Navigating Your Child’s Parental Preference

How many parents can relate: It’s bedtime and you are just starting the nightly routine. You’re feeling run down from a long day and ask your partner to step in. Once in there, the battle of preference begins. Screams that include “I don’t want you!”, “I want mommy/daddy to do it!” and frustrated sighs fill the air. You wait outside the door torn between taking the time for the elusive self-care you keep reading about, or giving in to the nagging guilt deep in your gut and jumping in to save the day and end the tears.

Well if this sounds familiar then I’m sure you know all about the challenge of managing parental preference. I’ve been there, and I want you to know that you’re not alone in facing the challenge of parental preference. It’s a tough journey, often filled with stress and hurt, but I’m here to offer support and share some insights that might make this road a little easier.

Mom playing developmentally appropriate game with toddler

Child Development Explained

Attachment Theory

Let’s delve into the world of child development, starting with attachment theory. When we, as parents, consistently respond to our little ones, we help them form secure attachments. However,  being consistent and responsive doesn’t mean neglecting yourself. Fortunately, we can still maintain consistency and responsiveness while also ensuring we have our much-needed time to rest as well! Ultimately when we parent in a way that promotes consistency and responsiveness, it develops positive outcomes in forming relationships, regulating emotions, and developing thinking skills – things every parent wishes for their child.

Toddler Development

Now, let’s talk about toddlers – the tiny tornadoes of self-discovery, autonomy, and, yes, parental preference. If you were looking at the various stages of development you would find that toddlers are on a mission to assert control, make independent choices, and express their preferences. In this stage of development toddlers often display a strong will and a desire to do things on their own, or to direct exactly how things are done – think: what colour plate at dinner time, wardrobe battles, and you guessed it, which parent gets to participate in which activity. Now you may already know where I’m going with this, but eventually, these small battles can turn into full-fledged parental preferences. It’s a sign of healthy development, even though it may feel incredibly challenging for us as parents.

Upset toddler with frown

So Why Does Parental Preference Happen?

The answer unfortunately isn’t black and white. Normal development plays a part, but so do shared interests and personality traits. Studies suggest a strong preference for the “primary caregiver” or the person spending the most time. However, our little ones, much like us, may be drawn to certain traits. Furthermore, preferences shift as children grow, and remember, toddlers love showcasing their autonomy by having a say in which parent does what.

How to Respond to Parental Preferences

The “Non-Prefered Parent”

If you are feeling rejected by your child, your emotions are valid. It’s okay to feel hurt, and this situation is far from easy. But know this – feeling uncertain about your parenting role doesn’t mean you’re unloved. Actually, it has been noted that there typically is no difference in attachment style between the preferred and non-preferred parent to the child. While this reassurance can be helpful, it doesn’t take away from the fact that living through this is HARD! Some tips can help make this stage a little shorter though. 

  1. Fill in the gaps!
    • Identify your partners strengths and find an area that you can excel at. That might mean that dad can make GREAT block towers but guess who can read the best story?! You! Use your most creative voices and tone and make this a special activity for you and your little one.
  2. Make a point to have some uninterrupted time just the two of you.
    • It is important to note here that your child will be upset when the preferred caregiver leaves – try and distract them immediately to minimize the stress response. Distractions can look like something funny that falls into your child’s interests. 
  3. Try to remain unbothered outwardly and utilize silent listening during meltdowns.
    • Avoid big negative reactions as toddlers will continue the behavior if they can see it yields a reaction.
    • Offer reassuring nods and eye contact when your child is upset, stay at their level but minimize vocalizations as this can lead to a toddler feeling invalidated.

Remember, being the non-preferred parent doesn’t diminish the love you share with your child. This phase will pass as you continue to consistently demonstrate your unwavering love and presence.

Mom and son bonding over shared activity and highfive

The 'Preferred Parent'

Now of course we also have the “favourite”. You probably already know that this role is marked by an extreme preference from your little one for this parent to do the bulk of parenting tasks. Our little ones might show a strong preference for a certain parent to do certain tasks as in dad needs to brush teeth and mom needs to read stories, but in most instances of parental preference majority of parenting responsibilities fall on one parent. Unfortunately, you may have heard comments about being “lucky” to be the “chosen” parent, but as someone who has experienced this firsthand, I know what you’re feeling.

