Children have a special way of warming our hearts, but they also have a special way of kicking us in the gut. Verklempt moment: Having your toddler look up at you adoringly and saying, "I love you, Mommy." WTF? moment: Having that same toddler say, "I don't like Daddy" or "Mommy do it!" while glaring at your spouse. Whoa. This wasn't what you expected when you signed up for this parenthood deal.
It may seem unbelievable, not to mention totally ungrateful, for a young child to suddenly reject a parent for no real reason. You both gave this little person life and love. You woke up at 2:00 AM to sate its hunger. You stifled your gag reflex to clean off the pile of mustardy poop halfway up its back. You traded nights out with friends for nights nursing your child through ear infections and croup. You spent ridiculous amounts of money on cute clothing, jarred food, caterpillar toys that recited the alphabet, and car seats that were outgrown long before you expected them to. You've watched PAW Patrol, Peppa Pig, and Rainbow Rangers until you wanted to put a foot through the TV. After all that, to have your own flesh and blood snub you or your partner seems like the ultimate in betrayal. Not to mention: ouch.
Hard as it is to be rejected by your child, it's also a very common stage, assures Andrew Bernstein, M.D., FAAP, and Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He tells Romper, "Toddlers deciding to prefer one parent or another is completely normal. It’s a normal part of their development and is part of their awareness of themselves and their abilities to make choices."
Snubbing Dad actually shows that he's a great parent, odd as it seems. As reported by Parents, when a young child is able to ignore or show negative feelings toward one parent, it shows that they're confident in that parent's love. Your little one knows they can say "I don't like Daddy" in the morning and still get a hug and bedtime story from Dad at night. Dr. Bernstein adds that this phase is more likely to happen in a two-parent household, where the child sees the parents every day, than it is in families where the parents are separated or divorced.
Still, even knowing this is a stage doesn't make it any less heart-stabbing. "It’s hard to be either parent in this situation — the favored parent often finds him- or herself doing more than their usual share of parenting responsibilities, while the less-favored parent often feels hurt and unloved," says Dr. Bernstein.
How do you stop your child from saying those hurtful words? Scolding and shaming won't work; a toddler is too young to be able to empathize or understand other people's feelings. Trying to reason with your child and say, "Daddy loves you" may just make them dig in their heels harder. A better approach, advises Dr. Bernstein, is to find opportunities for your partner and child to spend one-on-one time together, doing something they don't ordinarily do with you. Being taken by Daddy to the zoo or to story time at the library may go a long way toward changing your child's opinion.
Another strategy that often works is to have your partner take on one or more of the fun parenting responsibilities that usually fall on your shoulders. Your child may object to being dressed or read to by Dad, but don't give in. You could say, "Mommy's busy right now, but I know Daddy would love to read Green Eggs and Ham to you."
Above all, don't despair, says Dr. Bernstein. Even though it may seem as though your child and their dad will be on the outs forever, "the toddler still loves that parent very much, and that parent is an important influence in the toddler’s life." It won't be long before the phase passes and Daddy is your child's best buddy again.
Then you can start worrying about the teen years, when both of you will be the bad guy.