How To Deal When Your Kids Prefer Your Co-Parent
As much as all (or at least most) divorced parents want their child to enjoy their time with both parents, it can be hurtful to observe that your kids seem to prefer your co-parent to you. (And sometimes they even prefer your co-parent’s new partner to you.) Your feelings of sadness will likely be worse when kids are too young to know how to be tactful, as in the case when a toddler screams and cries when it’s time to transition to your house. How can you best deal with a kid who prefers your co-parent, both in your own head and in terms of parenting strategies?
Transitions are difficult for most kids. The transition between houses can be emotionally difficult, but also upsetting from a practical standpoint, because they don’t have the same stuff, the same pets, the same videogames, or whatever else at both houses. This is why, within reason, you should try to make the homes fairly equivalent in terms of fun things, although this doesn’t mean the same exact fun things.
While I am in no way a proponent of a tremendous amount of toys or “stuff,” it is kind and empathic to try and make your kids’ experience at one home not significantly less “fun” than at the other home. If you pretend not to know what “fun” means, picture stuff that you would think your kids’ friends would think is fun. Equivalency is in terms of units of fun, not the same objects.
For instance, if your co-parent allows lots of screen time and you don’t believe in that, then you certainly don’t need to buy videogames. But you could, let’s say, get a pet for your child even if that would be messy, or get a whole bunch of cool art supplies, or baking supplies. Try to objectively think about whether your home is an enjoyable place from a kid’s perspective, and, if not, figure out ways to improve that dovetail with your personality and values. If there is something to look forward to at each house, that makes it easier on your child to go from one to the other.
Next, you can ensure transitions are not when your child is exhausted, especially for more sensitive kids. This may mean that, especially when kids are young, your evening transitions are at 5pm on Sunday, say, instead of 8pm. This change alone may make it a lot easier for your kids to react more calmly. Also, don’t transition when the kids are hungry. If they are used to eating at 6pm, for example, transitioning at 5:45pm (which of course means you may not even eat until close to 6:30pm), is a bad idea and sets you and your child up to fail.
Transitions should be very quick. A few minutes max. Don’t enter your co-parent’s house because then everything may get bad fast (e.g., your child running upstairs into their room) and you have no control over it. In most cases, your co-parent will be fine sending or walking the kids out to your car, and if not, you can suggest that this will ease the transition. Hopefully, they will agree. If they don’t usually have your kids’ stuff packed and ready to go, try texting a few minutes before arrival. Or offer to pick them up right after whatever activity they were at, or do transitions after school. Long transition times are generally difficult for all involved.
Act happy and smiling when you see your child, even if your stomach is in a knot because you think they will burst into tears at the prospect of leaving your co-parent’s house. If they do start crying, try your best to empathize and say, “Hey, it’s okay, let’s go now and I have something cool for us to do later!” Don’t be scared to “bribe” your kid with a special fun activity. A board game or a craft is sufficient. Even a TV show that is just for you and your child. Kids are people, and people need to look forward to something in order to power through sadness.
Do not say bad things about your co-parent even if you feel compelled to do it, out of hurt and sadness. Saying, “Sure you like Mom’s house better because she lets you watch movies all day” is counterproductive. As I discuss in my book How To Talk To Your Kids About Your Divorce, your kids’ DNA is 50% your co-parent’s. If you make them hate or look down on their other parent, they will internalize this into self-hatred and insecurity. Give them the gift of respecting their co-parent (at least openly), even if you struggle with anger or dislike toward them internally. (Therapy can also help process and work through these feelings.)
Instead, force yourself to say positive things about your co-parent, and watch how happy this makes your child. The more you and your co-parent get along, and the more you respect one another, the more comfortable and secure your child will feel. Often, your child may prefer your co-parent because they want to defend this parent from your anger or dislike. If there is no inter-parent conflict, your child has no need to choose sides. Choosing sides is toxic and can lead to true parental alienation.
Internally, it can be hard to see your child light up when seeing their other parent in a way that they don’t with you. But remember that you, like most parents, are likely better at certain stages of parenting than others. You may not be great with preschoolers, but you may come into your own with tweens and teens, who have a different sense of humor and who want to discuss deeper topics. You may not be great with toddlers, but come into your own when they are in elementary school and trigger less anxiety in you about their physical safety (like this post). And children change and grow constantly. Your relationship with your child and their preferences for each parent can and do shift over time.
It is hard not to be the preferred parent, especially if this triggers earlier times in your life when you felt rejected or not preferred. For example, if your mom always preferred your sister, or your dad preferred work to hanging out with you, you will likely be more triggered by your child preferring your co-parent. Therapy can help you grieve some of this understandable sadness while also focusing on the positive: your child has a positive relationship with your co-parent even after divorce.
Also, it is very important to recognize that if your child is secure enough in your love to openly show affection toward their co-parent, this means they feel safe and loved by you, and not in danger of losing your love if they don’t respond in the way you would prefer. This is a parenting win. This doesn’t mean you should ever tolerate your child being rude to you, though. If your child says, “I hate you!” and you only say, “Those are some big feelings, buddy,” you have fallen victim to the overvalidation plague that turns so many children into self-involved adults. To this, respond something like, “That hurts my feelings and is not nice to say. We can discuss at home what is a nice thing to say when you see Mommy.”
Divorce can be very difficult on the adults and the kids involved. Therapy and support groups can be helpful in normalizing your experiences and giving you needed support and validation. Reading blogs, books, and forums can also be effective ways to get support. These outlets also protect you from the impulse to confide in your child. Stay strong, divorced parents! And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Fake It Till You Make It With Those Positive Comments About Your Co-Parent, If Need Be!
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