"Go Away Mommy! Daddy Reads to Me!" How to Deal with Parental Preferences

“No—Daddy reads to me!” Tamisa exclaims when her mom, Audra, plops down beside her, eager to start the bedtime book. Audra, hurt, pleads: “But it’s mommy’s turn and I love reading books with you.” Tamisa responds: “I want daddy!!” Audra slams the book on the floor as she says, “You’re making mommy very sad.” She promptly exits the room as she is shouting to dad that Tamisa is all his.

Playing parental favorites, while very painful for the parent who is experiencing the rejection, is actually quite common. It’s almost always situational, not personal. Some children forge a fierce attachment to the parent who is acting as the primary caregiver—the one doing most of the diapering, feeding, bathing, and comforting. It doesn’t happen solely in families with a stay-at-home parent, but usually occurs when one parent shoulders the bulk of the caregiving responsibility. Children may make a strong association about who they feel safe with and trust and glom on to that person exclusively, even if the other parent is very loving and involved. Sometimes it’s the opposite, the parent who is less available becomes special in the child’s mind and so the child demands to have that parent to herself.  It is also common for a child to favor one parent over the other after the birth of a new baby. In some cases, the older child comes to rely more heavily on the parent who hasn’t given birth, whom they perceive as more available. Other times it’s the converse, the child clings to the parent who gave birth as a result of the jealousy she feels about the attention the new baby is getting. And sometimes the genesis of the preference is unclear, but it is usually a way to cope with a complex or challenging experience the child is trying to manage.   

 

Regardless of the reason for the preference, it is important for your child’s healthy development (and for a healthy marriage or partnership!) that she develop a close, trusting relationship with both parents. (For single parents, this same favoritism dynamic can occur with other trusted caregivers.) It is also important that she not be in a position to decide who does what when it comes to parenting. So, what can you do?

Don’t react to your child’s rejection, as hard as that may seem. It’s not personal and does not mean he loves one parent more than the other. If you take it personally, you are more likely to respond with hurt and anger, which may perpetuate the preference. Further, when you act defensively it is confusing and overwhelming to your child, since this is not his intention, and can further complicate his ability to move through this phase.

Validate your child’s feelings, but don’t give in to her demands. “I know grandma lets you have 2 cookies after dinner, but my rule is 1 cookie. Grownups sometimes have different rules.” Or, “I know you want daddy to read tonight. But it’s mommy’s turn and I love reading books with you. Your choice is for mommy to read or to just go to sleep. You decide.” Another options is to just go ahead and start reading. Showing your child with your actions that you are not going to get into a debate will often lead to acceptance and adaptation. Your tone should be totally upbeat and matter-of-fact, not tinged with hurt or annoyance. You are setting a limit— showing your child that you acknowledge her desire, but also that she is not the decider when it comes to parenting.

Agree to work as a team to show your child you are united and supportive of each other.  The preferred parent needs to send the message to the child that he will not participate in the favoritism. In the case above, that would mean Dad not stepping in to read after the rejection of Mom, but instead, lovingly confirm that it’s Mom’s turn. This is critical because your child will look to the preferred parent for cues about how to respond, so that parent’s reaction is especially important.   

Create opportunities for the rejected parent to have special time with the child. This provides a chance for the her to reframe her relationship with that parent. If the child protests and cries when the preferred parent leaves, the remaining parent should validate the child’s feelings and then just start engaging in an activity he enjoys. “I know you are sad to see daddy leave. He’ll be back after your nap. I am going to play with the trains. I hope you’ll join me soon.”

Consistently responding to these kinds of situations in this sensitive way will enable your child to work it through and benefit from a loving, close relationship with both his parents.

 

 

 

 

 

7 Common Parenting Strategies That Backfire with Toddlers and How to Avoid Them

Almost every parent who reaches out to me for help starts with a description that goes something like this: "Henry can be the most delightful child. He is curious, extremely clever, and very funny. But he won't listen to anything we say. He argues and negotiates about everything and throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way. We feel like all we are doing is yelling and getting into power struggles with him. Help!"  

The bottom line: toddlers are marvelous, and also maddening.   

