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How to Cope When You’re The “Preferred Parent” in Adoption

When a younger child joins an adoptive family, it’s not uncommon for them to bond with one parent first — and reject the other parent. Below, one adoptive mom reflects on her experience being the “preferred parent”in the early days together with her daughter, and her advice for how both parents can cope with this often brief but intense phase of their adoption.

Although it was very intense in the moment, being a preferred parent seemed to not last very long in the big picture, in my experience.

To give general perspective on the timeframe, when we met our 3-year-old daughter, she seemed to come to both my husband and I equally for the first day. However, two to three days after she was in our care, she came to me for comfort and needs, and treated my husband like another big kid — to be played with and teased, but not to be trusted. When she was in a good mood and had plenty of energy, she would wrestle and run with him, but when she was tired or uncertain of her situation, she would resort to pushing him away, sticking her tongue out at him and refusing to touch him, etc. This behavior grew more and more intense as we stayed the remainder of our time in Thailand (about two weeks).

She would panic and cry if she woke up and I wasn’t around. It seemed to get worse in the evenings, perhaps because she was tired. She wouldn’t let me leave the hotel room without her. The most intense part was that she wanted me to carry her whenever we left the hotel. It’s understandable that she would be intimidated by the big city and traffic, the Metro and noisy tourist destinations. Emotionally and physically, it was really challenging for me to carry an almost 30-pound 3-year-old whenever we went out. She refused a toddler carrier, and wouldn’t sit in the stroller. I knew she needed reassurance, and I wanted to strengthen our bond and continue to hold her, so I didn’t force the carrier or stroller. But it was very hard on me.

She refused to let my husband carry or touch her, which frustrated him as well. I’m sure he struggled with feelings of rejection. He shared with me that he felt great frustration at the helplessness of seeing that I needed support, but knowing our daughter wouldn’t let him care for her in the same way that she let me. I felt exhaustion coupled with guilt that this child that we had waited for, for so long — whom we already were beginning to love — seemed to be bonding with me, but I needed a break from her.

It was also sad for me to not be able to spend as much quality time with my 7-year-old biological son, who was also on the trip with us. Our family would end up pairing off, with my husband taking our son to the pool in the afternoons, and me staying back in the hotel room with our daughter because she was afraid of the water. Our son said he missed me so much. I was so grateful that our daughter trusted and chose me, but I still felt lonely being left in the hotel room. 

For the remainder of the time in Thailand, I carried her, put her to bed and comforted her when she was upset. At times, she would play with my husband, but mostly he supported the family by planning the day’s outings, calling cabs, picking up takeout, etc. Thankfully, she slept through the night and seemed comfortable in the room with our son. Some mornings, I was able to get up early and slip out to the hotel gym to get a moment to myself before she woke up.

I felt exhaustion coupled with guilt that this child that we had waited for, for so long — whom we already were beginning to love — seemed to be bonding with me, but I needed a break from her.

For the trip home, I carried her through the airports, and sat beside her on the plane. (Both kids actually did really well on the long flight home!)

It’s been three months since we’ve been home, and gradually our daughter has gotten to the point where she seems to prefer both of us equally. I’m not exactly sure when or how it happened, but after several weeks or so, my husband was able to take a turn with bath time and bedtime routines, and take our daughter out on short errands with just the two of them. She will even let him hold her hand! Now she asks him to carry her and even begs for rides on his shoulders!

I don’t know that we did anything specifically to have her trust us both equally, other than letting her see over time that we were both there for her consistently — and providing opportunities for her to spend time with each of us separately. Throughout the transition, my husband was (and still is) a steady, loving presence. Our daughter no longer treats him like an older boy to tease. He is officially “Daddy” in her eyes. There are still times where she will come to me first — to sit on my lap in the mornings after she gets up, or if she is hurt — but generally, she seems to be bonded to us equally. When he goes to work, she demands to know, “Where’s Daddy?” And will ask about him throughout the day. When he gets home from work, she will proudly run to show him something she colored, or how she clipped her favorite barrette in her hair, just so! 

Now she comes to either one of us to comfort her when she’s sad, or when she needs something. I’m able to leave for several hours to go out to the store, or to an evening class. Early on, I tried to make a habit of telling her, “Mommy, will come back soon. Mommy will always come back,” even when I left for short periods. Our son enjoyed emphasizing this point by repeating, “Mommy always comes back!” Now that she has started morning preschool, I still tell her “Mommy will come back soon” every day when I drop her off. She understands, and is ok with me leaving.

If I were to give any advice to parents, it would be to have hope that we found the preferred parent situation temporary. In country, when picking up your child, I would say to do what you need to be comfortable, and try not to force things. Support the preferred parent as much as possible (carry luggage, call taxis, order takeout, etc.). Reassure the other parent who is being rejected that they are doing a good job, and the child is not rejecting them personally. Tell them not to give up, but continue to gently offer opportunities to play and spend time together.  I would tell families to not feel pressured to do too many “touristy” activities in country, but fall back on what is pleasurable and relaxing for their family, whether it’s going out or staying in at the hotel. At the same time, check in with everyone’s mental health to see if someone needs more time or specific support.

Don’t force anything when dealing with the added stress of travel when picking up your child in country, or even in the early days at home.

Eventually at home, you can gradually introduce your child to spending brief periods of time alone with the non-preferred parent, and you will be surprised when things begin to change. In short, don’t give up! The days are long, but one day will come when your child holds hands with both you and your partner, and wants nothing more than to be with both of you!

Mom and dad laughing and playing with adopted son.

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