Mother's Day is fast approaching. With its ascent many adults are emotionally riled by the contrast between how much they appreciate their children's uniqueness and how little they felt appreciated as children by their own mothers. "It was no secret that my mom preferred by brother over me. To this day she will still make her preferences known. As a kid and as an adult today, it's very hurtful," writes one blogger. Her sentiments are echoed by numerous bloggers on different sites, are overhead by mothers commiserating with each other at health clubs or at school pick-up, and are expressed by many people I work with in my psychotherapy practice. Consistently, this train of conversation leads to an insistence that as mothers, these mothers do not prefer, or favor, one of their children over others. This belief is erroneous. It is impossible to not convey favored treatment to one child over another.

As I explain in illuminating detail in my book, The Favorite Child, no two people are identical. Translated: No two children are exactly the same so, of course, no two children can stimulate in their parents identical feelings and reactions. Further, parents have unique personalities that are reflected in their idiosyncratic responses to their children's provocations. As strongly as parents tell themselves that they treat all their children identically, this cannot occur. My book, The Favorite Child, is filled with anecdotes about the negative consequences incurred in families as parents deny that they favor one child over another.

Children have their own perceptions of reality. When parents deny having favorites, most likely they deny their child's reality. Children know who is favored, and why! If children feel secure in their parents' love, most likely they will not be traumatized by NOT being the favorite child. The child may be more traumatized by having what they know to be a basic truth challenged or denied.

For example, one successful, high functioning client of mine usually defends against tears except when talking about her seventh birthday: she hated chocolate and her mother made her a chocolate cake. Upon seeing the cake, the seven year old fled the room, shouting with anger that her mother loved her sister more, which is why she had made the cake preferred by her sister. Her mother, wounded by the accusation of favoritism, insisted that the seven year old was crazy for believing this version. As an adult, my client spoke with passion about being been far more injured by her mother's having characterized her as "crazy" than her having baked her sister's favorite cake. Mother's hurt dominated this interaction, blinding her to her young daughter's reality. The Favorite Child describes in detail characteristics of those people who heal from such injury and those who do not. Essentially, those people who find allies for their truth are better able to accept what has occurred and move beyond it.

The client referenced above had her reality affirmed by others in the family - her father, sister and aunts. As an adult, she understood her mother's preference on many levels. First, her sister had been born after her mother had had several miscarriages and had lost hope that she would carry a healthy fetus full term. My client understood her mother's special embrace of this first child. Second, her sister was easy going and cooperative, her temperament reflecting their mother's. "Heck, even I found it easier to be with my sister than myself," my client reported. "She was more self-reliant than me, figuring things out for herself. As for me, I was always asking someone for assistance." Third, my sister not only looked like our grandmother, whom our mother adored, but was named after her."

Never did my client question her mother's love for her. She trusted her mother's commitment to her best interests. But, my client did grow up insecure, not trusting her own perceptions of the world. Her journey to a healthier, more secure emotional life is similar to those of people whom I describe in greater detail in The Favorite Child.

On this Mother's Day my client has dedicated herself to a higher quality of mothering. She pledges herself to
o  accept her children's reality about what she conveys as a mother;
o  NOT attempt to dissuade her children from what they believe to be true;
o learn from her children's perceptions of how she mothers.

About the Author

Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

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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