What to do when your parents have a favourite child

  • One kid getting more attention can lead to sibling rivalry and self-esteem issues for anyone who feels left out
  • Parents are often unaware of the issue, and communicating your worries and giving examples of preferential treatment can really help
Doris Wai |

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It's not uncommon for parents to have a favourite child, but it doesn't make it hurt any less.

You’ve probably suspected it all along – the reason your brother always ends up with the least chores or your obnoxious sister gets all of the attention. Dr Amanda Oswalt Visher, director of psychological services at SPOT, a children’s therapy centre in Hong Kong, says parental favouritism is not just a myth – it can be a huge blow to the self-worth of a child who seems to get the short end of the stick almost every time.

“Parental favouritism happens when one or both parents display consistent favouritism towards one child over another,” says Visher. And it’s backed up by research. She points to several journals, including a study published by Elsevier, that explain why parents play favourites.

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“There are different reasons for this. It can be due to how proud parents are of a particular child; the closeness of their relationship with that child, as well as the degree to which that child’s values align with theirs.”

This may come as a surprise to some, but gender and birth order play a part, too. “Research has shown that mums are more likely to have a favourite child, dads tend to be more lenient with female children, and first-borns and last-borns usually get more attention,” she adds.

Visher explains that having a favourite child is natural and it happens for the same reason we gravitate towards certain people. Most parents are inherently drawn to one child, even if they’re not aware of it.

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Though it’s unlikely to be a classic case of Cinderella where the golden child is dressed in designer clothes while the least-favoured one is made to scrub tiles all day long and forced to wear hand-me-downs, she says that parental favouritism can drastically alter the dynamics between siblings.

“Favouritism can set up kids for a lifetime of sibling rivalry as a result of resentment towards the favoured child. This can potentially carry into adulthood, making for strained relationships between their adult siblings and parents,” she cautions.

Sadly, this issue is often swept under the rug as the favoured sibling basks in their parents’ attention while the less preferred one is left to feel unwanted and unloved.

Parents playing favourites can have a huge impact on sibling relationships in the future.

Visher says it is important to bring up the subject with your parents, especially if you feel like you’ve been neglected. Start by asking yourself if you have made an effort to improve the relationship with your parents. Oftentimes, the sibling who puts in more time doing so may be more likely to be seen as reliable, and not surprisingly, have a closer bond.

Then, think about actual situations in which you’ve felt that there’s been preferential treatment towards your siblings. Use these examples as a starting point when speaking to your parents about the unfair treatment that you’ve been getting. “There may be times when parents may not be aware of their behaviour and bringing up these examples can help them see what’s happening from your point of view.”

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Visher also suggests putting aside the negative feelings about your favoured siblings, and instead, focus on building a rapport. “The happily ever after ending is for parents to realise their mistakes, but this may not always be possible. However, a stronger relationship with your siblings can help replace the negativity and lack of affection, regardless of how things turn out,” she says.

If you are the apple of your parents’ eye, there are a few ways you can help your sibling mitigate the situation.

One of them is by providing emotional support, especially during tough times when they feel helpless. You can also emphasise that your parents love all their kids for different reasons, and remind your siblings about their achievements and the things at which they shine.

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And if you are comfortable enough to do so, you can speak to your parents about their behaviour. However, Visher stresses that it is not your responsibility to resolve the issue, and you should seek help from another adult or a professional if you feel like things are getting out of hand.

“Although some of us may not have parents who think the way we do and share our values, there are others who can give you the support and attention you need. But always remember that at the end of the day, all parents want to be fair to their kids. They are also learning about parenting along the way and are doing the best they can.”

Naina Suri (MS), resident at SPOT contributed research findings for this article

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