Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

The Favorite Child

4 Reasons Why Being Your Parent's Favorite Can Hold You Back

... and why the effects last so long, and impact the next generation.

Posted Feb 01, 2010

Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

Recently, Jay Thomas interviewed me on Sirius/XM Radio about favorite children. He first spoke about his experiences as a child. He described his brother, who was quiet, bright, and hard working, as the favorite child, while characterizing himself as noisy, rambunctious, and confrontational. Though his brother had been the favorite child, Thomas reveled in the fact that, as an adult, he was more successful: He had a better job, had achieved greater success, and made more money.

Thomas then spoke about his experiences as a parent. He contrasted his positive relationship with his older son with the relationship he had his younger son. The older was calm, cooperative, and motivated to please him, while his younger was loud, combative, and angry. Thomas' reflections highlight two essential dynamics of the favorite child complex, as I describe it in my book, The Favorite Child—first, the disadvantages of being the favorite child, and second, the reenactment of family history.

Disadvantages of Being the Favorite Child

In spite of the fact that children long to be favored—to want their parent to love them more than anyone else—growing up as the favorite child often has negative consequences for the child who holds this status to the exclusion of other kids in the family. As Thomas stated, he is better equipped to care for himself as an adult than is his brother. There are several reasons underlying this truth. Among them:

  • Children don't want to jeopardize their status as the favorite, leaving them inclined to make the decisions their parents endorse. These kids are vulnerable to minimizing what they want for themselves. When children are not grounded in their own decisions, or do not take responsibility for their goals, true excellence is difficult to achieve. Thus, unfavored or overlooked children are often freer to pursue their dreams and accomplish their goals.
  • Children who were their mother's favorite grow up well-trained to take care of people, as they did their mothers, rather than to care for themselves. Lacking these skills, such children may be less prepared to function outside of their homes. (This is especially true for daughters.) As children, unfavored or overlooked kids are more likely to learn the important life skills required for healthy functioning when they leave home.
  • As long as favorite children meet their parents' needs, the parents take care of them. These children grow up entrenched in this reciprocal arrangement: They take care of their parents' emotional needs and their parents take care of them. Favorite children expect the world to care for them as their parents did—which, of course, does not happen. And, unfortunately, these children are less prepared to care for themselves. Since unfavored and overlooked children did not grow up taken care of with the same commitment, they had to learn to take better care of themselves than did the favorite child.
  • Favorite children grow up believing that they will get what they want, when they want it. Often they are not held accountable for unacceptable behaviors as their siblings are, or as other kids their age are. Again, favorite children grow up less prepared to function effectively in the world, a curse their unfavored or overlooked siblings do not experience.

In summary, while many desire being the favorite child, the status does not come not without emotional risks. Attachment to the position may outweigh children's desires to pursue goals that are important to them. Rather, to secure their position as the favorite they often feel compelled to live out their parents' dreams—to pursue careers their parents longed for or to excel in a given sport or art. (See my earlier post, "A Tiger Trapped.") Attachment to the favored child status may inhibit gay people from coming out to their families because of fear of losing favorite child status. It may also impede teenagers who are favorite children from turning to their parents when they are in trouble.

Further, favorite children grow up with unrealistic expectations. They falsely believe that others will love and admire them as much as their parents did. Often it is not until the important parent has died that this child must confront the profoundness of a void that they cannot fill.

Finally, favorite children are vulnerable to growing up without certain basic skills necessary for successful functioning in the world. Their sense of entitlement and inability to function within boundaries impedes their overall performance. They grew up sheltered from many of life's realities.

In these ways, unfavored or overlooked siblings are advantaged.

Reenacting Family History

In his story, it was apparent that Thomas treated his own unfavored son as his father treated him. This reenactment is common to the favorite child complex. First, adults mirror their life experiences. Second, adults' reactions to their children are often based on those personality traits that parents like and dislike in themselves. Thomas' story encapsulates both.

Carl Whitaker, a pioneer in family therapy, said that left unattended, families reenact their drama generation after generation. Thomas felt his parents had not favored or liked him and he treated the son whom he reported was most like him as they had treated him. Thomas described himself as having been a kid with a big mouth. He was defiant and rambunctious, not like his mellow older brother. Thomas then described his frustration with his younger son, "who is always in my face and wants things his way," in contrast to his preferential feelings for his older son "who is cooperative and pleasant." Clearly, what Thomas sees in his younger son are those traits that he does not like in himself. Ostensibly, Thomas' favorite child is most like the kid his parents favored; his unfavored child is like the kid they disliked.

Continuing this cycle perpetuates the tragedy of families. Tension exists between parents and children, and between siblings. To break the cycle, parents must confront unresolved feelings lingering from their own childhoods and forge altered paths. This may require help of a neutral outside person like a therapist or clergyman. To remedy damaged relationships with siblings, favorite children must grow to appreciate that they had not earned their status in the family. It was more likely the result of unconscious needs and feelings resonating within their parents. Only then can the hurtful competitiveness between them begin to turn from cruelty to acceptance. (See my earlier post, "Do Parents Have Favorite Children? Part II.")

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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