But they don't have to be...maddening that is. The frustration and powerlessness many parents experience often stems from a crucial expectation gap: they approach their young children using reason ("Why won't Serena just cooperate with getting dressed and avoid all the yelling and threats of having stuff taken away? It would make everything so much easier. She's just hurting herself.") The problem is that young children are not driven by logic but by their impulses and emotions. Their desire to get what they want when they want it and to exert some power and control over their world rules the day. That's why so many of the strategies parents typically use to try to coax cooperation from their children backfire; they rely on reasoning or on the faulty premise that you can control your child when you can't actually make her do anything--eat, pee on the potty, cooperate with getting dressed, etc. The fact is that the more you try to control your child the more likely it is that he will resist complying with your expectations. The approach and strategies that ultimately help children make good choices and behave in ways that help them thrive are often counter-intuitive.

Below are 7 common parenting pitfalls and a description of how to avoid them:

Trying to minimize or talk children out of difficult feelings; that they shouldn’t be mad/sad/scared. This doesn’t make the feelings go away. It just means your child is more likely to act them out.  Further, when we minimize or try to talk children out of their feelings we are sending the message that we are uncomfortable with their emotions. This makes it less likely your child will share them, missing critical opportunities to help your child learn to identify and manage his emotions, which is the key to healthy social/emotional development. Don’t fear the feelings!  Read more about helping children cope with challenging emotions.

Reacting when children say provocative things after you’ve set a limit they don’t like, such as: “You’re not my mommy and you’re not invited to my birthday party!” Successfully yanking your chain only reinforces this behavior. Remember, for young children any attention or big reaction is rewarding as they are all about power and control.  If you want to teach your child not to talk in this inappropriate way, the best response is to ignore his actual words and address the underlying issue: “I know you are mad that I said ‘no’ to Logan coming over to play today. You are really disappointed.” And then move on.  When these kinds of tactics don’t get a reaction, kids are more likely to give them up. Read more about how not to take the bait.

Making potty training personal--about pleasing or disappointing you--and getting over-involved in the process. It’s natural to think that this approach would be motivating to children, but it often has the opposite effect. Signaling that using the potty has the power to make you happy or unhappy adds a lot of pressure and anxiety to the process for many children. This causes children to get stuck or paralyzed by the process because using the potty has become an emotionally-laden “relationship issue” between the parent and child versus simply being a bodily function. Further, children sense that their parents are trying to exert some control over their bodies (at exactly the time when children are driven to exert power in any way they can) which may lead to more withholding or resistance in a desperate attempt to maintain their integrity and efficacy.  In one family, the parents had a rule that 3-year-old Julian had to sit on the potty for 5 minutes after bath time or he wouldn’t get any books.  As the timer was winding down they repeatedly asked if Julian was sure he didn’t have to go which was met with a very clear, "Nope!” As soon as the timer went off Julian got up and promptly peed on the bathroom floor as he smiled mischievously at mom and dad. The message—you don’t control me. What to do? Follow your child’s lead and support his efforts; avoid inserting yourself and your needs or expectations as that just complicates the process and gives your child something to react to. That means avoiding judgment, shaming, bribing, rewarding, etc. Read more about a healthy approach to potty training.

Bribing/forcing/negotiating with children to get them to eat. Research (and lots of anecdotal experience) shows that these tactics actually result in children eating less. Just like trying to control your child’s elimination—the more you force, cajole, reward or punish the more likely your child is to dig in his heels to let you know you can’t actually make him do anything, including eat. Food becomes a tool to gain power that results in constant struggles. Take, Rumi (age 4) who demanded a chocolate “energy” bar every morning for breakfast or she would "starve".  She refused to eat any of the healthy foods her moms offered her until they gave in, which they did, in fear that she would go to school hungry and be a terror. What to do? Offer your child a range of healthy choices of foods that she typically likes and then get out of her way.  Let her decide how much her body needs to feel full.  She may test for a few meals to see if you will cave; but once she sees you are not trying to control her she has nothing to rebel against and will be more likely to take responsibility for nourishing herself.  Read more about establishing healthy eating habits.

