Dr. Sarah: (00:00)
We want to make active decisions as parents, right? If we decide that we’re going to give in at that moment, then it’s an active decision that’s okay. But we also have to, if we want this problem to go away, right, we have to make the active decision to challenge it.
Dr. Sarah: (00:22)
I’m so excited to welcome back, Dr. Emily Upshur for another Q&A episode. This one is something I hear so often. What do I do when my child is favoring me over my other partner in parenting, this is a loaded issue. There are the feelings of the parent who’s being snubbed, the desire of the preferred parent to just step in and end the meltdown. And then the result often that one parent’s really exhausted and overwhelmed because they’re taking on the bulk of the caregiving responsibilities. We’re going to be tackling all of these things plus knowing when to pick and choose your battles, why this is very developmentally normal. And what’s going on in your child’s head during these phases, we’re also going to discuss how working to change. This behavior can increase the distress tolerance for everyone in the family, for the parent who needs to listen to her child cry and can’t come in to sooth him for the parent that’s being rejected.
Dr. Sarah: (01:18)
And for the child who may not be getting his way in that moment, ultimately this situation is an opportunity for you all to grow individually and also together as a family. So first let me reintroduce you to Emily. She’s a clinical psychologist and has many years experience working with children, families, and postpartum moms. She is my partner in our joint practice in Westchester, New York, Upshur/Bren Psychology Group. And her experience literally could take up an entire podcast episode. So I’m just going to recap a few of the big things she served as a clinical director for the center of trauma and resilience at Mount Sinai, Beth Israel for many years. And she continues to be a supervising psychologist at The Motherhood Center in New York city. So please sit back and perhaps circle the block one more time on your way home from drop-off and enjoy this episode.
Dr. Sarah: (02:13)
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. I’ve built a career dedicated to helping families find deep connections, build healthy relationships, repair attachment wounds, and raise kids who are healthy, secure, resilient, and kind in this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand an actionable parenting insights to help you understand the building blocks of children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting, voice confidence, and calm. This is securely attached.
Dr. Sarah: (03:04)
Hi, everybody. So excited to talk with Emily Upshur again, today, we’re going to be answering a really common question that we get asked. This mom has a two and a half year old son. He is going through a phase of really only wanting mom to do everything. There’s lots of temper tantrums. If dad changes diapers or puts the socks on or does bedtime. And this mom says she’s really the kind of primary caregiver while her husband’s working. And so, you know, a lot of times she’s feeling kind of exhausted and she’ll just cave and let the kid have what he’s wanting, which is her, because she doesn’t want to deal with the battle, which is Ugh. If I had a nickel for every time this came up, I would have a lot of nickels. So Emily, what are you, where are your thoughts at? How can we jump in to help this mom? Yeah,
Dr. Emily: (03:53)
I mean, I think this is such a common question. I always say I have this with all three of my children. It’s not, not unique to one of them, unfortunately. And the first place I’d like to start here is, you know, we really have to be careful about picking battles that we can follow through with. So this mom says, you know, she caves and there may be, there’s some upset about keeping in at that moment, but really I sort of start with, if you can’t follow through with it, if you can’t do the whole thing and we can talk about those steps more later, then it’s kind of, okay. I say like, just do it, like give the kid the thing, you know, as a mom or, you know, be the mom who does the bath, because we really have to pick our battles in these situations.
Dr. Sarah: (04:39)
And I think to piggyback off that is like this idea of permission to say, when you want to hold something and when you don’t want to, right. Or when you don’t have it in you to deal with it. And that’s really okay. Sometimes as parents, we don’t have the bandwidth to say, I’m picking up this rope and I’m going to die on this hill because we just have to learn, that daddy does diaper sometimes. And like, yes, we do want our kids to be okay with dad changing the diaper sometime. But if it’s, you know, if it’s the end of the day and we’re all tired and the baby just really wants you or really wants mom, maybe that isn’t the time to say, no, you need to have dad do the diaper. Dad has to learn. You have to learn. We all have to kind of learn to do this. Now are there times though. And, and obviously if that’s our strategy all the time, we’re gonna get really burnt out as a, as a parent, as the primary caregiver. So when, when we do have the bandwidth to say, you know what, it’s time for daddy to change her diaper. How do, how can we do that?