This role often leaves us feeling guilty, burnt out, and resentful of the level of responsibilities that fall on us. Most preferred parents struggle in the self-care department which can ultimately contribute to increased burnout. It is important to recognize that needing a break is normal, and taking a break is showing yourself the care that you deserve. Remember your child is safe in the care of your partner and stepping away to allow them to bond is important. Some other steps the preferred parent can take to make this phase smoother include:

  1. Involve your partner in family activities
    • Try to choose activities everyone will enjoy and something your partner will feel very comfortable participating in.
  2. Talk your partner up and highlight their skills with enthusiasm.
    • If you are doing an activity, let’s take reading for example, you can pause and say something along the line of “hmm you know who is really great at doing *pick a character from the story* voices?! Mommy/Daddy!”
  3. Allow space and avoid immediate interventions.
    • This tip is one of the harder ones. Sometimes that voice pops in our head with negative self-talk that drives the guilt when we step away from our children, especially when they are calling for us. Remember, your partner is capable, and allowing them the space to address the situation is a healthy thing. You are not a bad parent for doing this and in fact it will allow your child to continue to grow and work on expressing their emotions.
  4. Prioritize your mental wellbeing.
    • Ask for help when you need it and take breaks. You are worthy of rest and with the exhaustion that comes with this, it’s more important than ever to focus on how you’re feeling.
Family holding hands

Your Relationship During Parental Preference

The division that parental preference causes can put a strain on relationships, and the most important thing here is that both parents are communicating their feelings with each other and listening openly and without judgment. From here a united front can be formed to help ease the strain. If you both can understand each other and the different challenges each role comes with, it can help with the overall dynamic during a challenging time.

Remember This Will Pass

Navigating parental roles is a challenging journey, but it’s essential to approach it with understanding, warmth, and empathy. When all is said and done each parent contributes unique strengths, and by supporting one another, families create a nurturing environment where love and understanding endure. In the long run, this phase will pass and the bonds you build will remain.
If you’re finding this stage of parenting incredibly taxing and difficult, you aren’t alone and I would love to help. You can find a nurse in your area here who can offer further support and strategies to help with these challenges.

As always, I am sending you so much love and support. You are exactly what your baby needs, even on the days it doesn’t feel like it.

Carrie Bruno, RN, IBCLC, MSCP


ABC Everyday. (2021, January 5). “I want mummy to do it!”: How Seiji deals with his kids rejecting him. https://www.abc.net.au/everyday/why-kids-prefer-one-parent-and-tips-for-dealing/100004320

Bowlby, J. (1969). attachment and loss, vol. 1 … (n.d.). https://www.scirp.org/(S(i43dyn45teexjx455qlt3d2q))/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=1162623

Hawkins, E. (2022, August 24). Maternal representations and infant attachment: An examination of the prototype hypothesis. Infant Mental Health Journal. https://www.academia.edu/85499660/Maternal_Representations_and_Infant_Attachment_An_Examination_of_the_Prototype_Hypothesis

Herman, M. (2020, April 12). Dear care and feeding: My daughter strongly prefers me over her dad. Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/human-interest/2020/04/child-prefers-one-parent-advice-care-and-feeding.html

Sharp, B. (2023, December 12). How to deal with a child’s parental preference. How to Deal With a Child’s Parental Preference. https://www.thebump.com/a/preferred-parent

Umemura, T., Jacobvitz, D., Messina, S., & Hazen, N. (2013). Do toddlers prefer the primary caregiver or the parent with whom they feel more secure? the role of Toddler Emotion. Infant Behavior and Development, 36(1), 102–114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2012.10.003

Zimmermann, P., Mühling, L. E., Lichtenstein, L., & Iwanski, A. (2022). Still mother after all these years: Infants still prefer mothers over fathers (if they have the choice). Social Sciences, 11(2), 51. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11020051



Need Support?

Find Us Elsewhere

The Mama Coach- Content Campaign-18

About Us

The Mama Coach is a global team of Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners.

Our mission is to guide families through every stage of their parenting journey by providing evidence-informed education infused with non-judgmental support, compassion, and empathy.