Trying to get a child to cooperate by telling him he’s a “big kid” (especially when there is a new baby in the family). 
From our adult perspective we expect children to hear this as a positive message and to be motivating. But from the child’s point of view, particularly if there is a new baby getting a lot of attention, being the older child isn’t looking all that great or desirable. Telling a child to "act like a big girl" can also feel shaming; the underlying message is that she is acting like a baby.  Shaming shuts kids down, erodes their self-esteem and self-confidence, making it less likely they will actually act their age.

Insisting your older child love the new baby. 
The more you force the issue the less likely it is your older child will feel warmly toward the baby.  It is natural to have very ambivalent feelings toward a new sibling. When the older child is made to feel bad for having negative feelings toward the baby and/or a lack of interest in the new addition to the family, there it is again—shame. When parents acknowledge the older child’s mixed feelings and give him space to learn about and engage with the new baby without judgment, he is much more likely to feel loving toward this new member of the family. Read more about helping older siblings adapt to a new baby in the family.

Pushing a fearful/clingy child to just go play with the other kids. 
This approach often backfires because it increases rather than decreases your child’s anxiety and erodes his trust that you will tune in to his feelings and help him cope. Instead, acknowledge that it can take time to feel comfortable engaging with a new environment or new people. This makes him feel understood which should decrease his anxiety and make him feel calmer and more open to taking steps forward to engage. Talk about what you see the other kids doing, then maybe play alongside some other children to slowly and sensitively help your child adapt.  Read more about helping children who are “slow-to-warm-up” adapt to new experiences.

Whether you’ve encountered any of these specific experiences or not, when faced with a challenging situation with your toddler, start by recognizing that what seems totally irrational from your adult vantage point makes a lot of sense once you see if from your child's perspective. Putting yourself in her shoes and wondering about what she is feeling, struggling with, trying to express, will almost surely set you on a path that will result in a more effective response and less frustration for you and your child.

"I Stay Home Forever!": Helping Your Toddler Cope with the Transition to School

Four-year-old Harris is starting a new preschool in a few weeks. He is a sensitive little guy who has a hard time with transitions. When he started at a child care center at age 2 he was frantic at separations. It took him several weeks to feel calm and fully engaged in the program. His parents were on the verge of pulling him out and mom was considering  quitting her job; but they stayed the course and Harris ultimately adapted and thrived. His parents are naturally worried about this upcoming change for Harris and how to best prepare him.

Starting school or a new childcare can be stressful; but it’s what we “in the field” think of as a “positive stressor” as it is a challenge that leads to growth for the child (provided, of course, that the school/setting where the child will be is high-quality.) It is an opportunity for children to develop close, trusting relationships with other adults and peers.  It builds confidence and helps children adapt to future separations.  And high-quality programs provide endless opportunities for developing the skills—intellectual, social and emotional—that set children up for success far into the future. Below are some ideas for how to help your child cope with this transition.

Avoid telling young children about big changes too far in advance.  Toddlers don’t have much perspective—a context for understanding what this upcoming change might be all about. Having information they can't make sense of can lead to their imaginations running wild which can cause anxiety. Also keep in mind that young children don’t have a strong grasp on the concept of time, so telling them even just a week before that they will be going to school for the first time, or a new school, may cause a lot of anticipatory stress.  It may be best to wait to tell them just a few days before they will begin. (Use a calendar to show which day they will go for the first time.)  This gives you a chance to talk about it without a lot of “lag time”.  They can experience the change and start to begin to adapt to it very shortly thereafter.  

When you discuss the change, be sure to validate your child’s fears before providing reassurance.  Labeling and acknowledging difficult feelings helps children understand, gain control over and work through them in positive ways. “I know it feels scary to go to a new school/classroom.  That makes a lot of sense.  But you will see that it is a great place and you will have a great time there playing with your friends.” Ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them go away.

It can be helpful to share a story of a time when you started something new: describe your own feelings of being nervous/scared, what you did to cope, and the ultimate benefit of the experience—what you would have missed if you hadn't forged ahead.  If your child has any past experiences with mastering something new, remind him that he has faced a challenge like this before. Emphasize what a great job he did adapting and how this led to a good outcome for him; i.e., having fun at a birthday party or other activity he had initially been fearful of and protested going to. (This was a very effective strategy for Harris—reminding him of how he felt fearful going to his last school but that once he dove in he loved it. This is what builds resilience.)

