One of my favorite TV programs is ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’. It reminds me of our family. When we grew up, my brother was the favorite child, so I can relate to the toxic rivalry of brothers Robert and Raymond.
However, comedy show aside, research indicates that favoring one child over another can have long-lasting effects. My brother’s favored status affected every one of us in different ways, and still does. Here are 7 toxic outcomes.
The Favorite Child
Growing up, it was obvious my brother was the favorite child in our family. He didn’t have any household chores, whereas my sisters and I would have a list. He went to university, but I had to leave school at 16 to help fund his education. I left home as soon as I could get away, as did my sisters. But my brother never left.
Now that we are adults, we can rationalize his favoritism and talk about it. However, for a long time afterwards, our relationship with him was strained. There’s no doubt it affected us as much as him. So why do parents have a favorite child?
Reasons for Favoritism
Parents favor children for many reasons. Birth order is a good example. A couple’s first child will always hold a special place in their parent’s heart. The youngest children can be favorites as parents know this is their last child.
A child can remind the parents of themselves or have the same passions or sense of humor. Perhaps the favored child is just easier to get along with or more attractive. Even gender can be a deciding factor. If a child is being difficult, rude, or aggressive, the parent may prefer the company of their other children.
Favoritism manifests in different ways, too. Favoritism can be obvious, as with my brother. It can also come from different care givers. For example, my mother-in-law adored her first grandson and set up her email address as ‘Tomsnanna’. She had five other grandchildren, but it was a long-running joke that Tom was her favorite.
Favoritism can be covert. Parents may not even realize they are favoring one child. Research suggests that children only have to think their sibling is receiving better treatment to be affected.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings.” Dr. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., Director, Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging
So, what happens when the favorite child becomes an adult?
7 Toxic Outcomes of the Favorite Child
1. Disfavored children ‘act out’ when they’re younger
The Mothers’ Differentiation Study shows that favored children externalize their behavior by acting out and getting into trouble. Perhaps this is attention-seeking behavior, intended to force the parents to react.
However, the study also suggested they internalized their feelings and were more likely to have depression at an older age.
2. The favorite child feels guilty or contempt towards their siblings
According to the Adult Sibling Relationship Questionnaire, favoritism can cause the favored child to feel guilty about their parent’s actions. This can lead to submissive behavior and even a propensity towards coercion or manipulation from their siblings.
It can also give them a sense of superiority over their siblings, resulting in contemptuous behavior.
3. The disfavored children are jealous of their sibling
Disfavored brothers and sisters can experience feelings of jealousy towards the favorite child. Feelings of anger and resentment can accompany the child into adulthood. Until the siblings resolve this, jealousy can be a continual source of conflict.
“The less favored kids may have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling, and being the favored child brings resentment from one’s siblings and the added weight of greater parental expectations.” Dr. Karl Pillemer
4. Favorite children turn into grandiose narcissists
Praising a child too much for unrealistic efforts can create entitlement and an inflated ego. Favoring or giving special treatment to a child lets them develop a grandiose sense of self without earning it.
Characteristics of grandiose narcissists include rage and denial of weaknesses. When their needs or expectations are not met, they become angry.
5. Disfavored children turn into vulnerable narcissists
Being the non-preferred child can lead to feelings of abandonment, inadequacy and inferiority. The disfavored child feels unloved and worthless in the eyes of their parents. They spend their adult life searching for reassurance and rely on others to boost their self-esteem.
Vulnerable narcissists are sensitive to criticism or rejection. They are also prone to violent outbursts, but this soon turns into shame.
6. There’s always conflict in your family
Most studies in parental favoring concentrate on the mothers, but evidence suggests paternal favoring has an equal effect on the child. Paternal disfavoring negatively affected sibling warmth. Siblings with warm relationships enjoy intimacy and provide support to one another. They are associated with low levels of conflict.
Sibling conflict has negative and long-lasting effects on children’s mental health. Studies link depression and loneliness in late life to high levels of conflict.
“Sibling conflict and parental favoritism were positively associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, hostility, and loneliness.” Mark E Feinberg, et al.
7. You are estranged from your siblings
One study showed children raised in a family with a favorite child were more likely to be estranged from a sibling in adult life. In America, a whopping 30% of children who perceived parental favoritism said they had stopped talking to a family member. This percentage is markedly lower in families with no favorites.
The same study showed that in families with favoritism, children with problems were much less likely to ask their parents for support.
“We can’t redo the past, but we can choose to move forward with our siblings in different ways.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, clinical psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey
Living with a favorite child has many effects, both on you and your siblings. It can also affect your relationship with your parents. And although it’s easy to fall back into familiar familial roles, that doesn’t mean we can’t change.
After all, we are not the same child all those years ago, so we shouldn’t expect our siblings to be.
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