Do you prefer one of your children?
If you think your favoritism is no big deal—think again. The consequences for both the Golden Child and the runner-up can last a lifetime.
The reality is that most parents will identify with one of their offspring more than the others, which is not harmful when all the children are well loved. But favoritism, taken to an extreme, can cause psychological and even physical harm.
Why Parents Favor One Child Over Another
A parent may like a child’s gender, a face reminiscent of a beloved relative, athletic prowess, musical talent, birth order, even hair and eye color
– we have many reasons for delighting in one of our children that are specific to him or her. We may also be re-enacting our own sibling rivalry or trauma from our childhood, unconsciously using our son or daughter to fill a void or heal old wounds, thereby contributing to our own children’s rivalries and wounding.
This behavior can affect the family dynamic by creating distorted and inappropriate family roles. For example, a mother may favor one child even over her husband, thus “parentifying” the child, turning him or her into a surrogate spouse who is expected to fill all her needs. The effects of this can follow the parentified child into adult relationships.
Long-term Consequences for the Favored Child
As much as the favored child might enjoy the extra attention and the message that he can do no wrong, the long-term consequences can be profound—and negative. When parents justify, make excuses, or turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior, children can grow into adults devoid of morals, unable to feel empathy or act with genuine kindness. They’ve been taught that the rules don’t apply to them, a classic trait of the narcissistic personality disorder. Their self-confidence and their ability to seduce and charm (skills that worked on their parents) may help them achieve professional success; often, though, their belief that it’s acceptable to put their needs above others’ can lead to their downfall. When criticized for their deeds as adults, their reaction is often disbelief, confusion, or narcissistic rage. That early message of “you’re the special one” gives them a distorted view of themselves and their place in the world.
The favored child often finds it difficult to sustain a romantic relationship. Normal and appropriate bids for intimacy from a partner may feel suffocating, as a result of the inappropriate enmeshment with their parent, so they behave in ways that push their partner away. Sexual acting out, multiple affairs and emotional neglect doom their marriages or keep them from committing at all.
Long-term Consequences for the Non-favored Child
Non-favored children who have spent their childhoods trying to be seen, praised or given affection from a parent can grow up believing that no matter how hard they try, nothing will work out, and that they are undeserving of love and kindness. As adults, they may become involved with romantic partners who are psychologically or physically abusive or make them work hard for appreciation. They can survive on crumbs of affection. The less-loved children may, as adults, set low goals and not live up to their potential. They may suffer from depression, and attempt to fill the void inside with food, alcohol, or a series of partners who treat them poorly, or are simply unavailable.
But it is possible to develop strengths from a childhood of neglect and criticism. The ongoing attempts of a child to be “tuned into” a parent’s moods and needs can heighten his sensitivity to the subtle signs and red flags that denote unhealthy situations and relationships. He may have an increased capacity for empathy and altruism. Additionally because nothing has come easily to him, he may be willing to work twice as hard as others to achieve his goals.
Should You Intervene?
I believe we should intervene whenever we observe abuse in the world, whether it involves a child, an adult, or a four-legged friend.
If you observe a parent habitually favoring one child and criticizing the other, speaking up will be effective only if it can be done gracefully and with kindness. Criticism is rarely easy to hear, and many of us are sensitive about our parenting skills. If you’re dealing with a narcissistic parent, he or she may be very defensive, unable to face the possibility that his or her behavior is damaging and cruel. Start the conversation in a positive way, perhaps by pointing out an engaging quality of the overlooked child. Depending on the response you get, there may then be a chance to say, “Gee, I notice that little Suzy doesn’t seem to get as much of your attention as Annie does.” Sometimes, when a parent is resistant to feedback, it’s helpful to talk about yourself and your own experiences, which can create space and give them the willingness to engage in a conversation about parenting. If all else fails, try to provide little Suzy with the encouragement and affection you see is lacking, a safe place to turn when she is feeling alone. In working with patients over the years who have survived abusive households and thrived as adults, I’m inevitably told of a wonderful teacher, aunt, next-door-neighbor who gave them the acceptance and “ healthy mirroring” they didn’t receive at home.
Healing Can Start at Any Point.
Change is possible. Often when I tell parents that they have the opportunity now to create the healthy family they wish they’d had growing up, they become motivated to do the work.
Parents who use one child to fulfill their needs while neglecting the other can transform this destructive dynamic into a positive one if they are willing to take the first step: acknowledging that they, not the neglected child, have the problem. They must be willing to stop labeling, pathologizing, taunting that child, dismissing the issue as a case of sibling rivalry, or justifying it with remarks like, “he’s just not as much fun as his brother.” They also need to accept that they are harming the favored child. Then they need the willingness and courage to delve into the patterns in their family of origin, to explore and heal the wounds of their own childhood, with the intention to not only repair their lives, but to stop the pattern repeating in future generations. This is only meaningful way to make amends to the family members they have harmed.
What about us, the “normal” parents who aren’t sociopaths or even narcissists? Many of us will admit, at least to ourselves, that we find one of our children more simpatico, more entertaining, or just easier to raise. We would never admit it to our kids, of course, but—could we be playing favorites? It’s a good idea to check in with ourselves occasionally to notice whether we habitually side with one child when arbitrating those endless arguments, whether we make excuses for this one, expect less (or more) from that one. It can be illuminating to switch it around once in a while, do the opposite and see how it feels.
There’s another favored child reaction, which is that a child can feel guilty for being obviously preferred to a sibling, often for no apparent reason, for nothing they’ve “earned.” They may endure the hostility of the less-loved, and that’s no picnic.
Sibling love is unique. Who but your sister remembers, let alone shares your crazy history, who but your brother understands the particular eccentricity of your parents, your hometown, the ethnic rituals and holiday dinners? Favoritism drives a wedge between brothers and sisters, depriving them, sometimes forever, of a precious resource, one of the best gifts you, their parent, will ever give them: one another.