If your child says he won’t go... again, validate his fear but let him know that it is not a choice and that you will help him cope.  Keep moving forward, calmly and lovingly, even if he continues to protest. Avoid the pitfall of trying to convince him to go; that communicates that he has a choice which can lead to more stress for everyone, if going to school is really not a choice. Once he experiences the daily routine of going to school each morning no matter his protests--that is when the push-back stops and the adaptation begins.

Visit the school in advance: Play on the playground.  Explore the school if this is allowed.  Meet the teacher/caregiver in advance. The unknown causes anxiety. The more a child is familiar with the new setting the less fearful she is likely to be.

Establish a ritual for leaving home. You might have your child choose a book that you read halfway through during breakfast or sometime before you leave in the morning.  Have your child make a special bookmark he places in the book to show where you left off. Then the first thing you do when you get home is finish the book together. This provides a connection from morning to evening that helps children cope with separations.

Say a brief, upbeat goodbye. Children look to their parents’ cues to assess a situation.  If you are calm and positive in your approach, even if your child is distressed, you are letting your him know that the new school is a safe place and he is more likely to make a quicker and more positive adaptation. “I know you don’t want mommy/daddy to leave.  It's a new place and you want me to stay. But this is where kids go to play and learn with other kids. That’s your job. My job is to do my work. I can’t wait to pick you up and hear all about your day.” (It’s a good idea to find out from the teacher what the last activity will be before pick-up time so you can let your child know exactly what to expect: “After you have music Daddy will be back to pick you up.”)  

Tune in to your own feelings about separating from your child, so you can manage them: It is natural to feel anxious about separating from your child, especially if this is your first born. But acting on this worry can increase a child's distress (and thus yours, too) and make the separation even harder.  I have heard many a parent unwittingly pass on anxiety in the way they say goodbye, for example : “Oh Sweetie, I promise mommy will come back as soon as possible”—said in a tense tone of voice. This communicates that maybe this isn’t such a good, safe place and thus your child needs to be rescued from it soon.

Further, don’t look back, hover, or return to the classroom after you say goodbye.  This again communicates that you are worried about your child—that you don’t trust he will be okay and has the capacity to cope. This erodes versus builds his confidence that he can handle this new challenge . (Research shows that the longer the goodbye routine, and the more parents hover or keep returning for one last hug, the longer it takes the child to eventually calm and adapt.) As long as you keep re-engaging when your child begs you not to leave, your child’s focus and energy remains on trying to connect with you versus adapting to the classroom. In many of the schools I work in the teacher will take over to help the parent leave. She will comfort the child (gently peeling him from the parent if necessary) and guide him to join the classroom activity or give him the space he needs until he is ready to participate. 

The take-home: talk to your partner or friends about your feelings—which are totally understandable. Just avoid projecting them onto your child.

Create a special goodbye ritual. Rituals can help kids cope. Establish a special kiss, hug or mantra you say every time you say separate at school. One dad-child pair held each other in a tight hug for a count of 5 and then said, “See you later alligator” in unison.  Doing that every morning eased the separation tremendously.

Provide Transitional Objects: This could be photos of the family that your child can put in her backpack or cubby. I have known some kids to bring their special lovey that stays in the cubby and can be used for comfort when the child is upset. Be forewarned that this can be a slippery slope; if the child wants to hold it all day long it can become an obstacle to him engaging in classroom activities.  Setting limits around its use are advised.

Most important is to have faith that with support from you and her teachers/caregivers, your child can and will adapt. Through the years I have seen many families pull their kids out of wonderful programs because they had a hard time transitioning. The child’s natural stress caused the parents so much discomfort they couldn’t tolerate it; they worried that their child just couldn’t do it. There are certainly some situations where there is a challenge in a child's developmental that makes participating in even a quality, loving, group care setting too stressful and inappropriate; for example, kids who have very low thresholds for sensory input may be so overwhelmed by the sound and activity-level in a classroom that they can't feel calm and adapt.  But for most children it is a gift to provide them the opportunity to experience that they can muscle through a challenge, adapt to a new situation, and engage in all sorts of enriching activities that take place in quality early childhood settings.  

