Parental Preference

Do your kids show a strong preference for one parent or the other? In today’s episode we are discussing why this dynamic exists and some tips for helping to balance things out at home.

Show Notes/Links

Hi there and welcome to episode 218. Today we're talking about when kids show a strong preference towards one parent or the other. Hi, this is Denaye. I'm the founder of Simple Families. Simple Families is an online community for parents who are seeking a simpler more intentional life. In this show, we focus on minimalism with kids, positive parenting, family wellness, and decreasing the mental load. My perspectives are based in my firsthand experience, raising kids, but also rooted in my PhD in child development. So you're going to hear conversations that are based in research, but more importantly, real life. Thanks for joining us.

Hi, thanks so much for tuning in it is Denaye here and today we're talking about parental preference. I know that we see a lot of this in our house, and I've been getting an increasing number of questions in the past several weeks about this very same issue. I suspect that this is popping up more because many, two-parent households have both partners home for the first time perhaps ever. And with both partners home, we're looking to lean on each other as much as possible. And if our kids push back and they resist on that, it can feel exhausting. And frankly, it kind of sucks for both parties. The parent who is not preferred because well, that just hurts. And the parent who is preferred because that parent starts to get bogged down and overwhelmed really easily. So today I'm going to be exploring a little bit about how these dynamics develop what they might mean and how they might shift and change in the future.

Before we get into today's episode, here is a quick one minute word from our sponsor. The sponsor for today is Prep Dish and Prep Dish is a meal planning service each week. In my inbox, I get an email from Prep Dish with a list of recipes to cook for that week. Now it's not as simple as just choosing one recipe for each day. I actually do a Prep Day, which usually happens on the weekend when my husband's home with me, where we work together to do the vast majority of the food prep. So that on Dish Day, the day we actually serve the food, it only takes 10 or 15 minutes to get the food onto the table. Prep Dish has been an awesome solution for my family. It helps me to feel more supported. So I don't feel like I'm going it on my own in the kitchen.

And it helps to keep our meals varied and interesting too. If you want to check it out, go to, and you can get two weeks free to try it out. That's Before we get into this episode, I do want to announce that for the very first time I am hosting a simplifying siblings or workshop it's going to be on May 21st. It's a live workshop. There's two sessions, one at 1:30 PM Eastern time. And when at 8:30 PM Eastern time. Now, if you make it live at either of these times, you can still sign up and register. Everyone is going to get the replay sent to them 24 hours later. If sibling relationships are an obstacle and you're home, I know that they're an obstacle in my home. Then this might be a good fit for you. We're going to talk about why the dynamics between siblings can feel so complicated and what our job is in managing these relationships.

And you'll also leave feeling empowered with some new strategies and approaches. So if it feels like your kids are always bickering and fighting and arguing, and it's exhausting, I'd love to have you join. Go to, and there are a hundred spots available. Again, that's simple All right, now let's go ahead and tackle this big topic of parental preference. Now, when I'm talking about this topic, I am going to share some of my own experience. And I'm also going to share some generalizations now, understand that this is going to look very, very different for everyone listening. So take what works for you and leave what doesn't. Now I will say most of the time when I hear about parental preferences, it's usually the children preferring to be with the mother or to have the mother doing things for them.

But that's not always the case. Parental preference pops up in many different ways, shapes and form both in heterosexual and homosexual households. So if you hear me referring to the mother and there is no mother or no female in your household, you very well could see this with a father as well. Now, as I said, I've been getting a lot of messages in the recent weeks, in the past two months, especially during the stay at home orders. And I believe it's because there are a lot more homes that have two parents in them all the time now, and it can feel infinitely frustrating for both parents involved when dividing and conquering seems impossible because of the behavior of the children. Now, I got a message from Emma that really stuck out with me that I wanted to share with you because she specifically touched on a few things that I want to mention today.

So here's what she wrote. Hi, Denaye I was just listening to your podcast, which I'm absolutely loving. I just listened to episode 160 selfless versus selfish. And I felt like you were talking directly at me. That is me, the selfless mom, and it's falling apart. Now, I took control of everything with our first and then our second came along with allergies and reflux and ENT issues. And I did it off her both as they felt so guilty about not doing things for my first, I read too much about attachment parenting and I gave myself anxiety. Now we have two kids that don't sleep, wake up multiple times and only want me and will scream and scream and scream for hours. My husband has a short fuse as we are exhausted and who can blame him when his kids scream in his face, my daughter won't even allow him to get her something.

