What To Do When Favoritism Is Shown

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated September 18, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Children often see and understand more than adults might think, especially regarding who receives attention in the family. While admitting to having a "favorite" child may be considered a parenting taboo, kids could feel intuitive about the existence of favoritism within their families. 

It may not be evident to a parent or caregiver that they are showing any bias. Still, when favoritism is shown to a sibling or another relative, children might detect it. Feeling less loved or seen than another child may impact your kid's behavior and their relationship with you, other adults who display favoritism, and the relative who is the target of your favoritism.

Family Dynamics Can Be Challenging

Why Does Favoritism Happen?

Many caregivers try to treat their children fairly. Still, they may inadvertently favor one child or relative over another. For example, if one child is fussier than the other, they may prefer to be in the calmer child's presence, unaware that their fussy child may feel they are unlovable or inherently "bad." 

Children may not connect their behavior with these types of consequences. They may internalize their experiences and believe it means there is something wrong with them personally. This experience is sometimes temporary and may not permanently damage a child's mental health. However, in some cases, displays of favoritism can become unhealthy and cause long-term damage to family relationships.

Favoritism is not always an issue of temperament or interests. Parents may play favorites by necessity when one child has more needs than another. Newborns and children with acute or chronic illnesses may require more care and attention than their siblings. In these cases, children who understand that their siblings have needs and challenges may still find it difficult and feel left out or not cared for. Favoritism is a common problem in blended families too. This situation can be stressful for everyone. But, just as the encouragements from most blended family quotes, blended family can be challenging but having important communication will help the parents know how to handle the situation in the long run.

The Effects Of Favoritism

Favoritism does not just negatively affect those who are not receiving as much attention but those who are the target as well. Favoritism may cause a child to have anger or behavior problems, loneliness, increased levels of depression, a lack of self-esteem, or a refusal to interact with others. These issues may appear in children who were favored by a parent and those who were not.

Emotional Effects

Anger may be a reaction to favoritism. Unfavored children may feel angry at the parent showing favoritism, but they may also displace that anger onto the favored sibling. For example, if a child feels that her parents love her sister more, this can make her feel like "I hate my sister too." In some cases, the favored sibling could feel this anger and resentment from their sibling and comes to feel their own anger toward their parents for putting them in this position.

This dynamic can be unhealthy for a favored child, as they may crave their parents' continued indulgence while resenting them for cutting them off from their siblings. Disconnection from siblings later in life is another common effect of favoritism in a family. Studies show that adult children who felt they were viewed or treated differently by caregivers struggle to form healthy sibling bonds in midlife. 

Unfavored children may not feel enough of the parental affirmation and affection they crave, and as a result, they may grow up looking for other people or items to fill that void. They may believe they are unlovable.  

On the other hand, a child who is the favorite may grow up with tension. They could feel a lot of pressure to stay in their parents' good graces, not wanting to lose the special status that they have been granted. This behavior can also inhibit their ability to detach from their parents and build their own psychologically independent self. They may stay with their parents longer or struggle to live independently. 

Relational Effects

Persistent, entrenched favoritism in a family, as opposed to brief, situational favoritism, can adversely affect relationships within the family and the future relationships of all siblings involved.

Within the family, favoritism from parents or other adult relatives can lead to tension and resentment between siblings and their parents. These negative dynamics can persist into adulthood.

Outside the family, favoritism may impact a person's ability to form close, supportive relationships. Unfavored children may experience aggression and inappropriate social behavior, making it difficult for them to make friends with other children. Other adults may avoid forming close connections with them. 

Favored children, on the other hand, may feel entitled. As adults, favored children are sometimes unaware that they must follow the same social standards as others. Their parents may not have held them to the exact expectations as their siblings, so they may feel that their parents' rules apply to adult life with other individuals. 

Intimate relationships may feel challenging for children from families where favoritism is an entrenched dynamic. Giving and receiving love can require vulnerability, and children who grew up unfavored may develop defenses against vulnerability. They may also feel rejection sensitivity, which could cause them to avoid love out of fear of rejection. 

At times, the unwavering love and care of a dedicated partner may help them learn they are worthy of love. They may also benefit from the care and attention of a trained trauma or family counselor. 

Effects Of Favoritism On Life Success

Favoritism within a family may have long-term effects on the children's future success. 

The Effect On Favored Children 

Favoritism's impact is sometimes positive, such as in the favored child's case. If they grow up thinking of themselves as competent, bright, and capable, they may feel comfortable putting themselves in the spotlight in careers or school life.  

