Children can see and understand more than you think, especially when it comes to who is receiving the most attention. While admitting to having a “favorite” child is usually considered a parenting taboo, children are often very intuitive about the existence of favoritism within their families. It may not be obvious to the parents that they are showing any bias, but when favoritism is shown to a sibling or another relative, children can detect it. This can affect their behavior and their relationship with the parent, other adults who display favoritism, and the relative who receives the favoritism.
Why Does Favoritism Happen?
Most parents try to keep it fair, but sometimes they inadvertently favor one child over another during certain situations or depending on the child’s temperament and personality. For example, if one child is fussier than the other, you may prefer to be in the calmer child’s presence, unaware that your fussy child may become more disgruntled by the lack of attention. Other times, a parent and child who share a particular interest might spend a significant amount of time pursuing that interest together, leading to the appearance of favoritism. This is sometimes temporary and is certainly not always damaging. But other times, displays of favoritism can become abusive to nonpreferred children and cause long-term damage to family relationships.
Favoritism is not always an issue of temperament or shared interests. Parents play favorites by necessity when one child has more needs than another. Newborns and children with either acute or chronic illnesses have a legitimate need for more care and attention than their siblings. In these cases, even children who understand that their siblings have particular needs and challenges may find it difficult not to resent the drain on parental resources.
The Effects of Favoritism
Favoritism does not just negatively affect those who are not receiving as much attention but those who are spoiled by it as well. Favoritism can cause a child to have anger or behavior problems, increased levels of depression, a lack of confidence in themselves, and a refusal to interact well with others. These issues appear in children who were favored by a parent as well as those who were not.
Anger is a common and understandable reaction to favoritism. Unfavored children may be angry at the parent who is showing favoritism, but they may also displace that anger onto the favored sibling. After all, they want to win the love and affection of their parents, so they can’t afford to be too angry with them. In some cases, the favored sibling feels this anger and resentment from their siblings and comes to feel their own anger toward their parents for putting them in this position. This can be a highly toxic dynamic for a child, as they crave the continued indulgence of their parents while feeling resentful toward them for cutting them off from their siblings.
Depression later in life is another common effect of favoritism in a family. Remember, favored and unfavored children are both at risk. Unfavored children may never get enough of the parental affirmation and affection that they crave, and as a result, will grow up looking for other people or things to fill that void. Since this is impossible, they may come to think of themselves as destined to be unlovable. A child who is the favorite, on the other hand, grows up with their own tensions. They may feel a lot of pressure to work hard to stay in their parents’ good graces, not wanting to lose the special status that they have been granted. This can also inhibit their ability to detach from their parents and build their own, psychologically independent self.
Persistent, entrenched favoritism in a family, as opposed to brief, situational favoritism, has adverse effects on relationships within the family and on 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 as well as between children and their parents. These negative dynamics are not restricted to childhood but can persist into adulthood. Favored and unfavored children can both experience these negative emotions.
Outside of the family, favoritism can affect a person’s ability to form close, supportive relationships. Unfavored children are more likely to exhibit aggression and inappropriate social behavior that make it difficult for them to make friends with other children. Even other adults will tend to shy away from forming close connections with them. Favored children, on the other hand, can become entitled. As adults, favored children are sometimes unaware that they need to follow the same social standards as other people to be accepted. Their parents, after all, didn’t hold them to the same expectations as their siblings.
Intimate relationships can be especially challenging for children from families where favoritism is an entrenched dynamic. Giving and receiving love requires vulnerability, and children who grew up unfavored often develop defenses against true vulnerability. In many cases, the persistent love and care of a dedicated partner can help them to learn this vulnerability. Other people can benefit from the services of a therapist to help them lessen these defenses.
Effects of Favoritism on Life Success
Favoritism within a family can have long-term effects on the future success of the children involved. Sometimes this effect is somewhat positive, such as in the case of the favored child. If they grow up thinking of themselves as competent, bright, and capable, this often translates into a promising future. However, being favored isn’t always a good thing. Favored children can grow up with an inflated sense of their own capabilities and an underestimation of the utility of hard work. Being the favored child can also foster an over-reliance on parents for validation and support. Finally, favored children are often robbed of some of the most substantial relationships in life – their siblings.
