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What to Do When a Child is Overly Attached to One Parent

Chris Mateo

Oct 13, 2023

Parent-child relationships can be complex, and it’s not unusual for a child to strongly prefer one parent over another.

This phenomenon, known as “preferred parenting,” can pose challenges for both parents, but this is natural!

In this post, we’ll delve into the reasons behind this behavior, offer tips to promote balance and reassurance, and guide fostering healthy parent-child bonds.

What does it mean when a child has a preferred parent?

When a child is playing favorites, it can be a perplexing experience and a sign of concern for the parent on the outs. Don’t worry!

Children’s attachment patterns are complex and can be influenced by various factors, including age, personality, and experiences.

Young kids, especially toddlers, may go through phases of preferring one parent over the other; this is a natural part of their development!

Healthy ways to deal with your child being attached to the other parent

An “overly attached” relationship with one parent can result from various factors, such as a child’s temperament or differences in caregiving responsibilities. Understanding the reasons behind this can help parents approach the situation with empathy and patience instead of hurt feelings.

If you realize inequities between the preferred parent, yourself, and the kids, it is essential not to panic. Encourage your family to establish and understand their own decisions and boundaries on whom they spend time with. It is not about who is the “better parent”; instead, it’s about allowing your child to test establishing boundaries in a safe environment comfortably.

Even if your feelings are hurt, parents should make a point to respect the level of affection their child wants to give and allow them to maintain personal boundaries about their time.

Remind them that they matter and, despite their preferences, you, as their mom/dad, love them no matter what.

Don’t take it personally, there’s no need for hurt feelings

Parents shouldn’t feel hurt or interpret their child’s preferences as a reflection of their parenting skills. Instead, approach the situation with empathy and understanding; it’s about respecting and supporting your child’s agency and reprioritizing their boundaries.

Talk at home about different activities you can engage with your child and express enthusiasm about your activities together. Refrain from comparing yourself or competing for your child’s attention. Instead, express genuine happiness when your child enjoys spending time with your partner. Doing so promotes a positive and harmonious family environment where the child feels secure and loved by both parents.

Find activities the child has to do with both parents

One way to strengthen family bonds between the child is to find activities you can enjoy together as a family.

Whether it’s cooking together, taking a walk in the park, or planning family vacations, these shared experiences foster a sense of unity and ensure both parents are equally involved.

Engaging in shared hobbies, games, or outings helps create cherished memories and fosters a sense of unity. Schedule time for both “mommy” and “daddy” to provide one-on-one time and consider participating in family therapy if you think that would be beneficial!

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What to do if your child is attached to you

If your child is firmly attached to you and prefers your presence, acknowledge their feelings and reassure them of your love.

Be sensitive to their needs and understand that they might be going through a phase where they seek additional comfort and security. Offer patience and support as they navigate their emotions.

At the same time, encourage your partner to spend quality time with the child, engaging in activities they both enjoy. This helps the child build a strong bond with both parents and fosters a sense of security.

Acknowledge the child’s feelings

Avoid dismissing or trivializing their emotions, as this can create a barrier to open communication and problems with emotional regulation. If you are overly critical/dismissive of your emotions toward their children, they are likely to internalize this process of relating and become excessively critical/dismissive of themselves! [2]

Acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings, regardless of their attachment patterns, is essential. Let them know that their emotions are heard and accepted. Listen actively and respond with empathy when they express their preferences or feelings.

Be patient

Addressing an overly attached relationship takes time and patience. Children may experience periods of heightened attachment due to various factors, such as environmental changes or emotional challenges. Be patient and allow the child to process their own feelings at their own pace.

By offering patience, you create a safe space for the child to express themselves and eventually move through this phase.

Stand your ground, and let your partner handle the child

During periods of strong attachment to one parent, children may show resistance or preference regarding who meets their needs. In such situations, parents must stand their ground and let the other parent handle the child’s demands. Doing so demonstrates a united front and reinforces the child’s understanding that both parents are equally involved in their care.

During periods of strong attachment to one parent, maintain a united front and allow the other parent to handle the child’s needs. This reinforces both parents’ equal involvement in caregiving.