However, being favored isn't always positive. Favored children may grow up with an inflated sense of their capabilities and an underestimation of the utility of hard work. Being the favored child might also foster an over-reliance on parents for validation and support. Finally, favored children may lose relationships with their siblings due to the attention they receive. 

The Impact On Unfavored Children 

For unfavored children, the effects on life success can feel challenging. They may perform worse at school, which could influence their career prospects. The emotional and behavioral problems accompanying being unfavored can also negatively impact their ability to navigate the social, academic, and business worlds.

What To Do When Favoritism Is Necessary

Whether you are a favored or unfavored child, a parent, or a relative looking on, it can feel challenging to know what to do when you see favoritism being shown. 

Note that you may feel favoritism is necessary when it isn't. For example, if you find that your child's behavior causes you to feel upset by them and not want to spend time with them, this might not be a legitimate, necessary reason to treat them unfavorably or differently. Often, children act out due to a chaotic environment

At times, the appearance of favoritism is caused by legitimately differing needs between children. In these cases, there are several steps that parents and other adults can take to support children who may be feeling less favored.

First, make it evident that you may pay more attention to one child because the child has specific needs that the other children do not have. For example, they may require medical care or extra support at school. Try to explain this in an age-appropriate and compassionate manner. 

Next, parents may seek ways to ensure that the needs of their other children are also being met. They can do this by blocking off some time for one-on-one play or an activity the child enjoys. 

Other adults might be enlisted for a short time to help provide the attention and affirmation that children need. In the long term, however, the family situation may need to be sustainable for all the children involved.

What To Do When Favoritism Is Unnecessary

Favoritism may occur when unnecessary, such as when a parent prefers the personality or behavior of one child over another. It may be challenging to get through to someone exhibiting favoritism if you're the child or adult impacted by it. 

If you're a parent, however, you may be able to lessen the effects of favoritism on an unfavored child by offering them unconditional love, support, and affirmation. If you can extend the time and energy necessary, stepping into this role may profoundly and positively affect the child in question.

If you are a parent observing preferential treatment to one of your children from a grandparent or other relative, try to put a stop to it. Doing so may mean limiting contact between your children and the other relative. If you don't address favoritism, your favored and unfavored children may think you support the relative's behavior. 

What To Do As An Adult Favored Child 

As a favored child, you may need to take on extra responsibility in learning independence and researching outside points of view. Learn to detach yourself from your parent's pressure or gaze. If you feel anxious or responsible for your parent's well-being, learning to set boundaries can be an essential first step. You may also choose to enlist the support of a friend or therapist. 

If you know your sibling was an unfavored child, you might reach out to them to reconnect as adults. Let them know that what happened to them wasn't okay to you, and you understand why they may have pushed back or become distant. Try to be understanding of their emotions and healthy healing methods. They may have a different relationship with your parents than you do, and there could be a valid reason for that. 

What To Do As An Adult Unfavored Child 

As an unfavored child, try to find as many resources as possible to help yourself deal with the emotional and social effects of favoritism. Learn to recognize your worth and focus on those areas of your life where you have exhibited strength and capability. 

If you choose to connect with the favored relative or sibling in your family, you might let them know how their behavior or lack of action may have impacted you. You might connect over feeling powerless or disrespected by your parents. Try to understand that your sibling may also have had negative impacts in their life due to being favored. 

Counseling For Adults Impacted By Favoritism 

A therapist specializing in family relationships may be beneficial as you begin to recognize the parts of you that have been affected by favoritism and heal them. 

If you're considering online therapy but are unsure of its effectiveness, a literature review has shown that it's just as effective as face-to-face therapy. The review comprised sixty-five articles, which found that client satisfaction was positive and clinical outcomes were comparable to traditional therapy for a diverse population receiving different therapeutic treatments. Online therapy could be a consideration for you as you deal with the effects of childhood favoritism in your adult life.

Family Dynamics Can Be Challenging

One form of therapy, in particular, family therapy, has been shown to improve family dynamics and relationships. However, individual counseling is also effective for treating some of the effects of favoritism, such as low self-esteem.

Licensed therapists like those at BetterHelp may help you process the emotional effects of growing up with favoritism in your family. Or if you are a parent who recognizes that you are showing favoritism, a therapist may support you in changing your behavior toward your children and yourself.  

Takeaway

Some adults may not realize that showing favoritism can negatively affect the favored and unfavored child. The favored child may develop a sense of entitlement and become used to getting their way, which can lead to problems. The unfavored child may feel inadequate or unlovable or lash out at their family. 

In some cases, favoritism may lead to serious mental health problems like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. If you are witnessing favoritism, take steps to get support. If the problem persists, family therapy or individual counseling may be necessary to help address the underlying issues.

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