Mommy time, all the time: Why a child might favor one parent now

Lisa Tolin

My son is in a bit of a mommy phase. You might think being locked at home together 24 hours a day would satisfy his need to be with me, but you would be wrong.

The coronavirus crisis has only intensified his clinginess. He wants mommy for school activities, lies beneath mommy when she does yoga, accompanies mommy to the bathroom.

And while I love the love, it’s a strain when he crashes my Zoom meetings in his underwear and I'm like a latter-day BBC Dad.

Child development experts say it’s to be expected that in a time of crisis or anxiety, a young child might show a preference for one parent. They’re “hunkering down in their comfort zone,” said Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development.

“Stress ingrains already existing behavioral patterns or challenges,” she said. So if a child preferred one parent before school shutdowns, that preference may be even more exaggerated now.

Related: Nighttime waking, potty accidents and other regression can accompany new stress or anxiety.

“One mother recently told me that her daughter won't give her husband the time of day, that she actively turns her head when Daddy attempts to engage her in play or even simple conversation,” said Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a psychologist and parenting coach at Little House Calls. Another dad had the opposite problem: His child wanted only him, even though he was working long hours and his wife was the one with flexibility to care for the child.

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Why do children have a favorite parent?

Playing favorites with parents is normal, and usually nothing to worry about. It can even be a sign of healthy development.

“It's only when children feel secure in their relationships with both parents that they are free to explore, and experiment, in this way,” Hershberg said.

It’s common for children to develop favorites around age 2, and they may cycle from one parent to another, or prefer different parents for different activities, up through age 5. Showing a preference is one way children attempt to control their world, which might feel especially out of control right now.

"As they figure out who they are, they figure out preferences. And with preferences comes a degree of power and control," said Klein, author of "How Toddlers Thrive." "The toddler feels, ‘I will decide what I want, who I want and when I want it.’"

Even older children may favor one parent when they perceive a threat of some kind, adds Dr. Laura Markham, author of "Aha Parenting." They may naturally seek out one parent for reassurance and security.

"Kids have an attachment hierarchy that gets activated when they are sick or hurt or under threat," Markham said. One parent usually comes first in that hierarchy, followed by the other parent, siblings, grandparents and so on.

What to do: Give extra support

Especially given the extra stress right now, experts suggest giving children more of what they need: attention, holding and love.

For the dad who couldn't get time to work, Hershberg brainstormed ways to stay connected, even when apart. For example, father and child could be "twins" with matching shirts or temporary tattoos. He could give the child something important to hold for the day, like a special pen. He could record videos or funny stories to watch throughout the day. And he could take regular "hug breaks" at timed intervals, to connect before the child feels irritable and demands it.

Related: Stories can help soothe children who are worried about their world right now.

Don’t get hurt feelings

It’s easy for the non-favorite parent to feel hurt or rejected, but experts stress that parents should not take it personally. In fact, you could choose to see it as a compliment.

“A child only pushes a parent away when they are secure in that relationship. They feel like it is OK to say no to that parent, trusting that the parent loves them no matter what,” Klein says. “I know it sounds odd, but toddlers view the world quite differently from adults. They can't push a parent away if they are afraid they will never see that parent again.”

Take a break

Here’s the secret: As much as a child insists on a favorite parent, if that parent disappears, the child is usually just fine.

“Usually they are fine with the other parent if the preferred parent is not around,” Klein says. It's a good reason for the preferred parent to take a break, even if it's just for a walk around the block.

“Reassure the child that even though the other parent is with them, you will be back soon. Some protesting is OK,” Klein says.

Team up with your partner

Putting too much weight on the situation can make things worse, said Hershberg, author of "The Tantrum Survival Guide." She suggests casually but genuinely talking up the other parent, saying something like, "Isn't Daddy the best cook ever?"

Klein suggests saying something like, “‘You know Daddy loves you even if you need me to put your shoes on ...’ And the non-favored parent does the same, ‘I love you even when you need mommy to put your shoes on!’ They see that the parent can't be rejected or hurt, and all is OK.”

Create fun times with the other parent

Try something like going for a walk, cooking together or using humor or fun games like hide-and-seek to connect with the non-favored parent.

“Do special times together, as it gives the other a break and keeps the bond between you and the child,” Klein says. “Mostly, keep your wits about you by knowing this is a very little person and this too shall pass.”

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