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My 6 Year Old Prefers Dad And “Defends” Him From Me

Reader Sad Mommy writes,

I have a concern that I’d really appreciate your insight on, and I know you’ve written pieces in the past about parents favoring one child, but is it normal for a child to prefer or ‘favor’ one parent over the other? We have a 6 year old and 3 year old (and a 1 year old boy), and it seems like my 6 year old prefers her dad to me, e.g, saying that she loves him more, that she’d rather spend time with him, telling him secrets, going to hug him if I say something to him that sounds even remotely critical (of him), and she’s just generally more demonstrative with her love to him.

I have read your piece about a preschooler preferring one parent, and this helps me understand my 3 year old’s preference for me, because I’m definitely the ‘full turkey dinner’ parent.  But I still don’t understand my 6 year old…. It’s more like she seems closer to him, she wants him to read to her, and spend recreational time with her, and is defensive of him in all situations. I’m glad they are close, but it bothers me sometimes, and I’m not sure what I should do about it-I’d like to have a closer relationship with my 6y/o, and the adolescent/adult that she will one day become.

For context, I asked her more about the marriage and she wrote:

I think we do pretty well overall-we’ve been married 7.5 years. He’s more extroverted and in more of the supporting role in terms of home and childcare, and I’m more introverted and the main breadwinner, but we are both  healthcare professionals with multiple degrees. His dream was to be a stay-at- home dad after a long, stressful residency, but he found after a while that he needed to work some to maintain his professional credentials and his sanity. For the time being, we work opposite schedules, so I work full-time days, although I bring a lot of work home with me, and he works part-time, all weekend and some evenings.

We’ve had our ups and downs in our marriage over the years, but nothing major. For instance, my love language is ‘words of affirmation’, and he has some minor hearing loss that I think is affecting his ability to support me in that way, and doesn’t want to get a hearing aid, so that is one current example of an issue we are working through. Another ‘not major’ current issue from my perspective is that he seems to require/request a lot more recreation time away than I do, like for camping, hiking, canoeing, spending time with friends, and I would like more time together as a family/couple.

Dear SM,

I understand why you feel hurt. There are a lot of expectations surrounding mother-daughter relationships, and when these relationships don’t go perfectly, there can be a lot of sadness and resentment on both sides.  It sounds like your daughter may be a highly sensitive child, and she may be picking up on a few things that stand out to me:

  1. Your husband may be conflicted about working.  He wanted to be a stay at home parent but he’s working (he wanted to, but he’s still likely ambivalent, as are so many working moms).  So in the moments he is with them, he is giving them his everything, but this may be tinged with some sadness that he is not there for them 100% of the time. He may be very sad to miss family activities on weekends and evenings, when most parents spend all their time with their kids.  Your daughter may be picking up on his sadness to leave in the evenings and on weekends, and she wants to compensate for it by being extra close with him.
  2. Many kids have their daddy around for soccer games and Fall festivals and what have you, but your husband is not around then.  This may make her miss him even more, because she notices other daddies around during the times that your husband is working. (She is the oldest and the only one who would notice this, given your other kids’ ages.) He has scarcity value, even if his total work hours are less than yours, because she likely knows more people with full time 9-5 working parents than weekend working ones.  Also, he leaves for his kayaking trips or whatnot, which takes even more weekend time away from the kids.
  3. You are likely consumed with the 3 and 1 year olds because they are just younger and need more physical attention and constant care.  So she adaptively moves her affection over to someone whose attention is more free.  Often, men do a lot better with older kids with whom they can share interests like reading, etc.  So your husband and daughter likely share a bond that he doesn’t have with the other kids, who are still little satellites orbiting Mommy.
  4. Take this for what it is worth, because it’s only a guess about the dynamic and I am not including it because you said anything explicitly of this nature but because I am picking up on some stuff and I am hoping it is possible that my intuition will help you reframe this.  Anyway: Your husband sounds like a kind of sensitive (read: difficult) guy, with his need for recharge time doing various solo/friend activities, his refusal to get a hearing aid, his ambivalence (read: drama) around whether to stay at home or work, and his stressful residency (I assume you had a stressful residency too, but I am thinking his stress usually is prioritized in this marriage). I also notice that the game plan was for you to be the sole breadwinner for at least a few years while he, despite getting multiple medical degrees and possibly being in debt from them, would stay at home.  The fact that you agreed to this, in my experience, means that you kind of bend over backwards for him to help him through his various stressors.  It also may mean that he plays a bit of a victim card in life.  Your daughter may be very sensitive and perceives this, and then rushes to his “defense” any time you look sideways at him (for example, when he requests his frequent recreation time, I would imagine).  If I have hit on anything valid here, then I would encourage you and your husband to examine your dynamic more explicitly, because if he is playing victim then your daughter will likely view you as the perpetrator/oppressor.  (Did you see one parent enable another when growing up?  Read this if applicable.)

I also notice that your daughter is doing some fairly rude things and I am wondering how it’s being handled.  For instance, telling secrets to your husband in front of either you or the other kids is not nice at all.  Your husband ought to be the one to point this out and to say, “No secrets in front of Mommy, that hurts Mommy’s feelings and it isn’t kind.”  Ditto if she comes out and says she loves him more than you.  That is unkind and needs to be treated as rude behavior, not as some open expression of feelings to be condoned.  If he’s not putting the kibosh on her overtly rude and rejecting behaviors toward you, then he is not being a responsible parent. If she loved one sibling more than the other, you would tell her, “You can think that in your head but do NOT say it out loud because it is mean.”  Same thing applies when it’s parents.

Six is way old enough to be told that you’re being rude.  You work all week to support her and then you’re with her all weekend alone while Daddy works.  You deserve some respect too, and I believe you and your husband need to be a united front in teaching your daughter to be kind and respectful to you.

Also, keep in mind that if your husband feels criticized by you then he may be subconsciously and passive aggressively allowing your daughter to openly “defend” him so that he can basically stand up to you without standing up to you.  Introspect about whether this is in fact going on, and if it may be, then it needs to be discussed with your husband, possibly with a marital counselor’s involvement.

A last point: Usually kids only “ally” with one parent over another so openly when they perceive that there is a “need” for them to be defensive of that parent.  You are not describing preference as much as allying.  Preference is snuggling up to Daddy, but allying is jumping to his defense.  Think more deeply about this, especially because you seem like you may minimize dysfunction and try to keep everything smooth, another behavior pattern that generally starts in childhood for adaptive reasons.  (Explore with a therapist if this speaks to you!)

Best of luck, and keep me posted.  Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, When There Are Weird Parent-Child Dynamics, Take A Look At Whether There Are Weird Parent-Parent Dynamics.

Order Dr. Rodman’s newest book, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and order her first book: How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person

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1 Comment

  1. Rosie
    April 9, 2021 at 3:51 am — Reply

    This is a useful reflection on different dynamics that may be emerging in this family. I have found great food for thought here. However, as someone with hearing loss who choses not to wear a hearing aid, I’d ask you to look more deeply into the reasons a person may do this, other than to be “difficult “. There is a lot of pressure on hearing impaired and deaf people to conform to social expectations to reduce what is seen as a disability with technology. But deaf and hard of hearing people can have many powerful valid reasons for not using hearing aids, including pain, discomfort, culture and personally, hearing aids make my ability to use my residual hearing worse. Please don’t make these assumptions which could be damaging to relationships if the narrative of hearing impaired people as awkward, or frustrating is perpetuated. There are equally many negative assumptions made about this person’s partner’s reasons for his other behaviour which could drive a wedge between then further.

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