'It was brutal': The toddler phase that nearly tipped me over the edge

Photo: Brooke Campbell struggled with feelings of jealousy when her eldest daughter favoured her husband as a toddler.
Photo: Brooke Campbell struggled with feelings of jealousy when her eldest daughter favoured her husband as a toddler.  Photo: Supplied

I'm not a jealous person. I'm pretty content with who I am, I don't compare myself to others or think the grass is any green on the other side.

Except on my husband's side that is. For a while there his side looked way greener than mine, and I wasn't all that happy about it.

You see, my eldest daughter, who is now five, went through a stage when she was younger that lasted about 12 months (but felt like 167 years) where she preferred her dad over me. And she was rather, well, brutal about it. 

Photo: Having a 'preferred' parent is very common
Photo: Having a 'preferred' parent is very common Photo: Supplied

Only he was allowed to get her out of bed, hold her hand, sit with her, play with her, basically, look at her. 

I mean isn't the child supposed to favour the mum? Isn't that the way it works? I've seen the movies…the child always run to the mum when they fall over, when they're sick or upset. But this was real life and my story was not playing out like that.  

It was a heart-wrenching period for me. I was her mother, I carried her for nine, long months, birthed her, fed her, adored her, and now she didn't want anything to do with me. Weekdays it was mainly her and I and she was fine with that, mostly.

But the second dad walked in that door, she turned on me. She forgot all the fun things we'd done that day, all the laughs we'd had, cuddles we'd shared. And if I looked at her, she would have a tantrum.

I tried so hard, too hard. Instead of taking it on the chin and with humour, I bribed her with ice cream to hang out with me, offered to let her stay up later if she sat on my knee and let me read to her. If dad was around, it didn't work. And I turned a shade of green that I'm not proud of.

The worst part was I often took it out on my husband. It wasn't his fault, and logically, I knew that, but emotionally, that was different. 


I would overhear him whispering to her to 'let mummy read you the book' or 'let mummy have a turn', I knew he wasn't enjoying how much it hurt me. He'd tell me I was the lucky one, to enjoy some freedom.

But I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, I would watch the way she would look at him, like he was the only person in the world and it was so hard to not feel irrational feelings of jealousy towards him.

The three of us would go on family holidays and I'd ruin the trip by feeling so sorry for myself that I wasn't a part of their gang. She may have been two years old, but man did she have the power to sting me. 

Photo: Brooke and her little girl
Photo: Brooke and her little girl  Photo: Supplied

And people would notice. At the park, friend's houses, play dates, they would say 'oh she really loves her dad' – sticking the boot in further.

Psychologist Sandy Rea says it's completely normal for a child to go through a phase like this; it could be that dad allows and encourages certain behaviours that mum doesn't, or as simple as mum may be around more and taken for granted.

"Having a 'preferred' parent is very common….it's regarded as a stage and being 'preferred' does not mean a lack of love towards the other parent," says Sandy.

Photo Brooke admits it was hard not to have rrational feelings of jealousy towards her husband.
Photo Brooke admits it was hard not to have rrational feelings of jealousy towards her husband.  Photo: Supplied

And while it's easy to throw your hands up in the air and cry you're being left out and everyone hates you (who, me?), Sandy says there are far better ways to handle it.

"Of course you take it to heart because 'all I have done for this child' but children do not affirm your role or who you are. You decide that. A child cannot confer shame or embarrassment because you perceive yourself as 'less than best'," explains Sandy. "The unpreferred parent has a choice in how to respond, e.g. playfully, with good humour, but not with resentment."

Now we have another daughter who has just turned two, the same age this started with our eldest daughter. Her preferred parent changes minute by minute, and when she wants her dad over me, I'm now more than okay with that. I mean, when it comes to dads, my girls have hit the jackpot, so I can't blame them. 'Oh you want daddy to change your nappy? No problem!' And if it means I'll get a few more minutes to myself, I'll take them. 

I now know the 'stages' kids go through never last forever, and if I had of known that when this particular stage finished, I may not get to go to the toilet on my own again for at least a few years, I would have told myself to chill out relish the chance to have a little break. 


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Sandy Rea's five top tips for when your child prefers one parent over another:

  1. Any misalliance is worthy of a discussion with the preferred parent
  2. Push yourself into the love dyad (with preferred parent) if they are playing outside…go join them…nothing wrong with some intrusive parenting!
  3. Build connections (in ways you may not have otherwise thought to do)
  4. Get the preferred parent to talk to the child e.g. 'I really want mummy with us' etc …they need to support you.
  5. Rotate the roles you each play; if you are always 'bath time mum', hand that to dad, etc.