When my baby hit the age of 5, he turned against me. This super-snuggly and effusive little boy only wanted to hug Daddy, sit next to Daddy, and eat Daddy's pancakes. Soren started kindergarten, and his drawings didn't even include me. My love for him knows no bounds, so I couldn't understand why he was rejecting me. One night when he wouldn't let me put him to bed, I wept in the kitchen.
Kids this age often prefer the parent of the same sex, identify with "the fun one," or are drawn to the grown-up who attends more to their needs, explains Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. However, there are still steps you can take to reconnect with your child and strengthen your bond.
Don't Take It Personally
Being frequently passed over by your kid may be confusing and upsetting, but you have to keep your emotions in check, says Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D., author of Detachment Parenting. If you must, it's all right to say, "That hurts my feelings," but then let it go. Making her feel bad won't help the situation. If your child only wants Daddy to put her to bed or help her with her homework, step back and realize that her preference is not a poor reflection on you. Dr. Markham suggests saying to yourself, "This is normal, and now I have motivation to sweeten our relationship." Remember that her phase is not permanent -- the parent she's closest to now will likely change as she grows and develops.
Be There For Him
We're often so engaged in our daily routine that we forget to slow down and listen to what our child is saying. Whatever the reason for your child's current parent preference, an easy solution is to be more responsive to his needs. The next time he tells you a story, try reflecting his emotions to fuel the feeling of closeness. "Empathy makes your child feel understood," Dr. Markham says. So if he's having a meltdown because his dad can't take him to the bus stop, reaffirm what he's saying: "I'm sorry, sweetie; I know you wish you could have Daddy. I'm here with you now, you're safe, and I love you so much." Hugs and kisses always help too.
Keep It Light
Since your child may be anxious that she's not getting enough time with her parent of choice, Dr. Markham recommends playing games that include both parents and get your kid laughing: Cluck like chickens, do silly dances, or even try a game that was developed for this exact situation. It starts with Daddy sitting on the couch (or Mommy if she's the favorite). Ask your child to stand a few feet in front of him, and you be the monkey in the middle. Say, "This is the 'You Can't Get to Daddy Game.'" As she moves toward him, say, "You're all mine!" and give her a squeeze. Then, intentionally fumble before letting her reach the couch where Daddy hugs her. Laugh and say, "You did it! You're so fast!" Let her win every time. "By playing this game, you're showing her she can always get to her favorite parent -- and that the other one also loves and supports her," says Dr. Markham. Play it spontaneously every day as long as it gets your child laughing -- roughhousing also releases the cuddle hormone oxytocin -- and everyone's relationship will improve.
Dr. Luedtke remembers the day her 5-year-old son told her she was "the worstest mom ever." The words were hard to take, but they helped her realize that her husband was having most of the fun with him while she supervised mundane chores like teeth-brushing before bed. So for Mother's Day, she planned a fishing trip where they created special memories together. The size of the experience doesn't matter. Your child will appreciate going on a walk or shopping for something special together. What's most important is that you set aside daily time to reconnect. Say, "I'm all yours for 15 minutes. What do you want to do?" Dr. Markham suggests. If he doesn't know, grab his favorite toy and get started having fun on a regular basis.
Sometimes, a child prefers the parent who lets her stay up late or goof around longer in the bathtub. That's why it's important to make sure you are both following the same guidelines, says Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families. "Parents need to agree on the rules and stick to them to create consistency," Feiler says. Dinner, bath, and bedtime should follow similar routines regardless of who's in charge, so work out a plan with your partner. And if one of you says no to your child, agree in advance that the other must follow suit -- that goes for TV watching or a snack before dinner -- since playing good cop/bad cop only feeds the divide. In the end, I gave my son extra attention to get our relationship back on track. Soren did warm up to me, and he even asks to sit next to me at dinner sometimes!
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.