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October 09, 2018

Playing favorites: When your toddler prefers one parent over another

Parenting Toddlers
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Over the last month my family has experienced a toddler milestones that nearly all parents say they have experienced with their little ones: parental preference. Out of nowhere, Killian started saying NO DA! NO DA! to my husband. He would ask for, yell for, cry for me while acting like his father was a villain.

We were so confused. What happened? Our son has always been obsessed with his Da. They have a beautiful father/son relationship. When my husband leaves for work in the morning, Killian stands at the door waving goodbye to him. All day long our son asks for Da. He wants Da to meet us at the playground, to be in the car with us, sit with us for lunch.

Prior to this new phase, when Ryan got home Killian was overjoyed, running to him with hugs and kisses. Now my husband is occasionally greeted with cries of NO DA after a long day’s work. Killian clings to me, begging me to save him from his father’s hugs. Ten minutes later, he is climbing onto my husband’s lap, cuddling and reading stories and acting normally again with his father.

When this first started happening, I would ask Killian to tell us why he was upset. I wanted him to know that we heard and respected his feelings. But I would also guide him back to his father, reminding him how much he loves his Da, how he was asking for his all day and how lucky we are to have him. Ryan would try not to take it personally, but having your son – your favorite little person in the whole world – screaming NO in your face and running away from you must feel pretty terrible. My husband is an incredible father who deserves accolades, not rejection! But toddlers are complex and we are first-time parents so, as always, we turned to the experts to help guide us through this new behavior.

Our immediate assumption was that Killian spends most of the day with me so that is why he has started favoring me. But it is a little more complex than that. Parental preference has to do with your little one’s rapid and magnificent growth and development. Toddlers are gaining and showing off their new independence in many ways and parental preference is one of them. Playing favorites with people or toys is common for these little guys who want to share their new opinions. It is a sign of emotional and cognitive growth, through which your little one looks at relationships through a new lens and also discovers decision-making. Experimenting with separation and attachment while using words and actions for expression show that your toddler is developing normally. So parental preference is actually a good thing! Even if it hurts your feelings.

There are a few things that the experts encourage if your toddler is displaying parental preference. Here are some things that my family is trying that may help yours, too.


If you are the parent or adult who is being rejected by your toddler, developing new traditions for just you two may help you reconnect. My husband is great at making special moments with Killian and developing routines and activities for the two of them. He does bath time and bedtime in his own way, they play special games together and has own fun way of reading Killian’s favorite books. Think of moments and activities that you and your toddler can do just the two of you – make pancakes on Saturday mornings, create a secret handshake, read a new children’s book series – this will help strengthen your bond.


If you are the parent who your toddler currently prefers, try to fade to the background and give your co-parent space to spend one-on-one time with your child. If your little one asks for you to take him to the potty or read him a book, redirect him to your spouse. Encourage your co-parent and child to do things together, in and out of the home, and make yourself scarce so your child is not tempted to run back into your arms.


This is the golden rule of raising a toddler. If your sweet child spurns your advances and pushes you away, try to remember not to take it personally. Do not react negatively by snapping at them or trying to force affection if you are either parent. The one being snubbed feels the sting and the one being favored does more heavy lifting which can result in a mixture of guilt and annoyance. Have patience because this too shall pass. Before it does, the parent who has been the favorite will most likely become the one rejected as toddlers tend to flip their preference at some point.


Just because your toddler screams in your face does not mean you should stop showering him with love. This is only a phase and your child will get through it eventually. Keep offering those hugs and kisses, special moments and activities. This advice will carry you from toddlerhood to the fun teenage years. One of the most important things you do as a parent is love your child. Even when they do not show it, know they love you too. And don’t forget to show your co-parent a little extra love, too.

Have you experienced parental preference? How did your family handle it? Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or Tweet me @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.

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