What to Do When Your Kid Likes Someone Else More Than They Like You
Kids are fickle, especially when it comes to their affections. And while a lot of parenting memes are about people desperately wanting a break from their kids, when children routinely express a clear preference for one caretaker over another, it can be a heartbreaking experience.
It happens a lot between spouses or partners: One spends more time on child care (usually mom, let’s face it), but then for some reason, the parent who spends less time with the kids, or who doesn’t perform mundane but necessary caretaking tasks like meals, baths, and doctor’s appointments, (let’s face it, many times dad) gets a lot of affection and attention. It also happens when both parents work long hours outside the home and another caretaker — such as a nanny or relative — takes primary responsibility for a child during the majority of their waking hours.
The best thing to remember in those moments is not to take any rejection personally. It has nothing to do with how your child feels about you, nor is it a predictor of what your long-term relationship will be like. A momentary expression of preference — which, because it’s coming from a kid, is obviously not deeply considered or thoughtful — is not a reflection of your bond with that child.
Don’t try to force it
They can smell it from a mile away! But really, there is no sense in forcing a child who has just chosen someone else’s arms over yours — or childishly blurted that she loves grandma more than you — to take it back or proclaim her undying love for you on the spot. If anything, if you’re insisting on expressions of affection from your kid, you’re probably just getting in the way of the fun they’d prefer to be having, and that’s not going to get you very far. Affection from young children can’t be forced.
Remember that kids are short-sighted (and don’t know what they’re saying)
Depending on their age and disposition, kids may overtly seem to prefer the person they spend the most time with, or the person who plays with them the most, or the person who is most rambunctious and “fun,” or the person who comforts them. Who they prefer at any given time may easily change based on circumstance or their particular developmental juncture. Many times, especially during the baby and toddler years, kids are just acting on instinct and immediate needs and wants. If there’s one parent they associate with sleep, and they happen to be tired, that parent might be number one.
Toddlers and young kids, in particular, are trying out behavior and language to see what gets a reaction. Don’t forget: any attention from you is better than no attention. So paradoxically, if you pounce when a kid says, “I love dad more than you!” you are only convincing them that those words have the power to get your attention… and they’ll only say them more frequently.
But finally, it’s important to remember that young kids don’t yet understand the power of words, and they don’t understand the gravity of telling a parent, for example, “I don’t love you.” These are words they are just beginning to use, and they certainly don’t have the maturity to know their power to impact the emotions of people around them. When a 3-year-old blurts out something that feels gut-twisting to you, you can be absolutely sure they don’t understand what they’re saying; they are certainly not trying to hurt you.
It won’t last
As kids grow older, part of the emotional maturity they’ll gain is the ability to recognize who their supportive and present caretakers are. Those relationships that are stable, constant, loving, and supportive are the ones that will ultimately be their closest and dearest. (And even in the preteen or teen years, when emotional volatility can peak again, it’s important to remember that kids are testing boundaries, trying to get your attention, and experimenting with the power of their words.) A calm, supportive, and non-combative reaction is the best thing you can do to shore up your relationship with a young child who expresses a preference for someone else.
Don’t react — let it roll off your back
The key is to not react to the things that sound insulting to an adult, but from a child, are much more expressions of momentary, instinctive feeling. Repeat: It’s not personal, and it has nothing to do with how much this child loves me.
Kids says: “I love Grandma more than you!”
You say: “Grandma is awesome! I love her too.”
Kid says: “I don’t want to read a book with you tonight. I only want to read with Dad.”
You say: “Great, have fun. Let me know if you change your mind.”
Kid says: “I wish I could live at [friend’s] house — she has better toys and her mom makes way better food.”
You say: “Well, you can’t live there, but we can set up a play date this week if you want.”
To be clear: We are not advocating letting kids get away with saying things that are disrespectful, threatening, or violent. Those instances should be handled differently, certainly. Here, we were focused only on those offhand expressions of preference or love that kids express, which unknowingly make parents feel bad. Just don’t take them too seriously!