The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

Spontaneous Conversations on Favoritism

Favoritism impacts every family member for life

I am thrilled that as I speak to different audiences about the favorite child complex, people spontaneously start talking about themselves. Men and women comment about their relationships with parents and siblings, spouses and children. These adults think aloud about the impact of favoritism on their lives and the lives of people close to them. When interviewing me on the CBS Early Show, Harry Smith immediately related to the subject and started talking, on air, about himself and his family!

Smith is not unique. People freely talk about their associations with favoritism. The two most common themes that have emerged are parental unease in acknowledging that some children are easier to raise than others, and adult unease in recognizing the existence of life-long tension existing with their siblings that stems from the dynamics of favoritism in their families.

Some Kids Are Easier to Raise
During an NPR interview on the east coast, a mother called-in to acknowledge that both she and her husband favored one child over their other: both children were school-aged but she described one child as loving, cooperative, and responsive; and the other as defiant, uncooperative, and easily angered. I hear this scenario often: parents are uneasy when they realize that they favor the child who is easier to raise and more gratifying. This is especially true for parents with children who have issues with attention or defiance.

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I offered the mother expressing her concerns during the interview the following thoughts: First, it was apparent to me how much she loved both her children. Her discomfort with the favoritism she feels for her easier child suggests her depth of her love for both of them. Love is different than favoritism. Parents can love all their children equally, meaning parent can have tender and affectionate feeling for each child, and be genuinely committed to insuring the best interest of each child. But, that does not preclude parents from favoring one child over another. It is natural to feel preference for the child who is the most loving or the most affirming. What is critical is that favoritism not translate to treating the favorite child preferentially. The favorite child must be held accountable for behaviors appropriate to that child's abilities.

Second, when parents are aware that one child is NOT favored, it is important that the mother and father be deliberate in conveying their love to that child. The loving expression can be simple; for example, on "special days" they may permit just this child to have dessert before dinner or give this child a pass from clearing the dishes from the dinner table. It is important to keep the experiences short and well defined to help avoid a situation in which the child's defiance surfaces.

Life Long Tension Between Siblings
During an NPR show in California, a 62 year-old woman spoke to me about her siblings' hostility towards her. "I did nothing to deserve their treatment of me," she reported. "At my tenth birthday party my father announced that I was his favorite child. My siblings are still angry with me for that," she lamented. A second woman commented that she appreciated the irrationality of her feelings yet could not put aside her resentment of her sister. "My sister has no life. She is mother's caretaker. I have a loving husband and children, a career that I love. Still, I am jealous of my sister. Just once I want mother to chose me, to want me first and foremost." A third woman explained that while she looked after her mother and cared for her, her brother - who made only obligatory appearances - was their mother's unquestioned favorite; this woman's jealousy of her brother undermined her relationship with her only sibling. These examples are just three of many reported to me about life long tension between siblings generated by feelings related to favoritism.

Each of the women described above expressed interest in reconciling with their siblings. Sometimes this is possible but often it is not, depending on their siblings' interest in reconciliation. These women can, however, find greater peace within themselves. To do so requires enhanced understanding of their parents. When parental preference is firmly attached to just one child, the parent's choice most likely reflects that parents' unmet, often unconscious, needs which are projected on to the favorite child. Most likely, the choice has little to do with the favorite child. The first woman agreed that her father used her to manipulate the emotions of her peers, and that he was, in general, a manipulative man. As she more fully grasps that she was his tool, it is likely that she will feel less responsible for her siblings' reactions. The second and third women began to appreciate that their mothers' selection of favorite children reflected their mothers' psychological inadequacies, and not their siblings' virtues. The second woman acknowledged her sister was shy, an introvert who had few friends or interests outside of home. Her mother wanted to be the exclusive center of someone's life and exploited her sister's temperament to forge the relationship she craved. The third woman understood her mother continued to mourn her own father who had died when her mother was young. Her brother was named after his grandfather and was treated as if he was the long lost icon. With this self-understanding, each woman can view more realistically the impact of their parents' personalities on the dynamics of their own families.

Summary
Discussion about the favorite child complex stirs feelings related to family relationships. Siblings often project on the favorite child anger that more appropriately should be directed at the parents who do the choosing. But, the desire to be selected as the favorite child by mom or dad often conflicts with acknowledging, let alone expressing, the anger. The siblings holding the status as the favorite become a convenient target. For adult siblings to mend relationships with each other requires respectful dialogue coupled with each siblings willingness to view honestly the dynamics of their family. Parents who struggle openly with their preferential feelings of one child over another, such as those parents described earlier, minimize the risks of their children growing up alienated from each other. They provide their children good examples of treating all family members respectfully. They help to preserve the emotional health of the family.

 

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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