Toddlers develop a preference for one parent as a way to assert independence

Parental Preference in Toddlers

by Kristen Fisher

If your child spent her first year of life reaching for you every time Dad came near, you're probably wondering why she suddenly runs screaming for his arms the minute you try to change her clothes. Toddlers often show a preference for one parent over another, and the behavior can last for several months. As tough as this phase is for the unfavored parent, it's a normal part of development for toddlers and is a sure sign your little one is growing up.

Why Preferences Develop

Parental preferences usually occur among toddlers because kids this age are developing a stronger sense of self and learning how to exercise control over their worlds. Sure, it can feel like a stab in the heart when your daughter demands, "I want Daddy to do it" every time you go to help her, but her behavior is a healthy sign she's learning how to assert her independence. By making it clear she wants Daddy, she's practicing her new-found ability to make her own decisions.

Preference vs. Love

For many parents, knowing why their toddlers prefer the other parent doesn't make it any easier to take. A child's reason for choosing one parent over another isn't always clear, but it's never a reflection of how much he loves you. He might choose you over Dad because you spend the most time with him and you know just how to soothe, entertain and snuggle him. Or maybe he's always asking for Daddy because as the parent who works all day, Dad is more of a novelty. Whether you're currently the favorite or you're getting the brush-off, rest assured it won't last forever. "Eventually, your child will strike a balance of affection for both parents based on shared interests or activities," says pediatrician Dr. Ari Brown, author of the book, "Toddler 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Toddler."

How to React

The next time your daughter pushes you away and goes running for Daddy, avoid scolding, acting hurt or trying to force her to come back to you. Toddlers need to know that you love and support them no matter how they treat you, so keep it light and say something like, "I understand you want Daddy to read stories tonight. Maybe you'll let me read tomorrow. I love you." You can even make time for yourself. Read, catch up on your favorite TV show, do your nails or channel your inner guru. Maintaining a loving and affectionate attitude toward your toddler, even when she's pushing you away, will give her a sense of security and self-confidence, says attachment parenting expert Dr. Susan Markel, author of the book, ''What Your Pediatrician Doesn't Know Can Hurt Your Child: A More Natural Approach to Parenting.''

Nurturing Relationships

Parental preference is just one of the many phases that toddlers go through, but while you're waiting this one out, you don't have to give up all quality time with your child. Choose a special activity or outing that only you get to enjoy with your son, and he'll come to look forward to these regular 'dates'. Or spend time reading and snuggling together, which is a particularly great way to bond with your toddler, according to Anne Marie Bausch, a pediatrician at Methodist Physicians Clinic Regency. And if you're the favored parent, you can subtly encourage him to enjoy more time with the your partner by pointing out how great Dad is at making silly faces or by arranging a special activity for the two of them to do together. Just make sure you're never forcing your toddler to be with one parent against his will; his choices need to be respected.

About the Author

Kristen Fisher is a freelance writer and editor with professional experience in both print and online media. She has published articles on a wide variety of topics including health, fitness, nutrition, home and food, and her work has appeared in "Connections Magazine" and on She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in psychology.

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