Science says I might be right, at least in terms of the fact that she has a favorite period. Clinical psychologist Laurie Kramer, PhD, says that while there’s no empirical explanation of the psychology behind why parents might have a favorite child, she can think of a few things that might lead to this. Sometimes, it's the similarities that parents see between themselves and a particular child. Other times, research says, it’s because of the closeness of their relationship with that child as well as the degree to which that child's values align with theirs, how proud they are of that child, and more.
From the parents’ perspective, they might not even be aware that they have a favorite child, says Dr. Kramer, and genuinely feel that they love all their children the same. When the parent is aware, though, they often try to justify the preference—which they do by saying things like, “Well, your sibling needs more attention because they’re struggling.”
In terms of how offspring feel about their parent having a favorite, Dr. Kramer says, it’s particularly problematic for children who aren’t the favorite. Often, this leads to a lower sense of self-worth and non-favorites ask themselves if there’s something they’re doing wrong to not gain this status. That said, being the favorite also comes with its fair share of corners. Most notably, guilt: many people who are considered the favorite child feel bad for getting more of their parent’s attention.
Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), whether or not favoritism is healthy, it can be detrimental to children in three ways, says Dr. Kramer: The less-favored child's sense of self-worth is lowered, the quality of the relationships they have with siblings is compromised, and the quality of parental relationships is also compromised. The preferred child may also suffer due to the strained sibling-to-sibling relationships that may result from resentment around the issue of a favorite child. But not all is lost. By way of existing, you have agency over your life and can take steps to remedy conflict brought on by knowing your parents have a favorite child—whether or not it’s you.
Read on to learn five ways experts recommend dealing with parents who do, indeed, have a favorite.
5 ways to deal with your parent having a favorite child
1. Do introspective work
Though Dr. Kramer says that the key to dealing with your parent having a favorite child is communication, before you get there, you have to figure out how you’re really feeling about the situation. Cue: introspective practices like writing in a journal and spending time alone.
If you’re the favorite: Sure, being the favorite comes with perks like more attention, but there’s also a downside. According to Dr. Kramer, it’s not uncommon for the designated favorite to feel guilty about their status—especially when they observe that their siblings are getting the shorter end of the stick. If this is the case for you, try remembering that you didn’t purposely do anything to be the favorite and that there are external, psychological explanations for why you might be.
If you’re not the favorite: Because parents will likely try to justify their preferences as far as their children go, you can use that as a jumping off point for introspection. It’s not that you’re doing something wrong—it’s more so that your sibling needs a bit more attention. Remind yourself of all the reasons that you’re proud of yourself and understand that your accomplishments aren’t diminished because you’re not the favorite.
2. Communicate with your parent
If you're the favorite: You want to comment on the fact that you’ve observed this is happening. Dr. Kramer suggests starting with something like, “I feel like I'm getting the better end of the stick than my sibling, and that doesn't feel right to me.” By way of using “I” statements, you’re not blaming your parent. What you are doing, though, is “giving them the opportunity to express why it's happening or maybe to say, 'This doesn't feel right to me either,'" Dr. Kramer adds.
If you're not the favorite: On the other hand, if you feel your parent favors one of your siblings, you can also communicate that to them. A good strategy for doing this, says Dr. Kramer, is approaching your parent with this statement: “I want to talk about something that’s difficult for me, and I want you to listen before you talk.” Dr. Kramer adds that after you state your grievances, it’s important to check in with your parent to make sure that they fully understand why you’re bringing this up.
3. Talk to your siblings
If you’re the favorite: Let's say you've accepted that you're the favorite child and that realization has led you to feel guilty because you get more love or attention from your parents than your siblings. You want to approach your sibling(s) and acknowledge that you don't feel great about being the favorite, because this establishes a sense of vulnerability that can help you connect with your sibling. Once the two of you understand that you’re on the same team, you can talk about what you can (or can't) do to remedy the situation together.
If you’re not the favorite: If, however, you’ve accepted that one of your siblings is the favorite child, you still stand to benefit from having a chat with them about this. The benefits are the same, Dr. Kramer says, though you want to be particularly careful not to place blame on your sibling for being favorited. Try to remember that the favorite child tends to feel guilty about that status, because they feel they’re taking away resources from their siblings.
4. Manage your expectations
If you’re the favorite: Because some parents are closer to the children who are particularly successful, the favorite child might feel like they have to keep accomplishing things in order to avoid disappointing their parent. However, because this is your life, you benefit from being realistic about what you can and can’t achieve as well as what you want to (and don’t want to) keep up. Ultimately, it’s up to you to sort out your feelings on this and manage internal expectations so as to avoid needing external validation.
If you’re not the favorite: No one is saying that you’ll never be the favorite (more on that later). That said, you want to be careful not to need or expect to be the favorite because not being the favorite doesn’t mean that your parents don’t love you. Particularly as it concerns adults, we make our own decisions—which means validation starts from within.
5. Remember that a parent's favorite child can change over time
If you’re the favorite: If you feel yourself buckling under the pressure of being the favorite child, reminding yourself that you may not be the favorite forever can be helpful in alleviating that. For instance, if a parent feels closer to their adolescent because they get good grades or play a sport they like. It’s likely that at some point you’ll stop playing that sport—which could make the pressure a lot less daunting.
If you’re not the favorite: “Things change over time, and it's possible that you're going to watch a movie, read a book, or [do] something that brings you closer to your parents,” says Dr. Kramer. With this particular tip, Dr. Kramer adds, the key is to remember that your parental relationship is something you can always work on improving.
Another important thing to note as it relates to parents and them having a favorite child? Not letting those issues affect your future life. “All these things that have happened in our families shape who we are,” says Dr. Kramer. “But we are still in total control over who we are…[these expectations], but they're not your destiny.”
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