that she can’t. She’ll be back later, and I’ll be right here with you while we wait”.
Know when to let it go
Even though drawing boundaries and setting firm limits is beneficial, there are times when acquiescing just a little can release tension and make everyone’s life a little easier. If your two-year-old is demanding that your partner do something instead of you, and it’s a possibility, consider letting it happen. You aren’t creating bad habits, and you can try it again the next day.
Schedule one-on-one time with each adult
One-on-one time, if possible, is good for everyone involved. If your child only wants to spend time with one adult, you can try deliberately setting up special time with the other: “I’m going to the store for a while, so you and Jina can spend some special time together. I’ve set out some of your favourite books for you to read”.
This behaviour will change, stop, start again, and take on different forms as your child grows. For now, the best way to weather the storm is to be patient, and to be there for your child as they try out new behaviours—even when they sting. It won’t always be this way.
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