Help! My Child Prefers My Partner, Not Me

emotional intelligence 

By Ashley Patek

Help! My Child Prefers My Partner, Not Me

I don’t know who needs to hear this but if your child prefers your partner over you, it isn’t anything you did wrong. The inverse is also true. 

More times than not, this isn’t a matter of “not doing it right” but a matter of development. 

Children are driven by the evolutionary mechanism of attachment. They innately maintain proximity to a parent to ensure survival and safety. Any time there are big shifts (I am talking about new siblings, starting school, moving, family stress, divorce, emotional or sensory overwhelm … the list goes on), children find comfort in having one go-to person, consolidating their emotional and physical safety needs to one parent, and thus pushing the other away. This is not a barometer of love, but a reflection of attachment theory at its core. 

A note to the non-preferred parent

Repeat after me: I have not done anything wrong. This is a phase. It will pass. 

Children only express big feelings to the adults they feel most safe with, and although it sounds like an oxymoron, this is a sign of your strong connection and attachment. It is like the King or Queen of back-handed compliments, I know, but, based on what your history together has told your child, she knows you can handle it. 

Here are some things to remember: 

  • If your child feels safe, engaged, playful, and attached when the preferred parent is not around and then wants to jump ship when they return, know there is nothing threatening here. 
  • It stings, but it isn’t personal. Even when our kids yell, “No I only want Mommy/Daddy! Not You!” This is a sign of a dysregulated kiddo, not a permanent rejection. 
  • Children live in the moment so when they say, “I don’t want you,” the translation is “I don’t want you right now.”

What tools do we have as the non-preferred parent? Let’s look at a scenario.

It is time to read a bedtime book and your partner has a work call that prevents them from joining. Your child melts down with big gator tears, yelling, “Only Mommy (or Daddy) reads me the book. Go away!” 

You can: 

  • Give yourself a mantra: “I can cope with this.” 
  • Bring in silliness or play: “Hey does this book go on my head? Do I read it like this? (while holding it upside down) 
  • Acknowledge and validate: “I know, love. You really wish Mommy (or Daddy) could read to you tonight.” 
  • Focus on what your child can do: “I am here to read a bedtime book. Do you want The Rabbit Listened or Elmer?”

If your child continues to protest, know that your connection efforts will still be absorbed. You can continue to hold to the boundary that you are reading the book tonight (because your partner is unavailable) while also holding space for your child’s emotions surrounding that boundary.

If your child begins to hit or kick in protest, get into your body first using a calming tool or mantra, and then engage with your child. Use fewer words, get eye level or below, and keep physical safe space as needed, helping him co-regulate. 

In doing these steps, we reaffirm to our children our connection - that we are confident leaders who can handle their big emotions, and that all emotions - even anger and disappointment - are safe to express. 

A note to the preferred parent

Repeat after me: I have not done anything wrong. This is a phase. It will pass. 

A clingy kiddo is a great testament to your strong attachment. Your child feels safe and secure with you as the container for their emotional and physical safety. You are like the string to their kite, grounding them as their feelings and behaviors flutter and fly. 

Here are some things to remember: 

  • It is okay to listen to your own needs.
  • Be confident. Your child can feel your uncertainty, which makes it hard for them to accept your limits.
  • Our child’s meltdowns are natural expressions of their big emotions. They are nothing to fix or stop but rather an opportunity to soothe their nervous system and regulate. 

So, back to the bedtime scenario, your tools may include: 

  • Give yourself a mantra: “I am my child’s sturdy leader. I can handle this.” 
  • Acknowledge and validate: “You want me to read books and dad is doing it tonight. I know it is hard to let go of me. I love our time together, too.”
  • Focus on what your child can do: “Which book will you read with dad tonight? The Rabbit Listened or Elmer? I will be back to tuck you in.” 

In doing these steps, our children receive the message that we are comfortable with them having big feelings around us not being there, that we can handle those feelings, and that we are supportive of their experience while also respecting our own needs, too. 

A note to both parents

Come together as a parental team and have a dialogue about what is happening during these moments, sharing your experience as the non-preferred and preferred parent. This connection can decrease resentment and be an emotional release for you, too. 

The way we perceive these situations when they arise will greatly influence how we meet them. The protests, outbursts, and rejections are healthy and positive for your child to release. Your goal is not to overpower her or to let her emotions overpower you. Instead, we are the pilot who guides the plane, and while we recognize this feels hard, we will ride through the turbulence together, coming out the other side more connected as a family system.

•  •  •

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