If I'm home, let allow me try and have a sleep in or a, I don't know how to get out of this. Now my kids are two and four and I'd greatly appreciate any advice. Do we send dad in and out until they stop crying? We tried with my daughter and she vomits. All right, I'm not going to be able to tackle all of those issues today, but I do want to talk about some of the things going on between the couple relationship, the relationship between the parents and in the parent child relationship. First, I think we all need to recognize that relationships change with age relationships, change with the ways that our needs change in early infancy. Babies need their mothers more for practical reasons. If you think about the way that humans have evolved, humans have evolved to be close to the woman who is nursing and providing sustenance for the child.

Now, because of that relationship, we'll not only did that child live within the woman for nine to 10 months, but also the nursing relationship that follows infants and young toddlers tend to show a preference towards the woman or towards the mother. Now there's all sorts of variations for this. If the woman chose not to nurse and the partners had a pretty equal 50 50 relationship from the very beginning of dividing and conquering duties, they're probably not going to see this quite as much. Now in our house, I was working on my PhD when I had both of my kids and I was mostly home while I was doing that, working during nap times and writing during nap times. So I was mostly a stay at home mom for the first four years of my Parenthood. And my husband often was working long hours. The result was that my kids grew to have a very strong preference towards me, and they still do very much to this day. Now I can tell you firsthand that being the preferred parent can feel really good.

It feels good. Good to be loved and to be needed and to be wanted, but it can also feel really heavy. And I think when you start out doing all the things and being all of the things for your kids, and it feels really good, you go with it and then it catches up with you. And all of a sudden you are overwhelmed and you need help. And it's not always easy to delegate at that point. I think in a lot of ways, those early dynamics set us up for this type of divide, where the kids are more attached and they lean more heavily on the woman in particular, if the woman is a stay at home, mom, if there's a stay-at-home parent who is providing all of the meals and putting the kids to bed and getting them up in the morning and doing more of the labor intensive acts of service, the kids are probably going to lean more heavily on that person, especially if that person is meeting their needs in a more predictable way.

If they're the one that's usually there now that's in the early years, right? In the early years, kids need the woman because the woman tends to provide food. And if the woman continues to provide for the primary needs of the child, as the child grows, they're probably going to still continue to prefer the woman, but as they grow their needs shift, their interests shift, they're eating real food. They're finding more in common with the other parent as children grow, a lot of them shift their affinity from one parent to the other. So know that different life stages are going to look different. It sounds like if you are in the thick of it with very young children right now, her only preferring the woman only referring the person who's providing the sustenance. You're not alone and know that as your children get older, there could be a big shift in this.

There will probably be a big shift in this. And if you think about the way that you have your own relationships in your life, whether it's your own parents or your own siblings or your own friends, you tend to go to different people for different things. If you need comfort, you call one friend. If you need a laugh, you call another. If you need a listener, you call your mother. If you need advice, you call your father. It's one of the beautiful thing of having a strong network or a community is that you have different people to help meet your needs in different ways. Now, our kids do that too. They're just a little more unfiltered than we are. So you'd probably never call your parents house. It'd be like, Hey dad, put mom on the phone. I need some love or on the flip side, you'd probably never call and have your mom answer and say, Hey mom, I need advice.

But dad on the phone, because as adults, we know that that's kind of offensive, right? We're a little bit more suave or a little bit more subtle about it, but our kids are not, they know what they want and they know who they want it from. And they're going to be direct in asking for it. So it's going to sound offensive. A lot of times, this uncensored way of asking for one parent or the other. So try not to take it personal. Even if your child is saying, I don't want you, I want mama or vice versa. It doesn't mean that they don't love you. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're not connected to you. It means that they're looking to have a certain need met by a certain individual. And as those needs change, as they get older, they're going to be looking for you for different things too.

Now, if you're listening to this and you're the non-preferred parent, most of the time, don't see it as a sign of inferiority, even when it feels feudal. Even when you feel like you've tried everything, don't give up. I promise you that there is hope. I think one thing that we need to give careful consideration to when we see these divides popping up is the relationship between the couple. Now, if the preferred parent, I'm just going to say for the sake of simplicity here, the preferred parent is the mother, because that's what I do see, tend to happen more often than not. If the mother is saying things like, I just need some help. I do everything around here. Can't you do anything. All I did was ask you to put the kids to bed. Can you just do that one night? Right? If that sort of talk sounds familiar to you.

