No matter what Curt Hetzel does, he is always second best in the eyes of his two-year-old son Jakob. He says the toddler has been in a mommy phase since the day he was born.
“He’ll just gravitate towards her,” Hetzel said. “He’ll lean away from me towards Crystal and, ‘Mama, mama, mama!'”
It’s as frustrating for the father of two as it is overwhelming for his wife. Jakob wants his mother for everything from helping him with supper to comforting him in the middle of the night or when he hurts himself.
Psychologist Karin Lord specializes in issues relating to emotions, behaviour and attachment for children up to five years old. She says parental preference is a common stage that can last days, weeks or even years.
“It can vary from child to child, so there’s no easy, ‘It’s A or B or C,'” Lord said.
“Temperament is a huge thing. Sometimes children are drawn to a parent with a similar temperament as them. Sometimes it’s similar interests, so this child really likes fine motor tasks and dad is really into mechanics and whatnot, so that child really wants to spend time with dad. The other child likes playing with clothes, so maybe that is mom’s big thing.”
Lord says sometimes it’s triggered when one parent is the sole disciplinarian and the child begins to associate that parent with anxiety.
Parents can also inadvertently influence who their child favours.
“Saying from a very early age, ‘Oh, you’re just like mom,'” Lord said. “If you say that a couple times, that’s what the child will do because they want to please the parents.”
The psychologist says the best way to navigate the emotional stage is by working as a team.
“The usual strategy is for the parent who is getting all of the focus [is] to be saying to the child, ‘You know what? Mommy or Daddy is better at that than I am. I can’t do that really well, so let’s do that,’ and you sort of take your glow and you hand it off for a while.”
She also recommends the rejected parent spend quality time with the child in order to build trust and become more familiar with them. That doesn’t mean transforming into the fun parent 24 hours a day, but simply reserving time to bond.
“What it is for most kids – particularly toddlers – is having a parent being there and observing them and supporting what they are doing and being the cheerleader and letting the child direct the play,” Lord said. “The child feels like the parent’s entered their world and then they feel like they have this super connection and that makes them far more likely to want the parent around for other things or to have that parent help them do things they don’t always want. Because they feel they can trust the parent, because the parent let them be in charge in play, so the child is willing to trade off in other areas.”
Lord says the couple may need outside support if the parental preference is causing marital issues or creating enough stress that the preferred parent can’t care for other children.
Jakob’s parents are hopeful time will take care of his preference for his mom. It worked with his four-year-old brother Joseph, who is just graduating from his mommy phase.
“Of course you want it to be better and it will,” Hetzel said. “I’m sure of it.”