What to Do When Your Child Acts Different with One Parent

Years ago, when my girls were small, we took them to visit my parents. I’d been haggard and tired, and my mom insisted I take a nap. I objected, worrying the kids would drive her mad, but she shooed me away.

I awoke well-rested and refreshed and made my way into the den. Both girls were sitting properly and behaving. They were eating peanut butter crackers, too, something they threw a fit about when I’d offered them. I had told my mom this before, so when I came in, she said, “See? They eat them for me.”

Thanks, Mom.

It was then that I started to realize my child behaves for everyone but me. Well, both of them, actually.

If your child acts differently with one parent, has toddler mommy attachment, or your child acts up after visiting dad, this is one post you don’t want to miss. I’m uncovering the mysteries of why a child is acting out with one parent over another, so let’s dig in!

Why do toddlers act differently around mom?

Is baby more fussy with mom? You know, that seems to be the norm. And guess why? Basic human emotions are what your child is capable of. While they might love all the people in their life – dad, grandpa, grandma, siblings, etc. – but they feel like they can just let go and be free with mom.

Happy mom with a toddler

Perhaps that’s why a toddler is possessive of mother so much since you are their rock. That toddler mommy attachment is so real. They feel free to whine and carry on because you make them feel safe, and that’s a good thing. Well, for them. For you having to listen to it, not so much, but I’ll have tips for you further down on how to deal with that.

Incidentally, I was so worried when my eldest first went off to school. I thought, “Oh boy. I’m going to get LOTS of calls from the teacher.”

I really had it rough because my husband’s Chinese parents would counteract all our methods, so our eldest got mixed messages. For example, my father-in-law would give her candy even when she didn’t listen. We had to work extra hard to correct that.

But at school, she was an “absolute doll,” her teacher had told me. She listened, she behaved, why she made all the other kids look like monsters!

Ok, she didn’t say ALL that. But my girl was a good girl at school.

Once we got her home, it was a different story. She’d throw tantrums and whine, and it was a nightmare.

But the good news is this: kids that act this way in front of you will become more confident and capable of expressing themselves as adults.

Why do toddlers prefer one parent over another?

Usually, it’s mom the toddler will prefer. Parental preferences are nothing new. Often, they come with changes in the family. Moving, especially from one continent to another, will totally do this. I can tell you from experience.

Here are the things that can affect their preferences:

  • Moving
  • New job for either or both parents
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Separation anxiety
  • New bed/sleeping arrangements (like sharing a room with a sibling or getting their own room)
  • Birth of a sibling
  • Something you or your spouse (or even the grandparents do) that they perceive as better

With that last point, perhaps your husband does all the voices for Spongebob’s characters when he reads to your toddler. Can you blame your child for showing preference there? I think not!

What should the non-preferred parent do?

Most of the time, the mom is the preferred parent. But if you aren’t or your spouse is feeling low about it, here’s what you can do.

  • Get your own feelings in check

Sometimes your toddler will push you away, and that really hurts. For me, I was the preferred parent. It still seems that way. They both come to ME. I could see how hurt my husband was, so I told him to simply tell them he feels sad when they say “Go away” to him. Don’t make a show of tears, but if you do feel like crying, go where they can’t see it.

  • Strengthen the bond

To keep your child from behaving differently around you or your spouse, build up that relationship. I had my husband take each of our daughters to spend one-on-one time with them. Now they love doing those things with their daddy.

  • Show your empathy

My husband would spend time with the girls when I’d do a mom’s night out. Even though I wasn’t out late or anything, the girls would get upset. He’d use this as a chance to build that bond we just discussed and then empathize with them. “I know you miss Mommy, but she’ll be home soon, and I can help you get your pajamas and toothbrush ready.”

  • Find your own drum and march to it

My husband now has some things that are just between him and our girls, like this silly chase game he made up. They love it as much as the things that are just between them and me too. When you make your own things with your kids, that helps the bond between you grow and grow.

Why do toddlers reject their mothers?

In my experience, moms tend to be the preferred parent. But sometimes, it’s mom that gets rejected. I know I just covered some tips to help, but these are just for mamas that have been rejected by their toddlers.

