The unfortunate truth is that parents do not always treat their children equally. While ideally, parents would treat kids equally, favoritism does happen in families. Unequal treatment of children can change over time and children can be wrong about which child a parent thinks they favor. While parents cannot completely control their children’s viewpoint, it helps to understand how perceptions about parents having a favorite child can develop.
Do Parents Have a Favorite Child?
Many parents struggle with favoritism, even if they would not admit it. It is not surprising that favoritism can have painful implications for families. However, these challenges do not have to prevent good relationships.
Sometimes a parent may communicate differently with one child than they do with another. This difference does not necessarily indicate favoritism. It is important not to take these instances out of context, although taking note of and communicating a concern you have can help to improve our relationships.
Here are 6 things to consider about why you may have a favorite child:
1. You Share Similar Personality Traits
It is common for us to identify more with one parent than another. In those cases, we may be naturally drawn into conversations with them or spending time with them. It’s the same the other way around, sometimes it is easier to get along with people we understand.
However, this similarity can cause friction as well, and similar personalities can actually lead to more conflict. These cycles are to be expected in our relationships, including with our parents or children. The differences in the interactions are worth reflecting on, but not necessarily a sign of favoritism.
2. Birth Order
It is usually easier for adults to talk to other adults than it is to talk to children. As we age, we become more capable of this communication. In a case where the oldest child seems to be the favorite, this capability could be an important factor to consider.
By contrast, the complexities that come with growing up may bring more conflict with our parents. In these cases, a parent’s relationship with the youngest child may be simpler in some ways, and those interactions may seem easier for the parent. Just the same as cases with older children, it is a factor to consider rather than proof of favoritism.
3. Relationships Can Change Over Time
Relationship dynamics can change over time. There are many examples of life changes that can radically alter dynamics. For example, a parent-child relationship that is fraught with conflict throughout adolescence may soften substantially when the child moves out of the home. This relationship may even give way to a closeness that at first seems surprising due to past arguments.
However, it is also possible that these frustrations can harden and become bitter with time. Parents and children can grow farther apart, and as some research indicates, may even have significant implications for how parents help their children financially.1
4. You and Your Child Share Values
When a child has the same values as their parents, it can smooth a lot of roads for them. In fact, research has shown that shared values is the strongest predictor of closeness in a parent-child relationship 2. As the authors explain it, since a parent attempts to transmit their values through parenting to their children, the number of shared values may be seen as an indication of the relative success of their parenting.
Going further, the authors contrasted a parent’s pride (positively associated with shared values), with disappointment (negatively associated with shared values) as an effort to characterize this parental closeness 2
5. You May Admire Your Child
As a parent, it can be difficult to keep yourself from noticing impressive things your children do. As it happens, one of your children may impress you more commonly than the others, and this kind of focus and praise can lead to what seems like favoritism.
However, simply recognizing these impressive qualities or feats in our children does not mean we want to favor them over their siblings. It can be a sign of a bad habit that contributes to painful moments for an unnoticed sibling and is worth attending to.
6. Your Child May Have Special Needs
If your child was born or acquired a disability or illness, the extra care necessary to raise your child will lead to more attention being given to them throughout the time of special needs. Depending on the situation, this extra attention may extend through the entire life of the parent or child in question.
This extra attention is not always chosen but is usually necessary. After all, nobody involved with these families would say that a child with special needs does not require some special attention. However, in these situations, care must be taken by the parents to guard against favoritism and perceptions of favoritism.
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Effects of Not Being the Favorite Child
Unfortunately, there can be negative consequences for families where one child is favored over the others. In some cases, research indicates that even thinking that there is a favorite child can result in these impacts 3. Due to the power of this perception, these additional challenges are worth exploring.
Negative impacts of believing you are not the favorite child may include:
- Emotional neglect: Children or adults may believe that their parents don’t love them as much as their favored sibling 3
- Increased risk for depression: Increased risk of childhood depression has been linked with parental favoritism. Depression for the less-favored child has been associated with perceived or actual favoritism in parenting 4.
- Less sibling intimacy: Favoritism can (but doesn’t have to) cause a divide in sibling relationships 5.
- Worse relationship with siblings: Favoritism isn’t a guarantee that you will have a worse relationship with your siblings, but it is possible that resentment over unequal treatment will affect the relationships. In fact, these resentments have been found to affect sibling relationships even into adult life 4.
- Unequal inheritance: Parents sometimes play favorites in their wills, as well 1.
How to Avoid Playing Favorites as a Parent
There are a lot of things parents can do to protect their children from being damaged by favoritism. As was mentioned earlier, sometimes children perceive favoritism differently than their parents 3.
