Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter’s mom and I are divorced and we share custody. But sometimes my 2-year old daughter doesn’t want to come with me. Or, if she does, when she gets upset she wants her mommy. What can I do to help her enjoy our time together?

A: First, as with so many child-related things, try not to take it personally. I know that’s a lot harder than it sounds—after all you’re the one whose feelings are being hurt. But assuming that your daughter isn’t deliberately trying to hurt you (and since she’s two, it would be crazy to assume otherwise), there are a number of reasons she might resist spending time with you and/or ask for mommy when she’s with you:

  • If your daughter spends more time with her mom, she may have a comfortable routine that gets interrupted when she’s with you. The solution: Ask your ex to describe their typical schedule so you aren’t skipping anything that could be important to your daughter, like a post-nap snack or favorite bedtime song.
  • If you don’t see your daughter for long stretches of time, she may be shunning you as a way to protect her feelings (to avoid missing you when you’re not together). The solution: Stay connected through phone and video chats, give her a photo of you to keep and explain that it’s OK to miss daddy, but even when you’re not together you’re thinking about her and loving her.
  • Most toddlers go through a phase when they prefer one parent (often the one who’s the same sex as the child). The solution: Again, try not to take it personally. And be patient: like all phases, it will pass.(In fact, there’s a good chance that next month she’ll decide she prefers you over mom. Always communicate that you and mom love her equally regardless of who’s her flavor-of-the-day.
  • Some toddlers have trouble with transitions. Meaning, whatever activity they’re engaged in, they don’t want to stop. Or, if they are at Mommy’s, they might not want to leave. (It doesn’t necessarily mean she likes mom better, just that she’s having fun at the moment and doesn’t want it to end.) The solution: Avoid asking, “Do you want to come with Daddy?” just say, “it’s time to play with Daddy!” Describe something fun you’ll do together, and then do it!
  • It’s also normal for toddlers to prefer the parent who gives them the answer they crave. For example, if you insist that your daughter finish her veggies and she doesn’t want to, she may cry for mommy. The solution: Offer her comfort without giving in, and explain that mommy would enforce this rule as well. Never relax the rules to win her affection.

Some additional tips to help you both enjoy your time together:

  • Create special activities or routines to do with your daughter, like building a princess castle with couch pillows or riding the seesaw together at her favorite playground, so she can look forward to that special time you share.
  • Make sure you’re not encouraging your daughter to take sides by asking, “Do you want to go with daddy or mommy today?” Young children should never be put in a position that forces them to choose between their parents (even if it’s only for a few hours).

Finally, avoid trying to buy your daughter’s love by giving her excessive treats or gifts. This creates an impossible expectation that will backfire. The most important thing you can give her is your unwavering love and attention.