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Long Term Effects of Parental Favoritism


Siblings often joke about being Mom’s favorite. But a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family shows that parents playing favorites is no joking matter. Seventy percent of mothers who participated in the survey admitted to having a favorite child. While that may be concerning, what we should be worried about are the long-term effects that favoritism has.

What is parental favoritism?

Did your sister always get better presents than you? Did your baby brother get all of the attention? These are examples of favoritism. Parental favoritism is when one or both parents display consistent favoritism toward one child over another. It can include more time spent together, less discipline, and more privileges. As a parent, we usually try to remain neutral and treat all of our children equally. But that task is a lot harder than it sounds.

Why do parents have a favorite?

Your first born is a little girl, and she’s the spitting image of you. As she grows into a young lady, you realize that her mannerisms, her behavior and attitude, also reflect your own. You are proud to see yourself in her. And, though you may not mean to, you will favor her.

Usually, the favorite is the oldest child or the baby. The first-born holds a special place in your heart and the newborn needs constant attention. Sometimes, parents feel closer to children with illnesses or special needs. In these cases, parents will often discuss the different treatment with all children to make sure they know it’s not personal. Still, as a child, it feels personal.

By being aware of your actions and conscious of your decisions, you can overcome the natural desire to favor one child.

What are the effects of favoritism on the children?

According to Mallory Williams, LCSW, there are serious long-term effects to growing up in a household of parental favoritism.

“The biggest long-term dangers are depression, anxiety, unstable or even traumatic reactions in personal relationships, and performance anxiety for both the favored and non-favored children,” says Williams.

She also discusses self-esteem issues and feelings of rejection following the child into adulthood.

“The non-favored child will experience low self-worth and value, feelings of rejection and inadequacy, and a sort of “giving up” due to feeling like they can never be worthy of the same attention, love, and affection that the favored child receives. This often has long-term implications on their performance on jobs, in school, and in interpersonal relationships, as the parenting relationship sets the foundation and expectations of future relationships,” says Williams.

A surprising effect of parental favoritism is that feeling neglected can lead to a very independent outlook on life. They don’t need their parents. They don’t need anyone. While a bit of independence is usually good, this kind of outlook usually leads to isolation.

While being the favored child may sound like a walk in the park, it’s far from it. Being favored means almost always being resented by the other children. The parents’ unequal attention poisons sibling relationships without even trying.

Williams says that she’s consistently seen problems arise for favored children. Parents are often surprised, because it seems they should have no reason to be affected.

“Because of the praise and favoritism they experience, they often have difficulty with failure of any kind,” says Williams. “They often feel so much pressure to keep up their star performance that they feel that there is no room for mistakes. They also are prone to rejection or a tense relationship, at the very least, with the non-favored sibling, and find it hard to repair such a relationship, considering that they did nothing to create the situation.”

Do parents grow out of it?

No. Parents are even more likely to play favorites once their children are adults, though the causes may vary once the children are grown. Preference is often given to children to live near the parents or who have provided the parents with emotional or financial support.

The study mentioned earlier from the Journal of Marriage and Family found that of the adult children interviewed, only 15 percent perceived equal treatment from their mothers. This feels like a staggering number, but it is important to mention that favoritism is only a problem when it happens regularly and consists of groundless differences in treatment.

In the end, the study found that across all domains, “maternal differentiation was related to higher depression scores as middle-aged adults.” This is a brutally honest look at how parents mold the lives, futures, and even mental health of their children.

What can parents do?

The best approach to avoid favoritism is to stay aware of treatment to all children and try to remain as fair as possible. Sure, it will seem impossible in some situations. And, that’s okay.
Being conscious of your own actions and knowing that your children look to you for guidance will make your decisions easier.

Williams says not to worry if you find yourself playing favorites. It is normal. Know that you can correct your actions before you fall into a cycle of bad behavior.

“Just be aware and change the behavior to something more consistent.  For instance, if I buy one a gift, I buy the other a gift (considering that it is not a birthday or a reward). If one gets allowance, the other gets or will get allowance when they reach this age, spending quality time with each child, listening to each child, and praising each child when it is warranted in the same ways,” says Williams. “Knowing our own story and how it shaped who we are also helps us be aware of why we do the things we do with our children.” ■

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