Favouritism from parents towards one or more of their children is considered a parenting taboo. Clinical psychologist and play therapist Dr Jo-Marie Bothma helps you to navigate these feelings.
While most parents will either not admit to any form of favouritism, for others it might not be that obvious. Children, however, can see and understand much more than we might believe or imagine, especially when it comes to who is receiving the most attention from their parents.
Even though parents are not keen to consider that they might have a favourite child, children are often very open about the existence of favouritism within their family. When favouritism is shown to a sibling, children can detect it and it can affect not only their behaviour, but also their relationship with their parent. It can also have long-term consequences.
Why does it happen?
Generally, all parents aim to keep interaction, attention and expression of love fair between all their children. However, sometimes life’s circumstances force a parent into a temporary direction where one or more child(ren) will feel less important and perceive the interaction of their mother and/or father towards a sibling as superior in comparison with their time with that parent.
This can, for instance, happen with the arrival of a new baby. Inevitably the parent/s might spend so much time with the new addition to their family that they might miss out on the perceived neglect that their other children experience during those early weeks and months following the birth.
Fortunately this is short-term, and once the family gets into a new rhythm, things tend to return to normal, and children rarely comment on that time again. These situations are certainly not always damaging and sometimes children can even acquire valuable skills and grow emotionally during such times.
Other situations can arise where parents can sometimes favour one child over another depending on the child’s temperament. This can happen if one child is, for instance, fussier and more difficult to please than the other. You might enjoy or even prefer to be in the calmer child’s company, unaware that your fussy child may become more resentful by the lack of attention.
This can also happen when a parent and a child who share a particular interest might spend a significant amount of time pursuing that interest together, leading to the appearance of favouritism.
Sometimes favourite children are those who make parents feel most competent and most successful during certain times in a parenting journey.
Favouritism is not always the result of a temporary phase, a temperament clash or shared interest, however. Often it is impossible to treat all your children the same, because every child is different and has different needs. Parents sometimes play favourites by necessity when one child has more needs than another.
Children with acute or chronic illnesses, for example, have a real need for more care, understanding and attention than their siblings. In these cases, even children who are old enough to understand that their siblings have specific needs or challenges may find it hard not to feel bitter about the drain on parental resources.
Rarely, but regrettably, there are also situations where displays of favouritism can become abusive to non-preferred children if a parent intentionally prefers one child over another and chooses to act on that on a daily basis. Sadly, this can cause long-term damage to family relationships and the child’s psyche.
The effects of favouritism
Research has shown that parental favouritism amongst siblings in a family negatively affects their mental health and often triggers behavioural problems in children, teens and young adults. Siblings tend to feel and express less warmth and more hostility toward one another when either parent favours one child over others.
The first study to also show that adverse effects such as depressive symptoms can persist long into middle-aged adulthood was done at Cornell University in New York and published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2010. This study also showed that parental favouritism does not only harmfully affect those who are not receiving as much attention, but those who are spoiled by it as well.
Research also shows that children’s perception about favouritism counts more than the reality. In other words, the way children perceive favouritism matters more than how the parents actually treat their children.
The perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings. The less favoured children may have feelings of animosity toward the parent or preferred sibling, and being the favoured child brings resentment from one’s siblings and the added weight of greater parental expectations.
A new study, published in the Journal of Adolescence in 2017 shows that if a younger sibling feels like they are the favourite and their parents agree, their relationship is strengthened. Interestingly, with older siblings, whether they feel favoured or not, has no major effect on the relationship. The reason for this difference was attributed to one sibling comparing himself to the other. It is not that older siblings do not ever think about their siblings and themselves in reference to them, it is just not as active of a part in their daily lives as is the case with younger siblings.
Foster healthy and normal family favouritism
It is natural to think that treating children equally is the best way to mitigate any negative effects. Research, however, indicates this is not the case. It seems that when parents are more loving, supportive and consistent with all their children, the favouritism that does happen from time to time tends to not matter as much.
The healthier way of thinking about this would be to focus on treating siblings fairly, but not equally, as different children have different needs and attending to those needs is a normal part of growing up within a family.
Dr Ellen Weber Libby, a psychologist in Washington D.C. actually coined a term “favourite child complex” in her 2011 book, The Favourite Child. She explained that when there is fluidity and different children are favoured at different times for different reasons depending on their individual needs, it can be healthy for all involved.
The favourite child can develop personal power skills, focus and determination, as well as grow in confidence and achieve success at reaching goals. On the downside they might at the same time escape consequences, learn to stretch the truth, manipulate and lack awareness of the effect of their actions on others.
The unfavourite child might actually also experience some advantages in that they have more freedom to individuate, create their own dreams and goals while focusing on self-care, and learn to function in the outside world where there are consequences of unacceptable behaviour.
This principle of shifting favouritism or rotating favourites, where different children hold the advantage from day to day or week to week might yield a healthy, normal competitiveness, equalise the playing field and might help parents to feel less guilty if there are times when they favour one of their children over another.
Love versus favouritism
Parents should be conscious of the difference between love and favouritism. It is possible to say that you love your children the same, and from time to time there is a child you favour because at that moment that child makes you feel more successful as a parent or is in need of extra attention. So, where there might be inequities from time to time, what matters most is the perception of favouritism and what everyone involved does with it, both in terms of behaviour, and in terms of memory and emotion.
A published study in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2014 by Alex Jensen, a professor of psychology, reported that if children perceive that favouritism is not fair, issues will arise. This can happen when parents do not love their children equally and unconditionally and when any form of favouritism is steady and persistent and becomes a lasting part of the family dynamic.
Parents can try to minimise any ill effects of perceived favouritism by letting their children know that they really do love them and by holding all children responsible and accountable to the same standards.
Children need love, affection, warmth, and time with their parents. These are the basic needs for healthy relationships. Parents can equalise that and favouritism should never come into play when it comes to these very essential needs.