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Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.
Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

When Favoritism Becomes Abuse

Favoritism isn't always abusive, but when it is...

"You can't be mean," says one mother as she observes a stranger favoring one child over another in a New York clothing store.

"You can't play favorites," insists another.

These responses, like those of other people, reflect observers' outrage as they witness a mother favoring one child over another. The incident, staged by the ABC primetime show, "What Would You Do?" took place on a Saturday afternoon as a mother shopped for clothing with her two elementary school-aged children.

The producers staged the incident to replicate observations frequently made by the manager of a Long Island clothing store: A mother flourishes praise and attention on one child, and ignores or criticizes the other. For the purpose of the show, shoppers in the store were unaware that the mother and children were actors, and that the incident was staged.

The reactions of the customers in the store were raw, pained, and infuriated. Most describe the mother's treatment as abusive, unfair, and harmful. They emphatically stated that parents should love all their children and appreciate the inner beauty of each.

One observer, so disturbed by the mother's treatment of the unfavored child, walked out of the store and criticized the store's manager for not reporting the mother's abusiveness to the city's department of child welfare. Another tried to counsel the mother, telling her directly that she was harming her child. Other observers spontaneously hugged the unfavored child, appreciating her beauty. Ultimately, an off-duty police detective who was shopping in the store with his wife and children exploded and berated the mother for her treatment of her unfavored child. He emphatically reminded the mother that all children are beautiful on the inside.

When the show's moderator told the observers that they had witnessed actors acting, he was confronted with intense emotions. Some observers burst into tears of relief; others continued to rant, expressing feelings of outrage. One witness, an elementary school teacher, rallied against parents' who displayed favoritism as she described its devastating impact on many of her students. Even upon hearing the truth — that what he or she had witnessed was an enactment — no observer could easily brush aside what had been seen.

Does abuse like this go on behind closed doors, as one observer declared? Is it as commonplace as the teacher noted? When parents favors one child over another, is abuse inevitable?

When parents favor one child over another, abuse does not necessarily follow. Favoritism is normal but abuse is not. Mothers and fathers commonly prefer one child to another for many conscious and unconscious reasons. Sometimes, the preference is grounded in family history that goes back generations, and other times, the preference is transitory and lasts for only for hours, days, or weeks.

What is critical is that all children trust that they are loved and appreciated for what makes them special. Love is unconditional, whereas favoritism is not. Favoritism depends upon children behaving in ways that gratifies parents.

The following behaviors occurring within families commonly signal that favoritism has crossed the line from normal to abusive:

  1. Parents who have favorite children are defensive regarding their treatment of the favored, overlooked or unfavored child. When spouses, friends, teachers, or strangers point out attitudes or behaviors reflecting unfair treatment of one child over another, these parents have many explanations and justifications for their behaviors. For example, when confronted by observers, the mother on "What Would You Do?" insisted that one child was prettier than the other so clothes looked better on her, or that the other child didn't need any new clothes.
  2. One child works hard to get parental affirmation and does not succeed. These children, either passively or aggressively, direct their energies at accomplishing this goal. For example, on the show, the overlooked child kept selecting clothes to show her mother, thinking she would like them, or explaining that she had outgrown the clothes in her closet. Her mother continued to dismiss her.
  3. The other child, the favorite child, doing nothing in particular, receives abundant affirmation and privileges that appear undeserved. On the show, viewers witnessed this child standing around as her mother inundated her with clothes to try on.
  4. One child grows up feeling powerful, believing they can do or accomplish anything, while the other child grows up feeling defeated, with low expectations of getting what they want.
  5. A parent excessively praises one child while ignoring, criticizing, or saying little positive about other children. These parents have difficulty acknowledging one child's shortcomings (often the favorite) or appreciating other children's strengths (often the overlooked or unfavorite).

When favoritism morphs into abuse, the health of the family and the psychological well being of all its members is jeopardized:

  1. Favorite children grow up with distorted, inflated views of themselves. They are vulnerable to feeling entitled and believing that rules don't apply to them. They are likely to struggle with intimate relationships. Additionally, they are likely to grow up alienated from their siblings.
  2. Unfavored children grow up with distorted, negative views of themselves. They are vulnerable to feeling defeated, believing that hard work and determination will not reap the rewards they desire. Depression often accompanies this experience.
  3. Spouses observing their mates inappropriate attachment to one child are likely to be uneasy: either they are jealous of their child's relationship with their spouse or they are relieved that the favorite child is filling a void in their spouse's life that they don't want to address.
  4. Parents who exclusively indulge one child are likely looking to these children to fill voids that these parents sense inside themselves. The mental health of these parents as well as their parenting skills are at risk.

It is probable that these dynamics will be reenacted in the subsequent generations of this family tree.

What to do when onlookers observe favoritism that has become abusive is tricky. First, observers have to be willing to say something to other people about their family that will make them uncomfortable. Second, when doing so, it is likely that the abusing parent will be defensive. Therefore, talking directly to that parent is not likely to be productive, as was witnessed on the television show.

But, don't be silent. Have courage. Step forward. Try to be an advocate and voice for the children, especially the overlooked or unfavored. Attempt to identify and contact others who exercise power in the life of the family — spouses, clergy, friends — telling them your concerns. Offer the overlooked or abused child affirmation and approval. Validate their reality. Let them know they are not alone.

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.)