When only one parent can put your child to bed, soothe them in the middle of the night, or help when they've fallen down it can be a drain on both parents. The repeated cry of “Mummy/Daddy do it”, can leave one parent feeling overwhelmed and the other rejected.
To put it bluntly, you are either the preferred parent or the non-preferred parent. Both come with their own challenges.
“This phase of parental favouritism typically happens in the early childhood years, with selective preference starting around six months old and intensifying in the following two years,” explains Dr Erinn Hawkins, clinical psychologist and lecturer at Griffith University.
“Before the age of six months, babies may have some preferences, but they are fairly indiscriminate about who provides care to them.
“Children tend to have a preference for their primary carer, but it can also easily be the other carer. It’s dependant on the situation.
“In the early years, children might prefer their same gendered parent, later on, we often see that in the adolescent years, they tend to prefer the opposite gendered parent as what a child needs from their mother or father changes during their development.”
Dr Hawkins adds that there hasn’t been a lot of research on children favouring one parent over the other.
“There is research on the difference in the quality of the relationship in the early years between the child and their mother and the child and their father, but not any research on the strong favouritism for one parent even though we have an understanding that this clinically happens, and I see this happening in my own practice,” she says.
This phase tends to end in the preschool years, around four to five years old.
When it’s hard to love both parents
In good news for the non-preferred parent, parental favouritism has nothing to do with being loved less and actually comes down to the child’s developing cognitive ability.
“What we think is happening is that it’s often very hard for children to hold two attachments at the same time,” explains Dr Hawkins.
“Their cognitive skills just aren’t at the level it needs to be for them to feel confident in loving both parents at the same time.”
She adds that this is sometimes the reason children are completely fine when the preferred parent is removed from the environment.
“For example, when Mum is around, I can show all my love to Mum. If Mum and Dad are in the same room together, I can’t show them both love. But if Mum leaves, I can show love to Dad,” says Dr Hawkins.
When they reach the preschool years, around four to five years old, the growth in their cognitive ability means they realise that they can hold strong feelings of love and attachment for both parents at the same time without it causing internal conflict.
“It’s not just about emotional skill development,” says Dr Hawkins.
“Children really need that cognitive skill development to be able to hold both parents in their mind, and even hold the other parent who is not present at that moment in their mind.”