Enjoy your free time!

When your child spends time with the other parent, take advantage of the free time to engage in self-care and personal interests. Use this time to recharge and focus on activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Embrace hobbies, read a book, exercise, or simply take a moment to rest. This time for yourself is essential for maintaining your well-being and being the best parent you can be.

Effects of an unhealthy one-parent-child bond

An unhealthy one-parent-child bond can adversely affect the child’s emotional development. The child may struggle with separation anxiety, leading to difficulties in forming healthy relationships in the future. [3] Additionally, it may create stress and tension within the family dynamic, impacting the relationship between partners. [1]

How you can facilitate healthy attachment

How parents interact with their children influences children’s social functioning. Ensure that both parents actively engage in caregiving tasks and spend quality time with your kiddos, even if you’re just hanging in the same room and doing different tasks, known as “parallel play” in play therapy/child development. This process allows your child to explore and engage in play at their own pace while still feeling that one-on-one time with you and support in their positive interactions.

Getting parental anxiety or guilt? Get professional help

Do you feel sad or even feel guilty about being the “favorite parent?” A licensed therapist at Anchor Light Therapy Collective can provide you with the tools and strategies to manage parental anxiety or guilt effectively. Through therapy, you can gain insights into your emotions, learn healthy coping mechanisms, and better understand your child’s development.

Navigating the complexities of parenting, especially when dealing with attachment preferences, can bring about feelings of anxiety and guilt. If you are overwhelmed by these emotions, it’s important to remember that seeking help from a parenting coach is a sign of strength, not weakness. She will be able to help you realize where you may be going wrong and provide tips and support to make the process fun!

Don’t hesitate to reach out for support – caring for your mental and emotional well-being is crucial for creating a positive and nurturing environment for you and your child!

FAQs

Why do children get attached to one parent or the other?

Parenting is a journey of discovery, and each child’s needs are unique. When a child displays a strong attachment to one parent, it is essential to understand that it is a natural part of their emotional development.

Parents can create a healthy and loving attachment with their children by promoting balance, spending individual and joint time with their children, and fostering a nurturing environment. Remember, it’s not about being the “favorite” parent; these things happen. It’s about creating a supportive and secure bond in your house that your child can find support in as they navigate through their world of emotions and relationships.

Is it normal for a child to be more attached to one parent?

Yes, it is entirely normal for a toddler, young child, older children, and even a teen to prefer one parent over the other at different stages of their development.

Children often seek comfort and security from a primary caregiver, ask for bedtime stories from dad but demand time with mom the rest of the day, etc. This preference may shift over time, but the goal isn’t to be a preferred parent; it is to understand and respect their child’s personal boundaries and encourage connection in the moment.

What works the best?!?!?

Researchers found that secure parental attachment is associated with positive outcomes in children’s emotional and social development. Children with secure attachments tend to exhibit higher self-esteem, better interpersonal relationships, and improved emotional regulation.

On the other hand, insecure attachment, particularly anxious and avoidant attachment styles, is linked to various psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and behavioral issues in children. [2] The best method is communicating with your child and recognizing their personality and play styles!

References

[1] An, D., Jager, J., Putnick, D. L., & Bornstein, M. H. (2023). Parenting stress and attachment insecurity in young adulthood: A social relations model. Journal of Marriage and Family, 85(2), 556–579. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12893

[2] Kim, J. J., Kent, K. M., Cunnington, R., Gilbert, P., & Kirby, J. N. (2020). Attachment styles modulate neural markers of threat and imagery when engaging in self-criticism. Scientific reports, 10(1), 13776. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70772-x

[3] Moschko, T., Stadler, G., & Gawrilow, C. (2023). Fluctuations in children’s self-regulation and parent-child interaction in everyday life: An ambulatory assessment study. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 40(1), 254–276. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075221116788

[4] Verschueren, K., & Spilt, J. L. (2021). Understanding the origins of child-teacher dependency: Mother-child attachment security and temperamental inhibition as antecedents. Attachment & Human Development, 23(5), 504-522.https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2020.1751988

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