Dr. Emily: (05:44)
Yeah. I mean, I think you’re touching on a really important part, which is we want to make active decisions as parents, right? If we decide that we’re going to give in at that moment, then it’s an active decision, right. That’s okay. But we also have to, if we want this problem to go away, right, we have to make the active decision to challenge it. Now, number one, rule of challenging things in building these is to strike when the iron is cold, right. I always use that expression. You know, that’s a quiet or calm moment. It’s always a better time to address a problem behavior or something that we’d like to work on. Um, so there’s, there’s a few strategies and, and we really want to make them family specific, but some of the ones that are common are practicing being with dad on a calm Saturday morning, right.
Dr. Emily: (06:32)
You know, doing a little distress tolerance, having mom and dad play together, maybe mom gets up to get a coffee comes back. Um, and I think, you know, something that Sarah, you and I always talk about is start with validation. If the child gets fussy or upset, I want mommy, you know, then we really go into, it’s hard when mommy goes away, you know, and just sit with it. So that does require sort of a family meeting beforehand planning these, these, uh, tests and separation, right? Planning, mom being removed a little bit into and coming back. And then, you know, we have to be mindful that dad has to be prepared for that with the right tools, right. Validation and reassurance for the child. And mom has to be prepared to sort of tolerate if the baby gets to the child, gets upset and not rush in, you know, too early to save the day.
Dr. Sarah: (07:26)
It’s like distress tolerance for everyone who’s involved, right. We’re asking the kid to work on their distress tolerance, but we’re also really asking mom to work on her distress tolerance and hearing her child be distressed and not rushing in to fix that and to be able to tolerate hearing that upset in them and being able to sort of calmly and confidently exit and return. We’re asking dad to exercise his distress tolerance. And we should also talk about this because as the parent who’s being quote, unquote rejected in this moment, that can be so painful. And so it can be very understandable for the parent. Who’s the non-preferred parent in that moment to be very distressed by this. And so we’re asking them to tolerate that distress in the moment and just stay tuned into the child and to just validate that they want the other parent in this moment. And that that’s okay. That makes sense. And like you said, it kind of requires other work outside of this moment. Like I think for the, for the “non-preferred parent,” and I say that in quotes, because they’re not actually un-preferred in that moment, it’s just like, maybe we could talk a little bit about this, like developmentally what’s going on for that child. How do we, how do we de personalize this?
Dr. Emily: (08:45)
I mean, one of the things that you know, you and I probably say a million times a day is structure is great for kids. Structure routine sort of predictability is great for young kids. It breeds flexibility later on, but we’re in this stage of development. We’re not in the flexible yet. We haven’t reached flexibility yet. Right. So, you know, if mom in this, in this, in this example, mom is the primary person that’s, you know, giving during the childcare. And so this child is used to mom, right? This routine, these things are very comforting to the child. Mom knows how to tuck me into bed. Mom knows how to prepare my grilled cheese sandwich. Right. Those are all things that they’ve seen proven out over time because mom just tends to do it more. Right. And so changing up that, that structure and routine requires a couple of things. What we’re talking about, one is preparation, you know, so instead of dad just slipping in, because mom is, you know, overwhelmed and the lot’s going on, which seems like a totally reasonable thing to do from the outside, right? For the child that feels like, whoa, you’re totally changing my routine. What are you doing? Do I don’t even know if you know how to make my grilled cheese sandwich.
Dr. Sarah: (09:59)
I don’t even know what it feels like for you to make my grilled cheese sandwich, right? Like I think a lot of it is, you know, what, my as a child, I’m so egocentric my experience, I’m used to mom doing it. I know what it feels like when mom does it. Invariably, it’s going to feel different when dad does it to me. And so I’m not used to this feeling. And so that’s also something there I think, responding to in that moment.