I know it sounds familiar to me. I have been down that road where I have felt an acted like a murder. If you're using that kind of language, your kids also hear it and they sense it from you. And they can sense that you don't have a whole lot of confidence in the fact that your partner is going to be able to meet your family's needs or the needs of your children. And if you don't feel confident that you're going to be able to say, Hey, can you put the kids to bed? And your partner is going to be able to execute it. If you don't think they're going to be able to pull it off, neither do your kids. And they're going to resist more. So you have to be respectful and you have to be confident. You have to convey confidence to your kids.

Hey, dad's putting you to bed tonight and he's going to do an awesome job. It's going to be really fun. And I'll see you in the morning, right? So speak confidence when you're telling your kids, but also speak confidence to your partner. Hey, I really need you to get the kids to bed tonight. I know you can do it. You're going to do great rather than belittling them and saying something along the lines of, do you think you can handle putting the kids to bed just one night on your own? So watch the way you're talking to and about your partner, the relationship between you and your partner absolutely has an impact on our kids. Now, I'm not saying that it always causes parental preference. Cause there are a lot of things that could lead to that. But in other ways, shapes and forms, your relationship has an impact on your kids' wellbeing and on your kids' happiness.

So you have to prioritize it. You have to be respectful. You have to be confident in your partners' abilities and you have to be supportive of your partner. Even if you don't feel like you're getting a ton of support. I always say the best way to get support is to give it so praise, when you see your partner doing something great. Even if it's something little. Now, Emma had a question about whether we should force it. She said, should I just send them in there and let them figure it out? I think you could do this. It's going to be painful for every single person involved. And I kind of think it's the long way around to solving this problem because a kid of any age is going to know when that parent doesn't want to be there. When that parent is full of dread and anxiety about facing the situation and a parent who is kind of, for lack of better words, thrown to the wolves, into the bedroom, with a crying kid who doesn't want anything to do with them, that parent doesn't want to be there any more than that child wants them to be there.

So the chances of that dynamic being a success in that moment are pretty slim. Instead of trying to force these interactions, I would focus on building connection outside of these intimate times. Bedtime to me is an intimate time. It's a time when kids tend to be a little bit more tired, a little bit more volatile, a little more sensitive, and overall it's just more intimate. So if you're trying to incorporate your partner into more of these routines, I don't think I'd start with bedtime. Instead. I would look at building connection throughout the day, in other ways, in other types of interactions time, because sometimes these cases have strong parental preference means that the child isn't feeling quite as connected to one caregiver and connection is absolutely something that can be improved. It's something that waxes and wanes. Sometimes I feel super connected to my kids and other weeks I don't feel quite as connected to them.

Sometimes I feel super connected to my husband and sometimes I feel less connected to him. It's not something that's always stable all the time. And there are things we can do to feel more connected. And we're going to talk about those things. But before we get into that, I want to touch on one other thing that Emma mentioned, which was attachment parenting. Now there's a difference between feeling connected to your child and being attached to your child. When we talked about high functioning anxiety last week, and about how we have plenty to worry about as parents attachment, isn't something that I ever want you to worry about with your kid, unless you're an adoptive parent or a foster parent, or if you have been incarcerated for a long period of time, if you suffer from mental illness or depression, that leaves you removed from your children.

If you've been through a divorce where you're not allowed to see your children and you don't have custody and don't get to spend time with them, if those are any of your situations, then yes, I do think that you need to make attachment a priority. And I think it's worthy of learning about attachment and the importance of it. But for the rest of us, take attachment off the list of things you that you need to worry about. If you're showing up every day, you're providing food for your kids, you're providing a safe home and environment for them. Your kids are going to be securely attached. The research shows us that approximately 75% of kids are securely attached. The other 25% are those subgroups that I just mentioned. Those who have experienced prolonged separations, whether it be a mental or physical separation from their children, but the vast, vast majority of us are securely attached to our kids.

