"In the earliest photos, my mother holds me like a china doll, beaming into the camera. She’s never looking at me, just straight ahead, because it’s really a picture of her holding a prized possession. I am a stand-in for a pedigreed puppy. I am always dressed to the nines — a big bow in my hair, a poufy dress, and white shoes. I remember the shoes, because I had to be careful not to scuff them. They had to be perfect. Later, though, I began to express myself and, even worse, looked like my dad, and my mother wasn’t pleased. She made it clear that I wasn’t what she wanted, expected, or signed up for. And I lost my place in the sun."
The cultural myths about mothers would have us believe not just that all mothers are loving and instinctively nurturing, but that they love each of their children equally. That, as research shows, isn’t the case; in fact, Parental Differential Treatment is so common that it has its own acronym, PDT. The reasons a parent favors one child over another are both simple and complex; the “goodness of fit” — the degree to which a child’s personality fits a mother’s own — may account for a large part of it. Imagine an easily rattled and introverted mother with two children, one of whom is quiet and easily malleable, while the other is high energy, excitable, and quick to test boundaries. Which of the two will she find it easier to parent?
Studies also show that the child’s developmental stage may spur differential treatment; for example, a more authoritarian, take-charge mother may be more comfortable parenting a younger child than an older one who talks back and challenges her. In this scenario, whichever child happens to be youngest slips into the “favored” position. But being Mom’s favorite may be just a temporary posting for some.
That said, not all mothers fall into the trap. One daughter, now a mother herself, reflected on how her own mother managed:
"Looking back, my older sister was much more work for my mother, because she needed help getting things done, and I didn’t. There wasn’t a diagnosis of OCD back then — it came later, in my sister’s adulthood — but that was what was going on. Still, my mother stayed even-handed in everything else, even if I didn’t get the same amount of one-on-one attention. I never felt cheated."
That isn’t true in many households, especially those managed by mothers high in narcissistic traits, or controlling, or those who are enmeshed. In these homes, the child is seen as nothing more than an extension of the mother. In these scenarios, predictable patterns of family dynamics emerge. One is what I call the “Trophy Child."
But, first, more on PDT.
The effects of perceived favoritism
It will surprise no one that children are incredibly sensitive to differential treatment in all its forms; what might be surprising is that sibling rivalry — while accepted as a “normal” part of life experience in the culture — can be anything but normal in its effect on children, especially when served up with a cocktail of favoritism. According to work by Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin, differential treatment of siblings has a greater effect on a child than direct contact with the parent. In their words, “Seeing your mother’s evident affection for your sibling may override any affection you in fact receive.”
While this sounds counterintuitive, it’s of a piece with research confirming that, as the title of one article puts it, “Bad is Stronger than Good.” Because humans are hardwired to react more to possible threats and dangers, we store those memories in a different part of the brain, where they’re more accessible than benign and happy experiences. So, yes, your memory of how your mother lit up when she embraced your brother or sister — and how left out you felt — will be much more vivid than those occasions when your mother flashed you a faint smile and seemed pleased with you. (It’s the same reason the effects of verbal abuse by one parent aren’t mitigated by the kindness expressed by the other parent.)
Differential treatment, not surprisingly, has been shown to affect a child in myriad ways — lowering self-esteem, inculcating habits of self-criticism, reinforcing the thought that she doesn’t belong and is unloved, developing maladaptive behaviors (in part to get attention), and putting her at greater risk for depression. Then too, there’s the collateral damage done to her relationships with her siblings.
Moving out of the childhood home or the child’s maturation doesn’t necessarily stop the pattern. One study showed that in young adulthood, PDT continued in families, eroding both sibling relationships and individual well-being. The young adults who did best were those in families where there was no favoritism. Interestingly, in families where there was, both the favored offspring and the less-favored one showed more depressive symptoms:
"I was sandwiched between two stars — my older brother the athlete and my little sister the ballerina. Never mind that I was an ‘A’ student or won prizes at science fairs, but I guess my mother thought what I did unglamorous. She was also very critical of how I looked compared to my siblings. ‘Smile,’ she’d always say, ‘A plain girl needs to smile more than anyone.’ It was nothing less than cruel. Guess what? My heroine was Cinderella."
Less surprising is the research finding that differential treatment packs more of a wallop when the children are the same gender.
Enter the "Trophy Child"
Mothers who see their children as extensions of themselves and, more important, living validations of their own self-worth, value those who make them look wildly successful, especially to onlookers. The ultimate Trophy Child is that of the classic stage mother who fulfills her own unmet dreams through her offspring — think Judy Garland, Brooke Shields, Gypsy Rose Lee, and others. But show business need not be part of the formula; the Trophy Child can be found in suburbs, in small towns, or in an apartment on a busy city street.
While parental differential treatment can sometimes be unconscious on the mother’s part, the creation of a winner’s circle in the family is conscious, open, justified, and sometimes even ritualized. Children in these families — whether they are the “lucky” Trophy Child or not — recognize early on that who they are isn’t important; it’s what they do and how that reflects on their mother. When winning love and approbation is a part of the family dynamic, it’s not just competition between and among children that gets amped up, but also the standards by which family members are judged. The feelings and thoughts of winners and losers alike are equally discounted, although the Trophy Child is less likely to become aware of that in childhood or adulthood than the "loser," or scapegoated child:
"I was definitely a trophy child, up until I realized I could make my own decisions. Mom would love/hate me, but mostly adore me for her own benefit (image, to show off, to receive love and attention that she never got as a child herself), and when I stopped giving her the hugs and kisses and love she demanded from me (I grew out of it, but she never grew with me), and when I started making my own decisions, I was knocked down to the worst thing to walk the planet. I had a choice: Use my own voice regardless of how she would react, or succumb to her ways and dysfunctional expectations and behavior while quieting myself....I chose to use my voice, speak out, call her out, and stay true to myself, and it feels better than being any trophy child ever could."
