Why does my three-year-old constantly tell me "I don't like you" and show little affection to me?

Q: I am the father of a sweet, happy three-year-old daughter who tells me on a daily basis that she "doesn't like me" and today told me she wants me to "go away forever". We have a happy home and my wife and I are both kind, loving parents. She tells me "I love Mommy, not you." Her comments are not precipitated by any negative interaction. Yesterday we were laughing and playing and she whispered "I don't like you" with an unhappy look on her face?!? Any ideas? It's starting to get me down!!!!

A: It's natural for little ones to have strong preferences for one parent or the other. This is a phase that commonly appears at about age 3, and usually dissipates by age 4 or 5. Their little minds can't yet handle the complexities of loving more than one person at a time. It also helps them to learn from one parent more fully -- by absorbing as much as they can, deeply, from one parent. It's also part of the "testing process" to see if you're there unconditionally. Take heart: One day soon, your little one is likely to move to YOU as the "preferred parent." But it's also natural for the parent who is "on the outs" to feel hurt. DON'T. Remember that it's all part of your little one's development, and that soon, you'll be the preferred one. Take this opportunity to have a little space for yourself, and don't give up trying to connect with your child. Let her know you don't take it personally, and that you'll be waiting for her when she's ready to have fun with you. And keep talking with your wife about the dynamic so that she can gently encourage your daughter's love of BOTH of you.

Answered by Dr. Heather Wittenberg

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