  • Get back in the game

Perhaps your child is preferring dad or the grandparents because they play more. We forget as adults to embrace that simple playfulness sometimes. After all, there are things we have to do, and we must be serious!

I can tell you, though, that it pays off if you take the time to be a little silly and playful. We spend too much time creating a good-cop-bad-cop mentality in our homes. Why not just shake it off?

Even to this day, I jump in the pool with my girls and scream like a child. Why? Well, it’s just fun. But they love it too.

And back to the dad as the non-preferred parent, once my husband started jumping in with us, it delighted the girls beyond belief. So if you’re being rejected, take some time in each day to find that silliness. You will feel better inside your head, and I speak from experience here, and your child will gravitate more toward you.

  • Let the chores wait

Kids surely can help with chores, but if you have lots to get done, consider waiting until after your toddler goes to bed. You can do things like laundry later. So too can dishes. If you’re always too busy with chores, it will be little wonder that you’re less preferred.

My husband and I started splitting the chores more when the children were small. This way, they got to spend time with each of us. It made our home more harmonious.

Is hubby too busy?

One of my friend’s husband is a CEO and is always busy. With her 4 kids, she was always doing it all. They finally hired a housekeeper, and now she has much more time to be silly with the kids.

Whatever your budget, whatever your lifestyle, there is a way to prioritize. Just remember, they’re only young once, and messes happen. Leave those messes sometimes and focus on the kids.

  • Don’t demand hugs and kisses

Some kids are cuddly and lovey all the time. This would be my youngest. She always has hugs and kisses for everyone. But when my husband would badger her for a hug or kiss when she was smaller, she’d abruptly runoff.

If it’s happening to you as the mom, don’t be needy. As you spend more time with your child and work on these other tips, they will come to you more and dole out those hugs and kisses.

And just as some children are very affectionate, some aren’t at all. I once had a boyfriend whose mom told me he would cringe as a baby when he was cuddled. In hindsight, that should have been a huge clue.

  • Know that this phase will pass

All kids go through phases as they grow. As such, this will pass as well. In time, things will improve, and you’ll one day look back on this and laugh. Years down the road, your child might call you up about their children with the same complaints, and you’ll smile to yourself and pass along this advice!

How to handle tantrums your child throws only around mom

Now, further up, I promised to discuss what to do when your child throws tantrums around only you. I have a great experience with this with BOTH of my daughters. When they were each small, they threw the usual tantrums.

girl outburst of anger

But they would also behave in a bonkers way around just me. I’d try to tell my husband, and he’d think I was nuts until I took a video of it.

Eventually, I got a handle on those just-for-mom tantrums. Here are my tips for you and your sanity…


If the tantrum is out of frustration, a distraction is in order. “Oh, hey! We have this new picture book! Let’s take a look, and I’ll read it to you.” Sorting tasks also provide great distractions. Use it to your advantage.

Stay calm

I totally know how you feel. You want to rip your own head off, roll it across the floor and knock those tantrum-y children down. I feel you, sister. But letting it get the best of you only prolongs that tantrum, so stay cool as a cucumber and don’t let your child see that you feel like a cartoon character that has steam coming from their ears.

You’re doing things right

Whatever you think of your own parenting, I want you to know you are doing it right! Why do I say this? Because your child can express themselves in front of you. While they’re young, they may not be the most effective communicators, but you want them to be open with you. As they get older and can communicate better, they will tell you what’s wrong, and you’ll be better poised to help them with advice.

Spend time together

I know you wanted that bubble bath, but put it off for just a wee bit to calm your child down. Do something with that distraction, spend time together, and get them laughing. Once they’ve calmed down, you can sneak off to slip into those blissful bubbles.

Give your child time with their dad and grandparents

Your child needs to spend time with the other people that love them and that they love. This will also keep one parent or caretaker from being preferred. Your child will learn to open up to each of you and have a village of people that they can talk to about anything.

Don’t correct at the moment

My youngest would throw tantrums that were especially bad. But trying to talk sense into her when she wasn’t calm was ineffective. Once I’d get her calmed down, we have a talk about it. I’d use it as a teachable moment, and we’d move on from there.

In short, don’t feel bad if your toddler behaves differently around you than your spouse. It’s normal, and with a bit of encouragement from you, things will balance out soon. Good luck!

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