For unfavored children, the effects on life success can be even worse. They tend to do worse at school, which may have an effect on their job and career prospects. The emotional and behavioral problems that can go along with being nonfavored can also negatively impact their ability to navigate the social, academic, and business worlds.
Whether you are a favored or unfavored child, a parent, or a relative looking on, it can be hard to know what to do when you see favoritism being shown. There are, however, some actions that can be taken by anyone in these situations to ease the effects caused by favoritism.
What to Do When the Appearance of Favoritism is Necessary
Sometimes, the appearance of favoritism is caused by legitimately differing needs between children. In these cases, there are several things that parents and other adults can do to help children who may be feeling less favored.
First, it must be made evident that the reason why a parent may pay more attention to one child over the other is that the child has specific needs that the other children simply do not have. Most children can understand this when it is explained in an age-appropriate way.
Next, parents need to find a way 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 that the child enjoys. Other adults such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close friends can also be enlisted for a short time to help provide the attention and affirmation that children need. In the long term, however, the family situation needs to be sustainable for all the children involved.
What to Do When Favoritism is Unnecessary
The most unfortunate kinds of favoritism to witness and experience are those that are not necessary for any difference in needs between children. Most of us react strongly to seeing parents blatantly favor one child over another. If you are the favored or unfavored child, your own reactions are likely just as strong as onlookers, and likely more complex. But what can be done?
Sometimes there’s little to be gained from speaking directly to the parents or other relatives exhibiting favoritism. As an adult, however, you may be able to ameliorate the effects of favoritism on an unfavored child by offering them some of the unconditional love, support, and affirmation that they should be receiving from their parents. This can be a difficult task, especially with the behavioral difficulties that some unfavored children experience. But if you are able to extend the time and energy necessary, stepping into this role can have a profound effect on the child in question.
If you are a parent observing preferential treatment to one of your children from a grandparent or other relative, you should do what you can to put a stop to it. This may mean limiting contact between your children and this other relative. If you don’t address the favoritism, both your favored and unfavored children may think that you agree with the relative’s behavior, or even support it.
As a favored or unfavored child, you will need to recognize that your parents have abdicated some of their responsibility toward you. There are some things that you will need to take care of yourself.
As a favored child, you may need to take on extra responsibility in growing as your own person. Learn to detach yourself from the positive effects of favoritism so that you can be free from the anxiety or oppression of maintaining the relationship. It may be impossible for you to mend your relationships with your siblings on your own without extra support, such as a friend or therapist. You can, however, be open to their expressions of anger and resentment. You do not need to take their emotions on yourself, but you can recognize their validity.
As a nonfavored child, find as many resources as you can to help yourself deal with the emotional and social effects of what has been lacking in your life. Learn to recognize your own worth and focus on those areas of your life where you have exhibited strength and capability. An in-person or online therapist who specializes in adult sibling relationships can be very helpful 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 consisted of 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.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
Licensed therapists like those at BetterHelp can help you process the emotional effects of growing up with favoritism in your family. Or, maybe you are a parent who realizes that you are showing favoritism, a therapist may then be able to help you figure out what lies behind your choices and actions. If time is a constraint for you, you can meet with a therapist whenever it suits you best. You can also meet with a therapist in your home or even in your car. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
“I started working with Jeana a few weeks ago, mainly because I am trying to really step out and learn who I am without the influence of my family and others. She has been so very helpful in guiding me through this process and helping me manage those emotions that will pop up while trying to dig through life.”
“Kris has been helping me for over a year and a half now. Whether it’s dealing with the day-to-day stresses of work or deep-seated issues from my childhood, she brings sensitivity, insight, and gentle humor… She’s pretty awesome, and I’m happy to be able to connect with her via this platform.”
As a favored or unfavored child, you may need to take on extra responsibility in growing as your own person and learning to detach yourself from the effects of favoritism. It may be impossible for you to mend your relationship with the favored sibling, or nonfavored siblings if that’s the case, on your own. You can, however, be open to their expressions of emotion. You do not need to take their emotions on yourself, but you can recognize their validity. Take the first step today.