Our three-year-old says he loves me more than his dad. What can I do? | Ask Annalisa Barbieri
For the past six months, our three-year-old son has been showing clear favouritism towards me. My partner finds it really upsetting and was recently devastated when my son blankly told him he loves mummy more than he loves daddy.
We have another baby due any day now, so I try to comfort my partner by explaining that it’s probably normal behaviour for his age and is likely to be related to the changes that we are going through as a family, but he still gets extremely hurt by it.
I feel constantly caught in the middle, which is exhausting and frustrating. I don’t know whether to try to talk to my son about it, or whether to reassure my partner, who is very sensitive and feels he is being rejected. Is my son’s behaviour normal and is there anything we can or should do about it? How can I best support my partner through this?
Your son’s behaviour is completely normal and, to a certain extent, so is your partner’s. We all want to be liked, especially by our children, and to feel that we aren’t can tap into something very young in us.
I contacted child and adolescent psychotherapist Valentina Levi, whose first reaction was to reassure you that your son’s behaviour is “not worrying at all, but very typical, developmentally”.
At this age, children start to realise they are separate entities to their parents and that can cause a lot of anxiety. The “terrible twos” (I know your son is three but it’s a phase that can go on!) are often mislabelled because, actually, children are expressing big emotions – the only way they know how with a limited vocabulary – and not being naughty or difficult. If it’s “terrible” for anyone, it’s for the child who is finding their place in the world. Children also start to understand that their parents have a life that separate from theirs.
It’s your husband’s reaction that we need to look at a bit more closely. He is, after all, the other adult. While his reaction is understandable, you describe it as “extreme”. If he’s feeling pushed out, it’s because the intimacy between a mother and her child can feel very excluding, even if it’s not intended that way.
“What is it that’s making your husband feel wounded?” asked Levi. “Is it making him think about something in his own history or does something else feel unbalanced between the three of you?” It may be worth looking at what this brings up in you, too.
Levi recommended that your husband spend some one-on-one time with his son; after all, he probably will have to do this when the new baby comes along. “This is really important to secure a really good relationship between father and son in preparation for the baby’s arrival.”
When the new baby is born, I recommend that you also spend time alone with your son to help him feel he hasn’t lost you. My other top tip is to call the new baby “your sister/brother” rather than “the baby”, as this connects it to him. And, of course, you must never tell him he has to love his brother or sister.
It’s important not to let your son know he can upset his father because that’s a heavy burden for a child. Levi recommended saying something simple like: “Sometimes you might feel like that but ultimately we/I think you do love Daddy.” That way you can confirm your son’s feeling, but reassure him that ultimately nothing catastrophic has happened.
Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected] Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.
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