Has your child ever said they want your partner more than you? How did it make you feel?
My oldest daughter often says she wants her Daddy and she cries for him. Apparently, I used to do the same to my Mom. If I hurt myself I would ask her to call Daddy so I could tell him at work.
This week I heard my eldest daughter and her sister arguing over who’s Daddy he is. “He’s MY daddy!” “No, MY Daddy!” Which eventually turned into, “You can have Mommy! And I’ll have Daddy.” (face palm) That’s when I felt a twinge of rejection but also found it quite amusing.
Later in the week my child wanted her Daddy and I had one of my own “tantrums” and said to my husband, “I’ll just leave! You guys can have fun without me!” I realised as I said it that I was being a bit overdramatic and childish, but it brought up some feelings of rejection. My daughter came to me later and said, “Mommy were you sad because I said I wanted Daddy more than you?” And I decided to be honest. “Yes my baby, sometimes it hurts my feelings. But then I also see that you love spending time with Daddy and that makes me happy. You’re allowed to feel your feelings. Just know that I really love spending time with you.” I hoped that it was a good opportunity to also create some awareness for her without shaming or punishing her.
Why do they do it?
There’s always a reason for a child’s behaviour and often it’s a lot less complicated than we make it. We might think to ourselves, “My child doesn’t like me.” “I’m too strict.” “I should be the fun one, maybe then they’ll respond differently.” “My partner is too lenient! No wonder they want them more.”
It could be some of these reasons and it could be as simple as them not getting enough time with one partner. Sometimes children will prefer being around a parent who has more lenient boundaries- but this is for parents to discuss. In both cases this has nothing to do with the child- so shaming and blaming the child is not helpful or respectful. All it does is leads to a child feeling like they are wrong or bad and they have no skills to cope with these emotions. They are not able to question this and realise that their parents are making decisions (discipline strategies) that have nothing to do with them. They will take it on as their own issue- they may feel like the “bad ones” for choosing one parent over the other.
What we should try not to do...
1. Don’t label the behaviour – So often we hear people saying, “Ah such a Daddy’s girl!” And what do you think this does? It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “We live what we create. We create what we live.”-Mommy Moo Moo
2. Don’t take it personally – Maybe easier said than done- but children aren’t intentionally trying to hurt your feelings. Children always behave in a way that they feel will help them to have their needs met. When children “prefer” another parent it doesn’t mean they literally prefer them or love them more. It’s not a reflection of your worth as a parent, but rather it fulfils their desire to have their needs met.
3. Don’t punish or shame them for it – “You’re so mean and nasty!” “That’s not a nice way to be!” These are ways to create less connection between yourself and your child and doesn’t build them up or encourage them.
4. Don’t use it for bragging rights – “The children like me better than you! See! I’m the favourite!” This is a great way to create an “us vs them” mentality and is likely to create a rift between you and your partner and you and your children.
What you can do
1. Validate their beliefs and feelings –If you have to say anything, just say it like it is- “You like spending time with Daddy.” or “I can see you enjoy it when Mommy puts you to bed.” Children don’t know the reason for their behaviour- and they’re not choosing the behaviour. Validation shows them that you see and understand their behaviour.
2. Explore the belief/reason for their behaviour – As I said above, there is always a reason for the behaviour. When you figure out the true reason, you empower yourself to figure out the best course of action. That may be – ignoring the behaviour and working on your own reason behind your feelings of rejection; or it may be working together to get on the same page in your approach to discipline.
3. Schedule special time with them – This is a great way to increase your connection with your child and to create memories and shared experiences that only you have together. Be curious about their interests and become a participant rather than the "leader of play".
4. Work on the reason for your own feelings – Ask yourself why your child’s behaviour triggers an emotional response. Are there some unresolved memories from your childhood that you may need to readdress? Sometimes just acknowledging the reason for your emotion helps your to respond to the situation rather than reacting.
5. Discuss it with your partner privately – If it seems to be something that needs to change and you feel that your parenting styles are too different (i.e. one of you is more dominant and the other is more permissive) you may want to find more Conscious Parenting strategies to use. Conscious Parenting has an amazing balance between kind and firm. It’s not Dominant or Permissive and it’s been proven to be the most psychologically healthy way to discipline children as it leads to an authentic parent/child connection.
At the end of the day your children are egocentric and aren’t always able to think of your feelings first. They are only conscious of their own needs and how they can be met- so it’s up to us as parents to find healthy tools to encourage empathy and understanding.
Co-Founder of the CPASA, Owner and Parent Coach at Ripple Effect Parenting