Also remember that every child is different and approaches separations in their own way. Avoid comparing! Some kids jump right in. These tend to be the ones who "go-with-the-flow" by nature, or have older siblings who have gone to the same school.  But for many—especially the kids who are “slow-to-warm-up” temperamentally, it may take weeks to feel safe and comfortable. One 3-year-old I know sat in the “cozy corner” and looked at a photo album of her family for almost 3 straight weeks.  Then one day she got up and stood at the edge of the circle during book-reading time; then she started to join one other child in play. By the end of the first month she was totally engaged and thriving.   

 

 

When Parents Disagree: How to get on the same page without anyone “winning” or “losing”

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Marriage is hard enough. Adding kids to the mix brings a lot of joy but also more complexity, as parenting requires making countless decisions each day about what kids eat, how to get them to sleep, how much screen time to allow, etc., and the biggie—what the rules, limits and consequences will be for inappropriate behavior (of which there is a lot in the early years).  Some couples are fortunate to share similar approaches about most childrearing issues. But many parents experience conflict rooted in the fact that they have different perspectives about how to raise kids based on their own upbringings, beliefs and values, and expectations for their children. This kind of tension between parents can have negative effects on children, including:

  • Children sense and often witness tension unfolding in front of them, which translates in their minds to “I’m a problem”. This can negatively affect their growing sense of self.

  • Visible discord between parents is uncomfortable and scary for young children who rely on them to be their trusted leaders—which includes being calm and in control.

  • When parents disagree about an approach, they often undermine each other. For example, one parent announces: “It’s time to put toys away and wash hands for dinner.” Their child protests: “Five more minutes…I need just 5 more minutes!” Enter the other parent who chimes in: “Ok bud, 5 more minutes and that’s it—I mean it.” Everyone is well intentioned, that’s not the issue. But undermining your partner can build anger and resentment, making co-parenting even more stressful. For children, It can cause anxiety and more acting-out behavior; from their perspective, it is confusing to get mixed messages about expectations for acceptable behavior. (It can also lead to kids using the rift between their parents to their short-term advantage, but everyone’s long-term disadvantage). It is no surprise that most children tend to behave so much better at school: the rules, limits and consequences are crystal clear and implemented matter-of-factly so children know exactly what to expect and are better-equipped to make good choices.

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do:

  • Accept that as convinced as you are that your position is best, your partner is equally as vehement about the “rightness” of his or her approach. When parents insist that their way is the “right” way, and put all their energy into convincing their partner of this notion, they tend to get increasingly polarized. Each partner may feel the need to compensate for what they perceive as the other’s inappropriate actions. The stricter parent may get more rigid and harsh to counter what is perceived to be the other partner’s leniency. The more lenient parent may become even more permissive to counter the other partner’s perceived severity. Instead of finding yourself in this unhelpful dynamic, make a commitment to sharing each of your points of view about the behaviors and situations that arise with your children on which you tend to disagree. Listen openly to your partner. You don’t have to agree, but it is very important that you understand where the other is coming from and acknowledge the validity of their perspective. This makes for a much stronger, harmonious parenting partnership and provides your child a powerful model for mutual respect and effective problem-solving in relationships. One family I recently worked with was at loggerheads about how to get their 15-month-old-Lily—to sleep through the night. Mom was at her wit’s end with sleep-deprivation and wanted to go cold turkey—after lights-out, no responding to Lily. Dad wanted to go in and rock her back to sleep. When I asked each parent to share their thinking behind their different approaches, Mom said she felt any intervention or efforts to soothe Lily in the middle of the night would keep reinforcing the night-awakenings. Dad, who got very choked up at this point, explained that, because his own father had left the family when he was 2 years old, he swore that his kids would never feel abandoned by him. Letting Lily cry, even a little, felt like abandonment by Dad. Once they stopped trying to convince the other of the “rightness” of their position, and truly listened to where their partner was coming from, these parents were able to come up with a plan that took into consideration both of their perspectives: they would peek in when Lily awakened at night to assure her they were still there and that all was well, but they wouldn’t hold or rock her back to sleep. This felt comfortable to Mom because she felt it would still give Lily the chance to learn to soothe herself. Dad could also live with this plan because Lily would get the assurance that Mom and Dad were still there and when he took his emotions out of it, he was able to see that giving Lily a chance to learn to soothe herself was being a loving parent, not a neglectful one.