"You know that saying that goes ‘If Momma’s not happy, nobody’s happy'? Well, that was my house, but I didn’t know it wasn’t normal until I was an adult. I wasn’t the star, but then again, I wasn’t the dumped on one, either. My sister was the Trophy, I was the one no one paid attention to, and my brother was the failure. These were our roles and, to a big extent, we lived them in childhood. My brother ran away, worked his way through college, and I am the only one he talks to. My sister lives two streets down from my mother, and I don’t talk to her or my mother. My brother and I have done well for ourselves. Good lives. Good families we’ve made, and we’re still connected."
Imagine the mother as the sun and the children in the household as the planets circling her, trying to get her warmth and attention by doing, achieving, reflecting well on her, and pleasing her. While in many households, the Trophy Child (or children) hold relatively stable positions, it’s more of a revolving dynamic in others, and in the case of this daughter, lasted decades into childhood and still persists today, even though neither parent is still living:
"The trophy child in our family alternated based on whichever one of us was doing things that my mom felt the other two should be doing. Resentment towards each other festered, and years later in adulthood, the lid blew off when my mom became ill and needed care and then passed away. It surfaced again when my dad became ill and passed away, and we still wrestle with it today when we try to negotiate family events. She was one of four sisters close in age, and she learned early how to play her cards. My brother was my mother’s only son, and she never had any brothers. His sometimes abrasive personality or sarcastic comments were bubble wrapped in "he means well." He was the trophy male between two girls, and I think he knew that outranked us, but he also believed I was Mom’s favorite. Both of my siblings are aware of the fluctuating podium positions we were raised with. First, second, and third-place status helped us to individually agonize over how well we were doing with the choices we made in life."
It’s a family in which everyone is always looking over his or her shoulder to see who, if anyone, is gaining on him or her. Most people describe it as exhausting.
Sometimes having, or being, a Trophy Child isn’t enough, and the dynamic expands to include making the other child or children feel shamed or less-than as part of the ritual. Scapegoating can be instigated by the parent, and then carried out by the other child or children trying to please her, to get a place in the sun or hold on to it:
"It was accepted in the immediate and extended family that my sister was perfect, so when things went wrong, or someone/something had to be blamed, that someone would be me. When my sister left the back door open, and the cat was lost, I was the culprit. My sister actively participated, telling lies about me, both in childhood and then long into adulthood. I don’t think my mother has ever said a cross word to my sister in forty years, but why would she have to? She had me, or at least she did, they did, until I cut them both out of my life five years ago."
Musings on trophies, winners, and losers
In soliciting stories from readers, I was struck by one thing: How many unloved and even scapegoated daughters commented on the fact that, in retrospect, they were happy that they weren’t the chosen Trophy Child. As someone who isn’t a therapist or psychologist, but has interviewed women on the subject of unloving mothers for more than 15 years, this struck me as noteworthy. Mind you, these women weren’t papering over their experiences or denying the pain of growing up excluded (in fact, they were very clear on that), or generally how dreadful their childhoods were. But — and this is important — many pointed out that their Trophy sibs didn’t have a shot of breaking the patterns of familial dysfunction while they did, because they had to deal.
There were lots of stories of Mom-mini-me’s, Trophy daughters who were every bit as controlling, high in narcissistic traits, and given to divide-and-conquer techniques as their mothers. There were stories of sons so hobbled by praise and protection — they had to be perfect, after all — that they were still living in their parents’ home 45 years later. Some recounted how the patterns had managed to pass through another generation, affecting the grandchildren of that Trophy-hunting mom.
On the other side, there were the daughters who’d found their voices and weren’t willing to shut up. Daughters who’d left those families behind and those who still felt filial obligation, but called it as it happened, free of denial. Those who found they could be the shining and supportive sun of a very different planetary system and worked hard at being conscious and aware, building friendships, support systems, and their own families. This isn’t to say they came out unwounded — they didn’t — but they have one thing in common: They’re less interested in what people do than who people are.
I call that progress.
Merci beaucoup to my readers on Facebook who contributed their stories.
Copyright © 2017 by Peg Streep
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Read Mean Mothers.
Dunn, Judy and Robert Plomin. Separate Lives: Why Children Are So Different. New York: Basic Books, 1990.
Richmond, Melissa K., Clare M. Stocker, and Shauna L. Rienks, “Longitudinal Associations Between Sibling Relationship Quality, Parental Differential Treatment, and Children’s Adjustment,” Journal of Family Psychology (2005), vol. 19, no. 4, 550-559.
Whiteman, Shawn D, Susan M. McHale, and Anna Soli,” Theoretical Perspectives on Sibling Relationships,”Journal of Family Theory and Review (2011), 3 (2), 124-139.
Jensen, Alexander C., Shawn D. Whiteman, et al. “Life Still Isn’t Fair: Parental Differential Treatment of Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and Family (2013), 75, 2, 438-452.