5 steps to solve the parental preference trap

When it comes to parenting there are some common traps we all fall into.  When we’re talking toddlerhood one common issue is the “favourite parent”. Whether you’ve hit this milestone moment where your child has a parental preference, or you want to be forewarned, read on. Here are 5 steps to solve the parental preference trap when it hits your family.

For the record, almost all families go through this at some point. You know what I mean if you’ve been given the night off doing the bedtime routine, only to hear the screams “Daddy No, No do bath. I want Mummy. Mummy do it.” It’s then you have a tricky decision to make. Do you step in?

When you’re the preferred parent

When you’re the preferred parent you can’t just tap out without drama. And the screams. Toddler screams are in a category all of their own. This makes parenting utterly exhausting, as you’re likely the go to for everything! Being the only one who has to do every little thing is enough to make you hate the sound of your toddler’s voice. Especially when all you hear is “mum, mum, mummy!” 

But it’s not just Mums who end up being the “chosen one” it can be either parent.

Even if you do have a (willing) partner, who wants to help out, when you have a toddler who has made their choice and then puts their foot down, it can seem easier to give in and just be done with it. But then you’re very much at risk of burning out!

When you’re the one they don’t want

It can be just as hard being the parent your toddler doesn’t want! Being the one who has your child running for the hills or screaming to be saved by parental preference #1 is quite simply heartbreaking. It’s also incredibly frustrating when all you want is to be a good parent and share the load.  It’s tough when your child acts like they can’t even be in the same room as you. There really are no words to describe that feeling. But I have known quite a few Dads reduced to tears by it.

Is giving in the best option?

Letting your child decide who does what CAN be easier – at least in the beginning. But eventually it’s hard to maintain. One parent will get burnt out. And the other continues to feel useless. Resentment can kick in from both sides.

But giving in to your toddler’s demands also gives them waaaaaaaay more power than they’re developmentally ready to handle. Yes, I know it seems like your toddler craves power and control. And most of the time they do. But they’re still learning how to manage it. What they really NEED is structure and boundaries (and limited choices giving them the power and control in managed doses). Every child feels safer when there is routine, predictability and the parents are in control.

So how can you get the balance of power back so both you and your partner can do this parenting lark together?

Step#1 – pick ONE situation

Start by choosing one situation or routine to work on. Maybe it’s the bedtime routine you’d like to share, but only Mum is “allowed” to do it. You might start with bath time and work up from there.

Don’t be tempted to launch into a whole lot of change all at once if you have a toddler who likes to put their foot down. Toddlers really don’t like change! So, keep it simple and change one thing at a time.

Step#2 – prewarn your toddler

Transitions are hard during toddlerhood, and warnings go a long way to help calm the waters. You can broach the change in the morning and then again 5 minutes before you get started at bedtime.

Your initial warning can go something like this:

“Mummy and Daddy both love doing bath time with you. So, starting from tonight, we are going to take turns doing your bath. Tonight it will be daddy’s turn and then tomorrow night it will be mummy’s turn. We’re going to make a chart together to help us all remember whose turn it is.”

Step#3 – Use a visual chart for who’s turn it is

Toddlers have a short attention span. Thus using a visual chart, or placing the different nights on a calendar, will help your child remember who is doing what and when. You can put up photos or colour code for Mum or Dad.

A chart helps reduce meltdowns and uncertainty by making the situation predictable (even though it’s changed). It’s also something that your child can check themselves, thus allowing some independence. Plus, let’s be honest, having a chart also helps us (the parent) remember whose turn it is. It’s easier on everyone.

Step#4 – Offer limited choices

Being in charge of which parent should be doing what and when is too much responsibility for a toddler. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have any control during the situation. By offering limited (this or that) choices you still give you toddler a feeling of control, while getting the job done. Some examples for bath time could be “would you like the red flannel to wash, or the blue one”, or “would you like bubbles or no bubbles in the bath”.

Remember to warn your child prior to bath time. Ie “in five minutes it will be bath time, so time to pack up what you’re doing”.

Step#5 – remind and reinforce

Toddlers need a lot of reminding, so it’s a good idea to wrap up the steps with a reminder of who is on tomorrow night. A simple comment like “bath time with you was fun tonight. Tomorrow night it’s daddy’s turn, and then I’ll do bath time again the day after that.” can help remind and reinforce what is happening.

And of course, you have the chart to refer to at any stage to keep everyone on track.

What if you get pushback?

Have I already said that toddlers hate change? Well, they do. So, chances are you will get push back simply because you’re making a change. But that doesn’t mean you give up.

During times of pushback, it’s helpful to validate your child’s emotions and help them through their big feelings, but at the same time you must stick to your decisions.  It can go something like this ““You feel angry because Mummy isn’t doing bath time. It’s OK to be angry, but not to hit. Tonight, is Daddy’s turn to help you with the bath, then tomorrow it is Mummy. Do you want the big duck or the little duck in the bathtub?”

Don’t be scared of the tears and emotion. Your toddler will get used to the change and will come to like the new routine, often more quickly than you think. Just see it through.

Yes, you can teach your toddler to enjoy time with both parents, and allow you both to have quality time – together AND apart.  Give these 5 steps a try and let me know if they solve the parental preference trap in your family. And if you’re finding it even more difficult due to lack of sleep. Let’s chat. Because parenting a toddler (and being a toddler) is very very difficult on little sleep!