We received a question about a young child who had a distinct preference for his mother.  The question and our response follows:

Q: Our 4-year-old son, Brad, has always had a mild preference for mommy over daddy, but lately it has gotten ridiculous. Dad feels like he is invisible, and there are times when I have had enough. Why is this going on and what can we do about it?

A: Such strong preferences on the part of children are common. We assume you have tried to encourage Brad to go to his dad when he insists on being with you, and that he is resisting. To best help you, we will discuss some of the reasons children develop these preferences and provide guidance for how to negotiate this period of time in the manner most helpful for Brad.

Mom and Dad are not the same: When children are being raised by two parents, they use their parents in different ways. Even if a mom and dad truly co-parent, children usually choose one parent as the parent-of-comfort, the one who provides them with the greatest feeling of safety. There is probably a biological basis for choosing just one person; it would have made a great deal of sense, particularly in the days before civilization, for a baby to instinctively know whom to turn to in dangerous situations.

Children utilize moms and dads differently in other ways as well. For example, in two-parent families in which the parents are of different genders, one parent offers a model of how to be a woman, and one parent offers a model of how to be a man.

Inner developmental challenges evolve: Children deal with evolving developmental issues as they grow. For example, children younger than 3 typically are particularly concerned with knowing that their basic needs will be met dependably, that the dangers in the world are manageable. They tend to have a preference for the parent-of-comfort, particularly when they need comforting or reassurance.

Children who are 3, 4 and 5 generally explore the meaning of being a boy or girl through playing, dressing up and identifying with the model offered by their parent. A boy might take comfort being with his daddy, and a girl with her mommy. Also during these ages, boys and girls fall in love with their parents in a new way, feeling good just being around them. Girls may become daddy’s girls, and boys may long to be their mother’s hero and companion.

The important thing to understand is that while parents provide love and guidance, children also use their parents to face and master a particular, current inner developmental task. Children experience these tasks uniquely, and their use of their parents will be accordingly unique.

Life events intervene: Children not only respond to their inner world, they also respond to their outer world: people and events. Perhaps one parent is taking many business trips. A child may seem unperturbed, but respond by preferentially seeking out that parent. It could be a way of a child saying through behavior, rather than words, “I want you to stay around.” On the other hand, another child might respond by seeking out the other parent in a similar situation. That particular child might be saying, “If you leave me, I can leave you, too. And, I think I will seek the relationship I need with the parent who seems to be more reliably available.”

A child may also be reacting to tension in a marital relationship. Such a child might seek out the parent with whom he feels less secure, or whom he feels needs protection, or whom he feels is being mean and might change for the better if the child were more attentive. The inner thoughts and responses of a child to the world are remarkably individualistic and unpredictable.

What to do?: Consider whether there are any environmental situations to which Brad might be responding. If you think so, rather than addressing his need to be with you, you might find ways to discuss the issue with him. Supportively raising a concern, rather than ignoring or downplaying it, is always the best way to move that concern from behavior into words, where Brad can begin to recognize and master his reactions.

If you cannot pinpoint something in his external life, you can assume that he is using his parents in the ways that he needs to work on an inner emotional task. In this case, it is best to allow him to do what he needs to do. His dad should try not to be hurt, and you will need to do the same when your turn comes some day.

Continue to encourage Brad to seek out his dad, and when you need a break or cannot be available for some reason, just put your foot down. In all likelihood, if you address the behavior when you feel that he is responding to something in his environment, and ride with it a bit more when you think he is working on a developmental issue, Brad will sort things out and achieve a more balanced approach to his parents — until the next challenge to the equilibrium.

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