Dr. Emily: (10:23)
Yes. So and that falls right into change in predictability and routine, right. It’s just different. It doesn’t mean it’s bad, right. It just means it’s different. And there is an adjustment period of time. So how do we test that adjustment here? Or how do we stretch that adjustment period, prepare kids for it. Right. So on Saturday morning, we’re going to play or on Saturday morning, daddy’s gonna make your breakfast right. A couple of days before. And you sort of echo that throughout the week, a little, you know, just a little prophylactic to help the child be prepared for that transition. Some of the stuff we talked about. Um, but the other thing that we didn’t mention yet is it’s nice for that child to have independent time with this, you know, quote on preferred parent, you know, um, it’s nice for them to have some of their own routines and some of their own sort of, uh, flexibility within that so that the child gets to learn just what you were saying, that feeling, oh, it also feels good to have dad make the grilled cheese sandwich. It wasn’t so bad after that feels good. You know, there’s a little bit of that learning curve
Dr. Sarah: (11:29)
And that’s, I think, you know, what we’re really talking about in, in, in this being that learning curve is exposure. The more we expose a child to something they think that they don’t like, or they think they can’t handle and they survive it, they get to the other side and they say, oh, wait, that actually felt really good. Then we are changing their schema. We’re changing the way they associate that activity or that behavior that need, or that feeling state with being only accessible with one parent. And so we’re expanding their ability to find comfort and soothing from the other parent. And we do that slowly by repeated exposure over time. And so one of the things I like to think about is like, okay, when we’re doing exposure therapy, you know, and we’re taking that concept from therapy and applying it to parenting, but a lot of parenting is the same idea. You know, you, you start small and you build your way up bigger and bigger and bigger. And so, you know, I’m thinking, how can we apply this idea of exposure to maybe a mom, a mom changing the child’s diaper all the time to a dad starting to change the child’s diaper and how do we help that child incrementally get used to that experience? If it’s something that is distressing for them initially.
Dr. Emily: (12:44)
Yeah. I think what I always recommend for families who have this is to just do a little research first, right? Like jot down what are the most distressing times. So just like you’re talking about Sarah, you know, you have to create gradual exposure. And we always like to start with the thing that’s least distressing. So for over the course of a few days, just jot down what is the most distressing when dad tries to do it? Is it bath time? Is it, you know, meal time? Is it what, all those different types of things. And then we’re going to pick the easiest one. We’re going to pick the one that feels like it’s most palatable to everybody. Right. And if you start there, then we break that down into pieces, right? So maybe dad takes the bread out of the refrigerator. I mean, there are children, you have to start where you are. Right. There are kids that are like, mommy, didn’t touch every single element. I refuse to eat it. Right. So we have to start where you are. If it’s, if it’s that at that level, which is not uncommon, frankly, then we start with dad takes, we’re gonna work on dad taking the bread out of the fridge and mom will do the rest. Right. And then we work on that, taking out the bread and the cheese, we work out, Dad taking out the bread, the cheese and the butter and building that tolerance over time.
Dr. Sarah: (14:02)
Sounds a little exhausting.
Dr. Emily: (14:03)
It is for one little thing, right? Yeah. But these short-term investments, right. Have long-term gains, that’s sort of our whole thing. And you know, the analogy is always around. If I can, you know, again, I’ll circle back. We can’t address everything in the moment. So I always want to reiterate that we don’t want this to be a marathon for you in every single way, but we do want to invest on doing this so that eventually, you know, in, in a near term, dad can do more. And mom doesn’t have to be so drained by having to touch everything.
Dr. Sarah: (14:38)
I think the way that we approach parenting that is sometimes kind of hard to swallow at first is this idea that like, it is more work upfront. I’m asking a lot of the parents that I work with to do more work initially, and to take that time to have dad and mom make the sandwich together, or do the diaper change together when one just really wants a break and it would just be easier like, Ugh, I could do it in five seconds. So I’m just going to do it. And we’re going to sidestep this temper tantrum because it’s just easier. And I get that. And like we’ve said, at the beginning of the episode, like, it is totally okay to do that when you need to do that. But if you want to see a change, a real lasting change in this behavior, and you want to do it in a way that that has like a longer shelf life.
