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Adolescence and parental favoritism

Parental favoritism in adolescence can be prejudicial and discriminatory.

At first, it sounds like a game, "playing favorites," but really it's too serious for play. In the family, when parents have a favorite child it can create a lasting impact on less favored children and on the favorite child as well.

Less favored children feel diminished and unfairly treated compared to the favorite child who feels more highly valued and specially deserving. From being less favored a sense of injury can be sustained; from being favored a sense of entitlement can develop.

Come adolescence, young people are particularly sensitive to parental favoritism because their standing with parents has usually begun to alter in a more negative direction. By pushing against, pulling away from, and getting around parental authority for independence, they have courted more conflict and parental disfavor. In the process, they demonstrate how parents are not dealing with "just a child" any more.

However, by becoming more distant and resistant, they have sacrificed some approval and harmony with parents that they enjoyed in childhood, hence their jealousy of favorable treatment that a younger sibling still receives. "You spoil her! You always treat her better than you do me!" Just as they resent the "teacher's pet" at school, they can resent the favored little child at home.

Parental favoritism can be apparent or intentional. Start with apparent favoritism. Children are keenly sensitive to variations between how parents treat other siblings and themselves. What they look for are any signs of unfairness in the differential treatment parents give. "You're being unfair" is a common accusation that parents can take to heart, feeling torn or even guilty until they realize that they can't be fair because fairness is always a double standard.

For example, the elder child says, "it's only fair that you give me a later bedtime than my younger brother because I'm older!" And parents agree: treating children differently is only fair. But now the younger brother objects. "You should give us the same bedtime because we are equally your children." And parents agree: treating children the same is only fair.

So when it comes to fairness, parents can't win for losing since fairness means treating children the same and differently simultaneously. What is the solution? One parent suggested this: "I've decided the best I can do is to be equally unfair. So I try to spread my unfairness equally around." Another parent offered this explanation when a complaint about unfairness came her way. "I know unequal may look unfair, but I do my best to treat you all according to your individual need."

Intentional favoritism goes beyond unavoidable appearances. This kind of favoritism is consciously comparative and preferential. As in any human system, those in charge can determine how individual diferences are valued and treated. In the family system, parents are in charge. They are "the powers that be."

When favoritism is comparative it can be prejudicial, making a superiority/inferiority distinction between children: "You're not as bright as your sister." The power of prejudice is the poison of self-rejection when the unfavorably compared son believes the charge of inferiority that has been made. "I'll never be as smart as my sister. My parents told me so."

When favoritsim is preferential it can be discriminatory, as advantages provided to one child are not offered to another: "Your brother's needs come first." When one child is consistently denied benefits awarded to another, the power of discrimination is the denial of comparable opportunity. "He was better provided for than me. My parents always did more for him."

Prejudicial favoritism can include the inequitable expression of approval, pride, boasting, attention, compliments, and comparisons. Discriminatory favoritism can include the inequitable provision of privileges, resources, freedoms, exceptions, opportunities, and rewards. Prejudice and discrimination can be mutually supportive. The beliefs of prejudice can be used to justify discrimination, and the effects of discrimination can be used to justify prejudice.

To the less favored or disfavored child, parental favoritism seems to say: "We think less of you and do less for you than another child who we more highly prize." One young person, who could never measure up to the eldest sibling in parental eyes, put it this way: "I was treated like a second class child. I felt loved, but not as much."

And here a very common misallocation of responsibility and misdirection of resentment oten occurs. Often, the less favored child directs anger at the favored child. "Sometimes I hated my brother for the unfairness in our family, the way he was treated specially and I was not!" Instead of faulting parents who were guilty of playing favorites, siblings blame the favorite child for the preference received.

Why does the recipient of parental favoritism get the sibling hostility while the perpetrators (the parents) mostly get off free from blame? Asked about this misdirection of resentment, a less favored child explained it to me this way. "It's safer to blame my sister for being treated as special than to get angry at my parents for treating her that way. I don't want to make my relationship to them any worse. So parental favoritism can often end up being divisive of sibling relationships, creating hostility toward the favorite child.

Causes for parental favoritism are many and varied. Some of the most common ones I have encountered over the years are these.

There is child who is most similar to parents in valued ways - holding values and practicing habits and following a path that is much like their own. "We have always had the most in common with our first born daughter. How she leads her life is so much like how we lead ours."

There is the high performing or star child who receives a disproportionate amount of parental approval, attention, and sacrifice for performing so well. "We give so much to him because he gives us so much in return."

There is the easy child who is consistently cooperative and compliant to parent. "Unlike the others, she has never given us one day of trouble in all these years."

There is the oldest child who enjoyed total family attention and investment as an only child until subsequent siblings came along, and now receives compensatory parental treatment for being dethroned. "We try to make it up to him for the special position he has lost."

There is the youngest child who gets privileged treatment for being recipient of the final parenting they have to give. "She's the remaining one at home and so we work really hard to do our best for the last, even though the older kids complain how we are giving more to her than we ever did to them."

There is the only child of that sex who is treated preferentially for being different from the other kids. "He's our only son so naturally we are particularly proud and supportive of him."

There is the special needs child who absorbs a disproportionate amount of parental energy, attention, and resources. "We dedicate more attention and resources to our daughter because she needs that additional investment to survive."

There is sexual favoritism, often seen in other cultures around the world, that places higher social value on having a son than a daughter. "Sons carry on the family name, have higher social standing, and inherit what the family has to leave."

So, when it comes to favoritism what are parents to do?

First, they have to accept the inevitability of apparent favoritism and listen empathetically to unfairness complaints when they arise. Often the complaining child is really asking for parental attention and approval he or she is missing.

To avoid intentional favoritism, consider several preventative steps to take.

1) Do not compare your children to your children or make such a statement of comparison to other people. If possible, do not make these comparisons in your mind or heart. Particularly do not compare your still sweet child to your more abrasive adolescent.

2) If some of your children are repeatedly acting resentful or jealous of one other, take an honest inventory of yourself to see if you are not feeling and behaving preferentially. If so, at least consider not acting that way.

3) An antidote to favoring one child above the others is favoring them all. Do this by declaring that each is highly prized for the unique person she or he is. Because of this individuality, none are able to replace or compete with the others in your heart. "I want you all to know that every one of you is my favorite child because each of you is the only one of you I will ever have."

For more information about favoritism, see my book, "Stop the Screaming." More information at

Next week's entry: adolescence and parental approval.