Is it okay for parents to have a favourite child?

A child showing preference to one parent over the other is nothing unusual. In fact, most children have a favourite parent at some point… but what about parents having a favourite child?

Mums and dads love to profess that they couldn’t possibly prefer one of their children to another.

But the truth might be a little more complicated.

According to one study back in 2020, 70% of parents admitted to showing preferential treatment to one child over the other, so parental favouritism is more common than maybe most would like to think.

Why does this happen, though? And is it something to worry about?

‘Research has consistently indicated over time that favouritism occurs within families,’ child psychologist Dr Michelle McDowell tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Age is one reason a child maybe favoured, but studies have indicated that it may be for a range of reasons, such as the child looking similar to the parent who is favouring them, having a similar personality, or even being perceived as being more attractive than other siblings – which is concerning!’

Natalie Costa, a children and parent coach and founder of Power Thoughts, says that there are other factors too.

‘When a child is born, for instance,’ she tells us. ‘Studies have shown that the first born and last born tend to be more favoured. The first born being given more privileges and the last born receiving more attention and affection. Middle born children tend to be given less support.’

Natalie also highlights that as children become older, they might not fulfil their parents’ expectations, leading to a drop in the rankings.

‘Perhaps a parent wanted a certain path for their child to follow and they’ve not reached those expectations, or perhaps the parent really struggled to bond with the child at birth, with external stressors at play, such as mental health problems or relationship breakdowns,’ she notes.

It is not unusual for children within a family to sometimes be treated differently. Sometimes one child requires more attention than the other, due to their age and stage of development, or their physical and emotional needs, however, Michelle points out that this is not the same as parental favouritism.

‘Parental favouritism occurs when a parent treats one child more positively to another, for example giving them more privileges, more treats/toys etc and setting more favourable rules and boundaries for them,’ She explains.

‘Often the favouritism is not intentional but can lead to one child feeling they are loved less than another, and to add to the complexity, studies have shown that even if parents do not favour one child over another, a child’s perception of feeling unfavoured can be just as detrimental as the reality of being unfavoured.’

The impact of showing favouritism isn’t good. As you can imagine, having a favourite can have long-term negative effects on a child.

Michelle says: ‘Possible effects can be low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, low self-worth, depression, and anxiety.

‘The unfavoured child may feel a sense of hopelessness, feeling that whatever they do, they won’t ever be rewarded with the same attention, love and affection.

‘This can impact future relationships, both romantic and social, and future jobs as the child may feel that they cannot change how people respond to them.’

Not only will favouritism impact the child’s self-esteem and perception of themselves, but it can also have a detrimental impact on the relationship that they have with their siblings.

‘Sibling memories of favouritism in childhood could lead to tension once they become adult siblings,’ Michelle explains. ‘Studies indicate that siblings get along much better when they believe that they were treated equally or similarly by their parents.’

So how can parents avoid favouring one child over the other and support their child’s perception of being the least favourite?

‘The first step,’ suggests Michelle, ‘is to acknowledge children’s perceptions and feelings about favouritism. Parental awareness is key.

‘Then, taking consistent actions to ensure equal treatment for all children, so that they feel valued and loved.’

Natalie agrees that having awareness is important. ‘Be kind to yourself,’ she reminds us. ‘Being a parent is really hard and you are just as much of a learner on this journey as is your child.

‘I often say to parents that our children are a mirror of what we still need to learn about and accept about ourselves, and it is absolutely normal if you have felt in favour to one child over another.

‘It’s important however, that you are consciously aware of this – of your behaviour and how you respond to your child.’

Natalie adds: ‘Be as consistent as you can and if you get it wrong, that’s okay – be mindful and change your actions. A question that some parents find helpful is “What can I learn from my child here? What is it that I need to embrace and learn about myself?”

‘This may not always be easy to do but by looking at these situations as something to grow and learn through, is where the power lies.

‘Parenting is an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery, so be compassionate with yourself as you find your way.’

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