Dr. Sarah: (15:32)
Sure. It’s worth that initial investment upfront. And again, like you don’t have to do it every single time and you don’t want to do it when you don’t have the bandwidth. But when you have the extra energy to say, you know what, it’s also okay for a child to be upset that I’m not changing his diaper. Cause that’s, I think another thing we have in our mind is that the goal is for our kid to never be upset. And so if he’s upset, we’re doing it wrong. And it’s very hard. I think for the parent who is quote unquote, causing the upset by leaving by, you know, shirking their responsibility in this moment to just be able to do it right. It’s hard for that parent to walk away and hear their child cry. And is that a bad thing? What are we, are we damaging our child when we do that? What, what do you think?
Dr. Emily: (16:19)
Well, I think we’re definitely not damaging our child when we do that, because we’re not doing that all the time. Right? We’re not walking away all the time. You know, I think that’s part of this is, you know, we have to build their distress tolerance in small bits, but that allows for a better character development, right? They have to know that they’ll survive, you’ll survive. And so will the other parent, right? Everybody can handle it. And you have confidence that everybody can handle it. You, as the walking away parent, you have confidence that dad can change this diaper and your two and a half year old senses that you have confidence. Even if they prefer it, not, they, if you imbue confidence into that situation, they’ll be confident to right. And there’ll be reinforced that they can do that.
Dr. Sarah: (17:07)
Yeah. Even if they’re upset, the thing is our kids, especially in these very young ages, they, they can do two things at once. They can be very upset about something and they can be a reassure. They can be reassured by your confidence. Those two things can happen at the same time. It’s just hard as a parent to see one because we just see the other. Yeah. So I think like if we can kind of confidently sort of with our body language and our exiting promptly to say, oh, you really want me to change your diaper. Daddy’s going to change your diaper. I’ll be back. I’m going to go and I’ll be back. And then you go and you let daddy change the diaper and the child can be upset. And maybe the dad doesn’t go straight into diaper, changing mode. Maybe the dad stops and soothes the child and validates, it’s hard that mom left.
Dr. Sarah: (17:51)
You didn’t want her to go I’m here. And maybe you don’t go straight into diaper changing because the diaper can wait. But you helping that child understand that you see them, you hear them. You’re there for them in your own way. As the, this other caregiver, you’re not going to do it exactly. Like mom does it, but it’s still going to feel okay. And then maybe you try the diaper. Um, and you know, going at the child’s pace, recognizing that they have feelings about it and those feelings are safe and they’re okay. And reflecting back to that kid, it’s safe and okay for you to have these feelings, I’m not going to try to distract you or convince you out of them.
Dr. Emily: (18:31)
Yeah. I, I, I would piggyback on that just a little, because I think it’s always important to start with validation, right? Like you’re really upset mommy left. And, but you know what? Daddy knows how to change a diaper too. Like that’s okay. I know you’re really upset about it, but daddy knows how to do it. And then you’re right. I think having their own interaction doesn’t, you don’t have to launch right in. But I also think, and this comes up a lot in my practices, it’s also okay to say, okay, we’re going to move on now. You know, we’re going to move, we’re not going to talk about this diaper anymore. We’re just going to do it and move on. Right. And sort of re not sort of leaning. So we want to both validate, but also not lean in too much to make it a bigger thing than it is. Right.
Dr. Sarah: (19:19)
It’s like that permanent tight rope that we walk as a parent at all times of both validating on the one hand and not over accommodating on the other hand. Right. We have to acknowledge the feelings and still move through the day.
Dr. Emily: (19:33)
Dr. Emily: (19:34)
And I think that’s also reassuring though, because I think sometimes your toddler gets lost in their tantrum. Right. They get lost in their feelings and they can’t contain them themselves. And so it’s our job to scaffold that. Right. It’s our job to validate, but then scaffold that sort of recovery because they can’t do it necessarily on their own.
Dr. Sarah: (19:51)
That’s a really beautiful, I love that idea of like kind of building this structure up around their recovery and keeping them contained inside of it while still allowing them to emote.
Dr. Sarah: (20:02)
Exactly. And, and that’s, it is you have it’s right. It’s like, it’s like patting your head and rubbing your belly. Right. You have to do all these things as a parent. You’re like really trying to do all these things. Um, but practice makes that possible. And so I think one of the things we, we are encouraging is you got to kind of practice these things to make, to get better at them to get that muscle memory for everybody involved.
