Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

My daughter treats her dad as a rival for my attention and is mean to him when he comes home. Is animosity towards the less-favored parent normal?

It's okay for kids to have preferences, but they should still learn to treat others with respect

Kristin Carothers, PhD
Kristin Carothers, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My daughter is an only child and preferences me over her father and has since she was very little. She treats her dad as a rival for my attention and gets very upset when my husband and I have time without her. She is mean to her dad when he comes home from work and won't let him read her stories. She complains when he watches her without me, even when my husband goes out of his way to do something fun. I am my daughter's primary caregiver and she gets plenty of uninterrupted time with me. Recently, she told me she would be happy if we got a divorce (her best friend's parents have just separated) because then she would have me all to herself. Her dad feels very sad and bitter about her behavior and it makes it hard for him to keep putting himself out there. Is this level of animosity toward the less-favored parent normal?

I want to acknowledge how difficult your situation is. It is not uncommon for children to feel closer to one parent than the other based on the amount of time they spend with that parent or personality dynamics. Sometimes issues linked to oppositionality make it more likely, over time, that a child will respond to direct commands from one caregiver more than another.

One thing you might consider is having a conversation with your daughter about how much her dad wants to spend time with her and how it makes him feel when she treats him unkindly. You can also help her gain perspective by talking to her about what it’s like to see friends treated poorly on the playground or at school, reminding her that her dad experiences similar feelings. You can also let her know that it is okay to feel closer to one parent and that both of you love her. The message you want to send is that it’s okay to have preferences and we should treat people the way we want to be treated.

For your husband, I would recommend having him ignore negative comments or actions (as long as they are not destructive or aggressive) and instead provide your daughter with lots of specific praise when she is kind or exhibits positive behavior.

One of the concepts we teach in behavioral parent management training is to try to catch your child being good whenever possible. So instead of providing her with attention or feedback when she behaves negatively towards her father, she would only receive attention when using kind words, engaging in gentle kind touches, and going with the flow when she is with her dad. These types of behaviors might also be behaviors we would include on a daily report card/behavioral chart system that would allow your daughter to earn points for her positive behaviors. Those points could later be exchanged for an activity of her choice.

Empathize with your husband and acknowledge that his feelings are valid. As much as possible, give direct commands which tell your daughter how she should interact with her father, rather than focusing on how she shouldn’t behave. Provide her with specific praise and feedback when she complies. Finally, have your daughter engage in five minutes of special time with her dad every day using unstructured toys like blocks or legos — anything that does not have rules, which decreases opportunities for conflict. During the play, your husband should provide praise for positive behaviors and let her take the lead. This is an approach from parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), which might also be a good treatment approach for your family should you notice an increase in oppositionality or defiance towards your husband. You can find more information about PCIT in your community at the website for PCIT international.