Your child’s love is like a teenager’s first crush
At around the age of 4, it is common for a child to fall in love with the parent of the opposite sex. This has to do with his strong love for his parents and is the beginning of his forming a positive relationship to the opposite gender. For some children, this is a dramatic issue in the family; for others, it may not seem very prevalent or can be very subtle, (e.g., the child looking lovingly into the parent’s eyes or wanting to sit very close.)
As a result of his feelings, your child may engage in complex behaviors. He may insist that he will marry Mommy and cry bitterly if you argue with him. (Girls have a comparable fantasy about marrying Daddy.) His love is very powerful, and is similar to a teenager‘s first crush, so it must be handled carefully. You will need to avoid teasing him about his wish. Instead, acknowledge his desire by saying, “You really would like to marry Mommy. It is OK that you wish you could. Little boys your age often feel that way.”
Then, gently acquaint him with the reality. “Mommy can only be married to Daddy.”
Though he may get very upset about this notion, your child will also feel relief. Deep down he knows that he needs Mommy to be his mommy. He may even feel a secret wish that Daddy would go away and he would have Mommy all to himself, and fear that Daddy would be angry if he knew. Your injunction may not end the fantasy, but it reinforces the reality that it will never happen.
A little girl may get very jealous if Mommy and Daddy snuggle on the couch and try to squeeze in between them. It is important to explain to her that children her age often have a strong love for one parent and can find it hard to share this parent. Encourage your child to tell you whenever she feels left out. Reassure her that there is enough love in the family for everyone and have a group hug.
Your child may become very demanding—for example, “I only want Daddy to pour my cereal,” or, “Only Mommy can put me to sleep.” During this stage, parents will often agree except when it is too hard on either parent. Then they announce, “Daddy has to read you your bedtime story tonight.”
Daddy or Mommy will need a lot of support at this time because the child is often openly rejecting the other parent, for instance telling him, “I don’t love you,” or “I hate you.” The parent should try not to take this personally (even though it is very hard).
Daddy (or Mommy) can take heart. This 4-year-old scenario gets resolved when the child relinquishes his wish sometime around 5 or 6. He or she identifies with the same-sex parent and copies every move he makes.