Preferring One Parent: Behind Your Toddler's Behavior
Understanding and responding to common toddler issues
Why Toddlers Develop Parent Preferences
Between 18 and 24 months, it’s perfectly normal for toddlers to prefer one parent over the other. As toddlers develop a sense of self, they do so through careful observation and mirroring of those around them. Based on this idea, one theory about what’s behind parent preferences, according to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, MD, in Touchpoints: Birth to Three is that to fully absorb each parent—their language, facial expressions, preferences—a child can only focus on one at a time.
“It comes out of children both having strong sense of self and some power. Some of it is preference and some of it is control,” says Tovah P. Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. “Parents feel really hurt and rejected, but it’s a great sign the child is waking up saying, ‘I’m my own person, I can make my own choices,’” says Klein.
What to Do
Be patient. This behavior tends to last a few months, and then your toddler may switch her allegiance to the other parent. Try not to take it personally, and keep showing that you love her (though the desire to sulk may be strong). “Give the message ‘We both love you even if you want the other of us.’ [Toddlers are] still looking to the adults to keep the roles and security for them,” says Klein. Share your feelings with your partner—and empathize if the tides turn.
“Parents should act as a team and keep it light,” says Klein. So if your child says she wants only Daddy to help her get dressed, Klein suggests saying, “Sure, Dad can put on your clothes. I still love you.” That way, you’re “not giving in to their power but letting them know they have a choice,” says Klein.
Keep in Mind
Whether your toddler is playing favorites or not, sharing special one-on-one activities with each parent is a great way to nurture your always-developing relationship. Consider setting a routine activity that only you and your toddler (and likewise, your partner and your toddler) do together: Look at fish at the pet store, hunt for worms after a rainfall, etc. That way, if you do get the cold shoulder from your toddler, you might still be able to count on this treasured time together.
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