  • Make the focus what your child needs, not which one of you has the better approach and “wins out”. Agree to think together about what your child’s behavior is telling you and what will help him cope. This should be the goal you both share and to which you are ultimately committed.

  • When your child engages in behavior that calls for a response from you, and it’s a not life or death matter such as running into the street or climbing on the counter, take a mommy/daddy time out. This helps you avoid being reactive and working at cross-purposes. It looks and sounds something like this: In a very upbeat and wondering tone, without anger, one parent turns to the other and says: “Hmm, this is a problem. We’ve explained to Henry that grabbing toys is not okay, but he is not cooperating with this rule. So, Henry, Daddy and I are going to take a minute to put our heads together to figure out how we can help you follow this rule.” This strategy is often enough to motivate a child to correct his behavior and make a better choice, so shocked that you are not being reactive and, instead, are working as a team. You can put a timer on for one or two minutes to come up with a plan you both feel comfortable implementing. This gives you and your partner a chance to collaborate on a united response.

  • Identify what each of your strengths or comfort-levels are for different parenting challenges and use this knowledge as a positive, parenting tool. The parent who is less anxious about their child’s daredevil nature would take the lead when they go to the playground in order to allow the child to take risks while keeping him safe. The parent who has more patience would deal with the temper tantrums. The frame is not that one parent is “better” than the other. Each parent has different trigger points and you are using this awareness to support each other and be effective co-parents. It’s a strength, not a weakness, and it benefits you and your child.

What about if you don’t live with your co-parent?

Children are very adaptable. They quickly learn what the expectations are in different settings and with different people, and act accordingly.  (It never ceased to amaze me that my children did for themselves in daycare that I was still doing all the time for them at home!) Begging to stay up late works with my grandma but not auntie. Mom will feed me but my teachers expect me to use utensils and feed myself.  The same goes for living in two separate homes and by different sets of rules: children will adapt to the expectations in each setting.

It is indeed ideal for separated parents to try to agree on an approach to childrearing, as children tend to adapt more easily when there is consistency in rules from one setting to another. But when there are disagreements, many of the same rules apply as those for parents sharing a home:

  • Accept that you cannot control the other parent. The only person you have control over is yourself. Focus on what you can do to tune in to and nurture your child’s unique needs. Trying to make your co-parent do it your way is rarely an effective strategy.

  • Agree that nurturing your child’s healthiest development is a shared goal. Your focus should be about what your child needs and how to best meet those needs. Avoid using the conflicts around childrearing as opportunities to get back at or punish the other parent. If possible, plan regular times to communicate about what each of you are seeing, experiencing and learning about your child and what this is telling you about what he or she needs to thrive. For example, many years ago when my ex-husband and I separated, we noticed that our son, who was 6 at the time, had a much harder time when his Dad did school drop-off. He would get very upset and have a hard time coping and making the transition to school. When we talked about it with him, he was actually able to articulate that he hated the image of his dad driving away from him. So we changed our plan so that I did drop off whenever I could and his dad picked him up at the end of the day—for the reunion, if you will. This solved an unanticipated big problem.

  • If you can’t agree on basic expectations and approaches to discipline, matter-of-factly acknowledge that there are differences in your homes without throwing the other parent under the bus, which only causes more distress for children who are trying to navigate through an already complex situation. “That’s right, Mommy and Daddy have different rules in our houses. Mommy’s rule is you can eat in front of the TV; Daddy’s rule is no TV during mealtime. I know you like Mommy’s rule better because you love TV. But we’ll tell stories instead at our meals.” Once your child sees that you are sticking to your limit they adapt.

Kids don’t grow up in perfect worlds, nor do they need to. What children do need are parents, whether living together or not, who demonstrate respect for each other, communicate calmly, without anger, and who make their child’s needs the central focus of their decision-making. And if you need help doing this, you wouldn’t be the first. Helping parents establish this kind of partnership is a major part of the work we do together to help them be the parents they want to be to their children.