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This week's 'Teen Talk' columnist explains why teens often have a preferred parent and how to process your ever-changing relationship dynamics.

By Cassidy Littleton
February 19, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Yeji Kim

I moved around a lot as a kid. My parents divorced, I was in foster care, and I lived with several different families while growing up. I got to experience many different family dynamics and parenting styles, but no matter where I was, I found something in common: I always had a preferred parent figure. There was always a parent in the house who I connected with more than the other at any given time. I would default to calling them more and sought out their attention more often. Looking back on my experience, I realize my preference might have hurt my other parent's feelings. It can be hard to see your child passing up the opportunity to spend time with you in favor of your partner or co-parent. But my preference was never based on who I loved more and it was constantly changing. I want all parents to know that "not preferred" does not mean "not loved."

There's no one-size-fits-all explanation for parent preference. Some reasons are very clear: If there is a history of neglect in a child's life, they are likely going to prefer whoever makes them feel the safest and can offer them protection. However, most reasons are arbitrary or even subconscious. While little kids may make preferences based on who is physically caring for them at a given time, older children make decisions based on who best fits their lifestyle. Teens often want to be with the "cool" parent—whoever has fewer rules or is going to either leave them alone or give them more attention, depending which they want on a given day.

Despite the reasoning, I can almost guarantee you that teens will be vocal about who they prefer more. Blame it on angst, hormones, pent-up emotions, trauma—whatever the root of it is, teenagers say what they feel through their words and actions. And sometimes teens are just plain mean. Our bluntness can be hurtful, but it's important to remember that the parent your teens may want you to be is often far from the parent they need you to be. They love you and you did nothing wrong. In retrospect, here's how I wish my non-preferred parent navigated our relationship so I could have cleared the air when I made my preferences known.

Talk to Us

If your teen has said or done something to make it clear to you that they favor their other parent over you, talk to them about it and ask them why. It's possible they are doing this specifically to get your attention. You don't want to make your child feel guilty for their preference, but you can make it clear to them that you, too, are available if they ever want to talk or spend time together.

Explain How You Feel

I'm sure there are times I showed parent preferences unintentionally and didn't even realize what I was doing. I definitely wasn't always thinking about how that might have made my parents feel. As the parent, it's your role to let us know that our words and actions can affect others. Telling us how we are making you feel will help us understand the impact of our behaviors.

Take Control of the Situation

"Being the less favored parent can result in feeling disconnected and less motivated to make the effort to improve the parent-child relationship, which perpetuates more distance," explains Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., Parents.com's advice columnist. "I usually assign 'homework' to a parent and child to pick an enjoyable activity each week—it can be as simple as going to Starbucks—and simply spend more time together away from usual life and potential argument triggers."

Advocate for a healthy relationship with both parents. Explain to your teen that they do not need to spend equal time with each parent, but they do need to respect their parents equally, and that means minding how they make them feel.

Cassidy is a 21-year-old college student whose major passion is mentoring teens and fighting for child welfare legislative reform. A junior at Boise State University, she studies public relations with a minor in political science and is an active voice in the Idaho community. 

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