Dr. Sarah: (20:27)
Yeah. And it’s hard, it’s hard to hear your child ask for not you. Yeah. You know, that’s painful. Yes. And I think as you know, whether you’re the dad receiving that, which I think it tends to be more common, but I’ve also worked with moms who get rejected by their kid in the moment. They just say, they’re in a daddy phase and they just want daddy to do everything. And it’s painful. I think, to be the parent who is quote unquote unchosen in this moment and like, how can we reframe it for ourselves so that it feels less personal and less rejection, which then makes us vulnerable to being a bit reactive.
Dr. Emily: (21:00)
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really important to take it out of that moment. Right. I like to sort of parachute this, you know what, I feel like a good mom most of the time so that they’re not choosing me now. I’m okay. Like a little self-talk around that is actually totally okay. Right. A little self reassurance. Self-talk just to give, remind yourself of your confidence in your parenting. Right. Overall, I’m a great parent. They didn’t want me to change their diaper today, but I’m not going to let that sabotage spoil my view of myself as a parent. Right. And then the other thing is that, you know, we teach all the time is just to remind yourself of the developmental appropriateness of some of these stages and, and, or get advice about that. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s appropriate or not. Right. But we can tell you that a two and a half year old in this scenario, it’s completely appropriate and it’s completely, un-personal right. Feels very personal, but it’s completely what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re supposed to be doing it. And if we can reassure ourselves of that in the moment, it can also take away some of the sting of that,
Dr. Sarah: (22:05)
Right? Like this is healthy. If this is normal, this is okay for my child to be expressing this preference to a caregiver. They find to be routinely comforting to them. It’s not a rejection of me. And as much as it is an expression of, I want what I know. And that makes total sense versus, um, you, you know, two and a half, our kids really don’t have that capacity to be like, how is my dad gonna feel if I reject them? They don’t, they don’t think like that. They’re they have, they’re actually kind of incapable of imagining your, your feelings about that in the moment. And they’re certainly not trying to reject you as much as they are trying to desperately cling to something that makes them feel safe.
Dr. Emily: (22:47)
Definitely. I think that that’s sort of the psycho-education piece, right. That we say, you know, they don’t have what we call theory of mind. Right. They can’t imagine what the other person is thinking or feeling. They’re egocentric, they’re thinking I just don’t want this. And that is totally appropriate when you’re doing a half when you’re a parent. Yeah. I mean, but it doesn’t fit our trying to rationalize it out of them. Right. But I do view this as a, to reframe it. So how, like, how does the parent, who is the, you know, unchosen one sort of self-sooth and tolerate in those moments is also, you know, to feel confident that you’re teaching your child a skill in that moment, right. To reframe it a little bit of, I’m not just being rejected, but I’m actually teaching my child a skill. I’m teaching my child that there are many caregivers and many people can take care of me. And there are many ways that things can happen. So you’re sort of inserting, even though it doesn’t seem like it, you’re inserting little lessons on flexibility, distress tolerance, so you can reassure yourself. I’m, I’m actually teaching my kid a lesson right now, you know, and I’m feeling a good kind of developmental growth moment here as opposed to something that’s just uncomfortable
Dr. Sarah: (24:03)
Yeah. Or, or painful. Right. Like if I think if, again, like if we can diagnose, if you will, the actual root cause of the problem, which is I’m a child who wants something and I’m not getting it. And so I’m going to express distress or upset at that, then helping really the sort of prescription in that moment isn’t to convince them to like it it’s to help them develop a relationship with the other caregiver that feels just as familiar, just as routine, just as safe. And you don’t do that in that particular moment. That is a sort of slow build that you have to work on. Like you said, when the iron is cold, I love that. Um, you know, these are, you know, spending a little bit more, one-on-one sort of wants nothing time with them a little bit more, not in these high stakes moments when the child is, is upset, but in calm, quiet moments, being, being present with them a little bit more spending a little bit more sort of just attention focused on them. No agenda time. And the more we do that as the quote unpreferred parent, um, the more preferred we end up kind of becoming over time.