It should not be a stressor. What we can focus on is connecting with them, getting down on their level, looking in their eyes, asking them questions, being responsive. When they ask us questions, listening to their random thoughts and rambles, not all the time, but a good amount of the time. If you can, those are ways simple ways that we can build connection. Now let's talk about those and give a few more examples. Now, when we live a busy life, we can feel disconnected from the people around us. If we're rushing in and out to get the day started to get the day ended. We're not really sitting down for meals together. We can very easily start to feel disconnected, but like I said, this is not a life sentence. You can absolutely improve your connection with your kids and with your partner. So when it comes to improving connection with your kids, here are three simple things to prioritize when they're talking to you or when you're talking to them, get down on their level and look in their eyes.

This shows that you're making time for them, that you're listening. It equalizes the power between the two of you when you're done on their level. So when you get down and you're looking in their eyes, they know without a shadow of a doubt that you're there for them. And maybe it's something very simple and silly that they're trying to tell you, but at least you're there to hear it. The second thing is to be responsive. And I think this comes really easily for me. When my kids ask me something, I'm always listening, I always hear them. And I'm like, Oh, what was that? Or what did you need the first time that they asked me, it's really easy for me to tune in, but that's because I have kind of this always on always going brain my husband. On the other hand, sometimes we have to ask him multiple times to get his attention.

If he's watching TV, or if he's focused on something that he's reading, he's not necessarily listening to the ambient noise and the ambient conversations in the environment. And it's not because he doesn't care. It's not because he's not engaged in the family, not connected to the family. It's just that he actually just doesn't hear what's going on around him. So if we need him or if we want him to respond to us, we have to go up and touch him on the arm. Or we have to look him in the eye in order to get his attention. Especially if he's watching TV or if he's on his phone or if he's doing something that has all of his attention, we have to work a little bit harder to make sure he's listening before we start talking. So, because we've learned this about him and about communicating with him, I've been working on teaching my kids that in order to get his attention, you have to tap them on the arm.

You can't just walk up and start talking and expect that he's listening. You have to get his attention first, make sure he's listening and then start talking because otherwise, if you just walk up and start babbling, he may seem non-responsive. So as adults, we have different types of communication styles, and we start to learn them about each other when we're together, when we're partnered or when we're married. But our kids don't necessarily know the best ways of communicating with either parent. So if you see this sort of dynamic in your relationship, see if you can help to cue your kids, to get the attention of the other parent, it's possible that if they go up to the non-preferred parent and they start talking to them and the non-preferred parent doesn't respond, they see that as disconnected. They see that as lack of interest, but the truth is the non-preferred parent is probably very interested and wants the connection very much.

They just didn't notice it. They just didn't hear that bit for attention from the child. So not only do we need to initiate and ask questions and get down on our kids' level, but we also need to be responsive when they need things from us. And that may or may not come naturally to you as an adult. For me, it comes natural to respond to my kids. The first time they ask for my husband doesn't necessarily come so natural. So we've gotten into the habit of tapping him on the arm, looking him in the eye before we start talking to make sure that he's listening. And again, it's not of any fault. We just have different brains that work differently. We have different types of communication styles, and kids can learn those things too. And once they learn how to get the attention and how to get the connection from the non-preferred parent, they might start to feel more connected.

This is obviously a very complex topic, but I want you all to know that if this is something that happens in your home, you're not alone. The non-preferred parent don't feel like you're doing anything wrong. There's a very good chance that even if you're the non-preferred parent right now, you might be with a preferred parent 10 years from now and know that this position can easily swap. But also know that this type of dynamic is equally as hard on both the preferred and the non-preferred parents, because usually the preferred parent desperately needs space and peace and quiet. And the non-preferred parent desperately wants their kids to love them and to want them. So we have to stay focused on the fact that our goal is really the same. We want our kids to prefer both of us equally. Now that's the goal. That's never going to be attainable because kids are always going to have this preference, just like we have preference towards other people in our lives.

It's going to shift and it's going to wax and it's going to wane and we have to be open to that. But in the meantime, our best tools are to work on our connection with one another, supporting the partnership, making sure that you're being respectful, making sure that you're showing confidence in your partner, making sure that you're praising your partner and helping to support increased connection between your partner and your kids. So increase in connection with your kids through doing things like getting down on their level, looking them in the eye, asking them questions, being responsive. When they ask you questions, all those things can really help make a huge world of difference. Little by little. I hope this has been helpful. I'm so glad that you tuned in today. If you're interested in the simplify siblings workshop, that's going to be next week on May 21st go to to get all the information. If you can't make it live, you can always register and get the replay sent to you afterwards. Thanks for tuning in and have a good one.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.