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11 Serious Consequences of Favoring One Child over Another

If you've got more than one kid, you're showing favoritism, whether you know it or not. Here's why you need to stop—and how to do it.

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What favoritism is—and isn’t

Favoring one child over another is a thing, but before you freak out, take a deep breath, and address the elephant in the family room—favoritism does not mean you love one child more than the other. It does, however, mean you’re giving one child more attention than their siblings. As innocent as that may sound, it’s not, and can have consequences for all your children throughout their lives, affecting their relationships with each other, and with you.

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Why favoritism happens… sometimes

“Parents may favor one child over another, for a lot of reasons. The child may have an easy temperament or might behave particularly well. They may look like you, or remind you of a favorite relative,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist, and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day. “But regardless of the reason, every child must be made to feel loved and special, in order to fully thrive.” Newman warns that overtly favoring one child over their siblings, especially for an extended period of time, can have a significantly negative effect on your other children. “Favoritism may not represent a difference in the love you feel, but it can look, and feel that way to your children—both the one who is favored, and the ones who are not,” she adds.

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Why favoritism happens… other times

Before you start beating yourself up for giving more to one child over another, it’s important to remember that, in addition to their differences in personality, behaviors, and traits, children’s needs also differ. “It’s impossible to treat all your children the same, because every child is different, with different needs,” explains Dr. Newman. Your children’s ages differ, as do their emotional, physical, and mental development. Their situations are also different from each others’. One child may need homework help daily, while another coasts easily through algebra. One may be having boyfriend woes, and needs you to serve as a sounding board, while the other is separating from you by spending most of their time outside, or on the phone.

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How favoritism hurts

“The unfavored child can feel defeated, and unmotivated, as a result of working hard to get parental affirmation and support, with no success,” says Yelena Gidenko, PhD, LPC, a licensed professional counselor. “He or she may also suffer from depression and become angry, bitter, resentful, or jealous,” she adds. Children feeling this way may act out, in an effort to get their parent’s attention, making matters worse. They may also indulge in inappropriate behaviors, becoming the black sheep, they believe their parents already see.

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Ways it can hurt long-term

“Unfavored children may have a hard time accepting who they are, since they do not feel accepted by their parents,” adds Dr. Gidenko. As reported by Harvard Health Publishing, lack of self-acceptance can affect many aspects of emotional well-being into adulthood, including body image, the ability to believe in oneself, and the ability to withstand criticism from the outside world.

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Favored children may become spoiled brats…

Favoritism is not exactly a cakewalk for the favored child, either. Kids who intuit that they are their parent’s favorite sometimes translate that into a go pass for their behavior in future relationships. “Favored children may feel a sense of entitlement, and that rules do not apply to them,” says Dr. Gidenko. This can adversely affect their ability to sustain mature romantic relationships, It can also affect the way they act in school, at work, and in their friendships.

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…Or wallflowers

It may seem counterintuitive, but the reverse can also occur. Favored children may experience anxiety and insecurity, both during childhood, and later on, stemming from their favorite child status. “Children are instinctive and observant. They know when they are getting praise for things they have not earned, such as being your favorite. For this reason, they know, and fear, that these things might be taken away from them at any time, for any, or for no particular reason,” says Dr. Gidenko.

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How parents can fix it

Dr. Newman urges parents to remember that it is not possible to treat children equally because they are all different. What parents can, and should do, is treat their children fairly, by meeting all of their needs. Before you do the I’m-an-exhausted-parent-how-am-I-going-to-pull-that-one-off eye roll, it’s important to remember that needs are different from wants, or wishes. “Children’s needs are love, affection, warmth, and time with their parents. Parents can equalize that,” she says. It’s important to do, not only for each child’s well-being, but also for the relationships they need to have with each other, throughout life. “Sibling bonds are so important. They are crucial as parents age, and if siblings are all the family each other have, it can be one of the strongest and longest bonds in life. By playing favorites, there’s the potential to undermine that bond, and have siblings who are wary of one another, cautious around each other, and, in the worst case scenario, dislike each other.”

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Explain yourself

The last thing on your “what I feel like doing today” list is probably talking to your kids about how, and why, you treat them the way you do. “According to research, parents don’t talk about this. They don’t say why one child gets more time than another. If they do explain it, however, it alleviates the resentment. They are preserving their bond with each child, who are probably perceiving the favoritism, and reasons for it, all wrong,” says Dr. Newman. “If there’s a reason why you’re more focused on one over the other, talk about it to all of your kids. Explaining the ‘why’ removes the opening for upsets, which could easily become long-term rifts between children, parents, and siblings,” she adds.

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Have floating favorites

Another tip from Dr. Newman is to become cognizant of how you act towards all your kids and to shift your attention from one to the other, at different times. By having floating favorites, you equalize the playing field, eliminating the resentment which might blossom, otherwise. “No matter what parents do, their children may misinterpret their actions and feelings. By having floating favorites, you help to equalize the playing field, hopefully eliminating some of these misperceptions,” she explains.

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Put them all to work

Eliminating favoritism might also help keep your house clean. “Part of doing this is to hold all of your children responsible, and accountable, to the same standards. Rotate their responsibilities, such as cleaning up after dinner. Don’t let your favorite child off the hook. Give them all chores to do, as they are able to do them, taking age and ability, into account. That includes special needs kids, and the little ones, too,” says Dr. Newman.

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Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.