We've all felt like the third wheel at times, but you probably never imagined that you'd be the odd one out with your own kid. It's hard to know how to react when your child suddenly cries for Daddy to take over the bedtime routine. Picking favorites, though, is a normal part of your toddler's development. "Kids this age are starting to understand that Mommy and Daddy are individual people, and they can get different things from each parent," explains Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. Still, if you're the jilted one, this stage can be tough to swallow. Follow these smart moves to help you get back in the game.
Your increasingly independent kid is starting to develop his own preferences, from what he
wants for lunch to which shoes he wears -- and thanks to his budding vocabulary, he can now verbalize his likes and dislikes. However, toddlers won't always express them in the most pleasant ways. "Your child doesn't yet understand that he has the power to hurt people's feelings," says Erin Floyd, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Atlanta. "If he screams for you to give the book to Daddy, it doesn't mean he loves you less -- it my just be that he's in the mood for the way your husband reads to him."
Play it cool when he passes you over. If you act sad or angry, it can cause your child to pull further away. Instead, encourage his bond with your partner, which will let him know that when he comes back to you, you'll accept him with open arms. Chances are, he'll seek you out sooner rather than later. "As fierce as toddlers can be about what they want, they also change their mind frequently," says Dr. Gopnik. "So it's a safe bet that he'll shift back and forth."
Look for activities that you can do as a group, such as building with blocks or having a picnic. Watch how your spouse interacts with your kid. "If he gets down on her level to play, and she likes it, do the same thing," suggests Russell Reiff, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center. Let your partner talk you up if your toddler is still acting standoffish. "In an upbeat tone, he could say, 'Isn't it wonderful that Mommy is coloring with us? We're going to have lots of fun,'" says Dr. Floyd. Gradually, he should pull back so you can be more involved.
Take advantage of routines. Toddlers love predictability, and your kid will be less likely to throw tantrums if he knows who does what each day. Having a specific role also guarantees you some one-on-one time. For example, when it's your job to bathe him every night and he screams for Daddy, gently remind him that you do bathtime together, but his father will have fun putting him to bed after you're done, suggests Dr. Reiff.
Planning an outing without your partner can help you go from dissed to desired. Take your kid for some "alone time" at the park. Go out for breakfast together, or see if she wants to help make dinner. Even teaching her a game or a song that only the two of you know is enough to help you stand out.
It's not always possible for your child to do everything with the parent of the moment. His favorite might be sick, at work, or in need of a break. Although you may be tempted to give in when your kid has a meltdown, it's better to stand firm, says Dr. Reiff. Calmly tell him, "Daddy can't feed you -- he's not here." Also talk to your partner about how you want to deal with your child's favoritism. Doing this will help you steer clear of hurt feelings.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Parents magazine. Updated June 2014.