The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

FAVORITISM DOES EXIST!

Cohort and empirical studies agree: favoritism exists! Depression can result.

"Admitting to a favorite kid is one of the biggest taboos in parenting, although the vast majority of moms -- and pretty much all kids - perceive that there is a golden child in just about every family," blogs Amy Kuras in Toddler Newsletter.

No! Admitting to having a favorite kid isn't one of the biggest taboos in parenting. NOT admitting to having a favorite is! Denying what is true can be disturbing to everyone in the family, making everyone feel a little crazy and eroding healthy family relationships.

The vast majorities of moms describe having a child whom they prefer and who receives special treatment, and still, parents have a hard time admitting that they favor one child over others. The terms differ but the message is the same---there is a favorite child. Children seem freer to acknowledge the existence of favoritism in the family. Each child is an individual and so is each parent. It is perfectly natural that a given child and a given parent have a special resonance; sometimes it is brief and sometimes it is more permanent.

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Two recently published studies, independent from one another, agree that favoritism
• is common to families;
• can contribute to depression in both the favored and unfavored child;
• impacts all family members for life.

One study, directed by Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer and published in the April issue of Journal of Marriage and the Family, found that "(P)erceived favoritism from one's mother still matter to a child's psychological well-being even if they have been living for years outside the parental home and have started families of their own." The second study, recently published by this author in the book The Favorite Child, explains that favored and unfavored children are vulnerable to depression because there is tension associated with being chosen as well as not being chosen by the parent important to the child.

Why depression...

Children growing up as the golden child or the unfavored child are equally vulnerable to suffering from symptoms of depression. Longing to be the favorite child or working to maintain that status creates complicated issues for both the unfavored and favorite child. The personalities of each are likely to be marred by symptoms of depression: Each child may struggle with loneliness or emotional isolation; achieving psychological independence; having addictions that undermine the quality of their lives.

There are advantages to being chosen. In species of birds and animals, life can depend on being selected as mothers offer their milk to some infants, who survive, and not to others, who die. In humans, while being selected and its consequences are usually not so dramatic, the emotional health of the child largely depends on that child's feeling secure in his mother's love. Commonly, children not only crave their parents' love but also want to believe that this love is greater than the love parents feel for anyone else. Adults smile as toddlers ask their mothers and fathers, "Do you love me more than anyone else in the whole wide world?" As children grow-up, a major task to be accomplished, necessary for their healthy functioning, is to learn to feel secure in the world without requiring ongoing parental affirmation. To the degree that children do not accomplish this important milestone, they are vulnerable to depression.

For unfavored children
Children who have never felt this affirmation, the unfavored child, often live their lives looking for this validation. They look to others to choose them as they had hoped their parents would. Since no one can fill the void created by parental neglect or oversight, these unfavored children often grow up insecure and not believing themselves lovable. One father, who grew up feeling unfavored, lamented the pain he feels each Father's Day as he doesn't trust his children's celebration of him. He knows the problem resides within himself as his heart is not fully open to their embrace. A lifetime of disappointment has taught him that there is emotional safety in being walled off to the expectation that he will be chosen for special kudos.

These children are especially vulnerable to struggling with establishing intimacy, or being easily frustration or angered. First, to be intimate, one's heart has to be open to others, and like the father described above, unfavored children often have developed defenses to protect themselves against being disappointed that they are not chosen by people important to them. This tendency to close one's heart makes establishing and maintaining intimacy difficult.

Second, children who grew up unfavored often have adopted the attitude that no matter how hard they try, they will not achieve the desired outcome. Throughout their childhood, they may have worked hard to achieve the more preferred status; but as hard as they worked, they failed to achieve this position. They never grasped that most likely their unfavored status was rooted primarily in their parent's inadequacy, not in theirs. These children easily feel defeated, and overtime, develop the opinion that hard work does not bring the desired reward. They are easily frustrated and walk away from challenges.

Third, unfavored children are vulnerable to developing personalities impacted by underlying anger. They are angry at the parent who treats them as the unfavored child. They are angry with the other parent for not altering the course of events. They many be angry at the sibling who is favored, especially if that sibling exploits the advantages of being favored. Unfortunately, as the child grow up, their anger is likely to be easily ignited and inappropriately expressed.

For favorite children
Golden children are also vulnerable to depression. They are likely to develop unhealthy personality traits, and be robbed of knowing themselves well. First, favorite children, having grown up mastering the art of knowing how to get what they want from the adoring parent, have mastered the art of manipulation. They expect the quid pro quo to be enacted: The child believes that in exchange for making important people in their adult worlds feel valued, these adults will give them what they want and not hold them accountable for questionable behaviors. These golden children grow up knowing how to get what they want, when they want it, and to feeling entitled.

Second, favorite children are likely to mature without having forged their own identities. These children, wanting to insure their favorite status, can be preoccupied with pleasing the important parent. A gay man called in during one of my NPR interviews to report that he was frightened to come out to his parents. If he did he knew that he would loose his favorite child status, and he did not trust that he could function successfully in the world without it. Yet, he acknowledged that his heavy drinking permitted him to escape the discomfort he felt in living with the secret.

Third, ultimately favorite children are prone to harbor underlying anger at the parents who favor them. The children tend to feel trapped by the relationship. As one woman expressed, "Do I have wait for my mother to die to have my own life?"


...and what's to be done

As elaborated in my last blog and suggested by Pillemer, open communication among all family members is the best technique to prevent hurt feelings within a family to fester and to begin to remedy the injury that has corroded family relationships. Such dialogue is difficulty to obtain. All family members must value it, and everyone has to be willing to work for it. Everyone must

  1. LISTEN to each other;
  2. RESPECT different viewpoints;
  3. STRIVE to accept the truth of different perceptions;
  4. WORK deliberately at not being defensive;
  5. FEEL safe to express words of personal truth.

 

 

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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