What Happens to Kids When Parents Play Favorites?

The subject of parental favoritism has been trending lately, with a number of think piecespopping up over the last several months on the topic.

While many parents are often quick to declare they don’t have a favorite, a number of kids — and adult siblings — may beg to differ.

In fact, the effect parental favoritism can have on kids, whether real or perceived, is a topic that’s been of growing concern.

Research has found that the effect isn’t great, showing that children who perceive themselves as being the least favorite are more likely to do drugs and use alcohol and cigarettes in their teenage years.

This is especially true when the family unit isn’t otherwise very close.

And tension between siblings seems to increase when a favored child is in the mix.

Parents may also be surprised to learn that perception appears to hold a greater weight than reality in this case.

In other words, it doesn’t matter so much if Mom or Dad actually have a favorite. All that really counts is if a child thinks they do.

Let’s be honest…

According to Michele Levin, family therapist and co-owner of Blueprint Mental Health, “It can be very common for a parent to ‘like’ or ‘vibe better’ with one sibling more so than the others.”

She’s not suggesting you run out and buy T-shirts to advertise your favorite child, but she thinks it’s important for parents to know and recognize how those preferences can occur.

She explained that kids all have different personalities, interests, needs, and ways of expressing their needs.

Kids dealing with other struggles, such as depression or anxiety, can sometimes exhibit challenging behavior that makes them not as easy to be around as their siblings are.

So it’s not always a case that a parent loves one child more than the other. It may just be that one child is easier to parent and be around than another is.

“Often another sibling simply doesn’t have the same needs or struggles, or can become the peacemaker, which can lead to a perceived feeling of favoritism,” Levin said.

Then there’s the case of children with medical concerns.

Levin explained that these kids can sometimes require a lot of a parent’s time and energy. They may not be the favorite, but to the siblings who aren’t getting as much time and attention, the resentment can be very real.

Sometimes it’s as simple as shared interests.

“A father who’s interested in sports will likely relate better to a child who’s also into sports, as opposed to a child who prefers the indoors and video games, for example,” Levin explained.

“These dynamics can get very complicated,” she said.

The problem is that a perception of being the least favorite child can take a definite hit on a kid’s self-esteem, Dr. Shelly Vaziri Flais, pediatrician and mother of four explained.

“Something we need to be very aware of as parents is to not compare siblings,” she said. “As a mom of twins, it’s something I have to be extra cautious of. We try really hard to avoid labels like ‘the smart one’ or ‘the athletic one.’ If you’re not the favored child, the concern might be that you’ve been pigeonholed as the more difficult child.”

She added, “I think kids who get the sense that they’re less favored are more likely to act out, especially as they enter their teens. Having strong self-esteem in those years is so important, and if they already think of themselves as the bad kid, it can turn out poorly.”

Levin agreed, adding, “It can certainly impact their self-esteem and how they feel within their family, especially at family events and holidays.”

While she explained that everyone is different in how they might handle the perception of being the least favorite, she pointed out that it “carry into adulthood unless they’re acknowledged and really talked about.”

It’s not just about the relationships between parents and their kids. The relationships between siblings can struggle as well.

“It’s different for every family,” Levin explained. “Some siblings will notice it and feel bad or guilty for the other and it will help them bond, while others will hold resentments or competitiveness.”

Vaziri Flais worries that the damage done by parental favoritism can carry into adulthood, making relationships between adult siblings and their parents strained.

However, she wants to remind people who may be struggling with those difficult family dynamics “that your friends are the family you make for yourself.”

“We live in a society where everyone lives all over the country, and you can create a new ‘family’ if you had a less-than-desirable experience in the family you were born into,” she said.

For parents who don’t want their kids to grow up and separate themselves from the family, acting now to put an end to any perceptions of favoritism may be the best solution.

What you can do

Levin says the most important thing a parent can do if a child says they believe another is the favorite is to acknowledge their feelings.

“Don’t just say, ‘I don’t have a favorite’ or ignore it. If that’s what they’re feeling, it’s coming from somewhere and it’s their perspective. So it’s important not to dismiss it,” she said.

Instead, she says to talk about it. “Genuinely validate how they’re feeling and then problem-solve.”

She explained that what the child may really be saying is that they’d like more time and attention.

Perhaps they could use a one-on-one day, where you make an effort to engage in shared interests with them.

“Specifically asking the child what they need will give them the chance to tell you,” Levin said.

Vaziri Flais agrees, advising, “Don’t ignore the outbursts or write them off as your kid just being a teenager. There needs to be a cooling-off period for sure. When things calm down, it’s good to listen to what your child is trying to tell you.”

Taking the time to hear your child when they express a perception of favoritism, acknowledging what they’re feeling, and working together to find ways to help them not feel that way may be the best approach to protecting relationships with all children in the future.

Levin also encourages parents to “check in with yourself.”

“Whether it’s said or unsaid, when there’s favoritism, kids often will feel it. If it’s true, what do you need to do as a parent to have a better relationship with your child?” she said.

This may require parents to step out of their comfort zones and work to take an interest in the things their kid loves — even if they don’t particularly see the appeal themselves.

Sometimes a little effort can make a big difference in bringing parents and kids closer together.