From time-to-time I answer readers questions on my website, and this one comes up a lot:

QUESTION: Sometimes my 3-year-old can be sort of mean to her dad–like when he goes to get her in the morning she will scream that she only wants mommy or sometimes she pushes him away when he comes over to say to her when he gets home from work. I know she adores my husband and they have so much fun playing together, but I’m not sure why she acts this way towards him sometimes. Any thoughts?

ANSWER:

This behavior can be so frustrating for both parents. The “favored” parent feels like they have to take on the burden of doing everything for and with the child and the “rejected” parent feels hurt because the child will not engage with them.  I hear this complaint/concern come up a lot with the families that I work with.  This is completely NORMAL.  A poll conducted by Parents.com found that 90 percent of children favored one parent over the other at some point in early childhood.

Understanding why children do this can be very helpful in understanding how to best respond to the behavior.  First of all, 3-year-olds are going through a stage of development called separation/ individuation. Psychologically they are becoming aware that they are separate from you.  The result of this stage is that children begin to understand that they have their own opinions and preferences. They become thirsty for power and control because quite honestly they have little of it.  The only thing they control is their physical bodies.  That’s why many power struggle with toddlers exist around: What goes ON their body, what goes IN their body, what goes OUT of their body and WHERE they put their body. Rejecting one parent and favoring the other is one way your child can prove that she can make her own choices.

Here is what you can do to be helpful:  

1) Do not take it personally if you are the “rejected” parent. If your child is resisting your help or affection do not let your hurt feelings show and do not withdrawal. Stay positive and let your daughter know that you are there to help her and will love her no matter what.

2) Create more opportunities for connection and fun one-on-one time.  If your husband has little time with your daughter it makes sense that she might not be as receptive to his help or affection because she may not feel as connected to him.  It is hard to feel cooperative or listen to someone that we do not feel connected to. This one-on-one time can be as simple as reading a book together for 5-10 minutes on the couch when he comes home from work each day before moving on to the tasks and chores that need to get done.

3) Get out of the way.  Make yourself unavailable or leave the house altogether.  I know this can be hard for both parents and children.  But your child needs to learn to depend on both parents for love, help, and support.  Sometimes the “favored” parent’s presence makes it difficult for the child to embrace opportunities to connect with the other parent.

What I hate to tell you though is that pretty soon you may find that the tide has turned.  Toddlers who were once fiercely attached to their mother may become obsessed with their father — or vice versa!