Dr. Sarah: (25:17)
I mean, and, and, and it just, I also like to dovetail, like I think it’s, I think that’s a great thing to sort of bring full circle, which is if you’re doing this and when the iron is cold and you’re having sort of like independent play with each, you know, play with each other, that is outside independent as in not with mom, you know, mom and the child you’re practicing in times that aren’t those sort of rigid routines that toddlers are used to, that’s kind of like, step one, step two is then trying it within their routines. Right. So I always want to sort of
Dr. Sarah: (25:53)
Which you’ll get more push back. And it will be rockier, but knowing that that’s supposed to be the way it is, will be helpful.
Dr. Sarah: (25:57)
Exactly. So if we look at this in terms of a step wise, sort of exposure wise, bringing it back to that, I think that that’s sort of the reasoning of why that helps. Right. You build a little trust, you build a little bit more rapport with your parent, other parents, and then you can try the more challenging things, which are like the routine differences, you know, shaking up routine, which is actually hard for, for all young children.
Dr. Sarah: (26:24)
Yes. And I think it’s interesting. Cause I think, you know, your suggestion to first start with being a bit of a detective and looking at where are the struggles the most, I think you’re right. You’re going to find most likely that the struggles are the greatest in those routine moments, in those diaper changes, bath time, bed, time meal time times, because those are a child’s anchors.
Dr. Emily: (26:49)
Dr. Sarah: (26:49)
They’re the same every day. They’re the same, those rhythms, those routines, those things they’ve come to like anchor their day with are very important to them. So playtime is a little bit, I can be more flexible in playtime because that’s the nature of playtime. Playtime is anchored and grounded by caregiving moments. And so I’m going to have a harder time being flexible around caregiving moments because those are my anchors. So knowing that in advance that those are the harder pieces to, to shift, but they’re not un-shiftable.
Dr. Emily: (27:19)
Right. And this is where the, you come up with a plan, you know, you do the detective work, you come up with a reasonable list of things and how hard they might be. You start at the bottom of that list, right. Um, or you start with something related to that list. And then you slowly and surely begin to challenge some of these inflexibilities.
Dr. Sarah: (27:42)
Yeah. I love it. I think those are really actionable steps that people can take. And hopefully we kind of painted a bit of the background behind why these steps work the way they do. So thanks so much for joining us. And we’ll do this again soon with some more questions. If anyone who’s listening has questions, you’d like us to answer. Make sure to let us know. You can go to @securelyattachedpodcast on Instagram and send us a DM. And we will answer your questions on the podcast.
Dr. Emily: (28:10)
Dr. Sarah: (28:12)
Dr. Sarah: (28:21)
Thank you for listening. I want to be clear about something. If this particular issue hasn’t become a problem for you and your family, the entire issue of having a preferred parent may actually just resolve itself without much intentional work on your end. A child favoring one parent is a very normal and developmentally appropriate phase. So if this isn’t adding much stress to your daily life, you can also just try waiting it out. It’s not unusual for this to happen for brief periods of time. And it can even flip flop between which parent is being favored. Just, it’s good to be sure to do some mental check-ins with yourself and your partner to make sure that neither one of you is feeling really overwhelmed with the workload or really upset at the rejection. And if this does start to become a problem like it did for the listener who wrote in, I really hope these actionable steps that Emily and I discussed in this episode can help you to begin to address the behavior in a way that works for your family.
Dr. Sarah: (29:16)
Just remember it is a marathon, not a sprint. If you’re putting in the work, even if you don’t see the changes taking place right away, your child will start to internalize them. So don’t get discouraged. If these steps don’t make a huge difference in your child’s behavior overnight, I really hope you found this episode helpful for more resources to guide you in your parenting journey. Visit my website, drsarahbren.com. There you can find everything from articles about navigating childcare, transitions, to support for growing families, to understanding the neurological and psychological causes of fight or flight. There’s lots there for you to explore at drsarahbren.com. And if there’s a question you want me to answer on the show, send me a DM at @securelyattachedpodcast on Instagram, and I will try to answer them on the air for you. So that’s it. Please subscribe or follow the podcast and don’t forget to rate and review it too, until next week don’t be a stranger.
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