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Many parents find themselves in situations where they feel they hold second place for preference with their children in comparison to the other parent. Perhaps the children fight over who gets to sit on one parent’s lap during a movie, or over which parent they want to hold their hand at the amusement park. It’s an age-old story that can oftentimes leave one parent feeling less-than, or not as loved or admired in the eyes of the children. When parents decide to divorce, this preference can become overwhelming, especially if the preference influences the children’s choice in who they want to live with, or spend the holidays with. This can be especially difficult for parents who have recently divorced. While there is heartache and loss experienced over the death of a marriage, and the loss of one’s spouse, feeling like the children prefer one’s ex can sting. So, what’s a parent to do when he/she feels like the ex holds preference with the kids?
Understand This Is 100% Normal
When two parents share the duty of co-parenting their children, it’s perfectly normal for children to hold a preference for one parent over the other, according to Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, PhD. This could be for specific things, like who they want to tuck them in at night, and who they want to check under the bed for monsters—it could also be a general preference that carries into all situations. While it may sting a bit to be the parent who comes in second in terms of preference for the children, or child, it’s important to know that this in no way means that the children love the other parent more, or you any less. It simply means that this parent is able to meet the emotional needs of the children in a powerful way. It’s quite common for children to prefer their mothers, as they have an attachment from birth. This isn’t always the case, however, as the ways in which parents meet the children’s emotional needs after birth holds significant power.
Treat the Children Equally
The most important thing for parents to remember, is that no matter how much of a preference they feel a child has for the other parent, they should treat the children equally, and not show preference for one child over the other, says Dr. Libby. As the adult in this dynamic, you are responsible for helping one’s offspring develop into happy, healthy adults. Showing preference between the children could cause adverse affects, according to Dr. Carl Pickhardt, PhD. It is common for parents to share a special bond with a child, and this is also normal, but they should work extra hard to ensure that all children are treated equally.
Know that Children Often Prefer the Permissive Parent
One reason the children could hold preference for one parent over the other has to do with permissiveness. If the children want to eat sugar, or buy a toy from the store, they will likely hold preference for the parent who is more likely to say “yes” than for the parent who frequently says “no”, according to Dr. Libby. This can certainly cross over into a child’s decision pertaining to who they want to live with after parents divorce. This is why it’s important to not take preference issues personally, and understand that children are mostly id. They want what they want, when they want it.
Don’t Take It Personally
The most important thing for parents who feel like a consolidation prize in the eyes of their children to do is to refrain from taking it personally. Psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell says that there is no such thing as a second place parent. She believes that each parent holds a significant role in the eyes of the child that’s attached to preference. While one parent may be the go-to for story time, there’s another parent the children prefer to play catch with, and so forth. This preference is influenced by specific situations where one parent will be of most help for the child. If a parent would like to become more favored in the eyes of the children in certain situations, they can ask themselves what they can do to become more helpful to the children in such situations moving forward.
When a parent feels as though they are runner-up with the kids to the ex, it’s important to spend consistent one-on-one time with the kids to help nurture the bond. Kids may be feeling like they get more attention from the other parent, or spend more time with the other parent, so they naturally gravitate toward the ex out of comfort and familiarity. When both parents are spending quality time with the children, they will be strengthening their bonds, and it won’t feel like there’s such a divide in terms of preference between the two parents when they are both nurturing healthy relationships with the kids.
Empathize, and Set Boundaries
When a parent is struggling with a child’s preference for the other in a way that’s impacting the ways in which a child listens and cooperates, it’s helpful to show empathy for the struggle, and to express this empathy to the child, but also set healthy boundaries expressing to the child that the other parent cannot be there right now, so they are going to have to work with the current parent on duty. It’s also OK for parents to verbalize that it makes them sad when the child expresses preference, but it’s not a good idea to show big emotions, emotional instability, or tears over this in front of the child.
It doesn’t always feel good to know the children hold preference for the other parent. The important thing is to not let this get you down. It may be tempting to feel angry or sad, because it can be a blow to the ego. The important thing to remember is that the children do love you, and that preferences can change over time. There is time and opportunity to turn things around, and strengthen one’s bond with the children, and to work through this difficult time in peace and love. This love must first start within for oneself, as it carries over into interactions with others. Having self love and respect is something that will positively rub off on the children, and is likely to become contagious.