Does your toddler play you as parents against each other? 8 tips

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  August 5

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Do you recognize this situation?

My son snuggled up against me and put his arms around my neck. "You are my favorite" he whispered in my ear.

Of course you can't say no to that, I felt sorry for my husband, how could he compete?

Of course I was his favorite, I spend more time with him, and yes, that mother-child bond is just very strong.

I'd like to say that the sudden favoritism my little one gave me didn't change the way I raised him.

But from time to time I found myself giving in to his big eyes and trembling lower lip.

His "mom please" gave him an extra candy and extra screen time. I told myself it was innocent.

But, should you feel sorry for me as a husband and father now? No, because now we come to the point of this story.

The mother walked into the room and saw her son settle in with her husband and watch his face light up as he whispered in his ear.

Turns out he was his favorite too.

Both guilty of letting us be manipulated. We had both succumbed to his flattery and he had successfully played us off against each other.

These aren't the first parents to fall into this trap, and after some research, I've learned that there are several methods that children use to achieve a similar effect.

How can you recognize that a toddler is playing parents against each other?

If I say no to my son, he accepts my decision without a word. What a good parent I am!

Turns out he's going straight to his mom who's doing something in another room to try there.

It doesn't take long for some kids to realize the benefits of playing off their parents to get what they want.

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After being on Earth for a few years, kids start to realize that just because Dad said no doesn't mean Mom will say no (or vice versa).

Toddlers often see the world in almost magical terms where they just ask for something and then it will appear.

For children this age, parents are the great caregivers who give them everything they need at all times - no matter how difficult.

Approach each parent individually

This is the easiest indication that your child may be trying to play parents off against each other.

A child can even tailor the request specifically to each parent to increase the likelihood of acceptance.

They will look for weaknesses and interests that align with that parent's sensitivities to get what they want (oops, personalization!)

For example, if mom said no to stay up late to watch a movie, dad might say yes because he's been wanting to watch that movie for a while, as long as you bring up the right movie.

Good cop, bad cop

Sometimes one parent more readily gives in to requests so that your child can focus his energy on convincing that parent.

Important decisions must be made after both parents weigh the pros and cons together.

Educators say it's not uncommon for children to try to play one parent against another.

However, the behavior can become problematic if the child manages to get what they want.

In the event that it is continuously and regularly effective, the concern is that the child learns that “no” gets more meaning “try it in a different way or ask someone else” instead of “no, that's really not allowed ”.

So what's the best way to nip this type of behavior in the bud? Of course again, communication is key.

What to do if your toddler plays you off against each other

You must communicate with the child about the behavior and also ensure good communication between you as parents.

As with any behavior with children:

If it is effective to get the desired outcome, they will continue with it, and if it is no longer effective it will stop quickly.

It's all well and good and it starts out innocently, but at some point you have to sit down together and agree on a strategy together.

It is best to show a united front and support each other, and if one says no, the other must say no.

If you disagree with a decision yourself, then that is something to discuss together at a later time, but not at that time decide otherwise.

Playing off is worse with divorced parents

When a child sees their parents separated it can be a difficult time for them and they will react in different ways.

A common way is to try to play parents off against each other.

If you notice your child doing this, don't panic as it is normal behavior.

Stay calm and try to work with your child and his mother to find a way to correct the situation.

Why do children play parents against each other?

Every child likes to test his limitations and find out to what extent the people around him can respond to his wishes.

Toddlers are all the way up to discover how far they can go and how their behavior affects others.

Because their parents are closest to them, they are the first to learn how to push your buttons to get fun things done.

When parents break up, this situation is exacerbated and whether it is through anger, to seek attention, or to test their new boundaries, they will often try to play you off against your ex.

Don't give in

If your child finds that playing you against their mother is working, they will try to do it more often.

The smartest thing to do is to ignore their behavior. This can be difficult at times because you may be looking for extra love and acceptance from your child.

You don't want them to see your ex as the “favorite,” but competing for your child's attention isn't a healthy cycle to get into.

Be honest

Depending on how old your child is, it may be a good idea to sit down and talk honestly with them about what's going on and how you = you feel about their behavior.

They probably think they are very smart and you don't realize what they are trying to do.

By talking to them about it, you bring out their behavior, you can address it, and talk about the underlying issues that make them act that way.

Work with your ex

As your child tries to play you and your ex against each other, spread the situation by coming together as a united front.

The relationship may not be perfect with your ex, but you both need to find a way to work together as parents.

If you do this, your child will soon realize that his behavior is getting him nowhere and will not try as hard as he can.

By staying calm and directly addressing their behavior, you can help temper it.

Ideally, if you can work with your ex, you can show a united front and make them realize they're getting nowhere this way.

Important things to remember

Some parents will use their children to put emotional pressure on each other, and this is certainly not recommended.

Remember, children will often be reassured when they can't play their parents off against each other, but when they play it right for each other.

Kids will get the sense of security that comes with predictable parental boundaries, but they can keep testing you every now and then.

When your child is doing their most persistent tests, they probably need the most reassurance from you at that point.

Always something to do for the holidays or rainy day?

Play Choice now has the ultimate activity book collection, with over 60 pages of fun coloring pages and educational puzzles.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Speelkeuze.nl is a content marketer, father and loves trying out new toys. As a child, he came into contact with everything around games when his mother started the Tin Soldier in Ede. Since 2016, he and his team have been creating helpful blog articles to help loyal readers with fun play ideas.