Below is a list of ways to help you avoid playing favorites in your family:
Comparisons can teach us a lot about who we are. For instance, recognizing that you are worse at math and better at language arts than your friend can help you choose what kind of career to pursue in the future. Comparisons can hurt us when the things we are not good at become the things that are bad about us. Being worse at math doesn’t make you a bad person, but knowing you are better at something else may help you make your choice.
There is nothing wrong with noticing differences between your children. In fact, these differences can help us find the right areas to expose our kids to opportunities to move forward. Remember that these differences aren’t permanent, like how your younger child is not going to be capable of reading as well as a sibling ten years older than them. These things change with time and encouragement, rather than comparisons that make them think they are bad.
Examine How You Accommodate Your Children
It is appropriate for parents to accommodate their children. For instance, you may help your young child get dressed sometimes. Younger children will not be able to do everything their older siblings can do, much less what an adult can do. If you are doing things for one sibling, what keeps you from doing it for the other siblings? Is this reasonable?
When we see this pattern in our family, consider what may need to change. Sometimes we will need to accommodate a child to help the entire family do something. For example, if the entire family wants to ride a roller coaster, a parent may need to ride with a small child. Other times, we may not have such a clear justification.
Don’t Take Away Opportunities For Growth
Be careful that you are not taking away chances for your child to grow. If parents routinely keep their children from taking on responsibilities that they can handle, it prevents them from gaining skills essential to independence.
When did you stop tying your child’s shoes? The truth is that it may take weeks or months for your child to tie their shoes more quickly and effectively than you tie them. Consider what other things your child may benefit from doing on their own.
Take Your Children Seriously
As a parent, our children can be exasperating at times. Their energy outpaces ours so early in their life, and their curiosity does along with it. It can become routine to dismiss our children’s many requests. Some of this may be unavoidable, but we also need to struggle against this pattern.
Some of our children’s requests won’t be serious, and others will be. If our children earnestly ask us a question, we do right by taking them seriously. So if our children say we play favorites, we should take that seriously too. Acknowledge that we don’t want that outcome. Strive to do differently.
What Stories Do You Tell About Them?
The stories we tell about our children can serve as a foundation on which we explain to our children who they are. It may be easy to remember how hard it was for our children to sleep when they were infants, and confuse that over time with how that colicky child is a more difficult child to raise than their sibling. Over time, the stories we remember and tell about our children can fuel painful interpretations children make about themselves.
Reflect On Your Own Growth
What were you like as a child? Would it be true to say that you have always been one way or another? In some ways, we may recognize stable characteristics in ourselves. In other ways, we may see areas of tremendous growth. The growth you see in yourself is possible for your children as well. In turn, the growth you may see in your children is possible for you.
If you recognize that you admire one of your children for something, think about it. After that, spend time searching for things to admire about your other children. This may be difficult at first, but as you work through this process, you may be surprised to discover how many qualities you admire in your other children.
The most important part of this recognition is to remember a few things. First, find something to admire about your children that is definitely true. Second, think of a way to explain this quality that they can understand soon, if not already. Third, make sure that this quality is not immediately contrasted by something you don’t admire about your child, such as praising their child for being persistent but complaining that they are interrupting your work.
Help Children Recognize What Their Emotions Are For
Emotions are challenging to learn about and understand. They emerge for a purpose, even if it is not always well understood. This purpose can help us be closer to important people in our lives, including our parents and siblings. Working with our children to help them deal with the emotions they are already feeling can help them learn not to be afraid of them.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy can be useful for almost any part of our lives. This does not mean that everybody needs therapy, but rather that the benefits of therapy may be useful for many reasons. If parental favoritism is hurting and overwhelming you, therapy can be a good choice to help you sort through what you are feeling. Use an online therapist directory to find someone who can meet your needs.
Therapy options to consider include:
- Individual therapy: Working to address our issues for ourselves can help us identify and cope with challenges and pain in our family.
- Family therapy: Family therapy can be done either with children and parents or with siblings. Research has shown that siblings that are warm with each other tend to be less lonely throughout life 4.
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT): PCIT is a committed, multi-phase approach for parents wanting to learn a systematic way to change their parenting.
- Parent coaching: Parenting coaching is a less-structured method of working with parents to address parenting challenges.
- Faith communities: Many times our values are tied to our faith. Being part of a community where other parents share our perspectives can help us as we work through these challenges .6
Favoritism is not an ideal outcome in any parenting situation. However, the reality is that favoritism, or the perception of favoritism, will come up from time to time in our families. This is due to unequal treatment that is, or seems to be, weighted towards one sibling and away from the others. These perceptions or realities have significant consequences, but they do not determine outcomes. There is always something we can do to improve our lives, no matter the circumstances.
Do Parents Really Have Favorites Infographics