Coping and Strengthening Bonds When You’re Not the Preferred Parent (at the moment)

When children are fortunate enough to have two parents they can sometimes cause strain on their parents by focusing on one parent at a time. This is normal—not fun—but normal. Whether you are the preferred parent or not (at this moment) the following information can help cope and strengthen bonds.

You are Parents. Not Clones.

First, I invite you to think about the unique gifts you bring your child.

When children have the good fortune to have two committed adults loving and supporting them, they will often begin to use each parent for different needs. For instance, at this moment, one parent may be for the “hurt, hungry, too tired” parts of life and the other more for larger exploring, high energy times of life.

Whatever the particular roles, they may be temporary and they may shift or reverse. In any case, just because a child gets different needs from each of you, it does not mean one parent is loved more than the other, nor does it mean that one parent is better or does things more right than the other.

Another gift to children of dual parenting is that children are invited to become more flexible thinkers and, later, more sophisticated problem solvers, because two parents, no matter how much shared value they bring to parenting, will not do things exactly the same. Remember that this is a gift! Children do not need clones from whom they can expect exactly the same response or who are easily interchangeable. Children benefit from collaborative adults who share their love and care freely with one another and with them.

Coping and Strengthening Bonds

Around age 2.5, children often become directive (“No, only Daddy!” or “No, Momma do it”). To support their need for flexibility, without handing over control, we use the context of turn taking (“It’s Mommy’s turn to read your night stories”). Do expect that he may resist your attempt to structure the limits of his demands. But help him to see where it is that he has the power of choice. The choice in this example is that he can have Mommy and stories, or Mom can give him their shared night hug and he can “read” his stories himself.

But let’s look at a specific concern—a mom who wonders why her 2.5 year old daughter goes to dad when she needs consoling and care. One strategy to create and maintain an expectation of care from mom as well is to affirm their daughter’s choice in that moment:

If it’s mom speaking: “This minute Daddy has the best hug for your hurt. Sometimes I like Daddy’s hugs best too. Let me know when you want a Mommy hug. I’ll save a special one just for you!”

If it’s dad speaking: “You know who gives good hugs, too? Mommy. You just let Mommy know when you want a hug. I think she’s saving a special one just for you!”

Let’s analyze this message from mom and dad within the context of life as we know it in this culture:

  • It affirms the establishment of a very young girl’s—someday woman’s—boundaries.
  • It affirms the power to choose both from whom we accept touch and the nature of touch.
  • It affirms for her that there is more than enough love and care in this family; that she has a reserve always available to her.
  • It affirms that she does not have to choose sides in the adult relationship.

Children who experience this deep sense of acceptance, have all the benefits of high self-esteem, make friends better and generally do better in social circumstances. On the other hand, when a child is invited into an alliance with one parent the dynamics of family are no longer of best benefit to the child. Further, in circumstances in which children are being raised in two households, the feeling of being caught in the middle adds significant stress to the child’s life.

In the above scenario, the involvement of dad is an important piece. If he has developed the habit of jumping in to console, it can be helpful if he sometimes pauses to allow the other parent and child the opportunity to work it out together. Also, at times, he can become convincingly “busy” and out of sight so that the child can experience being nurtured by the other parent.

Also when one parent is away, the other parent and other caregivers can interject brief verbal pictures of, for instance, what the child might tell Mommy when they are together, or do things to show Mommy later. This will help the child anticipate positive time with Mom.

Another way in which relationships grow is through a shared activity that both enjoy. Be mindful of limited attention spans and remember that it is most helpful when the activities do not include too much “correcting” of the child’s attempts to explore and enjoy with you. An activity as simple as coloring together with no assignment to stay in the lines can create simple pleasure in choosing colors and talking about the pictures as they evolve.

Above all else remember that your child cannot and should not be called to meet your needs for love and care. Adults need to spend time with their life companions and good friends. Be assured that your child will eventually grow to understand the meaning of the gift of love and care you are giving.

Though it is emotionally hard to see your child seem to prefer another parent, please give it time and don’t give up. These dynamics often shift and change. But no matter what life stage, your child will always benefit from your consistent loving presence in his or her life.